Most Important Packers No. 12: Sam Shields

26 / Fifth NFL season

Head coach Mike McCarthy didn't attempt to sugarcoat what the new contract meant for Sam Shields. When the Green Bay Packers signed Shields to a four-year, $39 million deal this offseason, it made him one of the team's "core players," according to McCarthy, who added: "He'll step up and play accordingly."

Aaron Rodgers is currently a long-term core player for the Packers. So are Clay Matthews, Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang and Morgan Burnett, all of whom have signed big-money extensions with Green Bay in recent years. While very few people would question that the money has been worth it for players like Rodgers and Sitton (who are arguably the best at their respective positions in the NFL), Burnett has been widely criticized for not playing well in Year 1 of his five-year, $26 million contract.

While the amount given to Shields was more than most expected, it's difficult to argue that he didn't earn it. Shields quickly rose from an undrafted free agent to a starter in the Packers defense, and after four years in Green Bay, he's become one of the team's most important defensive players. In 2013, he tied his career-high with four interceptions and set a career-high with 61 tackles while starting 14 games.

Shields is No. 12 on this list because he can't take a step back now that he's a very wealthy man. The Packers need him to at least be as good as he's been in recent years, though the team would clearly love it if he continued improving. Green Bay has good depth at cornerback, but the importance of Shields locking down one of the outside corner spots will go a long way in how far the team gets this season.

McCarthy didn't sugarcoat it, so there's no reason that anyone else should: expectations for Shields are now very high. More money, more responsibility. Core players need to have an obvious positive effect in the win-loss column, which is what Shields must do in 2014.

Shields will often find himself matched up with opposing teams' best wide receivers, and he'll have to deliver. That means two games staring across from Detroit's Calvin Johnson and two games worrying about Chicago's dangerous duo, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. Shields isn't in the clear for the other 12 games of the season either, especially not with critical NFC opponents like Seattle, New Orleans, Carolina and Philadelphia on the schedule.
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt believes that Shields still has a lot of room to get better. A contract the size that Shields got this offseason suggests the Packers' front office very much agrees with Whitt on that. At only 26 years old, and given that Shields has only been playing cornerback for five years, his potential is as great as any players on Green Bay's defense.


Shields would be even higher on this list if it wasn't for the Packers' impressive depth at cornerback. He has veteran Tramon Williams opposite him, which helps in many ways. For one, if Shields struggles against Johnson, Marshall or any other top wide receiver, Green Bay knows Williams has the tools to get the job done. Williams has seen it all, and an in-game or mid-season change in plans wouldn't be too much to handle for him. Williams can also continue teaching Shields the finer points of the game, little things that a ninth-year player like himself can still show to a fifth-year player.

Casey Hayward will eventually be a starting outside cornerback for the Packers, likely in 2015 once Williams' contract expires. Hayward dominated competition in the slot as a rookie, but hamstring injuries took away his ability to follow it up last season. But just because he was primarily a slot player shouldn't overshadow that Hayward projects to be a very good outside cornerback. Whether it's on the opposite side of Shields or it's stepping in for Shields should an injury occur, Hayward seems ready for a big role sooner than later.

Davon House didn't have the Year 3 jump that some expected, but he's still a viable option at outside cornerback. Micah Hyde is not part of the equation at outside corner, nor is Jarrett Bush. However, rookie cornerback Demetri Goodson will get a shot to earn snaps outside, though a challenge from him is likely not going to matter much to Shields at the top of the depth chart.

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