One year ago, Jason McCourty and Danny Shelton were as far away from the Super Bowl as players can be: as members of the 2017 Cleveland Browns, they had to live through their team going 0-16 and becoming just the second club in league history to lose all 16 games in a single regular season. And McCourty and Shelton were no bystanders either, they were both core members of the NFL’s second-worst scoring defense.
Shelton was in his third season with Cleveland in 2017. The team had originally selected him 12th overall in the 2015 NFL draft but while he was a solid player and top rotational defensive tackle, he never lived up to the natural hype that comes with that high a draft position. Last year was more of the same for the Washington product: he was serviceable, especially against the run, but unspectacular.
McCourty, meanwhile, had a good first year with the Browns. Cleveland signed the veteran cornerback to a two-year, $6 million free agency contract after the Tennessee Titans had released him after eight seasons. The twin brother of New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty quickly established himself as a starter in Cleveland’s secondary; he finished 2017 with 16 in-game appearances and having played 84% of the team’s defensive snaps.
Both players were core defenders, and both unable to turn the Browns’ fortunes around last season. Fast forward 12 months and they are both preparing to play in the Super Bowl: McCourty and Shelton are now wearing a Patriots uniform, with the defensive back now a de facto starting member of New England’s secondary and the lineman an important yet comparatively rarely used depth player.
Still, both are with the AFC champions after they were acquired during the offseason. New England traded for Shelton shortly before the start of free agency: the team sent a third-round pick to Cleveland for the former first-round draft pick and a fifth-rounder. Five days after bringing Shelton on board, the Patriots made another player who was on the 2017 Browns when they traded for McCourty.
Original reports had Cleveland release the veteran cornerback, but New England jumped in and sent its 2018 seventh-round pick — the 219th overall selection — to the Browns to bring him in and reunite McCourty with his twin brother. Over the next few months, McCourty went from what looked like a cut-candidate to a starter in the Patriots’ secondary; one playing 80% of New England’s defensive snaps.
On Sunday, McCourty will again be a big piece of the Patriots’ defensive puzzle. Shelton will likely not, but at the end of the day he can still do the same as his fellow ex-Brown: literally go from worst-to-first, from a winless team to the possible Super Bowl champions.