The New England Patriots have completed their voluntary offseason workouts and mandatory mini-camp with training camp just around the corner. This is the last break for the players before it is non-stop until January or February. While the media has focused on Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski, the real headliners heading to training camp in July are the new faces in Foxboro.
New England lost a number of valuable players on both sides of the ball in free agency after Super Bowl 52. On offense they lost wide receiver Danny Amendola–a mainstay since 2013–who left for a sizable salary increase in Miami; wide receiver Brandin Cooks was traded for a first-round draft pick; left tackle Nate Solder–a starter at left tackle since Matt Light required after the 2011 season–signed a record-setting contract for tackles with the Giants; and running back Dion Lewis–a key contributor in the second half of 2017–signed with Tennessee for a hefty increase in pay.
On defense, the Patriots lost cornerbacks Malcolm Butler–signing also in Tennessee– and Johnson Bademosi–signing in Houston–leaving New England short a pair of contributors in the secondary. Defensive end James Harrison retired (again) and street free agent defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois also was released.
The New England Patriots needed to use free agency, trades and the NFL Draft to restock the roster after their offseason losses. One of those new faces is Danny Shelton.
Shelton’s NFL Experience
Danny Shelton was a first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2015 NFL Draft (number 12 overall) from the University of Washington. He has started 44 of his 46 NFL games missing only two over three seasons but has just 1.5 sacks and 71 tackles (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted).
His ability to hold his gap and free up edge rushers and linebackers with excellent technique and leverage is what appeals to head coach Bill Belichick. He is excellent in tying up two blockers while holding his ground when double-teamed due his strength and quickness.
His intelligence (three different defenses in three seasons), surprising athleticism and character have allowed him to be a solid–if unspectacular–player in three different schemes.
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Patriots’ Need for Shelton
However, Shelton is first and foremost a run-stuffer in the middle of the defensive line. Look at him to fill the “Vince Wilfork” role on the defensive line.
That run-stuffing ability is vitally important for the Patriots. Last season the Patriots allowed 4.7 yards per rush (second worst in the NFL) and allowed over 1,800 rushing yards. They allowed opponents to rush for more than 100 yards in 11 of 16 regular season games and two of three playoff games.
Take out the pitiful New York Jets running game last year and only one team was held under 80 yards rushing in the regular season. Contrast that to 2016 where the team allowed just 3.9 yards per rush (eighth in the league) and just over 1,400 yards on the ground. The 2016 defense allowed just six teams to rush for over 100 yards in a game and allowed just 263 yards rushing in three playoff games.
The 2017 Patriots went into the season missing massive tackle Vincent Valentine who missed the entire season with a knee injury. Veteran Alan Branch–who had been quietly spectacular in the middle of the defensive line for three seasons–was a no-show on the field in 2017 and played himself off the game-day roster despite being healthy at the end of the season.
The Patriots only had Branch on the field for 274 snaps on defense in 2017, and those were not very effective. Rookie undrafted free agent Adam Butler (473 snaps) and free agent pick-up Lawrence Guy (582 snaps) had to pick-up the slack inside. By the end of the season, street free agent Ricky Jean-Francois took over as the primary interior defensive tackle next to Malcom Brown.
Shelton’s Fit in New England
With a gaping hole next to Brown last season that required New England to look for help in the offseason, the trade for Shelton should help the New England run defense get back to normal. Shelton should slide in next to Brown and form a dynamic one-two punch to stop opposing running backs.
Shelton is massive (six-foot-two and 335 pounds) but failed to make the expected impact in Cleveland over the past three seasons. The Patriots traded a third-round draft pick in 2019 for Shelton and a fifth-round draft pick in 2018 back in March.
Shelton never fit in with the changing defensive schemes in Cleveland. His rookie season saw him trying to get used to Jim O’Neil’s predictable 3-4 defense. The next season, there was a complete turnover on the coaching staff and defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s Dick LeBeau 3-4 hybrid defense.
Last year, the Browns shuffled the defensive personnel for a third straight season and Gregg Williams’ penetrating 4-3 defense was in place and Shelton was no longer a vital cog in the middle of the Browns’ defense.
Shelton turns 25 years old during the preseason and still has room to grow. Perhaps a change of scenery will be a boon to the athletic, young defensive tackle.
Coming to New England he is the expected starter in the middle of the defensive line flanked by Brown and Guy. His lack of penetrating pass rushing fits the Patriots’ defense as well as he should help the edge rushers by occupying multiple blockers and opening up one-on-one opportunities for them.