Most Important Packers: No. 17 -- Sam Shields
Green Bay Packers beat writer Paul Imig will be analyzing the 25 most important players to the Packers' success in the 2013 season. Check back each day to see the latest player on the list.
Note: This is not a list of the team's 25 best players or a series about past success, but rather which of them means the most to how Green Bay will fare this year. Criteria such as depth at that player's position, general expectations and overall importance of that player having a good season are all highly considered.
25 (will turn 26 in December) / Fourth NFL season
Undrafted in 2010, Shields has quickly become one of the major success stories for players who don't hear their name called in Rounds 1-7. Shields has already started 21 games in his three-year career and has nine interceptions. Last season, had Shields not suffered an injury that kept him sidelined for six games, he'd likely have higher totals in both of those categories.
Shields has great speed. Everyone from NFL scouts to the most casual Packers fan knows that. But that shouldn't cloud the fact that Shields has become very good in coverage for more than just that reason. Though he's undersized at 5-foot-11 and 184 pounds, Shields stays with wide receivers step for step and rarely gets caught out of position. His tackles-to-missed-tackles ratio from last season (28:5) is too high, but Shields made up for it in other ways. The data and analysis from ProFootballFocus.com graded Shields as allowing 26 receptions on 57 targets (45.6 percent) with an opponent quarterback rating of only 57.1.
Shields, like Casey Hayward, would be ranked much higher on this list if it wasn't for the terrific depth that Green Bay has at cornerback. It should be reassuring to Packers fans to know that the team has four starting-caliber cornerbacks on the roster (Shields, Hayward, Tramon Williams, Davon House). Even if two of them get injured or struggle, there's two others capable of stepping in with little dropoff in production.
Shields has been fairly consistent in his first three NFL seasons, but 2012 was his best overall year. Even if Shields doesn't take another step in improvement and last season becomes the best of what he can be, it still qualifies him as one of the league's better cornerbacks.
For the Packers, the expectation for Shields is that he wins a starting job. He's in that important stage of his career where he's no longer considered a young player, but he's also not yet reached veteran status. At this point, Shields can't afford to have his play regress.
Shields didn't hide his displeasure that he didn't "get paid" with a multi-year contract extension this offseason, instead accepting Green Bay's one-year tender offer for $2 million. Shields was the only player who chose not to show up for the Packers' voluntary offseason training activities, which coach Mike McCarthy wasn't thrilled about. While negotiations could continue on that front, Shields will need to have another good season to prove to general manager Ted Thompson that he's worth making one of the team's core players beyond 2013.
A season with 12-16 starts, four interceptions and fewer missed tackles is a fair overall expectation for Shields this upcoming season.
Shields will have little room for error with Hayward, Williams and House battling with him every day in practice and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt describing it as an open competition for the starting spots. If Shields gets off to a slow start in training camp, his absence during OTAs will be one easy place to look back at as putting him at a disadvantage.
While the Packers lack depth at positions like outside linebacker and safety, Thompson and his front-office staff deserve a lot of credit for the group of cornerbacks they've added to the roster. As if Shields, Williams, House and Hayward aren't already a very good collection of talent, Green Bay drafted Micah Hyde in the fifth round in April.
If Shields fails to win a starting job in 2013, he may never get a chance to recover. Already looking for a big contract and in the last year of his current deal with the Packers, this season will determine whether Shields' days are numbered in Green Bay or if he becomes a long-tenured, core-type player on the roster.
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