This offseason, the Chicago Bears did an excellent job of finding replacements for their departures. Many seem to be pleased with Ryan Pace replacing Jordan Howard with David Montgomery and Mike Davis, as well as picking up Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to fill the spot left by Adrian Amos.
Those two replacements did not end up making the team worse, something that the overly talented Bears clearly desired. Every position seems to have a new man who is at a similar skill level to the player who departed.
Every position, that is, except for one. This offseason, the Bears lost Bryce Callahan, one of the most talented nickel cornerbacks in the league. This was a massive loss for the Bears, as it was pretty easy to replace the loss of the team’s former running back and safety, but this is not the case for the nickel cornerback position.
However, on the Monsters of the Microphone Podcast hosted by Jack Soble, Thomas Kavanaugh and I, we were discussing new nickel cornerback Duke Shelley, who was taken by Chicago in the sixth round last week. While I was going over my analysis of him, Soble stopped me and stated: “Dan, I don’t know if you realized it or not but you just described Bryce Callahan.”
Listen to the entire podcast on the Bears’ first three draft picks and Green Bay’s draft class here
After that, I went back and compared film on both players, and I saw some similarities in their games. The pick grew on me even more after I watched the tape, but will Shelley be able to put it all together this season?
Who is Duke Shelley?
Duke Shelley is an undersized cornerback out of Kansas State who was selected by Chicago on Saturday. The initial reaction was mainly uncertainty, as the late-round selection was not very well known.
So what caused Duke Shelley to fly under the radar? A likely reason was an unhealthy finish to his senior season, as a toe injury caused Shelley to only play in 7 games. The last time the Bears drafted a defensive back who fell due to injury issues, they selected Eddie Jackson, who ended up being an okay addition, I guess.
While Shelley was not able to play an entire season in his last year at Kanasa State, he made the most of his time on the field.
Shelley has gone under the radar this draft season. This may be because he had a toe injury this past season that has led him to only playing in 7 games. I believe Duke Shelley vs. Buster Skrine will be one of the most interesting camp battles coming this training camp. #Bears pic.twitter.com/Ps4px24TYa
— Dan DeYoung (@DanDeYoung80) April 27, 2019
As we already mentioned, Shelley is undersized, which makes it seem like he is going to stick at the nickel position. At Kansas State, however, Shelley was used as a coverage guy on the outside. He was going up against bigger receivers, rather than just the small and super fast guys.
One of the best aspects of Bryce Callahan‘s game, coincidentally, was his ability to cover any guy on the field. Callahan made plays against both the towering giants and the short speedsters. In the NFL, the “big slot” is becoming more and more prevalent in the passing game. Now we even see tight ends even getting into the slot like wide receivers to run routes, rather than just being two or three-point-stance with the offensive line.
Shelley has learned how to stop these bigger players because of his experience on the outside. They may not be tight ends, but he routinely went up against wideouts who were much bigger than him rather than just guys who are the same size.
In a game against Texas Tech, Shelley displayed the ability to stop a much bigger opponent. He had to go up against 6’6″ TJ Vasher during that game, and he held his own. Of course, Vasher may not be nearly as strong as an NFL tight end, but when the ball was his way, Shelley was always finding ways to make plays.
The transition from outside cornerback to nickel cornerback will be an interesting one to follow. In the slot, you have more space to work against, rather than having the sideline as your friend, and it may take him some time to get comfortable.
It will also be interesting to see him go up against wide receivers who are smaller and quicker. From what I saw on film, Shelley does an excellent job of changing direction quickly while he reads the play. He should be fine at the nickel spot, but it may take some time to learn how the slot receivers make moves, as they can take many more routes out of the slot than on the outside.
Speaking of reading the play, the best part of his game is his ability to do just that. Most of his interceptions come due to the fact that he can read the quarterback, that much is clear on tape.
Not only that, but he is also super aggressive to get to the football. When he sees the ball leave the quarterback’s hands, he is bursting right for it. There is no hesitation in his game, something you really like to see in a young corner.
A criticism of Bryce Callahan’s when he was coming into the league was his lack of run support ability. Some scouts showed concern that he would not succeed in the league because of his size.
After watching Bryce Callahan the last couple of years, it has become clear that his size has become a non-issue in the run game because of his aggressiveness and technique. Even though Callahan is undersized, he has become a very effective tackler over the years.
When you watch Shelley play, you watch that same fire in him when he makes tackles. He is not a guy who is trying to avoid contact to protect himself, exactly what you want from a nickel back who is already at a size disadvantage.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano can teach an undersized cornerback how to tackle effectively, but it is a tougher challenge to convince a corner to go make a tackle on a receiver or ballcarrier who is much bigger than him. That is more on the player themselves to have that aggressive mentality.
Shelley still needs to develop his skills at tackling, but as long as he is not making the old “business decision” to avoid getting hurt then he will be fine. I see nothing on film that tells me he will ever make that decision.
Additionally, Pagano has a very successful background for grooming defensive backs. Whether it be Nnamdi Asomough or Ed Reed, Pagano had a major impact on making these guys big names in the NFL, and we could be seeing more being developed in Chicago.
Duke Shelley’s competition
In free agency, Ryan Pace signed Buster Skrine to the team. Skrine was given a pretty good payday, as he was given the most guaranteed money out of any free agent the Chicago Bears signed this offseason. The team seems confident in Skrine, but is he going to be the guy next season?
The Chicago Bears front office and coaching staff have said many positive things about the former Jet, but the public opinion on Skrine is not nearly as strong as for other Bears replacements.
Pro Football Focus numbers said that quarterbacks have a 124.2 passer rating when they were targeting receivers covered by Skrine this past season. It is important to check the tape to see what Skrine did and why these passes may have been completed, as they may not have ended up being his fault, but the numbers are damning nonetheless.
When the Skrine signing was made, I expected another option to be brought in at some point. After nobody was brought in after free agency, it seemed as though the team may draft some competition at slot corner, and Duke Shelley is going to be that competition.
From all the interviews on Shelley and everything that is being shown on film, it appears that the Bears got a guy who is going to be doing everything he can to get on the field. He also genuinely seems to be happy to be a Chicago Bear.
Shelley could not have come to a better situation than Chicago. Having a good defense surrounding him will make his job infinitely easier if he has to start. He may have that opportunity, as he and Buster Skrine should be in a very real competition for that spot.
Either way, Shelley should find himself on the field at some point this upcoming season, certainly on special teams at the very least. The transition to nickel from the outside may take some time, but when he gets it, he could prove to be yet another great day three selection by Ryan Pace.