At least one or two undrafted rookies win a spot on the Green Bay Packers’ roster every year, so there’s nothing unusual about Sam Shields catching the team’s eye early in training camp.
What makes Shields rare, though, is he already has the Packers thinking they might have found a real player on the undrafted scrap heap. In fact, less than two weeks into training camp the receiver-turned-cornerback from the University of Miami has the organization as excited as it’s been about an undrafted rookie in the last 20 years.
“He’s going to be special one day,” said Joe Whitt, the Packers’ cornerbacks coach.
The Packers were high on Shields when they signed him for a $7,500 bonus shortly after this year’s draft, no one more so than Whitt, who as an assistant coach at the University of Louisville tried to recruit Shields coming out of high school in Sarasota, Fla.
When grading this year’s prospects leading up to the draft last spring, Whitt rated Shields’ physical talent as at least as good as the most highly regarded cornerbacks in the class. This was an average year for prospects at the position, but five cornerbacks nevertheless were selected in the first round: Florida’s Joe Haden by Cleveland at No. 7, Alabama’s Kareem Jackson by Houston at No. 20, Rutgers’ Devin McCourty by New England at No. 27, Boise State’s Kyle Wilson by the New York Jets at No. 29, and Florida State’s Patrick Robinson by New Orleans at No. 32.
Shields went undrafted for a reason, though. He also was exceptionally raw — he’d been a receiver his first three seasons at Miami before switching to cornerback in the spring before his senior year — and came with some minor concerns about his character. He’d been benched twice early in his college career, once for skipping classes and another for bad practice habits, and about a month before the draft was arrested for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. The marijuana charges eventually were dropped, and Shields graduated from Miami this spring.
“If the kid played four years of corner he would have been a first-round draft pick,” Whitt said. “He has more talent than all the other corners in the draft, he just only played one year, and all he did was play man, so he had no clue what he was doing. All they asked him to do was, ‘You go man up on this guy.’ His skill set is higher than the rest. We got lucky getting him.”
Shields’ chances for playing time as a rookie are much better on special teams as a return man and cover man, than at cornerback. But surprisingly, he’s at least put himself in the discussion with Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee, who have held up well early in camp as the presumed candidates for the No. 3 cornerback role while Al Harris is out.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers acknowledged as much when he mentioned Shields unsolicited while answering a question about Underwood and Lee.
“We knew Pat Lee and Underwood would be real keys for us,” Capers said. “You can get short at that position in a hurry, and everybody in the league knows when you’re short at that position. We still don’t know where Al is, we think he’s ahead of schedule and all that. And Shields is a young guy, every day you see him make a play out here. He’s a young guy, it’s going to be interesting to see how he does out here in these preseason games.”
Shields has only average size for a cornerback at 5-feet-10½ and 183 pounds, and he’s still learning many of the basics of the position. But through 13 days of camp, he’s also impressed with his ability to make explosive breaks on the ball. He’s had three interceptions in team drills so far: of backup quarterback Matt Flynn on a throw over the middle the first day of camp; of Flynn again in the Family Night scrimmage, when he returned the interception 100 yards for a touchdown; and most impressively, on Thursday when he broke hard on an out pattern from No. 3 quarterback Graham Harrell and with one hand snagged the ball out of the grasp of receiver Charles Dillon.
“He had everything taken care of if the receiver (i.e., Dillon) did go vertical,” Whitt said, “and then it’s just pure speed. Most guys just break that ball up, but he has the skill set and the speed and the acceleration to go get the interception, which makes him rare.”
In fact, Shields’ speed never was in doubt. He reportedly ran the 40-yard dash in 4.20 seconds as a junior at Miami, and at the school’s pro day last spring ran it in 4.30 seconds and 4.33 seconds, and had a 39-inch vertical jump.
Still, there’s far more to playing cornerback than running fast. Whitt said Shields has been a serious student of the game in his short time with the team but still has to adapt to the high standards of the NFL.
“This is different than college; one play will get you fired around here,” Whitt said. “So you have to stay focused every play. His approach has been great, but the level of focus we’re looking for to win a championship, he has to maintain it. He’s not there yet, he’s not close. He’s going to get into these preseason games and make mistakes, I understand that. But when he finally realizes what he has and understands how to play corner, he’s going to be very good.”
Shields said he also considered signing with Chicago and Detroit after the draft but thought his best shot was with the Packers. He saw that they didn’t draft a cornerback this year and had two older players at the position in Harris and Charles Woodson, plus they were looking for players to upgrade their special teams.
“I felt I could come help out,” he said.