GREEN BAY, Wis. - What's Sam Shields truly worth? Apparently, we're about to find out.
According to multiple reports, the unrestricted free agent cornerback is headed to the open market. Whether he winds up back with the Green Bay Packers remains to be seen.
Pro Football Talk and ESPN's Adam Schefter each reported Saturday that the Packers and Shields had been unable to reach an agreement on a long-term deal and that Shields would test the market. As an unrestricted free agent, Shields can begin talking to other teams on March 8 and the market will open on March 11. Both PFT and Schefter cited an unnamed league source.
It's hard to say exactly how it played out, but here's a pretty good guess: The Packers and agent Drew Rosenhaus knew they weren't making enough progress to get a long-term deal done before Monday's franchise-tagging deadline, the Packers informed Shields and Rosenhaus that they wouldn't be applying the $11.8 million cornerback franchise tag, and away it went. It's hard to imagine general manager Ted Thompson or someone in the Packers camp leaking that information. Perhaps Shields' reps are hoping the news pushes the Packers' offer up before the market opens.
The NFL set the 2014 salary cap at $133 million on Friday, which means the Packers have more than $34 million in cap room after carrying over $9.8 million in leftover 2013 cap space. Shields is one of 17 Packers unrestricted free agents, a list that also includes defensive linemen B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson, starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith and wide receiver James Jones.
At age 26, Shields is still an ascending player and having entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Miami (Fla.) and playing last year for the $2.2 million restricted free-agent tender, you can't blame him for shooting for the financial stars.
However, there are a number of other attractive veteran cornerbacks headed for free agency, including Brent Grimes, Aqib Talib and Vontae Davis.
After the season, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt had high praise for Shields, saying: "I think he's one of our top 1-2 guys on defense, in my opinion. So he's important to us.
"When he first came in, he was a receiver playing corner. Now he is a defensive back and a very good one. So there's just a huge, huge difference. He's shown the ability to tackle – which, he needs to tackle better than he did this year, but he showed really that last year. The ability to cover No. 1 receivers, the ability to challenge them, the ability to get the ball every time his hands touch it, he's just really come a long way. And his best football's still in front of him. That's the encouraging thing. You haven't seen his best football yet."
In the next breath, however, Whitt made it clear that he believes Casey Hayward, who missed all but three games of his second NFL season because of a recurring hamstring injury, can play outside at corner. The Packers' top cornerbacks under contract are Tramon Williams, Hayward, Micah Hyde, Davon House, Jarrett Bush and Jumal Rolle.
"Casey showed me in the offseason that he can play both. That he is an every-down, outside guy," Whitt said. "When we go three corners, he is going to be the nickel. He will be the inside guy. But when we go two guys outside, he showed the ability he can do that. It's just unfortunate the hamstring issue happened this year and he wasn't able to show what he can do and help this defense.
"[Hyde] is a guy who can play the nickel and dime, he can play outside as well. There's just some other guys outside right now that are ahead of him, that's why he gets so much inside play. … [And] Davon is still a developing player. He had some very good plays, he had some plays that we wish we could have back. This is a big offseason for him. He needs to take the next step to be the player he can be. He has a really good skillset, and he needs to max that out. that's what it's all about, making sure you max that out."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.