GREEN BAY, Wis. — Sam Shields has accomplished a lot in his four-year NFL career, and it’s hardly been through the traditional route. The most recent item added to Shields’ resume is being viewed — and paid — as a core player with the Green Bay Packers.
That distinction as a "core player" came from head coach Mike McCarthy after Tuesday’s offseason practice, and it’s one that Shields knew was coming when he signed a four-year, $39 million contract with the Packers in March. But for Shields, who four years ago was an undrafted rookie free agent still adjusting to his new position at cornerback, that type of responsibility is fine with him.
"There’s certain things the coaches want you to do now," Shields said. "You’ve got to be that guy to help out the defense."
Shields has been helping out the defense ever since his first NFL game. Despite being No. 9 on the cornerback depth chart when he first arrived in Green Bay in 2010, Shields was on the field as a starter in Week 1 of the regular season that year. His rookie season concluded by intercepting two passes to help the Packers advance to the Super Bowl, which Green Bay won two weeks later.
A Super Bowl ring and a big contract aren’t enough to keep Shields from aspiring for more, though.
"Pro Bowl; that’s the next thing this year," Shields said. "Pro Bowl, get it done. That’d be some good achievements right there. If I keep one day at a time and keep doing what I’ve been doing, it’ll work out."
That’s significant progress for a player who thought he "wasn’t going to make it" in the NFL at all. Shields struggled with understanding the defense as a rookie and admitted that he thought to himself at the time, "Man, it’s not for me." Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt stuck with Shields, though, and it’s really paid off.
Whitt was such a supporter of Shields that when the 26-year-old cornerback signed his new contract with the Packers, it nearly brought a tear to the coach’s eye.
"That was his job, he said, ‘Just getting you paid,’" Shields said of his conversation with Whitt.
Shields insisted that he held back from crying, too, but it’s obvious how influential Whitt has been in his career. Shields even referred to Whitt as "like a father to me; a brother."
"He was always there from day one," Shields said of Whitt. "He always said he’s seen something in me. I give big-ups to him because he’s always had faith in me."
Don’t think that Whitt is done pushing Shields, though.
"He needs to be a top level corner in every aspect of the game, and he has that ability," Whitt said.
With plenty of money in the bank now, Shields isn’t satisfied, either. With 17 interceptions to his name, Shields plans on adding a lot more so that he can earn another contract four years from now when his new one expires.
"It’s just the beginning," Shields said.
It seems very reasonable to believe this really is just the beginning for Shields. It wasn’t until a few months before his senior season that the University of Miami coaching staff saw something in Shields that made them want to switch him from wide receiver to cornerback. Shields initially balked at the idea before eventually giving in. He now has 39 million reasons that prove without a doubt it’s a good thing he listened to the suggestion.
Given Shields’ relative inexperience at cornerback still, it could be a signing that works out great for the Packers long-term.
"Sam’s best football is still in front of him," Whitt said. "I honestly believe he has two more years of ascending and then he’s going to play at that level for another four years. That’s six years of just really good football ahead of him. And by then he’s 32, he might have more.
"I see two more years of getting better and four more of holding that type of high quality play."
Shields acknowledged that he is "still learning" to play cornerback. With increased expectations now on him, Shields had better continue to learn quickly.
"The reality of it is Sam is now looked on as one of our core players, so he’ll step up and play accordingly," McCarthy said.
Last offseason as a restricted free agent, Shields wanted to get paid like a core player then. It didn’t happen, leading to him accepting a restricted free-agent tender for slightly more than $2 million that he wasn’t all that happy about.
"I just kept doing what I had to do," Shields said. "It was different things that they needed me to do to get paid, and I corrected that and did it."
Shields wanted to remain with the Packers, and that worked out for him. Now Green Bay hopes that its big-money investment in Shields turns out to be the right move.
"I think Sam Shields has earned this opportunity," McCarthy said.