Sterling Shepard [600x400]
Sterling Shepard [600x400] (Credit: Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Baker Mayfield not only had a hand in Sterling Shepard signing with the team, but he also saw himself in his former Oklahoma teammate, who had been contemplating retirement at age 31 after eight seasons with the New York Giants and not re-signing.

"Obviously ... we're down on receivers and we needed some guys to come in and step up," Mayfield said Wednesday. "He's a veteran guy that's going into Year 9. He's had some injuries in the past, but he's looking for a fresh start and obviously I can relate to that part."

The Buccaneers were Mayfield's third team after the Cleveland Browns traded away the 2018 No. 1 draft pick in July 2022, and they rewarded him with a three-year contract worth $100 million ($115 million if you count incentives) this offseason after turning his career around. Perhaps Shepard could reignite his career there too, following a torn ACL in 2022 and a torn Achilles in 2021.

Mayfield called Shepard to inquire about his availability after learning that Deven Thompkins was waived with an injury designation and Trey Palmer would miss mandatory minicamp due to an undisclosed injury.

"He's an unbelievable guy, unbelievable teammate, in terms of his work ethic," Mayfield said. "Obviously, he's not the biggest guy, but he works to be able to compete at this level. He's not a selfish guy; it's never been about him."

Shepard joked that he spent the past month and a half to two months in "straight dad mode," taking the kids to school and "trying to figure out the next steps." He hadn't run any routes but was still sprinting and lifting and maintained his season-ending weight of 190 pounds.

Mayfield urged him to contact his agent, who called the Buccaneers five minutes later. They asked, "Could he come in for a tryout tomorrow?" While Shepard jumped at the opportunity to reunite with his former teammate, there was just one problem.

"It was leg day," Shepard said with a laugh. "That was the crazy part. I put 415 [pounds] on the bar that day. I was like, 'Why did I decide to do that?'"

Still, he boarded a plane for Tampa and performed well enough in the tryout to earn a spot on the team.

Mayfield joked about the squat weight.

"He probably lied about that," Mayfield said. "I didn't know they were going to pull the trigger on a tryout the next day. I had no idea. But ... once they got him in, he did the rest. He's a good enough player to make it here. But bringing in competition like that's always good for everybody. He knows he's gotta handle his business just to make this team. We got a good team, and just having better skill groups is gonna push everybody around him."

Palmer is expected to be healthy for training camp. The Buccaneers also selected Jalen McMillan in the third round of this year's NFL draft, and Rakim Jarrett, an undrafted free agent last season, had a couple impressive moments in minicamp. But there's a drop-off in experience after Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, which is where Shepard can help. Plus, Mayfield believes his personality will mesh well with their locker room.

"He's a guy that's always got a smile on his face," Mayfield said. "He works his tail off, and he brings a little juice when it comes to the mental side of things. He gets fired up. It's good to have him back. One of my longtime friends, so it's good to have him back."

Shepard called Mayfield the "ultimate competitor" with the type of energy you "feed off of," and he's thrilled for Mayfield's career revival in Tampa.

"He always plays with that chip on his shoulder because things didn't work out other places," Shepard said. "But I'm super happy that he's here and he has a home and he's looking forward to the season starting. ... I'm just blessed to be here and blessed [to] be back with my boy."