The game changed the moment Sam Shields put pen to paper on a new four-year, $39 million contract last year.
The Green Bay Packers cornerback no longer was an unsung and undrafted gem. Now among the highest paid at his position, more was expected of Shields. He was a marquee player and a pivotal piece to the direction Dom Capers’ defense was heading.
Shields took steps last season toward being the shutdown No. 1 cornerback the organization feels he can be, but there’s still room for growth in the 27-year-old. The Packers are counting on it. He’s the only proven boundary cornerback on the roster after Tramon Williams and Davon House left in free agency.
“I expect a lot from him,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “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 — he’s 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.”
Shields started 14 regular-season games for the Packers last season opposite Williams, registering 40 tackles and two interceptions. He played in his first Pro Bowl as an alternate for the Super Bowl-bound Revis.
The 5-foot-11, 184-pound cornerback will be the first to tell you he’s an unfinished product. He still has undisciplined moments and occasionally gets caught looking in the backfield, but his speed is what separates him and allows him to stand in against the league’s top receivers.
Shields played predominantly on the right side last season, but Whitt lined him up at the left perimeter spot throughout the offseason program to test his comfort. Shields had too many missed tackles last season — 11 according to Pro Football Focus — but didn’t give up many explosive plays.
Whenever the Packers have asked him to match a top-flight receiver, Shields has answered the bell.
“I don’t necessarily know if he’s going to play on the left,” Whitt said. “I’m going to give him an opportunity over there. I just know he’s made most of his impact from the right. 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 he need him … and where I feel he’s going to be most productive.”
Shields’ place in the starting lineup is the only certainty entering training camp. Fourth-year cornerback Casey Hayward likely will get the first shot opposite Shields, but quickly will have to make up for lost time. He injured his foot in the spring and missed the offseason program.
Hayward saw only about 39 percent of defensive snaps last season, but that he played in all 18 games (including playoffs) was a positive step after he missed most of the 2013 season with a recurring hamstring issue. Rotating in the nickel and dime subpackages, Hayward had 42 tackles, seven deflections and three interceptions.
“He makes plays on the ball,” Capers said. “Some guys just seem to be around the football. So he’s done that with the reps that he’s had. Only time will tell on that, but we like what we’ve seen out of Casey and we know he can go out on the field and make plays for you.”
The only benefit to Hayward’s absence this summer is it allowed the Packers to get extended looks at their top two draft picks, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, who were taken to help fill the void left by Williams and House.
The Packers also opted against re-signing nine-year veteran Jarrett Bush, who a league source confirmed has been suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Randall missed the start of the offseason program with an ankle injury before returning midway through organized team activities. A starting safety for two seasons at Arizona State, many teams were split on where Randall would play at the next level.
Not the Packers. The moment Randall was taken with the 30th overall pick, general manager Ted Thompson said he’d compete for a role at cornerback rather than being thrown into a jam-packed safety room. He has the versatility to play inside or outside.
The Packers face another high-ceiling project in Rollins, who played basketball for four years at Miami (Ohio) before making a late switch to football. He shot up draft boards after amazing scouts with what he could do based on pure instincts and athleticism.
Those attributes were on display this summer and could be enough to give third-year veteran Micah Hyde a run for the nickel cornerback spot. Undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter also earned reps with the first-team defense, overcoming a slow time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine.
When the rookies arrived, Whitt quizzed them on the best receiver they’d matched up against in college. Needless to say none of their responses were anywhere near the level of Calvin Johnson, Alshon Jeffrey, Randall Cobb or Jordy Nelson.
“There’s two guys that’s in that cornerback room, not counting Micah who have played any snaps in the NFL,” Whitt said. “I think that’s being lost in a lot of this. There’s only two guys. I played just as many snaps as everybody else in the NFL. We have to teach them how to play.”
The Packers are stable at safety, a testament to how quickly they’ve rebuilt the position after a disastrous 2013 season. The addition of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Hyde’s transition to safety hastened that turnaround and spurred veteran Morgan Burnett’s comeback.
Burnett registered a career-high 130 tackles last season to lead the defense. He also ended a two-year drought without an interception against Atlanta on Dec. 8 and snagged another in the NFC title game, though his decision to slide with the Packers leading 19-7 with 5 minutes remaining has been widely debated.
Clinton-Dix arguably had his best game of the season in the playoff encounter with the Seahawks. His two interceptions erased sour memories from the Packers’ opener in Seattle when he badly missed an open-field tackle on Ricardo Lockette’s 33-yard touchdown.
“He came a long way,” said safeties coach Darren Perry of Clinton-Dix, who had 92 tackles and an interception in 16 games with 10 starts. “I can tell you the first time we played them out there, he had a lot going through his mind. He was probably thinking a lot and not just reacting. I think that second time we played them out there, he had seen some things. He experienced some good, some bad and I think that helped him grow as a player.”
Behind Burnett and Clinton-Dix, the Packers return Hyde, fourth-year veteran Sean Richardson, undersized Chris Banjo and practice-squad holdover Jean Fanor. Richardson, who missed a year following neck surgery in January 2013, played in all 18 games and led the Packers in special teams tackles.
Questions linger about Richardson’s quickness and ability to change direction, but the Packers thought enough of his upside to match the one-year, $2.55 million contract he was offered by the Oakland Raiders as a restricted free agent.
“He’s hungry. He wants to get on the field,” Perry said. “I think last year we developed a role for him and we’ll continue to try to work ways to get him on the field because Sean can help us. He’s a big-bodied guy who’s plenty physical and smart. He can make some plays. It’s just a matter of getting the combination and finding the package to get him some reps out there for us.”