CLEVELAND, Ohio — When Danny Shelton shows up in Cleveland on Friday and hoists his new Browns jersey, he’ll undoubtedly be filled with mixed emotions.
It will be the start of his NFL career in Cleveland after the Browns selected him with the No. 12 overall pick, but it’s also the four-year anniversary of the death of his brother Shennon, who was shot in front of Danny’s eyes in an altercation. Another brother, Tui, survived a bullet to the chest. A third bullet was meant for Danny, but the gun jammed.
The tragedy almost caused Danny, a high school senior at the time, to quit football. Instead, he forged on, overcoming the lingering anger and post-traumatic stress of the ordeal.
“It means everything,” said Shelton of being drafted by the Browns. “The fact that I was able to bring out my family, too, it’s just crazy to think that it’s finally over. It’s crazy to think that I’ll be leaving to Cleveland tomorrow morning.”
Shelton credits the Huskies for keeping him in the game and standing by him through some turbulent times.
“Honestly, I owe it all to the coaching staff, I owe it all to the team and I owe it all to the [Huskies] fans,” he said. “It’s amazing how much they supported me throughout my four years, and I didn’t have any doubt in myself. I knew that I was at home, I was in a better place and I was just ready to play. That’s what shaped me throughout the four years. Facing adversity, it prepared me for the next level.
“I feel confident to go into the league and play the right way and play the way that I play.”
The Browns showed considerable interest in Shelton before the draft, working him out privately at Washington and bringing him to Cleveland for a pre-draft visit.
“I didn’t know if I was coming here or not,” he said. “As soon as I got that phone call, I was smiling. I’m still smiling. It’s exciting because of the fan support, the Dawg Pound and the social media has given me nothing but love. That was throughout this whole process.
“It’s crazy to think that now I get to go out and be a part of the Dawg Pound. As far as the defense, I’m expecting the same thing as far as producing a run stopper. I’m also going to add to the pass rushing game. Those are the two main things I want to focus on this offseason.”
Shelton, wearing a lava-lava tunic at the draft in Chicago to honor his Samoan heritage, was so excited to hear his name called in Chicago that he bear-hugged NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and lifted him off his feet.
“It was a little bit planned (laughter), but it was just an exciting time so I had to do it,” he said.
Said coach Mike Pettine. “I haven’t seen that before (laughter). The look of panic on Roger’s face was quite interesting.”
Shelton (6-2, 339) will step in at nosetackle and immediately help shore up the Browns’ 32nd-ranked run defense. As a senior, he was the only player in the country named first-team All-America and first-team Academic All-America.
Voted the team’s most inspirational player last year, Shelton had 93 tackles, 16.5 tackles for a loss, 9.0 sacks and and a nation-high five fumble recoveries in 2014.
Shelton is most often compared to former Ravens and current Lions nosetackle Halota Ngata, the five-time Pro Bowler whom Pettine was with in Baltimore.
“In some ways (they’re similar),” said Pettine. “The explosiveness and just from a size standpoint, he is a little taller. You watch the tape and you isolate certain plays, and they are playing like their hair is on fire. We talk about Play Like a Brown attributes, and you can check a lot off the list with Danny.”
Like Browns general manager Ray Farmer, Pettine believes that Shelton can play on third down.
“He did have nine sacks,” said Pettine. “When you can push the pocket and eliminate the step-up option for the quarterback, you will find your edges suddenly become more productive. If he is not getting production, he is causing production. The other good thing, too, is if there is a threat of a run on third down, you can put Shelton out there and a bunch of small guys around him and know that he can be disruptive versus any run scheme and then you can tee off with everybody else to attack the quarterback.”
Shelton will likely rotate at nosetackle with Phil Taylor, who championed the pick in a series of tweets, including “The Defense got better!” The two will also probably work side-by-side in some fronts.
“Yeah, when we’re watching the end zone copy and we’re wearing white pants, it’ll be two big white spots right in the middle of the screen,” said Pettine. “We’re thrilled, again, to have that skillset in the middle. Phil obviously had the injury and we’re hopeful to get him back at 100 percent, but there is some uncertainty there.
“We did adjust a few things schematically but felt that we needed that big guy in the middle. We’re also hopeful that Kitch (DL Ishmaa’ily Kitchen) can step up and be productive for us, as well, and when we get into real obvious run situations that we can put a pretty heavy front out there.”
Shelton’s selection marked the third straight year the Browns have gone defense with their first overall pick. Two years ago it was linebacker Barkevious Mingo at No. 6 and last year it was cornerback Justin Gilbert at No. 8. They came back at No. 19 and selected Florida State center/offensive lineman Cameron Erving.
“When we talked about building a team, you are in every game if you are solid defensively,” said Pettine, a defensive-minded coach. “That will obviously be a cornerstone. We were thrilled that we were able to add a player where we felt like the value met the need. Thrilled that Danny is here, and then obviously, in regards to the second pick, I am a firm believer, as Ray has already expressed, that you build your team through your lines.
“I know these aren’t the two sexiest picks when you are taking guys that aren’t ‘skill players.’ We prefer to call them ‘big skill.’ We are thrilled because we know with a great degree of certainty that the Cleveland Browns got better tonight.”
On Friday, Shelton will be grateful to have come so far, considering everything he’s been through.
“I know my brother will be watching over me from above,” he said.