Pinning down the best lesson Vince Wilfork could teach Danny Shelton

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Pinning down the best lesson Vince Wilfork could teach Danny Shelton

When the Patriots traded for Danny Shelton earlier this offseason, sending a 2019 third-rounder to Cleveland in exchange for the defensive tackle, they traded for a player who was already being mentored by one of their own. 

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Shelton explained that one of his agents put him in touch with former Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork so that Shelton could pick up some tips from one of the best defensive tackles in football of the past 15 years. 

"For me, he’s someone that I still look up to even when he was with the Texans," Shelton said. "I got the opportunity to reach out to him and kind of pick his brain and just learn a couple of tips from him. He’s been really responsive. He’s been a guy that has been really helpful this offseason and I’m looking forward to reaching out more and learning some more from him."

When Shelton was coming out of the University of Washington in 2015,'s Lance Zierlein's "NFL comparison" was Wilfork. Both carried similar builds -- Shelton is now listed at 335 pounds -- and both were viewed as surprisingly good athletes for their body types. Shelton was also viewed as the top two-gapping tackle in the draft that year, which is exactly what the Patriots ask their interior linemen to do. 

Shelton has made good on those projections over the last couple of years. Last season, he was a key part of a Browns defense that ranked fourth against the run by Football Outsiders in terms of DVOA. In 2016, Shelton was ranked by Pro Football Focus as its eighth-best interior lineman against the run. Per PFF, he was second that year -- behind only Damon Harrison -- in terms of the number of run stops he recorded from the interior.

It's clear that Shelton, the No. 12 overall pick three years ago, understands what his strengths are. 

"Honestly, I’m just going to go with whatever Coach [Bill Belichick] wants me to do," Shelton said. "My best feature is stopping the run, so if he wants me to play at a specific position I’ll do it, and I’ll make sure I do my job for the team’s success."

So how can Wilfork help? If he has any tips on how to be a consistent player from the inside in Belichick's system, that could go a long way. Over the course of Wilfork's 13-year career, few defensive tackles were as effective from week to week and year to year. Wilfork played at least 830 snaps in four of his last five seasons with the Patriots (he was injured in 2013), and even during his two seasons with the Texans, he averaged about 600 snaps per year. He made five Pro Bowls with the Patriots and was named a First or Second-Team All-Pro four times.

In what form might Wilfork's advice on consistency be delivered? Would it be nutritional, which was an aspect of his preparation he embraced later in his career? Would it be technique-based? Would it be simply how to take the coaching dispensed inside the walls of Gillette Stadium? 

Shelton, who missed two games last season and played in 469 snaps, doesn't have a long-term contract with the Patriots to be able to prove his worth over multiple years the way Wilfork did. And he may not be asked to take on the myriad roles Wilfork did during his time under Belichick. But if Shelton can pick up some advice from Wilfork on how to stay on the field and how to help the Patriots win on first and second downs, that might make him the team's most valuable offseason addition. 

New England finished the season 20th in rush yards allowed per game, and they were 31st in yards per attempt allowed. In the Super Bowl, with run-stuffing defensive tackle Alan Branch a healthy scratch, the Patriots allowed 6.1 yards per carry to the Eagles on their way to 164 yards rushing. 

Shelton is in the final year of his rookie contract and scheduled to make $2.03 million this season. The Patriots may not be willing to pick up his hefty $11.7 million fifth-year option for 2019, but if he can continue his upward trajectory then maybe the Patriots will work to extend him before the end of the year. 

How Wilfork impacts that trajectory, if at all, remains to be seen. But he's certainly not a bad guy for Shelton to have in his corner as the 24-year-old embarks on life with the Patriots. 


Pats' first four picks: Giardi's predictions, Perry's reactions

Pats' first four picks: Giardi's predictions, Perry's reactions

The Patriots have four picks in the first and second rounds of the NFL Draft, and there's all sorts of speculation as to who they'll take. Mike Giardi takes a shot at choosing who they'll take, and Phil Perry reacts to Mike's selections.

TURNING THE TABLES: Perry selects, Giardi reacts


MIKE SAYS PATS WILL PICK: Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama. This is too high for Evans, but aside from Roquan Smith and Tremaine Edmonds no one is better equipped to get meaningful snaps right away than Evans. There could be discussion about  the Patriots moving backwards, but in the end it's not worth another team leapfrogging them and nabbing our man. First things first: Evans is a playmaker. He led Alabama in tackles for loss and also recorded a half-dozen sacks. That was an area the Pats had a problem with last year and I can envision having Hightower and Evans playing a two-man game over the 'A' gap or having one come off the strong side and the other off the weak. It's also easy to be enamored with his speed. He’s the type of sideline-to-sideline linebacker they don’t have on the roster. He’s wise enough to slide off the big bodies in front of him and has terrific feet for that position. They allow him to correct the occasional mistake diagnosing plays. Let’s not pretend Evans won’t bring the thunder, either. He can run through a fullback or guard if he has to. This is a tough dude who improved this past season. He’ll get even better in Foxboro.

WHAT PHIL THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: I think Evans would provide better value if the Patriots could get him at No. 31 or even No. 43, but I can't argue with the talent. He's fun to watch. If you like your linebackers to play violently, with reckless abandon, Evans is for you. He'll provide Bill Belichick with an immediate upgrade off the line of scrimmage, and he can get after the quarterback on third downs -- either from the A-gaps or off the edge. My concerns? He doesn't have a tremendous amount of experience in coverage. I think he's athletic enough to cover, but there's a level of the unknown there. He's not a ready-made field general in terms of helping players get aligned, I've been told. And I wonder about his durability. He's undersized for the role he projects to (at 230 pounds, he's about 40 pounds lighter than off-the-line/on-the-line prototype Dont'a Hightower), and he's dealt with injuries (which seem to have impacted his athletic testing numbers, which were unimpressive). But if he's cleared, and if he takes to the coaching he'll get at the next level, he could be a tone-setting staple in the middle of Belichick's defense for years. I like this pick. Don't love it. Like it.


(Mike has the Pats trading down.)

MIKE SAYS PATS WILL PICK: Mike Gesicki, TE, Penn State. I’ve heard the criticism that he isn’t a great blocker. Newsflash: The ones that are usually can’t catch worth a damn. In fact, the Patriots have one on the team right now (hello, Dwayne Allen). Gesicki is a tremendous athlete, better than the one they're currently having so much trouble with (Gronk). No, he’s not as big and as good of a blocker, but this could be an instant mismatch for us -- too big for safeties (6-foot-5, 247 pounds) and too fast for linebackers (4.54 40 yard dash). Think Jimmy Graham, right down that 41.5 inch vertical leap. They've been desperately seeking a move tight end. He’ll adapt and make Tommy Boy a happy man. Gesicki isn’t some pretty boy, either. He will run down the seam knowing you’re trying to separate the ball from his body and still make the catch. He has an uncanny ability to separate for such a big man and is a very good route runner. Once the ball is in the air, he’ll go get it. 

WHAT PHIL THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: I understand why you're enamored with Gesicki, Mike. I do. His athleticism is off the charts. Almost literally. Off . . . the . . . charts. He can run by linebackers and out-jump corners and safeties. He's the ultimate 50-50 weapon. And when the Patriots have spent top-tier picks at this position in the past, they've gone after athletes. Rob Gronkowski obviously comes to mind. Ditto for Ben Watson. My concern about Gesicki is that I don't know exactly how he'll fit in the Patriots offense. He just looks like a big receiver to me. He's not a true "Y" tight end. And I don't see the suddenness that would allow him to fit a "move" Aaron Hernandez role, either. I'd personally rather draft Dallas Goedert, a good-but-maybe-not-great athlete with very good hands and the size to block in-line, if he's available. I don't hate Gesicki. And I think the Patriots would find a way to use his athleticism. He's just not my favorite tight end in this class for the Patriots, and if I was running their front office, I'd let another team call his name before I'm willing to.


MIKE SAYS PATS WILL PICK: Brian O'Neill, OT, Pitt. The Patriots have been blessed to have just a pair of left tackles for this unprecedented run of success starting back in 2001 -- Matt Light and Nate Solder. O’Neill is nearly a mirror of Solder. Long, athletic and a former tight end and right tackle, he’s just scratching the surface of what could be a career filled with Pro Bowls.  O’Neill started all 12 games at left tackle for the Panthers and was first-team all-ACC a year after being a second-teamer from the right side. His 6-foot-7 frame will easily pack on another 15 pounds of muscle and with that arm length (34 1/8 inches), once he gets his 9 3/8-inch mitts into you, say goodnight. He understands balance and with those feet can beat defenders to the spot. Yes, there are concerns about technique and it wasn’t a great Senior Bowl week for him, but offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will turn O’Neill into a monster in no time. Raise your eyebrow now, but you may be thankful later.

WHAT PHIL THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: This feels a little rich to me, Michael! I know. I know. The Patriots need a tackle. But, in my opinion, they need a tackle who can play right now. Or at least help out in 2018 if Marcus Cannon or LaAdrian Waddle get injured. O'Neill isn't that guy. At least I don't think he is. He's still relatively new to the position, a little light, and reports out of the Senior Bowl on him weren't good. I'd prefer making this pick over, say, Kolton Miller in the first. So I'm with you there. Miller is another developmental prospect. But taking a project tackle at this point in the draft -- when a playmaker at receiver, safety or corner might be available -- would feel like a reach to me. For this draft, if I'm the Patriots, I'm either taking a pro-ready guy (Mike McGlinchey, Connor Williams), or I'm taking a pass. Antonio Garcia and Cole Croston feel like developmental tackles already destined to make the roster. Adding a third, to me, is redundant.


MIKE SAYS PATS WILL PICK: Duke Ejiofor, DE, Wake Forest.  The Patriots believe in rolling the dice in the second round and this is one of those occasions. Ejiofor came to the game late but he’s a student of it, knows who he is and what he can do and who he can do it to. He’s a perfect fit with the young collection of edge players the Patriots have on defense -- Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Adam Butler. Can’t wait to see Trey take Eliofor under his wing and help him blossom. What you’ll notice almost immediately are those long arms and his strong hands. Ejiofor gets into a tackle and can jolt much bigger men. He senses the change in balance and uses a sound collection of moves to disengage and find his way to the QB. He’s also shown an ability to slide inside as a pass rusher as well and is capable fo creating mismatches against opposing guards or centers. He’s not an elite athlete and injuries have been a concern but he’s either going to compliment Flowers and company in the years to come or replace Trey if his contract ask becomes too much. 

WHAT PHIL THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: Now we're talking. My favorite pick of the bunch. I've written this before, but to me Ejiofor looks like this year's Trey Flowers. Is that worthy of a late second-rounder? Damn right. Ejiofor may not be twitchy, but he's long, and he knows how to play. So often we look at athletic pass-rushers and tell ourselves, "Boy, if he can just learn a move or two  . . ." That's not the case with Ejiofor. He has heavy hands and he understands how to use them. With Flowers coming to the end of his rookie contract in the near future, it might behoove the Patriots to add another young talent to a room that already includes Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise.


Pats' first four picks: Perry's predictions, Giardi's reactions

Pats' first four picks: Perry's predictions, Giardi's reactions

The Patriots have four picks in the first and second rounds of the NFL Draft, and there's all sorts of speculation as to who they'll take. Phil Perry takes a shot at choosing who they'll take, and Mike Giardi reacts to Phil's selections.

TURNING THE TABLESGiardi selects, Perry reacts


PHIL SAYS PATS WILL PICK: Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State. At 6-4, 256 pounds with 34-inch arms, Vander Esch has all the size he needs to play at the next level, and he tested extremely well (4.65-second 40, 39.5-inch vertical, 10-4 broad jump, 6.88 three-cone). After just one year as a starter at Boise, he should be an ascending player.

WHAT MIKE THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: I don’t hate this pick, Phil. The Pats have a need for an off-the-ball linebacker and Vander Esch certainly has the athleticism to make you think he’d be a good fit. He was a pretty good high school basketball player and you can see some of that pay dividends with the way Vander Esch moves on the football field, a certain fluidity and an ability to sink the hips, turn and run. However, the more I watch him the more I wonder about his playing strength and his overall football IQ. He started just one year at Boise and his high school background involved 8-man football. Yes, that is a thing and no, I don’t think it’s a plus. There’s also medical concerns with his neck (he wears the collar for a reason).


PHIL SAYS PATS WILL PICK: Connor Williams, OL, Texas. Notice that's an "OL" next to Williams' name, not an "OT." He can play tackle. And I think after Mike McGlinchey, he might be the most NFL-ready tackle in the class. Maybe he helps the Patriots there as a rookie. Williams could also play guard, which would be useful if Shaq Mason (who's in a contract year) ends up elsewhere for 2019.

WHAT MIKE THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: I seem to recall Phil yelling at me when I suggested Williams may be the best direction for the Pats to go. “He’s not a tackle,” Phil said. Hmmm. What changed? I think Williams could still be a tackle despite his shorter arms. Two years ago at Texas, he was arguably the best tackle in college football. Injuries cost him in his junior season but you at least know the foundation is there. Williams is a sound technician, has good feet and can play with an edge. I like that. My concern here is are you projecting him as a left tackle or to be a guard. Because if it’s the latter, I’m not pulling the trigger with a first-round pick. I’ll wait until one of my seconds to possibly tab a player who can play inside and maybe end up as the eventual successor to Shaq Mason (should his salary demands skyrocket based on the recent market for guards).


PHIL SAYS PATS WILL PICK: D.J. Moore, WR, Maryland. Receiver is one of those sneaky Patriots needs. Not because they require a playmaker in 2018, but because it looks like there's a need coming in 2019. Moore is dynamic with the football in his hands, he's one of the best athletes in the class, and he provides some punt-return ability to boot.

WHAT MIKE THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: If Moore were to fall to this spot, it would be a hell of a pick for the Pats. Moore is one of my favorite playmakers in the draft. A terrific run-after-catch guy who can line up both inside and outside. When you look at the age of the Pats' wide receiving group, he’d be an excellent infusion of both youth and talent for a group that needs it. Here’s the problem: Moore won’t be there, Phil. He’s getting first-round buzz and there’s always going to be a couple teams that just want a shiny new object. Moore will be that and get overdrafted.


PHIL SAYS PATS WILL PICK: Kyle Lauletta, QB, Richmond. Lauletta meets all the physical measurements the Patriots have drafted in the past under Belichick, he's one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the short-to-intermediate range in this class, and he's a true student of the game with solid intangibles. If he's available late in the second round, he's worth the pick.

WHAT MIKE THINKS ABOUT THE PICK: Really going out on a limb here, huh? Lauletta has been linked to the Pats for months, at least by us media types. There’s no question he’s smart -- he's played for four offensive coordinators in four years -- and his work at the Senior Bowl drew praise from his coach down there, former Pats OC and current Texans head Bill O’Brien. Lauletta has good feet and spins it pretty well. I like his work on the short to intermediate stuff but that arm doesn’t allow him to push the ball down the seams like I’d like. I also think those feet are sometimes a detriment because there’s plenty of examples on tape where Lauletta has his eyes squarely on the rush and will duck out of the pocket at the first hint of trouble. To me, if this was pick 95, I’d feel a lot better about the selection.