When free agency began, Danny Shelton generated little initial interest and had to wait more than two months to find a team. Ultimately, he returned to the same one with which he had spent the 2018 season and won his first Super Bowl ring: in late May, the New England Patriots re-signed him to a one-year deal worth $1.0 million that included minimal guarantees — a reflection of his status as a roster bubble player entering training camp.
Despite this, however, Shelton quickly emerged as a key figure along the Patriots’ defensive line and received regular starter snaps over free agency acquisition Mike Pennel. The former first-round draft pick never looked back: he earned a spot on the 53-man roster over Pennel, who was released ahead of cutdown day, and was given extensive action in the first six regular season games as a big-bodied nose tackle in New England’s 3-4 and 2-4 fronts.
“Danny’s done a good job for us,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about Shelton. “His second year; I think he came in, he was in good shape, he came in with a great attitude. He’s really worked hard to do the things that we’ve asked him to do, which is a little different than what he’d done in the systems that he’d been in in Cleveland. He tried to do that last year, I’d say this year he’s just further ahead on it.”
All in all, Shelton was on the field for 153 of the Patriots’ 374 defensive snaps (40.9%) so far this season — a clear increase from his 2018 playing time share of 28.2% (347 of 1,231). Seeing regular playing time is not the only change for the veteran defender compared to last season, as the Patriots also moved away from their four-man lines to incorporate more 3-4 principles. In turn, Shelton’s role grew as well as Belichick pointed out.
“[He built] on the experiences that he had last year, and has given us a really good level of play inside,” he said during a press conference ahead of last week’s game against the New York Giants. “His role has actually expanded from what it was last year because he’s been able to do more things, and he’s doing the things that we’ve asked him to do at a good level. So, he’s been productive and versatile. He’s done a good job for us.”
The numbers reflect the job the 12th overall selection of the 2015 draft, who was acquired by the Patriots via trade from the Cleveland Browns last March, did so far this year and his growth since 2018 — especially against the pass: while he registered just five combined quarterback pressures in 15 games last season, he already has six on his résumé so far in 2019: Shelton has registered a pair of sacks, three hits, and an additional hurry.
“There’s a lot of carryover into this year,” said Shelton’s position coach, Bret Bielema when talking about his pupil during a conference call earlier this week. “Even when I first saw Danny come back in the spring and to where he was in the fall into camp, and now six weeks behind us and going into the Jets game this week, I would say his candor and his preparation are very detailed. Every day he wants to know what he can work on.”
“We have certain things set up in practice that allow him to get good at things we are going to use during the course of week,” the Patriots’ defensive line coach continued. “He’s concentrated on his weaknesses or the things he’s perceived as weaknesses — ‘Let’s get these behind us, be a part of the past. We can concentrate on making them strengths.’ That’s really kind of what I’ve seen week-in and week-out.”
This process has led to Shelton becoming a big part of New England’s defensive tackle position this year, both literally and figuratively speaking. It also is reflected in Shelton’s technique and his ability to adapt to an expanded role, as Bielema pointed out: “The way he uses his hands, the way he moves his feet, the power that he plays with... the plays he’s gotten involved with are not happening by chance. They’re really execution on his behalf.”
New England’s defense has been outstanding so far this season, and the contributions of Danny Shelton cannot be underestimated: he may not regularly pop up on the stat sheet, but he is the anchor at nose tackle that both the Browns and the Patriots were looking for when they first brought him on board. Five years into his NFL career, he finally is growing into this role and starting to live up to his potential.