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Tampa Bay was hit hard by the injury bug last season, but perhaps no position suffered more the Buccaneers’ wide receiving corps.
Joe Jurevicius (back and knee) and Charles Lee (hamstring) were sidelined for most of training camp last year due to their respective injuries, Edell Shepherd was lost for the season when he broke his foot in the preseason opener and Joey Galloway was sidelined for nearly half the season with a groin strain he suffered in Week 1 against Washington.
To make matters much worse, the Bucs were without the services of Pro Bowl receiver Keenan McCardell, who decided to holdout for a new contract until he was eventually traded to San Diego in Week 6.
Pessimists might say that those injuries and McCardell’s holdout played a significant part in Tampa Bay’s 0-4 start to the 2004 regular season, and optimists might suggest that those circumstances opened up the window of opportunity for rookie receiver Michael Clayton, who might not have even seen the field at the beginning of the regular season had the injuries to Jurevicius and Shepherd and the holdout by McCardell not occurred.
Each one of those receivers brought something valuable to Tampa Bay’s offense, but believe it or not, the most devastating injury suffered by the receivers in training camp and preseason might have been the one to Shepherd, who was quietly putting together a solid offseason and training camp before he broke his foot in the first exhibition contest against Cincinnati.
“There aren’t a lot of people that talk about him,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said of Shepherd. “Not only did we lose Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius and Joey Galloway, we lost Shepherd. Those were four guys we expected to go into the season with.”
The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Shepherd isn’t a big name amongst fans, or at least not yet, but he first caught the attention of former Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson and Gruden as a practice squad player in 2003. Johnson lobbied the team to add him to the 53-man roster.
After entering the NFL in 2002 as an undrafted free agent out of San Jose State, where he broke school records during his senior season by catching 83 passes for 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns, Shepherd latched on to Chicago’s practice squad for all but two weeks during his rookie campaign.
Chicago released Shepherd the following preseason, but according to one source, then-Bears wide receivers coach Todd Haley was opposed to the move in fear of another team picking Shepherd up on the open market before the Bears could sign him on to their practice squad. As it turns out, Haley’s fear came to fruition when Tampa Bay signed Shepherd to its five-man practice squad on September 2.
Shepherd stayed put for nearly the entire season, which is a feat in itself since teams are notorious for moving players on and off of their taxi squads as injuries occur throughout the season.
But not only did he keep his place on the practice squad, Shepherd showed the Bucs enough to earn a promotion on December 6, 2003, and it was apparently well deserved.
According to several Bucs players and coaches, Shepherd simply “made plays” in practice and established himself as one of the team’s best route runners.
After being promoted to the active roster, Shepherd appeared in three games and totalled four catches for 38 yards, and he carried that momentum into the 2004 offseason, where he made a lasting impression by displaying more playmaking ability, sharp route-running skills and a knack for making adjustments for balls in the air.
Despite having a wiry frame, Shepherd is viewed by many as a speedy and physical receiver.
“Edell goes all out,” said Bardia Ghahremani, who serves as Shepherd’s agent. “He’s had defensives backs get into it with him after plays because Edell gets physical with them and blocks them in practice. Edell knows that he doesn’t look really big, so he wants to make it known that he’s not going to get pushed around right off the bat. He’ll knock you on your (butt).”
Shepherd’s hard work was paying off, evidenced by the fact that when the Bucs reported to Orlando for training camp last year, Shepherd was listed ahead of Clayton, the team’s first-round draft pick that year, on the depth chart.
With Jurevicius and Lee sidelined at the beginning of camp, Shepherd capitalized on the extra reps. He had already practically secured a 53-man roster spot; now Shepherd was battling for playing time.
“He had a great chance to make this team the way he was going for the first two weeks in Orlando,” Gruden said of Shepherd. “He was really making a name for himself at that time.”
But then disaster struck on August 16 when Shepherd jumped up for a pass thrown in the end zone by quarterback Chris Simms as the first half came to a close. By the time Shepherd landed, what was supposed to be his breakout season turned into a bad break.
At first, no one thought the injury was serious since Shepherd actually got up walked off the field. But further examination showed that Shepherd had fractured his right foot and was sidelined for the season.
“Edell isn’t a guy who has gotten hurt a lot,” said Ghahremani. “That broke his heart.”
According to Clayton, who was competing with Shepherd for playing time before the injury occurred, Shepherd was sorely missed during the season.
“We missed his attitude and big-play ability,” Clayton said of Shepherd. “If you ever went out to camp in Orlando you saw two receivers going at it, Edell Shepherd and myself. He makes the big play, he’s a fast guy and he can really get behind the defense and really stretches the defense. He’s not scared to go across the middle, either. He’s little, but he’s a powerhouse. We definitely missed him last year.”
In late April, Tampa Bay took the field as a team for the first time since its regular season finale and loss to the Arizona Cardinals on January 2. The Bucs held three organized team activities, and Shepherd participated in all of them.
“I’m 100 percent,” Shepherd said at last month’s OTAs. “I’m just concentrating on getting my game back right. I found out that I’m a little rusty in terms of catching the ball, but it’s okay. It will come back to me, it’s all natural.”
While Gruden noticed that Shepherd was a bit rusty as well, he still realizes Shepherd’s potential from the impact the young receiver made before getting hurt last August.
“Shepherd has had a long rehab getting himself squared away physically,” said Gruden. “He was a little rusty during the first three OTA days we had a few weeks back. He’s a lighter, slighter kind of guy. He’s very quick, and he has a very good understanding of what we want done here. He’ll get an opportunity to play a lot during the preseason, and we’ll see. He’s definitely in the mix right now. He had one heck of a training camp before he got hurt.
“He’s a guy that’s on our radar. I think he understands that this is a big offseason for him. We’ll see what happens here in the next few weeks.”
Given the fact that just two of Tampa Bay’s 14 wide receivers have more than two years playing experience in the NFL, the Bucs would like to see Shepherd, who turns 25 later this month, pick up where he left off in training camp and solidify the No. 3 receiver spot behind Clayton and Galloway. Shepherd shares that same vision.
“I’m out here with a purpose – running around and catching balls,” said Shepherd at the OTAs. “This is just as important as mini-camp and training camp. This is when they start finding out who they really have.
“If I come out here and take care of my business and play ball, I feel like I can be the guy they were counting on me being last year. I can’t sit here and say they’re going to just give me a roster spot because that’s just not the case. If I don’t play, I’m going home. If I perform, I’ll be here,”
Not playing for the Bucs this season is not an option for Shepherd, whose tattoo on his left arm reminds him of that every day.
The tattoo, which features a line from rap artist Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself,” reads, “Success is my only option, failure’s not.”
A roster spot certainly isn’t guaranteed to Shepherd, but he’s been crosstrained in the Bucs offense, which should give him an edge over the three receivers – Larry Brackins, Paris Warren and J.R. Russell – the team selected in the draft two weeks ago.
“I’m all over the field,” said Shepherd. “I can’t just say I’m the ‘X’ or the ‘Z’, that’s my talent. One of the the things I think I have over some of the other players is I can play all of the positions. I can do things outside that a lot of people can’t do outside and I can do things inside that some people can’t do. I guess you could say that I’m versatile.”
Galloway brings speed to the field and Clayton brings a physical style of play and clutch hands. So what exactly does Shepherd bring to the Bucs offense besides his versatility?
“All of that in a smaller package,” said Shepherd. “I can get out here and run good numbers and get open running good routes. I can get in there and be physical, too. I don’t look like it, but I play a little different than I look. People ask me that all of the time, and I tell them that I can do everything those guys can do and more.”
While he attempts to earn a roster spot and some playing time as a receiver, Shepherd said he’s just as focused on making a positive impact on special teams, where the Bucs have lost their top three tacklers from a year ago in free agency.
“I think special teams is more important than offense for me right now because they know I can play receiver, but special teams is where a lot of people solidify their spot on the roster,” said Shepherd. “Hopefully I get back there and return some punts and get on some kickoff return coverage. I can do it, I just haven’t done it yet.”
Shepherd views last year’s season-ending injury as a bump in his road to success, and he’s not looking back. Instead Shepherd is looking forward to the opportunity this season might bring.
“Everybody has road blocks in life, and I had one and now I have to come back from it,” said Shepherd. “I can’t think about what happened back then because I have to worry about making the team this year. I’m just starting over. That’s how I treat it. I have to believe it happened for a reason.”
At least some good came from Shepherd’s absence last season. Injuries to he and the other receivers allowed Clayton to get on the field and make a significant impact on offense. In fact, Clayton went on to break franchise rookie records for receptions (80), receiving yards (1,193) and touchdowns (7) in 2004.
According to some of his teammates, Shepherd can have similar success this season.
“He’s got the confidence in himself that he can get the job done, and he’s proven that to the coaches and to his fellow players,” said Clayton.
Shepherd has plenty of motivation this season. If he proves to be completely recovered from the foot injury, Shepherd could be considered the leading candidate to secure the No. 3 receiver spot behind Clayton and Galloway. And if he produces during the regular season, it could mean a bigger pay day for Shepherd, who is scheduled to become a restricted free agent at the end of the 2005 season.
Shepherd said he is loyal to the Bucs and loves playing for Gruden and wide receivers coach Richard Mann, who has played a big part in helping to develope Shepherd since his arrival in Tampa Bay. But according to Ghahremani, the Bucs have a very talented receiver with an unlimited amount of potential in Shepherd.
“Edell Shepherd will be in the Pro Bowl in a few years,” said Ghahremani. “It’s not a question of if, it’s only a matter of when.”
Pewter Report has heard enough from Shepherd’s current and former teammates as well as members of the Bucs coaching staff to label him this year’s “sleeper” just as we did during the 2004 offseason with tackle Anthony Davis and in 2003 with tight end Will Heller.
But according to Gharremani, Shepherd is more like a sleeping giant.
“The NFL knows about Edell Shepherd,” said Gharremani. “Bucs fans and the Tampa media will find out about him soon enough.”
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