Sam Shields ready to be Packers' lead corner
Loud and clear, Sam Shields got the message this offseason. He knew what veteran Tramon Williams' departure in free agency meant. In the Green Bay Packers' cornerbacks room, there would be a void.
"Somebody's got to fill that spot," Shields said.
Leadership hasn't been Shields' responsibility since signing with the Packers as an undrafted rookie in 2010.
In the secondary, a veteran always was available to accept that role. Before Williams, there was future hall of famer Charles Woodson. Shields learned from both, soaking up all the knowledge he could.
It's been a different offseason for the sixth-year cornerback. Teammates are turning to him, seeking advice. With Williams gone, Shields said, it's his turn to pass wisdom to the youngsters.
"When that happened," Shields said, "hey, I'm the oldest of the group. So that's what they want me to do, just take that role. That's what I'm trying to do."
This isn't the first time Shields has met pressure. He's been an undrafted rookie trying to earn a roster spot. He's felt the urgency of a contract year.
Now, a year after signing a four-year, $39 million deal, Shields must foster a young position group that includes first- and second-round picks from last month's NFL draft. When Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins arrived in Green Bay, both said they were looking forward to learning from Shields.
"It's wild," Shields said. "Especially where I came from. Now that I'm the oldest of the group, they come to me for advice. I like it. I like the position that I'm in. I've just got to keep doing what I've been doing."
Shields' role on the field could be different, too.
In past years, he lined up almost exclusively on the right side. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt estimated that all but two of Shields' 20 career interceptions (counting playoffs) came on the right side. That includes all three of his interceptions in NFC championship games — two against Chicago in 2010, one against Seattle last season.
Shields excels on that side of the field, but a right-handed quarterback's vision is naturally to the defense's left side. And most NFL quarterbacks are right-handed. So Shields has been lining up left during organized team activity practices.
"We're just looking to see with a new group of guys playing him over there a little bit," Whitt said. "That doesn't mean he's really going to play over there, because most of his production has come from the right side. But when he matches guys, he does go left.
"We're just looking at something right now. This is the time that you see what you can do and what you can't do."
The Packers have tried Shields on the left side before. A couple seasons ago, Whitt said, he moved Shields to the left against the San Francisco 49ers. The experiment didn't last, but Shields always has shared the field with more-proven cornerbacks.
Now, he has the most experience on the perimeter.
"The main thing is just playing man (coverage)," Shields said. "That's all you've got. You just got him (the receiver). And you know Dom (Capers), that's what he likes to do. Wherever they put me at, I'm willing to do it and really work at it."
It's too early to know where Shields will line up this season. Much of it may depend on the development of fourth-year cornerback Casey Hayward, who is transitioning from the slot to perimeter. Hayward was excellent covering slot receivers last fall. If he makes a seamless transition to the perimeter, the Packers might be able to keep Shields on the right.
But Shields is capable of playing both sides. He was a Pro Bowler for the first time last season, albeit as an alternate. He also made one of the defense's biggest postseason plays, forcing a fourth-down incompletion against Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant late in the Packers' divisional round victory at Lambeau Field.
Both on and off the field, Shields is the team's undisputed No. 1 cornerback six years after arriving as an unproven, former college wide receiver. Coach Mike McCarthy said Shields has had a natural transition as a leader.
"Leadership is a huge part of your locker room culture," McCarthy said. "You can't assign leadership. I don't think that works. That's something that has to come from within the locker room. We try to create as many opportunities — emphasize, educate and anything that we think can help our locker room improve.
"I think you're just seeing Sam step up, and he's seen the people before him in that role, and it's good to see he's comfortable taking the initiative to do so."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood