Shields ‘happy to be back’ with Packers
Sam Shields made the move from receiver to cornerback before his senior year at the University of Miami, but it was in Green Bay where he truly learned how to play the position and developed into a shutdown defender.
Now, the 26-year-old cornerback is finally getting paid like one.
Shields developed so well under the Packers' wing the organization made him one of the five highest paid players at the position this offseason with a four-year, $39 million contract on the eve of free agency.
It was the resolution Shields hoped he'd strike with the team that first took a chance on him as an undrafted free agent in 2010 and made him a Super Bowl champion shortly thereafter.
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Shields and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, were prepared to go to market if they couldn't reach an agreement with the Packers — Shields' camp threatened to shut down negotiations days before free agency — but his preference to return never wavered.
"Most of the time I was scared, because like I said I wanted to be a Packer," said Shields, who used a portion of his $12.5 million signing bonus to buy a house for his mom in Florida. "You know how that business goes. It's kind of scary at first, but they came with it. I'm happy to be back."
Shields stayed in contract with teammates Tramon Williams and Morgan Burnett throughout the process, and knew where he stood with cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, whom often was his biggest supporter.
Shields always has viewed Whitt as a father figure and credits the assistant for his rise as a rookie from the ninth cornerback on the depth chart to a starter in the 2010 opener. When things didn't go quite as well in 2011, Whitt was also the one who assumed the blame for pushing Shields too fast.
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It all clicked last season when Shields posted career-highs in tackles (61), pass deflections (16) and interceptions (four) in 14 appearances. After signing his contract, Shields stopped by Whitt's office to thank him and things got a little emotional.
No tears were shed, but it was close.
"Sam's best football is still in front of him," Whitt said recently. "I honestly believe he has two more years of ascending and then he's going to play at that level for another four years. That's six years of just really good football ahead of him and by then he's 32 — he might have more. I don't know what he's going to have after that, but I see two more years of getting better and four more of holding that type of high quality play."
Shields was apprehensive about switching to cornerback when the Hurricanes coaching staff first brought up the idea during spring ball before his senior year. Even when he signed with the Packers, Shields wasn't completely sure it was the right position for him.
There were tough times. Shields remembers being frustrated with the playbook at first and Whitt "screaming and yelling" to correct his errors. They eventually worked through it and Shields blossomed into arguably general manager Ted Thompson's greatest undrafted success story.
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When pen met paper in March, it was both Shields and Whitt's effort that made it happen.
"I thought I wasn't going to make it," Shields said. "You know, when I first got here, I didn't know the difference. It was frustrating. 'Man, it's not for me.' Like I said, I stuck in there, I kept working. I got it right. Joe Whitt made little card things for me, and I learned the defense. It's been good."
Shields played for three years at the league minimum after receiving a $7,500 undrafted signing bonus. His salary boosted to $2 million last season when the Packers placed a second-round tender on him as a restricted free agent.
Shields didn't attend last year's voluntary organized team activities in hopes of getting a long-term deal done, but he eventually signed the tender before the start of the team's mandatory mini-camp.
His newest deal contained a $500,000 sweetener for taking part in the offseason program and he's already noticed it make a difference. This year, he can strictly focus on football rather than finance. He bounced back quickly from the high-ankle sprain he suffered in January's 23-20 playoff loss to San Francisco and has been a full participant in the program thus far.
"He has God-given gifts and he works hard to make the best of his abilities," cornerback Davon House said. "Once Sam stays healthy, he's going to be playing in this league I could see the next 15 years unless he decides to leave this game early because he can run faster than almost anyone in this league and the best ball skills I've seen from a DB."
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Shields doesn't see the big payday changing his perspective. He also doesn't feel the added pressure of being one of the team's most-well compensated players.
He's already accomplished a lot in his five years playing cornerback, but already has his next set of goals aligned.
"Pro Bowl. That's the next thing this year," Shields said. "Pro Bowl, get it done. That'd be some good achievements right there. Like I said, if I keep one day at a time and keep doing what I've been doing, it'll work out."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.