GREEN BAY - He was general manager Ted Thompson’s kind of football player. A positional project. A longshot. Sam Shields joined the Green Bay Packers with modest expectations in 2010, overlooked in the draft but bursting with potential.
Then he was a rookie intercepting Jay Cutler twice in the NFC championship game.
Then he was in a Super Bowl parade.
Then he was a Pro Bowler.
Shields signed a four-year, $39 million contract before the 2014 season, becoming a rags-to-riches NFL success story. It’s the kind of money paid to a legitimate No. 1 cornerback. Shields filled that role in the Packers' secondary with 18 interceptions and 67 defended passes in his first six seasons.
Then concussions derailed him.
Now, he’s a cautionary tale, a warning for how quickly repeated concussions can threaten a career.
After spending almost the entire 2016 season in the NFL’s concussion protocol, Shields, 29, revealed Wednesday morning on Instagram that the Packers had released him. That later was confirmed by the league with a "failed physical" designation and the Packers through a news release. He had one year and $9 million left on his contract.
A message sent to Shields requesting comment Wednesday was not returned.
Shields missed the final 15 regular-season games in 2016 and all of the postseason after sustaining his fifth documented concussion near the end of the Packers’ opener at the Jacksonville Jaguars in September.
After the NFC championship game in Atlanta, Shields said his concussion symptoms still lingered four months later. He also said he wanted to continue his career. It’s uncertain whether he’ll get that chance elsewhere, but it won’t be in Green Bay.
“It’s just like some days tough headaches, some days it’s mild,” Shields said. “It varies. I never know. I’m so used to it now, it’s normal. But it’s getting better. I’ll be back.”
Before the NFC title game, Shields had been home in Florida after being charged in October in Green Bay with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. He is scheduled for a plea/sentencing hearing at the Brown County Circuit Court on April 24.
A source close to Shields said Wednesday’s release caught him off guard. As of last week, another source said Shields was talking about a potential return to the Packers. In his Instagram post Wednesday, Shields unleashed a string of emotional hashtags:
Shields’ absence last season left a major void in the Packers' secondary. Without the veteran in the lineup, second-year corners Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins struggled with injuries and inexperience, and former undrafted corner LaDarius Gunter was stuck shadowing opposing No. 1 receivers.
The Packers will need to rebuild their cornerback depth chart. It will be a top draft priority, as well as a logical position to address through free agency. But the team still feels good about its cornerback talent. When healthy, Randall, Rollins and Gunter all have shown potential.
Randall has the talent to replace Shields as a No. 1 corner. He has six interceptions in two seasons, at times making spectacular plays on the football. But a promising rookie season was followed by a sophomore slump in 2016.
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After a game-winning, fourth-down tackle in Jacksonville, Randall’s season veered out of control in the second week. Minnesota Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs torched him for nine catches, 182 yards and a touchdown, and Randall never recovered. A midseason surgery to repair a sports hernia didn’t help. Randall missed six games after surgery and seemed hesitant to tackle after his return.
Despite his physical talent, Randall showed too many lapses in focus from snap to snap. It’s a sign of youth, something Shields’ prolonged absence exposed on the Packers' depth chart.
Counting playoffs, Shields missed 22 of the Packers' last 24 games because of concussions. The fourth concussion of his career came against the Dallas Cowboys in December of 2015, when Shields’ head slammed hard against Lambeau Field’s frozen field. He missed the final three regular-season games in 2015 and the Packers' wild-card win at Washington before returning in the divisional round at Arizona.
Shields then started the 2016 season with his fifth concussion. It happened on what appeared to be a hard but routine tackle against Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon, with Shields’ head contacting Yeldon’s shoulder pad.
Dr. Vernon Williams of the Kerland-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology told PackersNews.com in September the pattern of Shields’ concussions was troubling.
“If we see a pattern where each concussion takes longer to get better,” Williams said, “the symptoms are more severe, or if we see a pattern where a person is more and more easily concussed. Like, if the first time it takes a big blow, an 80-G impact, a kickoff return where a person gets blown up and everybody in the stadium notices. And then before long, there’s just kind of a routine hit, or a routine fall to the ground, and the person is concussed.
“If we see a pattern where it’s happening more and more easily, that’s concerning.”
With Shields’ release, the Packers will recoup $9 million of a $12 million cap hit in 2017. After releasing running back James Starks on Tuesday, they’re now projected to enter the offseason with more than $40 million in cap space. Whether any of that money will go toward finding a veteran cornerback in free agency remains to be seen.
The Packers gladly would have retained Shields, if healthy. With his concussion symptoms not subsiding, and a sixth concussion possible if not likely to occur in the future, his release was a medical decision.
“I think we can all focus on Sam getting healthy,” coach Mike McCarthy said at his season-ending review. “Having a chance to visit with Sam in Atlanta briefly, he needs to get healthy for himself and his family. That’s the primary focus.”