Packers face tough decision on Sam Shields

Green Bay - Free agency means different things to different people.

In the case of the Green Bay Packers, it doesn't mean sifting through options and targeting prizes as much as managing a system that requires every team to make critical decisions about its future.

In the case of cornerback Sam Shields and possibly center Evan Dietrich-Smith, it means getting ready to move into a new tax bracket.

The focus in NFL free agency typically lands on unrestricted free agents like Joe Flacco, Greg Jennings, Steven Jackson and Wes Welker, but when the NFL calendar year begins March 12, the Packers will be investing a solid chunk of change in at least four of their five restricted free agents.

To maintain the rights to a restricted free agent - anyone with three years of experience whose contract has expired - a team must submit one of three qualifying offers, each of which comes attached with a level of compensation a team must pay for signing one of these free agents.

In the case of Shields and Dietrich-Smith, the Packers will have to decide whether to use the top or middle tender offer.

The highest tender sets compensation at a first-round pick, the middle tender sets it at a second-round pick and the low tender sets it at the round in which the player was drafted. In any of the three cases, the original team has the right to match any offer made to its restricted free agent.

The difficult part for general manager Ted Thompson is that both Shields and Dietrich-Smith were not drafted, so if the low tender is placed on them, there would be no compensation awarded if the Packers didn't match the offer.

Shields took his game to a starter's level and anyone who saw him pick off San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and return it for a touchdown in the Packers' divisional playoff loss knows he's for real. One element of the game the 5-11, 184-pound Shields improved on the most was his tackling, something his fellow starter, Tramon Williams, did not do well at last year.

After the 49ers loss, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt praised Shields for his improvement from 2011, especially after coming back from a high ankle sprain.

"To come back and play - especially the last six games - the way that he's played, I think is very encouraging to what he can be in the future," Whitt said.

Arguably, Shields could be the team's No. 1 corner next year given his much sought-after skill set, willingness to tackle and experience. But he still has to prove he can be as consistent in coverage as Williams and not have the mental lapses that resulted in him giving up big plays.

Regardless, the Packers are going to have to protect themselves either by offering him one of the two highest tenders or signing him to a long-term deal. The latter will be discussed, but a decision on which tender is offered will most likely have to be made.

Here's the difficult part about setting the compensation at a first-round pick: It requires a one-year offer of $2,879,000. For Shields, it would mean an increase in salary of more than $2.3 million from 2012.

If the Packers use the second-round tender, his salary would be $2,023,000, which is an increase of roughly $1.45 million. The lowest tender, which would present a huge risk if given to Shields, carries a one-year salary of $1,323,000.

Two NFL personnel directors and two agents with Packers clients all said they thought Shields was deserving of a second-round tender. The fact that not a single restricted free agent has changed teams since 2008 and none has signed an offer sheet since '09 signifies how little restricted free agency is used.

In most cases, teams submit offers to lesser-known players, hoping to get a bargain. The last Packer to sign a tender offer was cornerback Jarrett Bush in 2009. The Packers ended up matching it.

"(Shields is a) very good role player as a third corner, but he is small and more than likely it's safe to assume he will have some injuries because of the lack of size," one personnel director said. "This is a tough one that I'm glad we don't have to ponder this year.

"I am guessing they will do the two and will always have the (match) if someone does offer and they want to keep him."

Another factor in making an offer to Shields is setting the market for a long-term deal. If the Packers use a first-round tender on Shields, agent Drew Rosenhaus has an admission by the team that Shields is worth big money, which he can use to his advantage at the bargaining table.

"Shields? High-tender, I'll bet," one of the agents said. "I wouldn't though. There's lots of UFA (unrestricted free agent) cornerbacks (available) and no one ever moves."

Whatever the case, the tenders do affect the Packers' salary cap. It will cost them roughly $2.4 million against the cap per player to offer the first, $1.6 million to offer the second and $850,000 to offer the low.

In addition to Shields and Dietrich-Smith, the Packers' other restricted free agents are tight end Tom Crabtree, linebacker Robert Francois and linebacker Frank Zombo. If tenders aren't made to any of those players, they automatically become unrestricted free agents.

Dietrich-Smith is another player Thompson is going to have to think long and hard about. He moved into a starting role at the end of last year and is looked upon as the center of the future, so losing him would be a huge blow to the offensive line.

If Thompson offers the low tender, he can always match the offer, thereby letting some other team negotiate a long-term deal for him. However, there are other teams seeking centers and the best ones available in free agency are restricted, so the chance to sign one without having to give up any compensation could result in a deal the Packers don't want to pay.

If the Packers put the second-round tender on both Shields and Dietrich-Smith it would cost them $3.2 million in salary cap dollars. They are certain to offer at least the low-round tenders to Crabtree and Francois, which would tack on another $1.7 million. It's doubtful they'll make an offer to Zombo, although they could re-sign him at a lower wage once he becomes a free agent.

After cutting safety Charles Woodson, the Packers are nearly $21 million under the salary cap. That total does not include the restricted free agent tenders, which would count against the cap as soon as the calendar year begins.

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