- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 23, 2017

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - New Panthers wide receiver Russell Shepard would love to a steal a page from Steve Smith’s career playbook in Carolina.

Like Smith early on in his career, Shepard is out to shed the label of being “just a special teams guy” and emerge as a valuable receiving threat.

It’s not that he’s opposed to playing special teams, but he thinks he can do so much more. He may just have that opportunity this season in Carolina, where Smith played most of his career before retiring earlier this offseason.

Shepard has emerged as Carolina’s No. 3 wide receiver entering Thursday night’s preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars behind starters Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess.

“Carolina believed in me,” Shepard said of his decision to leave Tampa Bay to sign with a division rival. “They believe I can be a productive receiver in this system. Coming here and taking that next step at receiver, that was one of the things they sold to me - and one of the big reasons why I’m here.”

The 26-year-old caught Shepard only seven passes his first three seasons in Tampa Bay and said he spent “90 percent of his time” working on special teams. Last year his reps at wide receiver increased and he caught 23 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns for the Buccaneers.

It didn’t go unnoticed.

Former Panthers director of pro scouting Mark Koncz pushed for the team to sign him Shepard because he felt he was on the verge of becoming a breakout player and could help fill the void of Jerricho Cotchery in 2015. Shepard received a three-year deal worth $10 million from Carolina.

Shepard entered the offseason expecting to compete with another free agent signee Charles Johnson and rookie second-round pick Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd as the team’s third receiver. But Johnson was cut earlier this offseason after battling injuries, Samuel has been plagued by hamstring injuries and Shepard has outperformed Byrd to take the lead.

“Anytime you can get reps, whether it is practice or preseason or for a real game, it’s very valuable,” Shepard said. “The last few seasons in Tampa I have had a lot of guys in the (wide receiver) room I have had to compete with to get reps. So for me to get these reps it’s very valuable for my development. I can’t worry about the numbers as the season goes, I just have to develop as a receiver.”

Perhaps he can develop into the next Steve Smith.

Before Smith was a potential Hall of Fame receiver, he was a return man for the Panthers. He made quite a splash as a rookie in 2001, starting the season off by taking the opening kickoff back for a touchdown against the Vikings. Smith went on to make the Pro Bowl as a special teams player as a rookie, but it took a couple of years before he became a starting receiver.

“Every young receiver follows Steve Smith,” Shepard said. “He is a guy that has done it the hard way. He’s not the most athletically gifted individual but he’s a polished receiver and a confident individual and he’s very good at what he does. I’m a feisty guy, a competitive guy too, so he’s one of the guys that I look to model my game after.”

Shepard said he’s anxious to begin working with quarterback Cam Newton, who is expected to see his first action of the preseason Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Newton has missed the last two preseason games with soreness in his shoulder but coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday that the league’s 2015 MVP is on track to play.

“As long as he’s not tired or fatigued we should be fine,” Rivera said of Newton.


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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