GREEN BAY - Joe Whitt isn't afraid of making bold statements, and given the Green Bay Packers cornerbacks coach's track record, perhaps people should take him at his word when he talks about undrafted rookie free agent Sam Shields.
Before the season, Whitt told anyone who'd listen that Tramon Williams - not Charles Woodson, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year; not Al Harris, a two-time Pro Bowler coming off a major knee injury - was the team's best cover cornerback. After nine games, what sounded like blasphemy at the time has become abundantly clear, with Williams making a strong case for the Pro Bowl and a lucrative long-term contract extension.
So when Whitt was asked recently about the raw-but-talented Shields, who went undrafted this spring after spending the first three years of his college career at Miami (Fla.) playing wide receiver and had just 10 games of cornerback experience as a senior for the Hurricanes, Whitt's reply was just as emphatic.
"Write this down," Whitt said of Shields, the Packers' No. 3 cornerback in their nickel defense. "Sam is going to be one of the top corners in this league in two years."
That's heady stuff for someone with Shields' thin cornerback resume, but with the Packers' releasing Harris, whom they waived off the physically unable to perform list Nov. 8, spoke even louder than Whitt's words.
"I don't think anybody can stand here and say Sam Shields was going to be your starting corner in Week 10, especially the way he arrived here as a free agent," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this week, as his team prepared for Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings. "But you never questioned the ability. You could see that from Day 1. He's a young man that's been very thorough, very coachable, very detailed in everything he's doing. He has a tremendous upside, and we're excited about the progress he's made."
Much of the credit for that goes to Whitt, who was at his wits' end when he found that Shields had no idea how to watch film, learn defenses or prepare for games at the cornerback position. So Whitt began at, well, the beginning.
"He had no clue. Trust me, no clue," Whitt said bluntly. "There was one day, I almost lost my mind."
To teach Shields, Whitt went back to an approach he used as an assistant at Louisville, where he helped turn two former offensive players - Arizona Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes and Philadelphia Eagles safety Antoine Harris - into NFL-caliber defensive players.
"Basically, I got flash cards. I drew a formation on one side, I drew the check on the back side, just like you do in school," Whitt explained. "The next day, I come in, he has a stack of flash cards, two inches deep, and he has everything on it. And from that day on, it was a total transformation because he understood the defense from that day on because he understood how to study."
Shields has been a quick study. In the Packers' 45-7 victory over Dallas before their bye week, Shields got his first NFL interception (an acrobatic one-handed catch) and, while also responsible for the Cowboys' only touchdown, proved once again on a big stage that the job isn't too big for him. In fact, his play solidified the Packers' difficult decision to sever ties with Harris, a 13-year veteran who'd started 106 career games in Green Bay and wound up with the Miami Dolphins.
"Back when we started training camp, not many people knew who Sam Shields was, and I didn't know much about Sam Shields. But we thought he had potential, and he's continued to make improvement," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "We've played nine games with him out there now, and that's a tough position to stick a rookie out there because everybody in the National Football League knows."
Whitt isn't the only one who's worked extensively with Shields. On Tuesdays, the players' day off, Shields watches film with Woodson. In addition, Shields has gone from a shaky returner - another job he had next to no experience with when camp began - who couldn't catch the ball consistently to the team's primary kickoff returner, with a 49-yard runback against the Cowboys.
It's all part of Shields' wise-beyond-his-years approach and constant growth.
"I'm still learning. But each day, I'm getting better and better. Each game, I'm getting better and better," Shields said. "I've got to continue to keep doing that.
"If I keep working at staying focused, I can be that guy."
Note: The Packers listed fullback Korey Hall (back), defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle) and wide receiver Donald Driver (quadriceps) as questionable after Pickett and Driver were limited in practice and Hall did not participate Friday. McCarthy said Pickett and Driver will be evaluated today to determine if they're fit to play against the Vikings, but the coach sounded encouraged that both will play.