GREEN BAY, Wis. — The battle for the two starting cornerback spots in the Green Bay Packers’ secondary is down to just one available job. After weeks of consistent production and gaining the complete trust of the coaching staff, Sam Shields has played his way into the starting lineup.
“The way (Shields) has practiced and the way he’s done it has been so clean, it’d be hard for me to believe that he’s not going to be one of those two, if not the top one,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said Wednesday. “It’d be hard for me to believe that. Just the way that he’s performed and the things that he’s done.”
Whitt initially hesitated before offering that response. He was the one who declared it an open competition several months ago. But there was no sense in Whitt holding off any longer on the decision to all but officially confirm Shields as one of the starters.
“I have 100 percent confidence in Sam’s ability,” Whitt said. “Now he has to go do it and do it for every game, but Sam has progressed and is where I think he should be.”
Shields hasn’t been told directly that he’s locked up a starting role. And that’s the way he prefers it.
“It’s not promised that it’s my job because you’ve got a lot of guys that are real good players that can be on the 53-man roster that can start,” Shields said. “In my mind, I don’t want to get that comfort level and say ‘this is my job’ and stop. You’ve got other guys that are working behind me that are good players.
“I’m not going to sit here and say this is my starting position. I’ve still got to grind each and every day. That’s what I’m going to continue to do. I’m at the one right now, and hopefully I can keep grinding like I’ve been doing and keep it.”
Shields has good reason to be somewhat hesitant when hearing a lot of praise. Three years ago, he wasn’t even one of the 255 players drafted in his class. But he worked his way onto Green Bay’s roster as an undrafted free agent and has become a very important part of the Packers’ defense.
When Shields lines up outside for the first snap of Green Bay’s Week 1 regular-season matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, it won’t be his first time in that situation. He’s already started 25 games in his NFL career, including 10 games last season.
The uncertainty for whether Shields would start this season had more to do with the talent surrounding him in the cornerbacks room. Shields had five interceptions and 14 passes defensed last year, both of which were especially good numbers considering he missed six games with an ankle injury.
However, with veteran Tramon Williams on board for his eighth season with the Packers and 2012 second-round pick Casey Hayward coming off a season in which he finished third in the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year race, Shields would be challenged. Add in 24-year-old Davon House, who was on his way to winning a starting job last season before a shoulder injury, plus drafting Micah Hyde in the fifth round, Whitt had plenty of players in his group who could push each other for snaps.
Perhaps unsure of whether Shields would be able to fend off all that internal competition, Green Bay’s front office opted not to re-sign him to a long-term contract extension this past offseason. Instead, Shields begrudgingly accepted — after skipping organized team activities practices — a second-round tender offer that will make him an unrestricted free agent after this season.
“I’ve got a family to take care of, that’s the main focus,” Shields said. “If I just keep doing what I’ve been doing, things will happen; good things will happen.”
It’s not that Shields feels unwanted by the only NFL team he’s ever played for. He said he loves the Packers and that the feeling seems mutual.
“We decided, me and my agent, with the second-round tender, we just said to ourselves, ‘hey, we’ll just grind this year and let our play speak for itself,” Shields said.
Though Shields will be a starter and might even be No. 1 on the depth chart, Whitt has a different plan for the cornerbacks this season. Unlike his first four years as Green Bay’s cornerbacks coach, Whitt is not going to match his unit’s top player with the opposing team’s best wide receiver.
“I want to go left and right and make sure that you have the ability to handle the guy that comes to your side,” Whitt said. “Now, if we get into a situation where a guy can’t handle him, we’ll definitely match. But as of right now, we’re going to play left and right and not match.”
Shields will likely wind up as the right-side cornerback, but that could change depending on who the other starter is.
“Most of Sam’s impactful plays have come from the right,” Whitt said. “I would prefer to keep him on the right. Tramon has played so much on the left because ever since he came in playing nickel (in 2007), Al (Harris) was the right corner and so Tramon has been working on the left. If it’s that combination, I don’t know. If it’s House and Sam, Sam might move over to the left. We have time to figure that out with the combinations. It could be Sam and Casey. I don’t know what combinations it will be right now.”
Shields doesn’t care which side he plays. He’s just happy that he’ll have a chance this season to guard a few of the NFC North’s top receivers, such as Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and former teammate and new-Vikings wideout Greg Jennings.
“It’s an opportunity for me to guard these guys and just get a chance to get that confidence, just have that confidence knowing I can stick whoever comes to my side,” Shields said. “Just go out there and do what I’ve been doing.”
Whitt is a big believer in Shields. Though Whitt stated that Shields sometimes doesn’t say more than three words in a cornerback meeting, he describes him as the group’s best note-taker.
Now, Whitt is preparing for the work he’s seen done to translate into a breakout season for Shields.
“If he plays like he’s been practicing, big things will happen for him,” Whitt said.