For now over a year, the Green Bay Packers and the representatives of free agent cornerback Sam Shields have been unable to find common ground on a new deal that would keep the emerging 26-year-old in Green Bay long term.
The disconnect may lead to a dissolution of the relationship come March 11, the first day of free agency.
Just last June, Shields and agent Drew Rosenhaus picked signing his one-year restricted tender from the Packers—worth $2.023 million—over working out a multi-year deal. Now, after betting on himself and winning during another contract year, Shields is looking to truly gauge his value as an unrestricted free agent.
According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, Shields and the Packers will not complete a deal before the start of unrestricted free agency. The cash-rich open market awaits.
The Packers are now looking at some hard decisions on how much they actually value their young, home-grown cornerback.
Remember, this is a franchise built from the ground up on a draft-and-develop philosophy instilled by general manager Ted Thompson. At the very core of this team-building strategy lies the retainment of players who have worked through the Packers system and later developed into assets. Those players earn second contracts and become core players.
Shields fits the description.
The Packers plucked the long, wiry Shields out of college free agency in 2010, when the former Miami receiver-turned-cornerback went undrafted despite blazing speed and off-the-charts athleticism. At his pro day in March 2010, Shields ran the 40-yard dash in 4.30 seconds, posted a 39" vertical and did 15 reps on the bench press, per Jorge Milian of the Palm Beach Post.
Green Bay gave him his first NFL chance and he eventually stuck. Shields would later become a key part of the Packers' run to Super Bowl XLV, playing major snaps late in his first season. He has since slowly emerged as a borderline No. 1 cornerback, with his speed, length and playmaking making him an ideal boundary defender.
Thompson and the Packers would typically have a player like Shields already under contract, well before the negotiations could get to the point where the possibility of losing the player became this real. There are countless examples of Green Bay giving out second contracts well in advance of the expiration of the first, such as Jordy Nelson in 2011 and Morgan Burnett just last summer.
Source: Pro Football Focus
But the Packers also don't care to saddle themselves with an outrageous contract. Overvaluing a player can complicate the salary cap, especially with mega deals already in place with Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews.
Finding the middle ground between a team-friendly deal and an overbearing player's deal has always been the goal. But here the Packers sit, in March of 2014, essentially in the same spot as a year prior, but without the security of a restricted tender.
Several aspects of the negotiations could be preventing a deal before free agency.
How much is Sam Shields worth per year?
For starters, the numbers on the table obviously aren't matching up.
As a former undrafted free agent, Shields has made less than $4 million in total salary over his first four NFL seasons. He's likely viewing free agency as his first opportunity to break the bank and create a lifetime of financial security. No one can blame him for wanting to maximize his return on his first big professional deal.
And Rosenhaus, his experienced agent, can likely see the $133 million salary cap in 2014 and predict a much better market for cornerbacks—especially, young, ascending ones such as Shields—than in recent years, when the cap stagnated.
He got evidence of that on Monday, when 30-year-old cornerback Brent Grimes received $32 million over four years from the Miami Dolphins, with half ($16 million) guaranteed. It would be easy for Rosenhaus to see Grimes' deal, worth $8 million per season, and expect something similar or more.
In fact, Shields' team could look at any number of deals dotting the top of the cornerback pay scale and see the framework for a deal on the open market.
Brandon Carr got an average of $10.02 million on the five-year deal he signed in 2012. Lardarius Webb is making $8.33 million on his current deal. Even Tramon Williams, a fellow undrafted free agent who blossomed with the Packers, received $8.25 million on his most recent contract.
In fact, all 12 of the highest paid players at the position make more than $8 million per season. At just 26 years old, and coming off his best season, Shields wouldn't be at all crazy to expect to enter that group with his deal.
The Packers likely don't want to pay such a steep price. Thompson already passed on giving Shields the expensive franchise tag, at a cost of $11.8 million, which we predicted in this space a couple weeks back.
Eventually losing Shields in free agency would still be a hammer blow to the Packers, who are short on defensive playmakers and tall on needs. His departure would immediately create a hole at cornerback, one that Thompson might considering using a top pick to fill during May's draft. While Williams is likely one starter outside, and Casey Hayward will be expected to return to his role covering the slot, Davon House is too inconsistent to be trusted in a full-time role and Micah Hyde might have a transition to safety in his future.
If contract talks continue to stall, the Packers will have to bank on the open market helping to drive down Shields' cost. While maybe optimistic thinking, the crop of free-agent cornerbacks is relatively deep, with several starting-level players likely to be available.
Both Rotoworld and Pro Football Focus rank Shields as only the sixth best corner on the market. Those headed for free agency include Alterraun Verner, Aqib Talib, Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Walter Thurmond III, Tarell Brown, Charles Tillman and Captain Munnerlyn, among others.
Also helping the Packers' case is a loaded class of incoming college cornerbacks. It's a deep, talented group, highlighted by potential top-50 picks in Justin Gilbert, Kyle Fuller, Darqueze Dennard, Bradley Roby and Jason Verrett.
Simple economics says that an increase in supply will hurt demand and lower prices. But the Packers must also be cognizant of the fact that it takes just one team falling in love with Shields and offering the deal he wants for any hope of a return to fly out the window.
It's the kind of tightrope act rare to the Packers.
Eventually, the question of whether or not Shields returns could become a simple one. Will the Packers pony up and pay Shields, using up part of the nearly $35 million in cap room available to Thompson this offseason? Or will the Packers stick to their guns, much like they have for the last year, and hope the market treats Shields poorly, even at the risk of losing him?
Shields has made it clear he wants to gauge his own value. Now it's the Packers' turn to look at the situation and establish just how valuable keeping their diamond in the rough in Green Bay really is.