O’Neill vs. Shellenberger: The case for the Outlaws top pick

By Topher Adams | May 2, 2024

The first overall pick is a franchise-altering decision. All the hope of a team following a difficult season rests on the shoulders of its new superstar. The decision is made all the harder when multiple players are worthy of going number one. 

This is the dilemma facing head coach Tim Soudan and the Denver Outlaws. Brennan O’Neill (Duke) and Connor Shellenberger (Virginia) would go number one almost any year. Only one can be the new face of the Outlaws. 

And a decision still hasn’t been made.

“I see benefits in both [players] and you know, we're probably not going to make our decision until Tuesday at 6:55,” Soudan said.

A Quarterback

The Outlaws have had a glaring hole behind the cage since Brendan Nichtern’s rookie season. Jackson Morrill played well in that role at times, but he was traded to Whipsnakes for what turned into the 11th overall pick in Tuesday’s draft.

Shellenberger is the prototypical X attackman Denver needs to elevate the offense. He’s dominated in that role for four years at Virginia. His ability to dodge and create open looks for teammates is second-to-none in this class.

“I think Shellenberger would make everybody else better,” Soudan said.

O’Neill doesn’t operate behind the cage in the same way. He’s not a bad playmaker -- 42 assists in his Tewaaraton-winning season --- but he’s not on the same level as Shellenberger.

A Relentless Scorer

The PLL is a matchup league. The ability to win individual matchups is the bedrock of every successful team. The Outlaws need more players to win their matchups and create opportunities.

O’Neill is one of the most gifted players at getting past his defender in any situation. 

“He's a monster,” Soudan said. “He's gonna be able to break the guy standing in front of them down regardless, and at big moments of games, I think he's going to be really, really unstoppable at times.”

Whether attacking from attack or midfield, O’Neill’s blend of skill and athleticism make him unguardable. Against Canada in the World Lacrosse Championship final, he scored a hat trick against a bevy of professional stars for the Canadians. He will score a lot of goals in the PLL.

Shellenberger is another elite athlete, but does he have the same relentless upside as a go-to scorer? That’s never really been his game. He can get to the goal, but he’s not capable of scoring anytime Denver needs a goal like O’Neill. 

A Complement

Roster construction matters. Every championship team in PLL history has had a complementary roster that gets the best out of its best players. Even after a difficult 2023 season, the Outlaws have the bones of a good team.

Logan Wisnauskas is the big wrench in Denver’s plan with the first overall pick. The former Tewaaraton winner is an anchor for the Outlaws’ offense. But O’Neill operates in many of the same areas on the left wing.

However, Soudan is confident that Wisnauskas and O’Neill could play together.

“We can very easily play the two of those guys together,” Soudan said. “Our biggest concern is who are we going to put at X and are they gonna be really effective.”

Shellenberger fits much better with Denvers’ current pieces. He naturally replaces Nichtern at X and would allow the Outlaws to recreate their offensive success from two years ago. Nichtern and Wisnauskas were one of the best duos in the league. Shellenberger could build that same chemistry.

Final Verdict: Brennan O’Neill

Shellenberger and O’Neill are both first-overall talents. Either would solve a lot of Denver’s offensive woes. Elite offensive talents can make an immediate impact in the PLL, and both players could be all-stars as soon as this year. 

O’Neill is the consensus top player in the draft, and it’ll be hard to pass up on his talent. He was the top high school player in the country. He delivered on that hype and became one of the best players in Duke history. He’s proved it against the best players in the world.

Shellenberger is the most comfortable fit for the Outlaws. He fills a clear position of need and would make the current pieces better right away. But O’Neill is the type of talent that supersedes team fit. He’s a true generational talent, and a player like that is worth taking no matter what.