The Green Bay Packers signed free agent cornerback Sam Shields to a 4-year, $39M contract extension on Saturday, a few days before Free Agentpalooza kicks off on Tuesday. The deal was met with a collective cheer throughout Packer Nation, and with a collective eyebrow-raise throughout the rest of the league. By most accounts, the size of the contract was impressive, though not quite what an NFL elite corner would be expected to garner this offseason. Given that Shields has yet to be named as a Pro Bowl-caliber player, the general consensus has been that general manager Ted Thompson decided to pay Shields for his future growth potential, not necessarily what he’s already proven on the field.
And, in isolation, the contract appears to be a relatively fair one for the impact they hope that he brings to the team, particularly with the strong possibility that Tramon Williams, who is in the last year of his contract, may depart at the end of the 2014 season. He’s a young, up-and-coming player that has solid man-coverage skills, and you can bet another team in dire need of a corner would be willing to invest a sizable portion of their cap into a young player with his prime years ahead of him.
But this isn’t just a signing in isolation for the Green Bay Packers. Every offseason is a grand puzzle that must be carefully measured, with resources allocated in such a way to put the best product out on the field come September. The Shields signing gives the Packers a solid starter for the next few seasons at a position nowhere near as desperate for starters or depth as many others on the defense. Allow me to explain a couple of reasons why I question the prudence of Sam Shields return.
The Tundra Vision Disclaimer:
I am not an NFL GM. I have never been an NFL GM. I have no serviceable experience that would qualify me to become an NFL GM. Therefore, my opinions and observations are based on the same information the rest of us have. However, if you’re going to play the “You’re not an NFL GM, so what do you know?” card, let me remind you that all present NFL GMs aren’t exactly forthcoming on all of their strategies and secrets, and even former GMs are pretty close to the vest. It’s hard to talk about moves the Packers make if no one is allowed to speak unless they are or have been a GM. So, I’m going to express my opinions, and you can take it or leave it. I don’t hate Ted Thompson, want him fired, or think he’s a terrible GM. He made a move I question, and I’m going take 1,000 words or so to clearly explain why.
And, if you have also never been an NFL GM, you also have no idea what you’re talking about and have no idea if I’m right or wrong. Lead by example.
1. The entire defense is broken
In 2013, the Green Bay Packers gave up 26.8 points per game (24th in the NFL), 372 yards per game (25th), allowed 59% of fourth down conversions (25th), allowed opposing quarterbacks a 95.9 passing efficiency rating (25th), forced only 11 interceptions (25th), and gave up 4.6 yards per rush (27th). By nearly every calculable metric, the Packer defense was a bottom-third-in-the-league unit last season. One could easily make the case that, with the experimental data derived from his injury last season, Aaron Rodgers might be the only thing keeping this team over .500.
One can also make the case that Sam Shields, who was the team’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, prevented that defensive unit from being that much worse. However, maintaining the status quo at cornerback isn’t what is going to solve the ailments that this defense suffers from, and I’d even go far as to venture that the Packers have enough talent on the roster at corner to be competitive if the more important areas were addressed.
In a 3-4 defensive scheme, it is critical that the middle of your defense is sound and stout. Your nose tackle has to be strong enough to take on several blockers and collapse the middle of your pocket in order to allow the ends and rush linebackers to make plays. The inside linebackers have to be stout against the run and eat up blockers to, again, allow the outside players to make an impact. And, the safeties have to be strong in their roles: a free safety covers the back half of the field and gets players in position to make plays, while the strong safety plays in the box and checks receivers coming off the field.
All of the players in the middle of the field set the table for the players out the outside to make the plays, and one could make the case that the Packers have the guys on the outside: Clay Matthews, Mike Neal, Shields, Williams, Jolly, and Pickett. But without the guys in the middle doing their job, your impact players (and number of impact plays) suffer.
B.J. Raji was reduced to the impact of an inert dead washing machine this season, and the impact of the pass rush (time in the pocket) and porous run defense has been evident as a result. The expected one-year extension to Raji, as with Shields, does little to improve the real problems that the defense has.
In the interior of the linebacking corps, A.J. Hawk has regressed from his impressive 2010 campaign, while guys like Brad Jones and Nick Perry have proven to be poor replacements for Desmond Bishop. With Mike Neal a free agent, the Packers are already looking at a squad that has more money tied up in it than any other on the team ($18.7M), and conceivably could be looking at upgrading two of four starters.
And, we don’t even need to talk about the debacle of the safety position. There’s so much that needs to be fixed on the defense, but most importantly it needs to be fixed in the right places. Re-signing Shields and hoping he improves the defense is like signing a better quarterback and putting him behind a still-terrible offensive line.
The Packers have $35M in cap space to sign draft picks, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and any of their other free agents from their own roster, as well as the less-likely possibility of signing outside free agents. The investment of $5.6M this year (and more beyond) at a position that’s not nearly as high a need brings us to my next point.
2. Shields is a great player, but not at the price he comes at beyond 2015.
Zach Kruse tweeted last night that Shields was money against some of the receivers he matched up against last season.
A.J. Green, Josh Gordon, Brandon Marshall and Calvin Johnson in 2013 (5 games): Allowed 8 catches, 129 yards, 1 TD.
Zach went on to add that these statistics were derived only from passes targeted at Shields, and that the only receivers who got the best of Sam last season were Anquan Boldin in the opener and Pierre Garcon in garbage time. That’s pretty good in isolation, but still doesn’t place him at an elite level in the league.
Just as important are the final defensive rankings from Football Outsiders, which rank a team’s performance against their #1, #2, and #3 receivers. This season, the Packers didn’t fare so well against opposing team’s No. 1 receivers, ranking 27th overall in the NFL while giving up 80 yards a game. If you counter that perhaps that was Tramon covering the #1 receiver most of the time, the Packers also ranked 27th in the league against the #2 receiver.
Once you get to the Packers performance against the #3 receivers, our defense ranked 10th in the league..but I have a hard time thinking AJ Green, Josh Gordon, Brandon Marshall, and Calvin Johnson are #3 receivers.
The same source that provided Zach’s stats, Pro Football Focus, ranked Shields as the 14th-best cornerback in the league in its coverage snaps-per-reception metric. However, PFF also ranked Shields as the 52nd best overall cornerback in its season-ending rankings…a far cry from a player deserving a franchise contract.
Does this mean he’s terrible? Of course not. We know what we have and know he’s a good cornerback. The problem is that he’s not the answer when it comes to transforming this defense.
Shields expected cap hit this season is only around $5.625M, a figure that has many in Packer Nation cheering that we have him for less than half of what a franchise or transition tag might have cost us. But in 2015, that figure jumps to $9.125M, an amount that almost guarantees the departure of fellow cornerback Williams. In 2016 and 2017, his cap hit will be around $12.125M, just behind Aaron Rodgers ($19.6M) and Clay Matthews ($13.7M).
If the Packers had all the other pieces in place and could afford this contract, this is actually a really good deal. He could be let go after 2015 with only a $6.25M signing bonus acceleration. But again, the feeling of saving money today and kicking the cost/decisions down the road mask the real issues.
3. Moving forward
There comes a time when every team has to face moving on after winning a Super Bowl, and it’s very hard to do so when you are surrounded by players who helped take you to the top of the mountain. With a couple of substandard drafts in recent years, Ted Thompson has to make the moves that will keep this team competitive today and down the road.
It’s a heck of a lot easier when you walk in and you’re evaluating Mike Sherman’s roster. You look objectively at what they have to offer, and look to upgrade wherever you can, whenever you can with your own players. But when you’ve won a Super Bowl, you start keeping players around for perhaps a year too long, like Charles Woodson or Donald Driver.
Look, would I be thrilled with Tramon Williams starting alongside Casey Hayward or Davon House next year instead of Shields? Of course not. Both are oft-injured players who haven’t come close to showing what their real potential might actually be. But if you told me that the Packers were going to turn their attention to getting in a productive ILB, a great FS, and an impact 3-4 defensive lineman (or even played with the idea of a scheme change that would complement that talent on the roster), would the cornerback situation bother me as much? No.
I don’t know why we’d be as concerned about House and Hayward competing for the opposite corner spot, when we appear more than content to have open competition battles every offseason at safety, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and one of the defensive end positions. Add young Micah Hyde in that group, and there’s a chance you have three solid players next season vying for Shields’ spot.
To me, there’s a level of fear. A fear to change a scheme or a defensive coordinator because they won a Super Bowl for you three years ago. A fear to change the script that you’ve followed since then, even if it is no longer making you better.
By signing Shields and Raji, the 2014 Packers haven’t improved over the 25th-ranked unit they were last season (29th according to Football Insider’s DVOA stats, by the way). They’ve maintained the status quo and limited their firepower to improve upon it, not only this season, but down the line.
So, what’s going to change in the defensive kitchen? The cook (Capers) is still wearing the chef’s hat. The recipe (3-4 defense) is still in place. And there’s no change thus far in the ingredients (the players) that will make an immediate impact other than draft picks.
If you do what you’ve already done, you’ll get what you’ve already gotten.
Hey, I’m more than happy to be wrong about Shields. He’s a great kid and deserves a fat contract. I’m proud that he’s a Green Bay Packer and will cheer for him with all my heart, as I always have.
But he’s not the fix this defense needs to help the offense get back to a Super Bowl.
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