If you take the Ravens coaching staff words at face value, once he is cleared to play Jameel McClain will be one of the team’s starting inside linebackers.
The job has been labeled, “Jameel’s to lose.”
Coaches sing McClain’s praises as a player who does the little things; a player who is smart and one who provides leadership. And if the coaches are sincere, McClain will likely be a team captain and call the defensive signals as Dean Pees’ “Green Dotsman.”
Without question McClain is a good man, involved in the community and appreciates his place in life after enduring the hardships of homelessness while growing up. If he can overcome that adversity, he surely can overcome his spinal concussion that forced him to the sidelines after the Ravens’ 13th game in 2012 and throughout the playoff run.
But is he good enough to be a starter on a team that is looking for improved play from their insider backers, particularly in coverage where they were exposed in 2012?
McClain isn’t a playmaker. He doesn’t have suddenness in short spaces. He’s just an average player who played on an average defense in 2012. After his injury, Dannell Ellerbe displayed explosiveness never seen from McClain.
So you have to wonder why Pees is so quick to hand a job to a player who still hasn’t received medical clearance to play despite all of the reports that suggest such clearance is forthcoming.
It’s been said before that inside backers playing alongside Ray Lewis were asked to do the dirty work – work that included taking on lead blocks on running plays so that Ray Lewis could run unabated to the ball carrier. Bart Scott filled that role perhaps better than any other Raven.
But if that’s the case, why did Ellerbe stand out so much more in fewer starts than McClain ever has?
Maybe Pees is giving lip service to stoke the fires, stir the competitive juices of the other inside backers looking to stake their claim on the starting inside backer opening.
The Ravens have invested heavily in strengthening their defensive front bringing on newcomers Chris Canty, Marcus Spears and rookie Brandon Williams. They’ve also added Elvis Dumervil. Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs are reportedly in much better condition than they were in 2012 as is Pernell McPhee. Plus Art Jones is expected to pick up where he left off in 2012 when he registered 4 ½ sacks in the final 6 games and another in the Super Bowl.
It’s very safe to say that the improved front line will keep the inside backers much cleaner in 2013 than they did in 2012 and therefore improving on a defense that yielded 122.8 yards on the ground per game (20th).
Newcomer Daryl Smith seems like a logical starter. Playing in Jacksonville he’s fallen under the radar but those who have kept a watchful eye know that Smith has been one of the most productive linebackers in the league over the past 5 seasons. Pro Football Focus has taken notice and he’s ranked fourth over that time frame, ahead of other notables such as Navarro Bowman, Lawrence Timmons, Lance Briggs AND Ray Lewis.
It’s hard for a 4-3 outside linebacker to get much respect since they aren’t often the ones to get sacks, and the middle linebacker is typically the one to get the most tackles. Like most linebackers on this list, Smith has built his game around being a well-rounded player. In 2009, Smith had a breakout year with 55 stops and 27 pressures.
While he didn’t have the same year in 2010, in 2011 he ended up having the best year we’ve seen out of a 4-3 outside linebacker not named Von Miller. He tallied eight passes defended which was the most out of a 4-3 outside linebacker in any of the past five years. After missing nearly all of 2012, he is now with the Ravens. If he can play anywhere near like he has in the past, then Baltimore can continue their trend of great players in the middle of their defense.
Clearly Smith is more accomplished than McClain.
That then leaves us with promising rookie Arthur Brown and other returning players vying for playing time like Josh Bynes, Albert McClellan, Adrian Hamilton and converted DL Bryan Hall.
Some observers believe that rookie John Simon could migrate to inside linebacker given his passion, instincts and tackling ability. Teddy Bruschi made a similar conversion and had a very good career as the leader of the New England Patriots’ championship defenses.
From my vantage point, the job seems wide open and it’s far too early to anoint the recovering Jameel McClain as a starter no matter what the coaches say in June and July.