By Matt Waldman
Scouts have a love-hate relationship with player comparisons. Get them right and your audience gains a true understanding of a particular player. Get them wrong and it's like playing the wrong note at the worst time.
It's not that cut-and-dried. Not all good comparisons are literal "a equals b" parallels. Some correlations have a heavy dose of poetry, which is often important but problematic without effective communication.
It means when I tweet that Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell is in the spectrum of Donald Driver and Marvin Jones with a dose of Hines Ward and a dash of Brandon Lloyd, I better explain that his build, route-running, speed, and willingness to mix it up in tight coverage is stylistically similar to Driver and Jones, but his physicality and skill after the catch have some Ward-like mannerisms, and there's also a flair to adjust to the ball that echoes Lloyd. If I don't use two or three tweets to explain this, at least one engineer in the crowd will calmly explain to me that Bell's speed and dimensions do not match Ward's and therefore my comparison is not valid.
Poetry, man... poetry...
It's a reminder I sometimes need. However, when I see a comparison between Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton and pros like Haloti Ngata and Dontari Poe, I'm not hearing the poetry. I can see it, but I'm not hearing it and I need to hear it to feel it.
It could be my inexperience in evaluating players at the line of scrimmage. Projection is an important facet of this craft. However, if there's one position that the draft community can over-project, it's defensive tackle.
I think that's what's happening with Shelton. The best way to find out is to look at Shelton alongside Ngata and Poe. That's today's Futures in a nutshell.
Tale of the Ta--Data
When reconfiguring Shelton's athleticism into neat little rows and columns alongside Poe and Ngata, I can see the approximate rhyme in the poetic license some have taken by drawing these comparisons.
The size is there and the short-area change of direction is ballpark. However, after I watched Shelton play, I read a lot of scouting reports that noted his speed to get down the line and catch ball carriers. I love that Shelton consistently pursues. He doesn't give up the chase too soon.
Let's not mistake effort for speed. Shelton is nearly a full second slower than Poe and a half-second slower than Ngata, and it shows on the field. What Shelton does well is pursue and stay in the play to capitalize on the playmaking abilities of teammates like Shaq Thompson and Hau'oli Kikaha.
It's good work, but it's not speed for his position. He's the guy with the mop and the bucket.
Clean up on the left hash of the Cal 20...
Flushed quarterback at the right flat of the 35...
Heisman Trophy winner needs a sack on aisle 12...
Loose ball on aisle 10!
Not that Shelton can't get clean and sack a defender without Kikaha and company herding quarterbacks in his direction, but the explosion of his game is overstated. Compared to the bull rush of Ngata and Poe, who put their opponents on skates heading downhill, Shelton looks like he's pushing uphill.
This Ngata highlight is in slow motion, and the split of this double team is faster than many of Shelton's efforts.
Ngata also has more agile feet and hips. Check out the spin move on the next play.
Shelton's pursuit is an indication of a motor. Ngata's pursuit actually includes speed and burst (after shedding a block) that's better than ordinary against a quick back who wasn't herded inside like the Shelton example.
Although the receiver bends this run towards Ngata, the defensive tackle was already pursuing it a good clip faster than anything I've seen from Shelton.
Shelton does not consistently play with good leverage. This is the one projectable trait that I do expect to improve. When it does, we should see more plays like this one Ngata displays -- although I'm not projecting the explosion that accompanies it.
This stack and shed that Ngata displays below is also something Shelton should perform well in the NFL.
However, I'm not a believer in Shelton's speed, burst, or fluid movement to move occasionally to the edge and generate sacks. When Shelton earns a sack, he's cleaning up an edge rush from the middle, or the quarterback is often moving towards the Shelton's pressure.
In a radius of 2 or 3 yards, Shelton has the strength and quick feet to redirect, grab, and finish, but he's not closing from 5 to 7 yards off the edge like Ngata below.
Shelton definitely won't be matching the prowess from the edge that Poe showed when sacking Russell Wilson five steps after shedding the lineman.
Poe's bull rush is also more explosive than Shelton's. The play below covers more space in less time than what I typically see from the Washington defender.
More consistent leverage from Shelton at the point of attack will help, but that's only part of the equation. What I truly think is happening here is the difference between big man athleticism that is NFL adequate and NFL good.
Unless Shelton remakes his body (which might be possible after a year or two of conditioning), Ngata and Poe are not good comparisons for this top-heavy Husky. I'm more amenable to Doug Farrar's use of Vince Wilfork as Shelton's upside comp. They're more similar as athletes.
Shelton still has potential as a starter. He can rip and lock out a blocker, and he displays a decent arm-over. If he gets a hand on a quarterback, he's strong enough to bring the passer down.
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As my buddy Jene Bramel noted at Senior Bowl practices, Shelton is a good bet as a rotational, two-gap type player, but the moments of dominance that accompany Ngata's and Poe's games on Sundays never made it out of the pit in Mobile:
Danny Shelton continues to impress, but I'm not buying comparisons to Dontari Poe. Though he's winning one-on-one reps in the pit here with a quick first step and rip move, I've not seen that translate to the team drills. He may impact the pocket at times in the NFL, but I think he should be considered primarily a run defender.
Projecting a pass rush from Shelton, who doesn't show the same skill to beat double-teams against decent competition, seems like a tall order.
Shelton is not a high first-round talent. He's a valuable player, and a tremendous person with a fantastic work ethic, who has overcome tragedy and excels in the classroom and the football field. The way he has overcome his trials is a projectable quality for his attitude and approach to his life and profession.
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That's where we should draw the line.
Matt Waldman authors the 2015 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. available for download now. The guide covers over 140 prospects at the offensive skill positions (QB, RB, WR, and TE). If you're a fantasy owner, the 50-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012-2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best of all, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2014) for just $9.95 apiece.