The Chicago Bears will very likely transition to a 3-4 defense this season under new coordinator Vic Fangio. It’s a hefty change for a team that ran a 4-3 defense the past 95 years in a row.
The shift in scheme means a shift in personnel, which shuffles the club’s list of priorities heading into free agency and the draft.
Typically, a 3-4 defense revolves around a huge nose tackle that can anchor the defensive line. It’s a two-gap, 0-technique position that often requires a space eater, one who can swallow offensive linemen and create space for linebackers.
These hulking nose tackles usually weigh north of 320 pounds. The most effective 0-techniques are those whose quickness matches their girth, like New England’s Vince Wilfork.
In the NFL, a 330-pound defensive linemen with the quickness of someone 50 pounds lighter can be an utterly dominant disruptive force.
NT Danny Shelton, Washington (6-2, 343)
Senior Season: AP All-American; 89 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks.
-Immensely powerful. Ability to extend arms and easily create separation.
-Upper-body strength allows him to shed blockers, using rip and swim moves.
-He carries his weight low, which gives him a heavy anchor. He’s nearly impossible to move backward, even with double teams.
-Moves well laterally and has great short-area burst.
-Keeps eyes in the backfield. Good vision.
-Quick for his size. Plays much lighter than his weight. Soft on his feet.
-Powerful bull rush that can drive blockers backward.
-Gives good effort in pursuit and doesn’t appear to wear down in the fourth quarter.
-Relied too much on his strength to manhandle blockers. Must refine technique and build his pass-rush repertoire.
-Not very explosive off the snap. Tends to dance too much off the ball, particularly on passing downs.
-Not a great tackler in space.
-Not particularly effective on stunts.
Shelton is the player in this draft who resembles Wilfork the most. He’s an absolute load in the middle. Against single blocks, he never gets pushed backward. He typically locks on, extends his arms to create separation and then finds the ball in the backfield.
Shedding blocks is his specialty. He uses a quick spin move when shedding laterally and a powerful rip when looking to penetrate vertically. If the opposing lineman puts too much weight on his toes, Shelton will throw him to the ground.
His squat power also makes him very effective against traps and pulls, where he has the ability to absorb contact and toss blockers aside. Case in point, view the Stanford film below at the 3:58 mark. Normal nose tackles don’t make that type of play.
Shelton is equally effective against double teams and is rarely moved off his spot. He can swallow blockers with ease, creating room for linebackers to roam.
He’s extremely light on his feet, with footwork unusual for a player of his size. That quickness shows up on film when Shelton rushes the passer. He can quickly sidestep blocks, using his powerful upper body in tandem to penetrate gaps.
Shelton’s bull rush is equivalent to a Mack Truck at times, driving opposing linemen five yards into the backfield. He doesn’t have a full arsenal of pass rush moves but when he hits a crease, he closes quickly. Despite being 343 pounds, Shelton often finds a way to stay skinny through gaps.
Shelton in Chicago?
Shelton is a Top 15 talent in this year’s draft. If the Bears want him, they’ll have to use the 7th overall selection.
Yet that may be a price worth paying. Shelton has as much disruptive potential as any interior defensive lineman in this year’s draft. He’s athletic enough to penetrate gaps and destroy single blocks, while his size gives him serious potential as a run stuffer.
Placing Shelton in the middle of Chicago’s 3-4 gives the new defense the rock around which the rest of the front seven can revolve. He can swallow up inside runs and create room for teammates to make plays.
With Shelton, the Bears’ run defense becomes formidable immediately. His presence would also make life easier for Jon Bostic, who could struggle transitioning to inside linebacker under Fangio.
Shelton isn’t an elite pass rusher but he does have the potential for five to seven sacks at the next level, providing great complimentary pressure in the face of the quarterback. He’s in no way a one-dimensional nose tackle.
He’s still a bit raw and needs to use his hands in a more efficient manner but there’s very little not to like about Shelton. The Bears are in desperate need of edge rushers yet Shelton may be too good to pass up. If new GM Ryan Pace has an ace up his sleeve and feels he can find a quality OLB pass rusher in the second or third round, Shelton makes a lot of sense at 7th overall.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.