To keep Sam Shields off the free agent market the Green Bay Packers made him one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the NFL.
On Saturday evening Shields' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, tweeted that he'd worked out a contract with the Packers, and ESPN.com reported that Green Bay will pay Shields $39 million over four years, including a $12.5 million signing bonus.
Though Shields probably wasn't the best cornerback on the free agent market, at age 26 he probably has the best speed and as much potential as anyone else available this offseason.
Because he's young, it's more than conceivable that Shields could finish the contract and make all $39 million even though he didn't receive huge contract guarantees. NFL.com reported that Shields will make $15 million in the first year, $20 million through two years and $30 million through three years.
Regardless, the contract's $9.25 million average makes Shields the NFL's fifth-highest paid cornerback based on average pay, behind only Tampa Bay's Darrelle Revis ($16 million), Dallas' Brandon Carr ($10.02 million), Cincinnnati's Leon Hall ($9.75 million) and Houston's Jonathan Joseph ($9.75 million).
The contract rewards Shields as an ascending player who risked injury last season as a restricted free agent at the second-round tender of $2.023 million and then turned down the Packers' offers for a long-term contract during the season and up until the start of free agency this weekend.
With free agents able to talk to other teams in the early negotiating period beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday, Shields and the Packers had a good idea of the cornerback's market by Saturday afternoon. But there still was one more deadline, because free agents aren't allowed to visit or sign with other teams until 3 p.m. Tuesday, and that was enough to get the Packers to up their offer and get a deal finished.
The contract also makes Shields the third-highest paid player on the Packers based on average pay, behind only Aaron Rodgers ($18.7 million) and Clay Matthews ($11.6 million).
The deal is comparable or even better than the contract cornerback Brent Grimes signed with Miami earlier this offseason. Grimes' four-year deal averages about $1 million less at $8.006 million, and though it included a better guarantee of $16.95 million, at age 30 Grimes is far less likely than Shields to finish out his deal.
The Packers have plenty of money to absorb the contract. They were $33.1 million under the salary cap before signing Shields, so that gave them great flexibility in structuring the deal.
They historically have taken a pay-as-you-go approach with their most expensive deals, and it's unclear whether some or even most of the money reported as Shields' $12.5 million signing bonus actually is a roster bonus. It could be a mix of the two, with the signing bonus prorated over the length of the contract and any roster bonus counting only on this year's cap.
If it was all signing bonus, Shields' cap numbers will be approximately $5.6 million this year; $8.1 million in 2015; $13.1 million in 2016; and $12.1 million in 2017.
The signing also suggests that Shields' cryptic tweet on Friday – "I feel a big blessing coming," he tweeted – in fact was a sign that talks with the Packers had picked up. Early in the week, Shields' advisers put out word that negotiations had stalled and that he planned on testing the market, which in essence he did by not signing before the early negotiating period opened late Saturday morning.
The deal means the Packers have retained one of their most talented defensive players in his prime and have one less hole to fill on the side of the ball that had its share of issues last season. The Packers' run defense collapsed in the second half of the year and the defense overall finished No. 25 in the NFL in yards allowed and tied for No. 24 in points allowed.
If the Packers had lost Shields they might have had to select a cornerback in the first two or three rounds of this year's draft, or maybe even sign one in free agency. But cornerback now should be one of their deepest positions and not a draft priority.
The likely starting cornerbacks will be Shields and Tramon Williams, who turns 31 later this month and finished last season strongly. The Packers also return Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde as the top candidates for slot cornerback.
Hayward had six interceptions and a team-high 25 passes knocked down playing primarily in the nickel role as a rookie in 2012, though his chronic hamstring injuries last season could be a long-term concern. Hyde also is expected to get significant work at safety this year.
The Packers also have fourth-year pro Davon House, who played 44.2 percent of their defensive snaps last season.