The first few days of training camp, Sterling Shepard got off easy. He walked away from the practice field after workouts and didn’t have to do the usual rookie’s job of hauling in the equipment of the veterans. Victor Cruz conceded that after the first full practice it simply slipped his mind to tell Shepard to carry his helmet.
“I always make him tell me to do it because he’ll forget sometimes,” Shepard said on Saturday with a mischievous grin. “Those are good days.”
As Cruz has come to realize, it’s pretty easy to forget that Shepard is in fact a rookie. The second-round pick has fit into the offense and the team so seamlessly that it sometimes feels as if he has always been a part of the group. As if he has always been a member of the trio of receivers, horsing around with Cruz and Odell Beckham Jr. on the sideline, lining up with them in formations on the field that would force any defensive coordinator to gulp.
“He seems like a young pro,” Ben McAdoo said of Shepard. “He seems like a young man who’s committed to his craft and being a pro is important to him, and that’s what you’re looking for from young players.”
It’s what the Giants seem to be getting from a lot of them. Their first three picks in this year’s draft are already making an impact for the team. All of them — Shepard, first-round cornerback Eli Apple, and third-round safety Darian Thompson — have been playing with the starting groups or rotating amongst them. And when the regular season rolls around in a few weeks, they’ll likely be on the field contributing from their very first NFL whistle.
For them, this training camp is not a matter of earning the trust of the coaches.
“I trust them right now,” McAdoo said. “We’re not going to be afraid to play young players.”
They’re also very confident in themselves.
“We always talk about what we can do to help this team out,” Apple said. “We are talented and we know that, so we are just trying to push each other every day.”
In Saturday’s practice, that push was direct. Apple and Shepard lined up against each other in several drills and in some team reps. Thompson, who seems to have all but secured the starting job at free safety — McAdoo said the preseason games will be telling but he’s been with the first unit since the spring — was there as well.
“We spent a lot of time with each other, especially over rookie minicamp and then minicamp after that, having the rookie symposium and stuff like that,” Shepard said of his fellow draft classmates. “It just draws a camaraderie with each other. Day in and day out, we were here when the vets got to go home, so we got time to bond with each other.”
They also went out to rookie dinners together and even went bowling as a group.
So what do they think of each other?
Here’s Shepard on Apple: “He’s one of those guys that has a lot of range, so you have to try and knock his arms down because if he gets his hands on you, it’s going to be difficult to deal with him. He’s got good feet, so you have a combination of both of those together and you have a pretty good corner.”
And Apple on Shepard: “I see a competitor. He is someone who does not like to lose a rep. He does not let you get hands on him, he is quick off the line and does not like to lose. You can tell by his reaction if he does lose. He’s a great receiver and I expect big things out of him.”
So do all of the Giants. Tight end Larry Donnell called Shepard “lightning in a bottle.” Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said Apple is “a young guy with a lot of talent … He’s definitely showing some good signs out there, he’s doing really good and he’s ready to learn. You look for that in a rookie.” And everyone has raved about Thompson’s ability to direct the defense from the first day of rookie minicamp.
Not that any of it is a surprise.
“That was the plan coming in,” Shepard said. “The coaches drafting us that high, they expect us to make an impact immediately and I feel like all of us had that on our mind coming in. That’s what we’re trying to do every day, just trying to get better.”
And continue to make people forget that they’re rookies.