MOBILE, Alabama -- Shirtless like the rest of his Senior Bowl teammates, Danny Shelton walked across the stage, stepped onto the scale and crossed his fingers. This was an important moment for the Washington nose guard who is poised to be one of the first players at his position selected in the 2015 NFL Draft.
A second or two passed before the announcement was made.
Shelton pumped his fist.
It’s not the weight Shelton wants to be at next month’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, but it was a solid baseline after he tacked on some pounds over the past month. With the Huskies, the massive, yet agile, nose guard plugged holes like Vince Wilfork but carried the mentality of Troy Polamalu, whom Shelton idolized as a child.
“Ever since I was young, I thought of myself as a defensive back trying to be like Troy Polamalu,” Shelton said. “I tried mirroring some of the defensive skill players, just trying to mirror their footwork when I was little. I’ve always had this mentality of being a skinnier kid in a big body.”
Perhaps that’s what explains the safety-like statistics Shelton produced as a senior.
Despite playing at a position that is more known for setting up others for tackles than picking them up personally, Shelton finished with 93 in 2014, good for second on the team. He was 14th in the nation with 16.5 tackles for loss, 19th with nine sacks and all alone at the top with five fumble recoveries.
The production likely surprised those who watched Shelton during a so-so junior season because it certainly surprised Shelton, who received a fourth-round grade from the NFL Draft advisory board at this time last year. He credited the high standard set by his teammates John Timu (108 tackles) and Hau’oli Kikaha (19 sacks) as the driving force behind his motivation to stuff the stat sheet in ways uncharacteristic of a nose guard.
“It’s all the hard work and got to thank the man upstairs for blessing me with this incredible season,” Shelton said. “Best season I had yet.”
It came at the perfect time.
With USC’s Leonard Williams poised to be off the board within the first few picks, Shelton has emerged as one of the likely candidates to be the second defensive tackle drafted, with his competition including Florida State’s Eddie Goldman and Texas’ Malcom Brown. He’s the lone senior defensive tackle projected to land in the first round. So, essentially, Shelton got a head start on his closest competition by meeting with a slew of teams, including the Browns, at last week’s Senior Bowl and didn’t disappoint with his on-field performance.
ESPN NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. pegged Shelton to the Browns at No. 12 in his first projection for 2015. Shelton, Kiper Jr. wrote, would be a nice fit for the Browns, who dealt with numerous injuries along the defensive line and finished the season last in the NFL in rush defense (141.6 yards per game). The Huskies, whose 2014 defense boasted three likely first-round picks in this year’s draft, ranked second in the Pac-12 and 22nd in the nation in rush defense (124.1).
Odds are strong that Shelton will end up with a team that runs a 3-4 and plans to use him at nose guard, but he showed off his athleticism to the scouts, general managers and coaches in attendance by going through some one-on-one drills as an end against offensive tackles. He was admittedly gassed after the first practice but saw his stamina improve throughout the week. His five tackles in Saturday’s game were tied for the most on the North Team.
“I feel like I have a lot to work on. Technique stuff,” Shelton said. “I’m constantly bugging the coaches trying to see what I didn’t do right.”
There’s more to Shelton than his massive size.
Of all the 2014 first-team All-Americans in the country, Shelton was the only one to double up as an academic All-American. According to the Seattle Times, Shelton taught a freshman-orientation class, interned at a natural history museum and plans to wrap up the final two courses for his degree in anthropology studies while preparing for the draft. At last week’s media dinner, Shelton wore a lava-lava, which is a traditional piece of Polynesian clothing that is essentially a single piece of cloth worn like a skirt.
A first-generation American from Auburn, Washington, Shelton knows the next step in his blossoming career could take him to the other side of the country. If it’s Cleveland -- which last used a first-round pick on a defensive tackle in 2011 (
“I’d go there if they pick me up. I’m up for anything,” Shelton said. “I’m excited to start this new journey.”
This article is part of the Road to the Draft series, driven by Liberty Ford.