Imig: Packers wise to re-sign Shields, even at that price

Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields (left) intercepts a pass in front of Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin on Dec. 15, 2013. The Packers beat the Cowboys 37-36.

Tim Heitman/Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

GREEN BAY, Wis. — It came at a higher price tag than most expected, but the Green Bay Packers just couldn’t afford to lose Sam Shields.

As one of the team’s best defensive players on a defense that has plenty of issues to fix, not re-signing Shields would have been a step in the wrong direction. Yes, the safety position was a much bigger problem this past season than cornerback, and the Packers need upgrades at defensive line, inside linebacker and outside linebacker, but a team doesn’t get better by waving goodbye to one of its most productive players. Especially after Shields put together the best season of his career and became the type of player who couldn’t simply be replaced by the next man up.

While some projected Shields to only warrant an annual average salary around $7 million as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, that number always seemed low. Four years and $39 million is a negotiating victory for Shields and his agent Drew Rosenhaus, but it’s still a good deal for the Packers.

Shields is only 26 years old. Undrafted in 2010, he’s improved every season so far in the NFL. He went from being a fast, undersized rookie cornerback with holes in his game to a well-rounded player with very good coverage skills who is still very fast and has found ways to make his 5-foot-11, 184-pound frame a non-issue in most situations. He also has a developing skill set that could quite possibly lead to him soon taking another big step in progression: becoming a lockdown cornerback who opposing quarterbacks avoid throwing near.

That’s why it’s important to recognize that the Packers aren’t paying him all of this money for his past production. Not that his four seasons of work aren’t impressive, with 17 career interceptions and a steady flow of pass breakups. But general manager Ted Thompson and his staff are looking forward, analyzing what they believe Shields will become during the length of this new contract. And there is plenty of evidence on film to justify that strong belief in Shields.

Assuming Green Bay keeps Tramon Williams’ contract as is ($7.5 million in 2014, the last year of the deal), the Packers’ starting cornerbacks will combine to make more than $22 million next season. But, to not re-sign Shields and then lose the soon-to-be 31-year-old Williams a year from now could turn cornerback from a position of strength to a depleted group.

Thompson has managed Green Bay’s salary cap so well that he’s put the franchise in a position to be able to re-sign Shields, even when the dollar figure rose above the level that the Packers would have preferred. To already have had the team’s two best players — Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews — locked into long-term contracts and be $33 million under the cap is enough to make the rest of the league envious.

This deal for Shields doesn’t jeopardize current or future cap room, either. With $12.5 million paid as a signing bonus to Shields, the 2014 cap number for him is expected to be around $6 million. That means there’s still more than enough remaining to be spent elsewhere.

Shields was one of 17 unrestricted free agents on Green Bay’s roster, but he was by far the top priority among them. Now that he’s been taken care of, Thompson can begin to examine other important decisions. If defensive lineman B.J. Raji gets a better offer from another team, will the Packers attempt to compete with that or will they allow their 27-year-old former first-round pick to leave? Is James Jones worth re-signing, or has Jarrett Boykin done enough to be the No. 3 wide receiver next season? How much is too much for Mike Neal given that he’s still learning a new position and has an injury history? Is Evan Dietrich-Smith good enough to get a new contract, or will Rodgers have to work with a fourth center in four seasons? Did Green Bay view Matt Flynn as just the perfect midseason replacement quarterback or has he convinced the team that he should be Rodgers’ backup forever?

Also not to be forgotten is that wide receivers Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson have contracts that expire at the end of the 2014 season, so it would certainly be wise to get those two settled sooner than later.

But, first things first. Retaining Shields was a must for the Packers. Now that Green Bay knows it won’t lose one of its best defensive players, Thompson can turn his attention to trying to add players around Shields who could help turn around the NFL’s 25th-ranked defense.

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