Re-signing Sam Shields won't come cheap for Packers

Sam Shields has been at the bottom of the NFL’s salary rung for four years after entering the league as an undrafted rookie in 2010.

But Shields resisted relative financial security last year when the Packers tried to negotiate a contract extension, and then survived the significant injury risk of playing through 2013.

Now the 26-year-old cornerback no doubt is looking for his reward: a blockbuster payday as a free agent this spring. Which likely is making it difficult for the Packers to re-sign the player who likely is their No. 1 contract priority this offseason.

The Packers have been in contact with his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, this offseason and likely will talk to him at the NFL scouting combine later this month. But Shields will be one of the top cornerbacks available in free agency starting March 11, along with New England’s Aqib Talib, Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner, Indianapolis’ Vontae Davis and Denver’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

“It’s a small class of top cover corners, so (Shields) has a chance to do well,” a pro scout for another NFL team said. “He runs as well as any free agent cornerback.”

Working in Shields’ favor is his youth (26), speed and still-ascending career trajectory. Working against him is the NFL’s relatively flat salary cap, which is expected to rise only slightly from last season’s $123 million to an estimated $126.3 million. A flat cap contributed to a soft free agent market for cornerbacks last spring.

Last year, the four cornerbacks to come out of free agency with the highest-paying contracts were Philadelphia’s Cary Williams ($5.7 million average), Kansas City’s Sean Smith ($5.5 million), New Orleans’ Keenan Lewis ($5.11 million) and San Diego’s Derek Cox ($5 million). Their guaranteed moneyicon1 ranged from $5.75 million to $7.65 million.

The aforementioned scout said Shields is a better pure cover man than any of them, and thus figures to be in line for a better deal. The question is, how much better?

The highest-paid cornerbacks in the league are Tampa Bay’s Darrelle Revis ($16 million average), Denver’s Champ Bailey ($10.6 million), Dallas’ Brandon Carr ($10 million), St. Louis’ Cortland Finnegan ($10 million) and Cincinnati’s Leon Hall ($9.75 million).

Though Shields had his best season last year and led the team in interceptions with four, he doesn’t appear to be in line for that kind of contract.

Shields’ teammate with the Packers, Tramon Williams, ranks No. 8 on that list at an $8.25 million average. In 2014, Williams is scheduled to make $7.5 million in salary and bonuses.

That could be the kind of offer it would take to prevent Shields from testing the free-agent market. A second NFL scout this week guessed that Shields might command as much as an $8.5 million average on the open market.

If the Packers don’t work out a new deal with Shields, they have until March 3 to use the franchise tag on him. However, the tag’s cost could prove prohibitive for general manager Ted Thompson. The NFL has not released tag values yet, but it’s likely to be similar to last year, when the tender for cornerbacks was $10.854 million.

Thompson and team vice president Russ Ball have plenty of salary-cap room — with the rollover of unused money from last season, they have about $26 million in cap space, minus the several million dollars they’ll need to sign rookies. So that could help their chances of signing Shields.

However, Thompson also probably will be looking in the next six to nine months to negotiate expensive contract extensions with receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, who are in the last season of their deals. Plus, Thompson has 17 unrestricted free agents of his own, and if many of those players sign elsewhere, the GM might have to turn more to the free-agent market than he has in the past to replenish high-priority positions.

Thompson’s desire to retain Shields has to be high as he attempts to rebuild a defense that last season ranked No. 25 in yards allowed and tied for No. 24 in points allowed. Shields was one of the defense’s best performers, and Thompson already has holes to fill on that side of the ball at safety, inside linebacker, and probably defensive line and outside linebacker.

If the Packers re-sign Shields, cornerback probably would be the defense’s strongest position. He and Williams would be the outside starters, Casey Hayward the nickel back, and Micah Hyde the likely dime back. Fourth-year pro Davon House would be the No. 5 cornerback.

However, if Shields signs with another team, the Packers probably would look to Hayward to replace him as a starting outside cornerback, which could be a concern because of Hayward’s durability issues — he missed most of last season with a recurring hamstring injury. Then either Hyde or House would be the No. 3 cornerback — if Hyde, he would play the slot corner in the nickel and Hayward would stay outside; if House, he would play the outside in the nickel and Hayward would move to the slot.

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