The Panthers and Shepard agreed to terms of a three-year contract Friday, Max Henson of the team's official site reports. Undrafted out of LSU in 2013, Shepard didn't reel in his first professional catch until Week 4 of the 2014 season and entered the last campaign with seven career receptions to his name. Once Vincent Jackson suffered a torn ACL in Week 5, though, Shepard gathered in a pass in each of the nine games in which he was active, ending the season with 23 catches (on 40 targets) for 341 yards and two touchdowns for the Buccaneers. Moving on to an NFC South foe, he'll fill the void left behind by the departed Ted Ginn and Philly Brown, but Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen will continue to get top billing within the Panthers' passing attack.
Shepard is also drawing interest from six teams besides the Bucs, who are interested in bringing him back, Jenna Laine of ESPN.com reports. Tampa's special teams captain likely wouldn't have provoked a bidding war if things had transpired differently for the Bucs last season, but a plethora of injuries at the receiver position thrust Shepard into a much more prominent role on offense. The 26-year-old wideout parlayed the extra opportunities he saw from scrimmage into career highs in receptions (23), targets (40), yards (341) and touchdowns (two). He also flashed an ability to consistently get downfield, posting at least one double-digit-yardage catch in each of the last nine contests of 2016. He didn't allow the double duty to affect his normally stellar special teams play, either, as Shepard spearheaded a unit that allowed a meager 5.6 yards per punt return last season. According to reports, approximately three of the aforementioned interested teams have designs on Shepard serving as a bona fide third receiver that could ascend to the No. 2 role, while the remaining clubs are offering to make him "one of the highest-paid special-teams players in the league with multiple offensive packages." Given the apparent heavy interest, the Bucs may be forced to get in line with the rest of the crowd in their quest for Shepard come Thursday.
Shepard hauled in 23 of 40 targets for 341 yards and two touchdowns over 14 games during the 2016 season. He also rushed once for nine yards. The LSU product had primarily cut his NFL teeth on special teams over his first two seasons, but a plethora of injuries at the receiver position in 2016 provided him with his most extensive opportunity from scrimmage yet. Shepard displayed a knack for getting downfield, notching at least one reception for double-digit yardage in each of the last nine games of the season, even as his wideout reps were capped due to his importance on the special teams units. After playing under a one-year, $1.6 million contract this past season, Shepard is now an unrestricted free agent. However, his relative emergence as a receiver, diverse skill set and the likely modest cost to retain him render him a likely candidate for a return to Tampa in 2017.
Shepard hauled in two of seven targets for 29 yards in Sunday's 17-16 win over the Panthers. Shepard was quiet the majority of the game before notching a pair of second-half receptions. The special teams ace served in the complementary receiving role he's gotten accustomed to filling in the latter half of the campaign, an expanded opportunity that led to career highs in receptions (23), targets (40), yards (341) and touchdowns (two). While his performance this season was certainly encouraging, the Bucs will likely be looking to upgrade their receiving corps behind Mike Evans through free agency and/or the draft in the offseason.
Shepard gathered in three of five targets for 61 yards in Saturday's 31-24 loss to the Saints. The fourth-year pro was second only to Mike Evans in receiving yards on the day, posting his second-best total in that category on the season in the process. Shepard's game-long reception of 24 yards was also his longest of the season, and he continues to display proficiency getting down the field during his relatively limited opportunities. He'll try to finish out the season on a positive note when the Panthers come to town in Week 17.
|* indicates player did not play that week|
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