But last year, when the Green Bay Packers cornerback scanned the meeting room, he realized that at age 27 (he turned 28 late in the final month of the regular season) he had inherited the role of elder statesmen among them.
He didn’t exactly handle it the way natural leaders like Woodson and Williams did, though. Instead, he deferred to Casey Hayward, two years his junior and two seasons less experienced.
“Sam doesn’t talk,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said late last season. “There’s only two vets in there -- Sam and Casey. Sam doesn’t say two words.”
None of that should surprise anyone who’s spent any time around Shields. Always polite but rarely expansive in his comments, Shields might finally be ready to speak up now that Hayward is gone, too. He signed with the San Diego Chargers in free agency. Other than Demetri Goodson, a 27-year-old backup, Shields is at least three years older than every cornerback in Whitt’s meeting room.
“It’s been a fast journey,” Shields said after an OTA practice last week. “This thing has flown by. Wood and all them, they used to tell me it was going to go by [quickly]. My most important part is just staying healthy, staying consistent and helping these young guys out.”
Shields missed five games last season (one because of a shoulder injury and four because of the concussion he sustained when his head slammed into the turf in Week 14 against the Cowboys). He finally returned for the NFC divisional playoff loss at Arizona. He might have been the hero of that game had he not dropped an interception at the Cardinals’ 3-yard line in the fourth quarter.
It capped a bounce-back year for Shields, who, in 2014, did not live up to the four-year, $39 million contract he signed the previous offseason. Shields tied for the team lead with three interceptions and ranked second in pass breakups despite missing a quarter of the season.
“Sam, you can definitely put him in that shutdown corner category,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said this offseason. “Man-to-man, Sam can matchup with anybody. He just had that injury situation. He missed some time, but we’re a different defense when he’s on the field.”
Shields might be ready to be a different kind of teammate off the field, too. Last season, he took LaDarius Gunter, who -- like Shields -- was an undrafted free agent cornerback from Miami, under his guidance. He said he told Gunter that the way to make the roster was on special teams because they were so deep at cornerback. Sure enough, Gunter made the team coming out of training camp.
Just don’t expect Shields to all of a sudden become a rah-rah guy. That might never be his style.
“Being quiet and just doing what you’ve got to do,” Shields said of his approach.