2014 Most Important Packers No. 8: Sam Shields

GREEN BAY – If you do the math that comes with Joe Whitt’s projections about Sam Shields, it computes to this: The Green Bay Packers’ fifth-year cornerback is going to be really good for a really long time.

The way Whitt sees it, Shields, who won’t turn 27 until December and returned to the Packers in March on a four-year, $39 million deal that will pay him $15 million this year alone, is still improving at a position that he didn’t even play until his final season at the University of Miami (Fla). That’s why the Packers cornerbacks coach is confidently predicting a lengthy run of quality play – because the Packers are already getting it from Shields and he’s still not tapped out.

“Sam’s best football is still in front of him,” Whitt explained. “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.

“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.

“When Sam walked into the room four years ago in 2010, he was the ninth guy (on the depth chart) and he ended up starting against [the Philadelphia Eagles] in the very first game (as the No. 3 cornerback in the nickel defense). If you work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you work hard and you show that you’re the guy that can make plays, you’ll be given an opportunity.”

And no one has seized his opportunity more than Shields, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent, was a vital contributor as the third cornerback in the nickel package on the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl XLV team and now has a chance to be in the conversation with the best cover men in the league if he plays at the level his coaches believe he can.

“It’s like I tell everybody, it’s just the beginning,” Shields said. “I still sit back and think about what I went through when I first started, when I switched to D. I sit and talked to my friends and family about it. It still amazes me, like ‘Hey, I’m in this position.’ It’s all a blessing.”

Shields is now the Packers’ third-highest paid player in terms of average annual salary, as his $9.25 million average ranks only behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers ($18.7 million) and outside linebacker Clay Matthews ($11.6 million), who received lucrative long-term extensions in April 2013. Given his lofty status, he’ll be looked upon to be a shutdown corner, even though veteran Tramon Williams is coming off a bounceback season and appears to have plenty left in the tank, and the coaches are excited about the healthy return of Casey Hayward, who finished third in the NFL defensive rookie of the year balloting in 2012.

“Everybody knows [Shields is] a press (coverage) guy who can make plays in that area. Now, we need to show he’s a complete player – zone, two, three; understands landmarks and drops; and improve the tackling aspect of it,” Whitt said. “He needs to be a top level corner in every aspect of the game. And he has that ability.”

In 14 regular-season games last year, Shields had a team-high four interceptions and was credited in the Packers’ official stats with 64 tackles and 25 pass breakups. According to Pro Football Focus, in 900 total snaps, Shields was targeted 84 times last season and allowed 42 completions for 664 yards for an opponents’ passer rating of 72.7.

He missed two games in the middle of the season with a hamstring injury but had what turned out to be one of the biggest plays of the season, an interception that helped the Packers to an enormous come-from-behind victory at Dallas on Dec. 15. His season ended with a high-ankle sprain in the playoff loss to San Francisco that he said would have kept him out for the rest of the year, even if the Packers had won that game.

Now, he’s ready for a greater impact as he matures as a player and has a better grasp on the game.

“There’s a lot more things I’m still learning. And it’s getting better,” Shields said. “I’m getting some more years on me, some more time to learn different things. It’s getting better.

“You know, when I first got here, I didn’t know the difference. It was frustrating. ‘Man, it’s not for me.’ [But] I stuck in there, I kept working. I got it right.”

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