Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields (37) sacks Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (6) against the Chicago Bears in the second quarter during the NFC Championship game at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011. / File/Press-Gazette
IRVING, Texas – For the Green Bay Packers, Sam Shields is like found money.
The nickel cornerback has been the rarest of finds, an undrafted player who as a rookie has helped improve the Packers’ defense from 2009 and has all the makings of a playmaker in the not-too-distant future. All for the price of a $7,500 signing bonus plus some quick salesmanship in the immediate hours after last April’s NFL draft.
That kind of windfall is almost incalculable for an NFL franchise, because teams will always make mistakes drafting players, including in the high rounds. Landing an undrafted rookie like Shields, who probably would be a first-round pick if that draft were held over today, can erase any number of personnel mistakes. That makes him like found money.
“Clearly everybody made a mistake on him,” General Manager Ted Thompson said of Shields going undrafted. “Including us.”
The Packers were far from the only team that tried to sign Shields – he says about 20 teams showed interest – but they took an especially deep and thorough look at him in the months leading up to the draft.
It started with John Gutekunst, their scout for the Southeast, identifying him as a good prospect during the 2009 college season. Then at the Texas vs. The Nation all-star game, which is played the weekend of the Super Bowl, Thompson, college scouting director John Dorsey and assistant college scouting director Shaun Herock took a close-up view of him in the week of practice.
Shields later turned heads at Miami’s campus when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.28 and 4.30 seconds. That helped him earn a draft grade in the fourth or fifth round for many teams even though he’d only moved to cornerback in the spring before his senior season in at the University of Miami and wasn’t even a starter as the No. 3 cornerback for the Hurricanes. Then in March of last year he was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana – he never was charged – which injured his draft stock but put the Packers in position to use their Miami connections to evaluate his character and then recruit him.
Two Packers scouts have ties to the football program because they attended school there. Alonzo Highsmith, an area college scout, had a distinguished career at Miami as a player, was a teammate of then-coach Randy Shannon, and has a son, A.J., who’s a quarterback at the school. Also, one of their assistant directors of pro personnel, Eliot Wolf, went to college at Miami and worked in the athletic department while a student.
Those ties helped the Packers’ trust their evaluation of Shields’ character, which checked out fine. Then immediately after the draft, Highsmith’s relationship with Shannon helped sell Shields and his agent that the Packers were his best option. On the evening the draft ended, Shields was on the telephone getting a persuasive pitch from a Chicago Bears scout when he got another call.
“I was like, ‘I might be in Chicago,’” Shields said. “Then my agent, Drew Rosenhaus, called me and said, ‘Packers.’”
Said Joe Whitt, the Packers’ cornerbacks coach, who had given Shields a first-round draft grade earlier that spring: “They called me in there and said we’ve got Shields. I was happy.”
Though the Packers liked Shields, their hopes for him coming into camp were modest. He’d been a standout gunner and jammer on the punt and punt-return teams, and they thought he might make the roster for those roles and then possibly develop into a decent or better cornerback down the road. Maybe, just maybe, he’d contend for the nickel job as a rookie, but that seemed unlikely.
Shields then surprised everyone in training camp, and his ascension to the nickel role for the start of the regular season is well known to those who follow the team closely. He seemed to make an eye-catching play every other day in training camp, and in four weeks soared from near the bottom of the depth chart to the No. 3 cornerback job.
“Just a natural football player,” Thompson said. “Ron (Wolf, the former Packers general manager) noticed that in training camp, too -- said he was just a natural at it.”
Shields won the nickel job by outplaying Pat Lee, a second-round draft pick in 2008, and Brandon Underwood, a sixth-rounder in 2009, but even at that point cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt had misgivings about playing him in such a prominent role. Though the nickel back isn’t officially a starter, he’s close to being a full-time player because the Packers have played their nickel a little more than 70 percent of their defensive snaps this season.
Going into the regular season it seemed a given that Shields would have some rough times, perhaps many, as offenses targeted him as a rookie and kept going back when it worked. Shields appeared especially vulnerable, even if gifted, because he’d only been a cornerback for one season his entire football career. Whitt wondered whether those rookie lumps would irreversibly damage the cornerback’s confidence. But Shields never took those lumps.
“You look at some of those young corners who got beat early on (in their careers), and they’re never the same later on,” Whitt said. “I didn’t want that to happen to him. And in that first game (at Philadelphia) we couldn’t protect him that much. We tried to put him to the quarterback’s off hand, little details we do, but through the year he continually got better. Now I don’t care where you put him, he can play.”
Shields’ surprising play this year has been no small factor in the Packers’ defensive accomplishments this season, which includes a No. 2 finish in the NFL in fewest points allowed. His two interceptions in the NFC championship game at Chicago made him famous nationally, but his ability to hold up in coverage over the course of the season has been more important to defensive coordinator Dom Capers over the long haul. He’s improved as much anyone on the team and has the ability to cover up many of his mistakes with superior speed.
The Packers have one of the NFL’s better cover men in cornerback Tramon Williams, but if Capers had to protect Shields on the other side in the nickel, he’d lose flexibility in play calling and blitz packages. Because Capers trusts Shields in one-on-one coverage, he can maximize Charles Woodson in the slot, where he’s as much a threat to blitz as to drop into coverage against a receiver, tight end or in a zone.
What matters for now is Shields’ performance in the Super Bowl on Sunday. His pure speed makes him a possible matchup with the Steelers’ top receiver, Mike Wallace, who ran the 40 in 4.28 seconds at the 2009 NFL scouting combine and is one of the league’s best deep threats, if Capers chooses to go that route.
But Shields’ long-term prospects have to excite the team also. Especially considering he’s been playing cornerback for less than two years, there’s reason to think he might one day be an elite player.
“This offseason I’m going to be very tough on him, because there’s a lot of growth ahead of him,” Whitt said. “But he’s rare, not only because of his ability but because of the man he is. He doesn’t let things bother him, he can take hard coaching. The ceiling on this kid is unbelievable.”