2015 Most Important Packers No. 7: Sam Shields, CB

GREEN BAY – Even after earning himself a four-year, $39 million extension, even becoming one of the Green Bay Packers’ rags-to-riches success stories as he went from undrafted free agent to top-level cornerback, Sam Shields has never been the kind of cornerback that everyone talks about.

Perhaps it’s his quiet demeanor, his relative disinterest in media interviews, or the fact that one of the team’s more popular and high-profile players, Tramon Williams, was always in the Packers’ secondary with him. But now, with Williams having departed as a free agent this spring, Shields’ time has come: It’s up to him to play like a No. 1 corner.

“I expect a lot from him,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said this offseason. “Last year, I thought the top four corners in the league were, not in any order, [Richard] Sherman, [Darrelle] Revis, Brent Grimes and Vontae [Davis]. I think, if he does the things that we were working on, he can be in that conversation.

“Those four were clearly better and then there was a group of around 12 — [Shields] is in that group of 12 to 14, in my opinion. How do you get in that top four with Brent Grimes, Revis and Sherman and Vontae Davis? How do you do that? That’s the question.”

Why he’s important:  The cornerback room is vastly different these days, as not only did Williams depart in free agency but Davon House also left (signing with Jacksonville) and longtime veteran voice and special teamer Jarrett Bush was not re-signed. The Packers did draft a pair of cornerbacks with their first two picks this spring – Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins – but how quickly they will come along remains to be seen. On top of that, would-be starter Casey Hayward hasn’t played a ton outside and hasn’t played a whole lot over the past two years – due to a hamstring injury in 2013 and a limited role last year – and has to earn the job opposite Shields. Given the situation, the Packers need Shields to be the shutdown corner the coaches believe he’s capable of becoming.

If he delivers:  If Shields has a breakthrough season like Williams did in 2010 – unlike Whitt’s assessment of Shields being in the 12-14 range last year, Williams became a top-5 cornerback during the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV run – then the Packers will have a player who can more or less take away half the field from their opponents. The Packers offense has seen firsthand the impact that can have on an offense when facing Seattle’s Sherman, and Shields playing at that level would also allow defensive coordinator Dom Capers to scheme in a way that he could give help to whoever lines up on the other side, whether that’s Hayward or one of the rookies.

If he disappoints:  The Packers are hoping they can move Shields around and match up him up on the opposing team’s top target, and as Williams can attest, such an assignment means you will get beat on occasion – after all, you’re covering a top-level wideout, and that guy gets paid, too. That said, if Shields isn’t up to the task, then the Packers secondary could have problems given the unproven nature of their other cover men. Hayward, for example, could stay healthy and recapture the ball-magnet form he showed as a rookie in 2012. But if he doesn’t, and Shields backslides, the Packers’ pass defense could become a major liability.

Quote, unquote:  “[Some] corners throughout their career – Al [Harris] was predominantly on the right, Nnamdi [Asomugha] played on the right – some guys feel more comfortable one way or the other. Sam says he feels comfortable on both sides. I just know he’s made most of his impact from the right [until now]. He’s going to have to match so he’s going to have to play left and right this year, anyway. We’re going to put him where we need him and where I feel he’s going to be most productive.” – Whitt, on how he plans to use Shields this season.

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