GREEN BAY – Even if Sam Shields believes he is the Green Bay Packers’ best cornerback – something that could very well turn out to be true – the fourth-year cover man has yet to completely prove himself.
After an eye-opening rookie season in which he served as the Super Bowl XLV champions’ third cornerback in their nickel defense – and intercepted a pair of passes during the team’s playoff run – Shields had a down year in 2011, when his coverage and his tackling slipped. To his credit, Shields committed himself to tackling better and also rebounded in coverage last season., and according to analysis by ProFootballFocus.com, he was the No. 1 cornerback in the league with one reception allowed for every 16.3 snaps of coverage.
But Shields also missed six games with an Oct. 14 ankle injury. Although he played well upon his return – he finished the season with three interceptions before adding two in the playoffs, including a pick-six interception return for a touchdown against San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick in the team’s season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss – he has yet to play a full 16-game season in three years in the league.
That’s why his decision to wait until the eve of the team’s minicamp Monday to sign his one-year, $2.023 million restricted free-agent tender was curious. Only one restricted free agent – New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, who still hasn’t signed – waited longer than Shields to sign his tender.
Even if Shields and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, thought a long-term deal was in the offing – something that could still happen – it’s hard to imagine what Shields’ decision to miss the first two weeks of organized team activity practices and the offseason program did for him. While technically not holding out because he was not in fact under contract, Shields entered the league as an undrafted rookie free agent who’d spent his first three seasons at Miami (Fla.) playing wide receiver.
Despite his strong finish to last season, the individual position work (IPW) sessions during Phase II of the offseason program and the six OTA practices so far in Phase III would have benefitted him.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy sounded annoyed when asked during OTAs about Shields’ absence, replying, “Sam Shields is a young player and our program speaks for itself and how young players develop year to year,” McCarthy said after the first open OTA practice. “I wish Sam was here. He’s not here for his specific reasons that I’m sure if he wants to answer them, he can answer them. It’s about the opportunity to compete and our secondary is very competitive. I wish he was here.”
If the Packers saw Shields as a slam-dunk core player they wanted to keep long term, they would be interested in an extension with him – something they could still do even after he signed the tender. But it seems unlikely that Shields’ decision to stay away accelerated the process of that, even though ProFootballTalk.com reported in April that Rosenhaus and the Packers were working on a long-term deal.
Rosenhaus met with the Packers in Green Bay Monday before Shields signed his tender, but it’s unclear if an extension is in the offing. More likely, the Packers will wait and see how Shields plays early in the season before approaching him about an extension that would keep him off the unrestricted free-agent market next March.
With the restricted free-agent signing window having closed on April 19, Shields couldn't sign an offer sheet with another team. According to NFL rules, if Shields didn't sign his tender by June 17, the Packers could have reduced the amount of his tender to 110 percent of his 2012 salary. Shields, who entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent from Miami (Fla.) in 2010, made $540,000 last season.
While Shields played well last season, it’s hard to argue he has been as good at his position as Cruz has been at his: The Giants’ go-to receiver finished last season with 86 receptions for 1,092 yards and 10 touchdowns. In 2011, the former undrafted free agent from UMass caught 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine TDs. Cruz played three games as a rookie in 2010 but didn’t catch a pass.
Presumably, Shields waited to sign his tender in hopes of using what little leverage he had to convince the Packers to sign him to a long-term deal. But the Packers have impressive depth at cornerback, and with Shields absent, Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward have worked as the starting corners with the No. 1 defense. With Davon House sidelined by a shoulder injury that required surgery during the offseason, Jarrett Bush worked as the third cornerback in the nickel package, although rookie Micah Hyde also got extensive reps.
After the season, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt made it clear that no one – not Williams, whose bad shoulder has been an issue for two seasons, or Shields – was assured of anything entering camp. Last year in training camp, Shields tumbled down the depth chart early in camp, an ignominious start after 2011’s struggles.
"I tell you what, the group is going to be very competitive moving forward,” Whitt said. “We have a number of guys that it’s going to be interesting who the guys are going to be that run out there Day 1 – because right now I couldn’t tell you who’s going to do what because of the way that Sam and Casey have played and with Tramon and (Davon) House there, there are four guys that are vying for two spots, maybe three with nickel. It’ll be interesting to see who gets them.
"I believe in not allowing anybody to be comfortable. We don't work in a business that you can get comfortable and so the guys, we’ll always say, their play will dictate who runs through the tunnel. The guys that play the best will play. That practice the best, that have the best tests. We’re about winning championships, and we fell short. And that’s our charge. We’re going to put the guys out there that are doing the best. If it’s a different guy each week, that’s what it will be. We’re going to do that."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.