The AFC North has a strong reputation of being one of the most, if not the NFL's most physical division.
In an era of spread offenses and dual-threat quarterbacks, the North represents the traditional form of football that mainly featured the quarterback simply handing off to the running back and letting he and the offensive line do the rest. That makes the value of a defensive line, primarily nose tackle, even more important.
That's why Cleveland used the No. 12 pick in this year's NFL draft to select Washington lineman Danny Shelton. In a division that's highlighted by high-level trench warfare, Shelton is the wardaddy the Browns have been searching for.
At 6-2, 339 pounds, Shelton's size and skill set should make him the anchor of Cleveland’s 3-4 defense after this position was arguably their biggest weakness in 2014.
After all, Cleveland finished 2014 dead last in rushing defense. There hasn't been an NFL team to finish with a winning record while holding the league's worst run defense since the 2006 Colts. Shelton immediately makes Cleveland's defense several spots better at least.
Shelton isn't the typical gap-clogging tackle who only can play around 40 snaps per game, like you see many teams use (like, say, the Bengals). Shelton is a prototypical two-gap nose tackle with the power to dispatch offensive lineman rather than simply occupy their blocks:
Shelton commands double teams and makes plays against the run, and is an improving pass-rusher who can push the pocket and is light on his feet for a 339-pound nose tackle. He plays with an edge and shows good effort and stamina for a guy his size, and gets sideline to sideline as well as any nose tackle you'll find:
Shelton finished his collegiate career with 208 total tackles, 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. He exploded during his final year at Washington while racking up 93 tackles, 16.5 TFL and nine sacks. That's unheard of production for a nose tackle, and it's drawn Shelton comparisons to one of the NFL's best defensive lineman and former AFC North player, Haloti Ngata:
"When you put the tape on, you can't help but think of Haloti Ngata,'' said NFL Network's Mike Mayock said at the Senior Bowl. "For a guy that's 343 pounds, his strength is outstanding. He's got a little hump move like Reggie White and Howie Long had, too. He has way more lateral quickness than people think he has, and he played the majority of snaps at the University of Washington. Most big guys can't do that."
Shelton, like most rookie defensive lineman, probably will have some growing pains to deal with that make him a liability at times, especially in a defense that had so many issues at times in 2014. However, he fills a hole in the middle that, if nothing else, should make the Browns' defense significantly better than the league-worst run defense they had in 2014.
That, along with Shelton's potential to become a star in this league, is why I tabbed him as the AFC North's best addition this offseason.