After the first organized team activity in 2010, Whitt — the Green Bay Packers' cornerbacks coach — had this to say about undrafted rookie cornerback Sam Shields: "Athletically, he's as gifted as anybody in that room, if not the most gifted guy in the room, ability-wise. Very young to football. Doesn't really know football yet. Once he understands it, he's going to be a very good football player."
During the second week of training camp, Whitt continued to praise Shields: "Sam has the skill-set; he's a very talented young man. He's very businesslike. I love his approach. Now, by no means is he where he needs to be but he's on pace. Once he figures it out, he's going to be a very good player in this league — I mean a very good player."
A short time later, Whitt said he had rated Shields as the "most talented" cornerback in the draft. Five cornerbacks were selected in the first round and 33 were taken overall.
Shields, with just one year of experience on defense at Miami, went undrafted after posting zero interceptions and one pass breakup during his one and only season playing on defense at Miami.
What did he see that everybody else missed?
"I learned from my daddy (longtime college coach Joe Whitt Sr.) how to evaluate talent," Whitt said at the time. "Ankle flexion, knee flexion, hip flexion — I look for all those things. I don't look at the scheme and what they do on film. I could care less about that. I know his coordinator down there. I know what they're doing. I want to know if I get him, does he have the skill-set to do what I ask him to do? He bends so easily. He bursts. He can jump. I saw all those things, the way his ankles could bend. I know he's new to the position. I've coached guys that are new to the position before. He's by far the most talented (corner in the draft). Javier Arenas (of the Chiefs) is the best that I saw on film but he doesn't have the talent. This kid has the talent and has a chance to just really be good."
After four seasons filled with big plays and superb coverage — and the occasional mental lapse and missed tackle — Shields was paid like the "very good player" that Whitt saw come out of nowhere in 2010. On the eve of free agency, Green Bay re-signed Shields with a four-year, $39 million contract that included a $12.5 million signing bonus.
"Joe Whitt, my position coach, he was always there from Day 1," Shields said after Tuesday's practice. "He always said he's seen something in me. I give big-ups to him because he's always had faith in me."
Whitt was there every step of the way. Turning receivers into cornerbacks was nothing new for one of the game's best young position coaches. Whitt played receiver at Auburn and spent his first three seasons as a coach working with receivers. Then, in 2003, he was hired by Louisville to coach cornerbacks. He had to learn the position in its "rawest form." He helped send William Gay, Kerry Rhodes and Antoine Harris — three players with backgrounds on offense — to the NFL as defensive backs.
Whitt put that knowledge to work with Shields, but his coaching went beyond technique and the playbook. Whitt was the caring teacher at one moment; the tough taskmaster the next. Whitt believed in Shields so much that he threw him into the lineup for the 2010 opener. The Packers wouldn't have won the Super Bowl without their learning-on-the-fly cornerback joined at the hip by his coach. At the start of training camp in 2012, Whitt benched Shields — forcing him to earn his way back into the lineup. The tough love paid off; Shields played well in 2012 and had his best season in 2013.
"When I came up here (to sign the contract), I went to his office and we talked. He almost cried," Shields said.
For four seasons, potential has been the name of Shields' game. He had so much to learn about the game. He's lived — and sometimes died — on his speed. He clinched a trip to the Super Bowl with two interceptions in the NFC Championship Game at Chicago. He made one of the plays of last season with his remarkable interception in the comeback against Dallas, and he capped the division-clinching win at Chicago with an interception. Including playoffs, he's picked off 17 passes in four seasons. He's also had a bad habit of staring at the action too long in the backfield and getting burned for big pass plays. He's missed 11 games due to injuries, plus lasted just two snaps in last year's playoff loss to the 49ers.
In the NFL, as in all walks of life, money talks. And $39 million speaks with a megaphone. Really, nothing has changed with Shields. He's entering his sixth season as a defensive player. As Whitt said last month, "Sam's best football" is ahead.
"I honestly believe he has two more years of ascending and then he's going to play at that level for another four years," Whitt said. "That's six years of just really good football ahead of him."
Shields agreed. He's got a Super Bowl ring and a monster contract. The Pro Bowl is next on his to-do list.
"It's like I tell everybody, it's just the beginning."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.