If Danny Shelton is going to be a first round pick this year — and I’m not convinced — he’ll need to prove he’s more than just a run stuffer.
Remember Louis Nix? About this time last year he was being touted as a likely first round choice. The usual things were said, “there aren’t many people who can do what he can at his size.” In reality, that wasn’t really true. He was pretty average at the combine, carried too much bad weight, had some character concerns and flopped into round three.
There’s a reason the word ‘rare’ is place before the words ‘nose tackle’ when trying to describe the type of player who does go early in the first round. Dontari Poe was the #11 overall pick in 2012. He was 345lbs, 6-3 and looked in terrific shape. He ran a blistering 4.97 at the combine. He really was a freak of nature. That’s your rare nose tackle right there. Not just any type of big guy with production. Recent history shows (more on that later) that there just aren’t that many nose tackles going in the first round.
Shelton is not Poe. Far from it, in fact. He’s 339lbs but looks fatter. Poe is as chiseled as a 345lbs defensive tackle can be. Shelton has a flabby midriff and doesn’t have the same foot-speed or general athleticism. Would anyone be shocked if Shelton’s forty time is nearer to Nix’s 5.42 than Poe’s 4.97?
Of course it’s not just about athleticism. The tape and what you’ve done on the field matters too. He had nine sacks in 2014 and 16.5 TFL’s, which is impressive. But stats can be manipulated any way you want. You can make the case that his production is a major positive. Or you can point out seven of the nine sacks came in the first four weeks against Hawaii, Eastern Washington and Georgia State. In the same three games he had 9.5 of the 16.5 TFL’s. In the PAC-12 he had half a sack against Oregon, half a sack against Washington State and a sack against Arizona. That’s it.
I’ve kept going back to Shelton because it’s almost assumed he’ll be a first round pick. I keep thinking I must be missing something. So I keep looking. After last night’s Citrus Bowl, I think I’m done with my conclusion. I just think he’s overrated.
Oklahoma State didn’t run the ball particularly efficiently last night — they managed less than 4 YPA even if they churned out +160 yards. But every time they ran at Shelton I kept seeing a similar trait. He was being turned, time and time again. It’s subtle. The O-line didn’t use a double team against him, but they found a way to manipulate his body to create space up the middle. Rinse and repeat.
Given his size the very least you want to see from a first round pick at this size is great run defense. He can’t be moved that easily with blocking technique. If he’s going to get moved off the spot, it needs to be because the opponent has keyed in. Double teams, schemes, running away from the inside. Not in the Citrus Bowl. ASU ran up the middle. They ran at Shelton. No answer.
I’ve seen games (eg Hawaii) where he does play with a solid anchor and you see plenty of upper/lower body power. He can play with heavy hands and he can work through traffic to get into the backfield and create a splash. But there are other games where he just looks average or slightly above average. I could live with that if he was an explosive pass rusher, but he isn’t. He just isn’t.
For me he’d be best served losing weight. Get down to 320lbs and play lighter. Gain more mobility. There’s bad weight on that frame that he can shift and not suffer any loss of power. At the moment he looks sloppy (was he asked to gain weight quickly this year?) and wherever he gets drafted — and by whoever — he’s going to go straight on a conditioning program.
Teams can find big-bodied DT’s later on. The pressure to go big early just isn’t there. Look at the first round defensive tackles taken in the last five drafts:
2014 — Aaron Donald, Dominique Easley
2013 — Sheldon Richardson, Star Lotulelei, Shariff Floyd, Sylvester Williams
2012 — Dontari Poe, Fletcher Cox, Michael Brockers
2011 — Nick Fairley, Corey Liuget, Phil Taylor
2010 — Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, Tyson Alualu, Dan Williams
Of the 16 players listed above, Poe, Dan Williams and Phil Taylor are the closest to Shelton in terms of style. We’ve discussed Poe. Williams played lighter and looked better in terms of body shape — he was 6-2 and 327lbs at the combine and ran a 5.19. He was the #26 overall pick in 2010. Taylor was 339lbs but in a different league in terms of athleticism and mobility. He carried the weight superbly and flew around the field — even chasing runners and receivers to the sideline at Baylor. He ran a 5.14 and had length — 34 inch arms and 6-3 in height.
All of the other 13 defensive tackles above were pass rushers or three-techniques. There really isn’t a deep history of big nose tackles going early unless they flash the kind of rare athletic qualities I don’t think we see with Shelton. If he’s going to convince a team to spend a high pick, I think he has to show he is athletic. That he is more than a space-filler. And I’m just not convinced.
You can find two-down tackles and run stoppers later. If you’re going to draft a run-stuffer in round one you pretty much accept you’re taking a player who faces limited snaps every week. What’s more, they don’t necessarily play the money downs. What team in the league is saying today, “if only we had a big fat run stuffer in there?” Very few — and the ones thinking it probably aren’t looking at round one. There are just better ways to spend a first round pick.
For me he’s more likely to follow the path of Notre Dame’s Nix — especially if these quotes, credited to a NFC West scout and reported on NFL.com, have any legitimacy:
“He really scares me because he has major talent, but I also wonder if he’s on his best behavior because it’s a contract year for him. What happens when he signs his contract? Scouts are concerned with Shelton’s personality and work ethic. More than one scout has said the previous coaching staff at Washington had issues with Shelton’s surliness and selfishness. Shelton’s weight has to be monitored in the pros, and he could stand to play with more consistent power, but big nose tackles who can cave pockets and pursue running backs from sideline to sideline are rare. Shelton’s tape will ultimately tell the tale, but if there are worries about his character or work ethic, it could cost him spots in the draft.”
The scout is much higher on Shelton’s potential than I am, but the possible character concerns add a dynamic to this debate. A selfish, surly defensive tackle who needs to monitor his weight isn’t a great combination — and it’s part of what hurt Nix.
Personally I thought Washington’s defensive line appeared more threatening last night when freshman Elijah Qualls spelled Shelton. I’ll just call this as I see it. For me, Shelton is getting pumped up too much by the media. We’ll see how he performs at the combine. We’ll see how the off-season unfolds. It wouldn’t surprise me if, by April, he’s seen as a second or third round option rather than the celebrated first rounder many believe at the moment.
A more likely first round nose tackle for me would be Oklahoma’s Jordan Phillips. He’s leaner, more athletic and has major upside. Expect an excellent work out in Indianapolis. The main concern is an injury history to look into — but he flashed several times during the Sooners’ fast start to 2014.
On the other hand — how good was Dante Fowler Jr today in the Birmingham Bowl? He had three sacks against East Carolina, a couple of QB hits and lined up all over the place. He’s athletic enough to drop into coverage, he can rush the edge and he even has snaps on tape rushing from the inside. He’s a complete defensive player and should be a top-10 pick.