Shields sets standard for undrafted free agents

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Packers cornerback Sam Shields during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field.

Every undrafted free agent who has set foot in Lambeau Field wants his story to unfold like that of Sam Shields.

You make the Green Bay Packers' roster, slowly develop into a reliable starter and are rewarded with a four-year, $39 million contract once you hit the free-agent market.

If only it were that simple.

Nothing about being an undrafted free agent is easy. Even if you make the opening roster, you still have to fight to stay there. It takes talent, hard work and a touch of luck to make that happen.

Of the 14 undrafted rookies who have made the Packers' initial 53-man roster during Mike McCarthy's first seven years as head coach, half didn't last more than one season in Green Bay.

Former center Evan Dietrich-Smith, one of the team's other success stories, was even cut after one season only to be re-signed later that year. Shields' mentor, Tramon Williams, was first cut by the Houston Texans before getting his start on the Packers' practice squad in 2006.

That's why Shields gives every rookie he encounters a similar message: Nothing is given. You work hard to make the roster. If you survive, you work harder to stay there.

"I see guys who get cut and it's not pretty," said the 26-year-old cornerback, reflecting on his first NFL season. "My whole mindset was making this team whether it's special teams or however — just get on this team."

Over the next three weeks, you'll hear about another class of undrafted rookies making a bid for the 53-man roster. South Carolina State linebacker Joe Thomas has flashed early. Colorado State-Pueblo defensive lineman Mike Pennel has made his presence felt against the run.

Meanwhile, second-year players such as outside linebacker Andy Mulumba, offensive lineman Lane Taylor and safety Chris Banjo are trying to hold onto their spots. The same goes for receiver Myles White and tight end Jake Stoneburner, who started last season on the practice squad before being promoted.

Nobody wants to go backward, especially Mulumba, who saw the most work of last year's undrafted class in 2013. He played nearly 300 defensive snaps in place of an injured Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, and finished with 30 tackles and a sack in 14 games.

He spent the winter at his alma mater, Eastern Michigan, rehabbing a sprained knee he suffered in the Packers' 23-20 playoff loss to San Francisco, which he played through due to a lack of healthy outside rushers.

People remember 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick easily getting past him on an 11-yard run on third-and-8 late in the loss, but what you didn't see was the six weeks Mulumba spent with his knee in a brace afterward.

"You have to put everything on the line," Mulumba said. "I knew my knee was bad, but I said why not give it another shot if we can win and go to the other round? I just told them put some tape on it and put me back on the field, and then we'll see what happens. I went out there trying to give it my 100 percent, but couldn't get to 100 percent."

Packers linebacker Andy Mulumba cools off during a break at minicamp practice at Ray Nitschke Field.

Mulumba returned for the offseason program healthy and hungry to maintain his spot in a now-cluttered group of outside linebackers, which now includes veteran Julius Peppers and fourth-round pick Carl Bradford.

Outside linebacker (five) and offensive line (four) have produced the most undrafted rookies on the Packers' opening roster since 2006, but there's been a lot of turnover, too.

Vic So'oto (2011) and Dezman Moses (2013) both went one-and-done with the Packers. Frank Zombo lasted three seasons, but was non-tendered when he reached restricted free agency after the 2012 season.

Only Jamari Lattimore was offered a second contract, but he's since shifted to inside linebacker.

Under general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers have tied for the third-most undrafted free agents on their Week 1 roster since 2010 with 13. At least three undrafted rookies have made the Packers' roster in each of those seasons.

The Packers will give you opportunity, but they'll also provide plenty of competition for your job going forward.

"I think that first of all, they come in and they're driven because they know they have something to prove and they have to prove it," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Around here, if I'm an undrafted free agent and I look at the number of guys on our team that came that route, that would be encouraging to me because I know there's always a good chance because we're going to look at who the best football players (are). It doesn't make any difference if you've been drafted or not."

Where a second-day draft pick might get the benefit of the doubt, those unsung players on the bubble must show up in every play. That's how safeties Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo carved out their spots in each of the past two years.

The Packers believe in the system — 45 of the 90 players on their offseason roster didn't hear their name called at Radio City Music Hall. They've kept at least one undrafted rookie in each of McCarthy's eight season as head coach.

Packers safety Chris Banjo (32) takes a water break during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field.

They don't invest in costly veterans. They cultivate capable linemen like Don Barclay, who received a $2,500 signing bonus in 2012. Two former tryout players, receiver Jarrett Boykin and tight end Brandon Bostick, are contention for significant roles in one of the league's most efficient offenses.

"You can never take any of this stuff for granted," said Boykin, who had 49 catches for 681 yards and three touchdowns last season. "Each day before I hit the practice field, I say to myself, 'Let's get better today, let's make this day the best one.' No matter if you're coming off a great practice, let's do even better. You want to be consistent."

The Packers open the preseason Saturday in Tennessee. You can bet McCarthy will be rolling out a number of undrafted rookies who will be looking to make something happen on every snap.

However, there also will be a handful of returning college free agents who want to show they haven't lost their edge. While Shields wants to show he's worth the contract, others like Mulumba, Taylor and Banjo are chasing down their own dreams.

"You're always going to carry that because you're always going to think about how you came in," Shields said. "The long journey you've been through to get where you are. That just keeps me going the way I am. It keeps me focused and keeps me going forward."

— whodkiew@pressgazette and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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