Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s comeback-ruining fumble has captured most of this week’s post-loss conversation, and rightly so. His careless handling of the ball gifted the Indianapolis Colts tremendous field position, which they quickly used to put an end to the Green Bay Packers.
That alone would have generated plenty of talking points, but the online hate-fest Valdes-Scantling experienced, coupled with a reporter’s asinine question, essentially meant that this play and this play alone would be the primary focus of the conversation around the Packers’ loss.
It shouldn’t be for many reasons, foremost among them that this wasn’t even the only bad play by a Packers wide receiver. Second-year man Darrius Shepherd had a costly fumble of his own, and the circumstances surrounding it merit deeper conversation.
Well, actually, maybe not all that deep. The question surrounding Shepherd’s fumble is pretty simple: why is he on the team in the first place?
Shepherd was a darling of the 2019 preseason, making plays in the passing game and showing some juice as a punt returner. He was admittedly a fun story: a diminutive receiver from a small school with a heartwarming path to the Packers. It’s not inaccurate at all to call him the sort of player you want to root for.
The problem is, he’s not very good.
In the 13 games he’s played over the last two seasons, Shepherd has rarely, if ever, helped the Packers. He’s averaged 7.8 yards per catch on 10 targets, a dismal enough number on its own, to say nothing of the (admittedly poorly thrown) pass that ricocheted off his hands into the waiting arms of a Detroit Lions defender in Week 5 of the 2019 season.
And that’s just on offense. Shepherd had been the worst kind of roller coaster on special teams, peaking at harmless and bottoming out at depths not previously plumbed by any Packers player. On three career punt returns, Shepherd has managed a grand total of -3 yards, second-worst in Packers history — and that’s including the six positive yards he’s generated on his lone return this season. The -9 yards he posted last year were the worst total of any player to ever return a punt for the Packers.
But lest it seem like I’m piling on Shepherd, this is question is not ultimately about him. His abilities are plain for anyone to see, and it’s not his fault that he’s continually put in situations where he can’t seem to succeed. No, the Darrius Shepherd conundrum is entirely about the Packers’ front office. With the results plain to see, why have they stuck with him?
It’s certainly possible that Shepherd has some attributes that are not immediately apparent and thus grand him some value worth keeping on the roster. It’s true that the Packers’ coaches and personnel executives should have a better grasp on that than any outsider. But even if things like his run blocking or some coachspeak term like grit or heart or hustle are great, it’s hard to believe someone could honestly look at his body of work and say those attributes offset his negative contributions so far.
With that in mind, it seems likely that the Packers are dramatically overvaluing Shepherd. That is, they fear that by cutting him — with the intention of putting him on the practice squad or just moving on outright — they risk losing something they can’t easily replace. But that, too, seems misguided at best. Even if he does have great intangible attributes, surely you could find someone with, say, a less pleasant demeanor who offers better tangible upside. And if they’re worried about losing the run blocking potential of a 186-pound wide receiver, well, that’s an entirely different issue.
What seems apparent here is another case of wide receiver evaluation gone awry in Green Bay. The Packers banked on jumps from a bunch of young receivers this year to offset their decision to not draft a wide receiver this spring, sign anyone other than Devin Funchess, or make a move to otherwise acquire help at the position. A great pre-injury effort from Allen Lazard and a good game here and there from Valdes-Scantling notwithstanding, that decision hasn’t panned out, but the Packers have stuck with players like Shepherd anyway.
The commitment is admirable, but it’s been costly, and we’re left with little other recourse but to hope it doesn’t cost the Packers even more in the future.