Plenty has changed since then.
Today, Shields is 27 and the oldest player in the secondary. He is the wise veteran, the player the others watch, the coach on the field.
It’s a mantle of leadership Shields has embraced. And one that surprised the man who’s coached him since he entered the league in 2010.
“Sam doesn’t say anything now,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said during OTAs. “He is a quiet, quiet guy. But he has talked more. He’s stopped drills. The first time he did it this offseason, I was like, ‘Is Wood here again?’ He stopped the drill like, ‘Joe, let me say something here real quick.’ He said it with such confidence and he showed the guys what he was talking about. He’s consistently been doing that and it’s been really good. The things that he’s been saying are so correct. I might have missed it – the balance in his stance or his first step – and he sees it and says, ‘Joe, his first step was here.’ It’s been really, really good, the details that he’s been helping the young guys with. I’ve been pleased with it.”
Shields will never show up on the public-speaking circuit. But as his career has progressed, he’s gotten more comfortable talking to his teammates in small settings and the media in larger settings. Relayed Whitt’s remarks from two months ago, Shields said it’s part of his continued maturation.
“Just being the oldest guy in the room, things like that I have to do,” Shields said on Monday. “If I see something, I have to correct them, because Coach might not see, or the other players around them might not see it, or they might just not say nothing. Me being the oldest, I have to say something.”
Shields said he didn’t make a conscious decision to try to fill the leadership void by the offseason departure of Williams. Rather, it’s the natural progression that’s part of the revolving door that is an NFL roster. Clearly, he learned well from Woodson and Williams.
“I’ve been here with a whole bunch of vets before,” Shields said. “Seeing what they were doing around here, and just being patient, putting in years – it’s six years now – so I have to do that. It also comes with maturing.”
Coach Mike McCarthy has taken notice. It’s what’s expected in Green Bay, where veterans are usually in short supply on a roster that’s always one of the youngest in the league.
“I think like anything in group dynamics, when I think of leadership, I follow the format of formal and informal leadership opportunities,” Shields said. “There’s informal opportunities, such as Sam reaching out openly on his own to help players, and I think that really comes from his experience as a young player when he was helped by Charles Woodson, Joe Whitt, Tramon Williams. We always look at it as the passing of the torch. Our older players do a great job of helping and mentoring our younger players. And then there’s also the formal approach of leadership where you make someone a captain or you appoint leadership roles for individuals. But informal leadership is a huge part of our development and the culture of our football team, and Sam Shields is an excellent example of it.”
Leadership is good. Performance is better. Without Williams, Shields — a Pro Bowler last season — is going to have to raise his play to a new standard. Stationed at right cornerback throughout his career, Shields has played some on the left side as a potential answer to quarterbacks who typically throw to their right (the defense’s left). There might even be times when Shields is asked to go one-on-one against the opponent’s top receiver.
“Challenge is good,” Shields said. “There’s a lot of challenges in the league. Every down is going to be a challenge. I’m ready for it. I’ve been ready for it.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.