Sam Shields’ stunning climb up the Green Bay Packers’ depth chart continues.
The undrafted rookie who opened training camp looking like a good practice-squad candidate not only is a lock to make the 53-man roster but also is a decent bet to be the Packers’ No. 3 cornerback in the regular-season opener against Philadelphia.
Shields worked with the No. 1 nickel defense in practice Sunday ahead of third-year pro Pat Lee. It’s not clear whether Shields also is ahead of Brandon Underwood, who is out after injuring his shoulder last week against Indianapolis, but all signs suggest if Shields plays well this week in the preseason finale against Kansas City, he’ll be the first cornerback off the bench against the Eagles on Sept. 12.
“(Shields) is around the ball, he’s gotten his hands on some balls,” said Charles Woodson, the Packers’ left cornerback and reigning NFL defensive player of the year. “He’s missed a couple picks, he’s made a couple picks. Nobody else is getting their hands on the ball, so you’ve got a guy with a nose for the ball and coming up with it, knocking them down and making plays downfield on long balls, then he deserves a shot.”
With cornerback Al Harris still unable to pass his physical after having his knee rebuilt last year, it’s a given he won’t be ready to play against Philadelphia. The question is whether he’ll stay on the physically unable to perform list after final cuts next week, which would mean he’d have to miss the first six games.
It appears more likely Harris will be on the final 53-man roster, so he’ll be able to practice immediately when he passes his physical, though it appears he could miss several games. Once he starts practicing, he probably will need three weeks to get game ready.
The Packers didn’t draft or sign a free-agent cornerback, so all offseason and early in camp it looked like Underwood or Lee would move into the No. 3 job, with Tramon Williams taking Harris’ spot in the starting lineup. But Shields forced his way into consideration with his surprising play.
Though he only moved to cornerback from receiver his senior year at the University of Miami, Shields has shown flashes of playmaking all camp. It started with an interception on the first day of practice, followed by an interception in the Family Night scrimmage, a couple more interceptions in practices, a dropped interception in the preseason opener against Cleveland and an interception in each of the last two preseason games.
Shields is raw as a cover man, but he did enough to convince defensive coordinator Dom Capers to look at him with the No. 1 nickel against Indianapolis last week and got an especially long look after Underwood went down with a shoulder injury after two series.
Shields was hardly perfect. On the first play of his second series against Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, he was beaten on a crossing route by receiver Pierre Garcon for a 24-yard gain.
But Shields didn’t give up any more completions while playing in three of the final four series that Manning played, then made a noteworthy interception in the fourth quarter against backup quarterback Curtis Painter. On that play, Shields was in tight man-to-man coverage against receiver Dudley Guice along the sideline, with his back to Painter when the ball was thrown. He turned while the ball was in the air and reacted quickly to make the catch above his head.
That kind of play gets the attention of coaches and teammates.
“We had him one-on-one quite a bit during the game by plan,” Capers said after the game. “I really liked the way he finished out making that interception. Very nice play.”
Safety Nick Collins said after practice Sunday: “Special young guy. If you can come into this league and be coachable and understand what the coach is trying to do with you, anything is possible. Right now that’s what he’s doing, he’s playing his role, getting the coaching down, learning the techniques, listening to everybody and is going out there and playing fast.”
Playing the undrafted rookie in the No. 1 nickel while Harris is out is no small matter, because it probably means he’ll be on the field for 50 to 60 percent of the Packers’ defensive snaps.
It’s also a sure bet that if Shields holds the job, Eagles coach Andy Reid will go hard after the rookie. Where Underwood and Lee are in their second year in Capers’ defense, Shields has been in the scheme only since May, and also is new to the NFL’s sophisticated and precise passing schemes.
One of the advantages the Packers have this year is a full season-plus in Capers’ scheme, so the coordinator is not going to want to hold too much back just for the sake of one player. That means Shields could be overwhelmed by what he has to learn in the next two weeks.
“It doesn’t matter,” Woodson said. “Whatever we have, we’re going to call it, so he’s got to know it. We’ll find out real soon (if he can do it).”
Coach Mike McCarthy said it’s unclear how long Underwood will be out, which leaves the door open it could be for more than just a week. Underwood had surgery on the same shoulder after an injury that ended his redshirt freshman season at Ohio State.
Either way, it looks like the No. 3 cornerback job is Shields’ to lose, which is nothing less than a dramatic development. Heading into camp, Shields’ chances of making the final 53 appeared to hinge on special teams, either as a returner or cover man on punts and kicks. He bombed as a return man because of trouble catching punts, but is on both No. 1 cover teams.
The surprise is his play at cornerback despite being new to the position. He’s gone from a developmental prospect to a guy who could get on the field regularly, at least until Harris returns. What has caught his teammates’ eyes is his compensating for his lack of knowledge with speed and an ability to play the ball.
“You still have a lot to learn technique-wise,” Collins said, “but if you’ve got that speed, it can make up for some the stuff you don’t have.”
Lee, a second-round pick from the 2008 draft, has been healthy all offseason and throughout camp. He’s shown some ability for reading routes but was unable to surpass Underwood and then couldn’t hold off Shields last week. He said he thought he got a fair shot at winning the nickel job.
“Yeah, can’t complain,” Lee said. “Can’t say anything.”