Packers' Shields has more than surpassed expectations

Posted Feb. 03, 2011 @ 4:52 p.m.
Posted By Eric Edholm

LAS COLINAS, Texas — The word value has several definitions, and the Packers' Sam Shields is doing his best to corner the market on as many of them as he can.

One definition: A fair return or equivalent for goods, services or money. As a rookie, Shields has gone from undrafted project to key component of a very good Packers defense. That's value.

Another meaning: To rate or scale in usefulness or importance. For the answer to how Shields factors into this defense, listen to the slackjawed words of Packers assistant head coach Winston Moss: "His development is just … it's sick what he has been able to do. He's played about 800 snaps this year as an undrafted free agent."

Shields played wide receiver his first three seasons at Miami (Fla.), catching 75 passes and seven TDs. He and some of his teammates were messing around in spring practice before his senior season, with defensive backs playing receiver and receivers playing DB. Apparently, Shields had some natural skill to it.

"The coaches were watching," he said. "(Miami DB coach Wesley) McGriff came to me and said, 'You're a cornerback.' But I had never played defense before. So Coach (Randy) Shannon came to me and asked me if I wanted to move, and I was like, 'I'll think about it.'

"He gave me time to think about it. I made the decision on my own. I was like, 'Yeah I'll go over there and help out.'"

Shields always had speed — his fastest 40-yard time was 4.26 seconds. But he had no idea about coverage or technique playing defensive back. The coaches kept it simple and limited him to press coverage. He started 10 games and attracted some attention, enough to the point where he was being viewed as a late draft pick in 2010.

But as went home to Sarasota to visit his 4-year-old daughter, Samyla, Shields got himself into a bad situation. He was in the house with some family members who were in possession of marijuana and was arrested. It came right before his Pro Day, which was expected to be his big stage prior to the draft. The timing was awful.

Although the charges later were dropped, some teams red-flagged Shields as a character concern. All seven rounds passed without Shields being taken. Several teams called right after the draft, including the Bears, Lions, Giants and Saints, but Shields signed with the Packers because his agent thought Al Harris might be released, which would open up a CB spot on their roster.

If it were up to Packers DB coach Joe Whitt Jr., though, the Packers would have taken Shields in the second or third round. He saw that much raw, untapped ability in the young corner.

"I graded 28 corners coming out in the draft. I had him ranked No. 6," Whitt said. "The only reason I had him sixth was because he had only played one year. The scouting department didn't have him as high. But when I looked at him, I would have taken him in the second or third round. Easy. He's the better talent of any of those guys who went in the first round. Just talent, I am talking."

Better than first-rounders Devin McCourty or Joe Haden, each of whom intercepted five passes?

"Yes, he's a better talent than any of those guys. He's not a better football player, but a better talent."

Talent was one thing. The Packers saw they might have something special — and yes, blazing fast — early on, but they knew they had to teach him Coverage 101. They started with the basics and built him up.

"I have had history with changing receivers to corners; I did it at Louisville," Whitt said. "We started Day One and learned just base defense: This is what quarters coverage is, this is what cover-2, this is what it means … and let's go from there.

"I told some of my friends, 'If Sam can't play, it's going to be my fault.' He hasn't really been taught anything but press. Not saying anything about their coaches there (in Miami); they just didn't ask him to do much. But we ask him to do a lot, so it was just my opportunity to make him play well or mess him up, one of the two."

Impressing the DB coach was one thing, but Shields needed to convince the big man he could play, too. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers — a man who knows a thing or two about defensive backs — runs a tricky, intricate, multilayered scheme, and the Packers had some players with far more experience than Shields ahead of him on the depth chart.

Capers, too, was intrigued early on.

"He was raw. You could see he had a long ways to go," Capers said. "But every day in practice during training camp he would make one play that would catch your eye and you would go in with a smile on your face. You thought, once it kicks in with this guy, he has what you can't give him as a coach.

"The thing I was impressed with was he was very serious in meetings. He would sit there and would not say a word. He would absorb everything and you could see him improve."

One trick to help Shields cram was with flash cards. Whitt would quiz him over and over until the coverages became rote. And when Whitt wasn't peppering him, veteran CBs Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson gave the rookie advice.

"They were willing to help any way they could. I went to them like a man and asked them — I needed help learning things.

"We stayed up late a lot, and I kept doing it and learning it every night. It paid off."

Slowly but surely, Shields was passing corners on the depth chart quicker than anyone expected. In a preseason game against the Colts, the Packers' coaches decided to throw him into the fire, asking him to cover Colts WR Pierre Garcon, another rags-to-riches story. Shields shut him down. He had a great preseason, and the Packers made a decision: Shields would be their nickel corner to start the season.

This is big news on any team, but the Packers have come to rely on their subpackages more than almost any NFL team. Whitt estimates that they are not in their base defense about 70-75 percent of the time. The Packers knew Shields would have to do some tough learning on the job and that opponents would take notice of him on the field.

"We knew people would go after an undrafted corner. He stood up to that test and really has played his best football the past five or six games. The experience is really starting to pay off for him," Capers said.

And the NFC title game might have been Shields' finest hour. He intercepted two passes — one on a deep ball in Bears territory when Shields was singled up on Johnny Knox and one with 37 seconds left as the Bears were driving for the game-tying score.

Whitt might not have been thrilled that Shields ran with the ball after the second interception, instead of just falling on it, but that was on the rookie at that point.

"They all understand if they made the decision to run with that ball, they better not fumble it," Whitt said.

Shields did not, and the Packers advanced to their first Super Bowl in 13 years. He likely will see a lot of Mike Wallace, who, like Knox, has true 4.3 speed. Shields comes on the field as the right corner, which moves Woodson into the slot and allows the Packers to be far more diverse defensively. Woodson now can blitz, drop into a zone, cover the tight end (although ILB Desmond Bishop does this more now) or man up against the slot receiver.

Shields has been in awe of the Super Bowl pageantry all week. He's shocked by all the attention and still can't help but think back to his decision to play a little cornerback after spring practice. He looks nearby to Williams, another former undrafted corner who has been at his side nearly all season, and has a ready-made role model to follow on a daily basis.

"Talking with him and him having a similar situation, not getting drafted, having a chip on his shoulder," Shields said, "it has all helped me see what I want to be."

Whitt said having Williams there is the perfect teaching tool.

"I tell him, 'Look at Tramon. That's going to be you," Whitt said. "You're going to do the things that Tramon has done. You're just going to do it a little bit faster.'"

Shields just shakes his head and smiles when asked if he can believe he's here, getting ready to play on football's biggest stage. Did he surprise even himself? "Oh yeah," he said.

That's humility. Just one more thing the Packers value very much about their prized rookie find.