Sam Shields, secondary key to improving defense

Joe Whitt doesn’t know the going rate for a top-flight cornerback, nor does he really care.

What concerns the Green Bay Packers cornerbacks coach is what a player can do on the field. Sam Shields is as talented as anyone he’s ever mentored, but how much that ability is worth is for others to decide.

For that reason, Whitt wasn’t sure if he’d get a chance to coach Shields again following the Packers’ 23-20 playoff loss to San Francisco, but he was confident the 26-year-old’s best days were ahead of him.

“I don’t get into any contracts, but I believe Sam is a top-10, top-7 type corner in this league,” Whitt said at the time. “One thing that sticks out with Sam to me is when he has the opportunity to make the interception, make a splash play, he makes it. (In) four years, I think I have him really dropping one ball that I thought that was an intercept-type ball.”

The Packers’ brass agreed, though his return wasn’t always a guarantee. Shields’ camp threatened to cease contract negotiations days before the start of free agency before the two sides finally agreed to a four-year deal worth $39 million that included a $12.5 million signing bonus.

This was the outcome Shields was hoping for, but he also wanted to get paid. He signed for a $7,500 bonus after going undrafted in 2010 and played three years at the league minimum.

Shields’ biggest payday came last June when he signed his one-year restricted tender worth $2 million before the start of mandatory mini-camp. Although he missed most of the offseason program, he continued to grow into the position once training camp started.

He still hasn’t made it through a full season without injury, but managed to reset or match career highs in tackles (61), pass deflections (16) and interceptions (four). A knee injury suffered on the first defensive play of the 49ers’ playoff game could have jeopardized things, but he avoided ligament damage and hit the market at the peak of his powers.

Many of his close friends in the cornerbacks room expected the Packers would bring back Shields. It was just a matter of time. His athleticism and speedicon1 are not things that can be coached, and he’d come a long way since converting from receiver during his senior year at the University of Miami.

“I thought it was pretty important,” ninth-year cornerback Jarrett Bush said. “Sam is young and athletic. He has experience in playoff gamesicon1 and the Super Bowl. I thought he was definitely a huge contributor to our team, so I would’ve been surprised if we didn’t sign him back.”

Shields’ return ensured cornerback would remain the Packers’ deepest defensive group with Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward, Micah Hyde, Davon House and Bush all under contract for at least one more season.

There’s also internal optimism for two other speedy undrafted projects, James Nixon and Jumal Rolle.

While the cornerback position still is a strength, there are some long-term questions. Williams and House have one year left on their contracts, Hyde could possibly move to safety this offseason and Hayward is returning from a recurring hamstring strain.

Shields’ $9.75 million average salary came in on the high side for freeicon1 agent cornerbacks this offseason, but it would have been difficult to replace him in the secondary, especially in the short term.

“Sam is one of my good friends on the team, so I’m very excited to have him back,” Hayward said. “He’s one of the young stars on this team and not just the team, but the NFL. Having him back, hopefully he’ll bring a little spark to the team and the defense.”

Shields’ contract could pay as much as $21 million over the first two years. He’ll carry a hefty $12.125 million cap number in 2016 and 2017, but the Packers have options.

Along with shedding Williams’ $8 million salary after this season, the Packers could opt out of Shields’ deal after the 2015 season and assume a large but not crippling $6.25 million cap penalty.

It’s been reported the NFL salary cap could rise as much as $10 million in each of the next two seasons, so that could also be standard compensation for a No. 1 cornerback by that time.

Right now, though, the most important thing for Packers’ cornerbacks is generating more turnovers. Last year’s defense managed only 11 to finish 26th in the category.

Through the good and the bad years during defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ five years in Green Bay, interceptions have been an area in which the Packers have been consistently atop the league.

They’ll need better play from their safeties, who failed to force a single turnover last season, but a healthy Shields, Hayward and Williams could be the play-makers Capers’ defense needs to thrive.

Some worry complacency could set for Shields after agreeing to such a large deal, but those who know Shields best believe he’ll be that much more motivated to carry the defense in the right direction.

“Sam is what makes us go,” Hyde said. “There are a lot of games where he made some huge plays. It’s a competition in there, we all understand that. With Casey coming back, we all know what Casey can do with his rookie year, having a really good season.

“Hopefully we can all get on the field at once, that’s going to be dangerous.”

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