I counted Shea McClellin on the field for 33 of the 38 first half defensive snaps on Thursday and I think his role is going to be a lot larger than we previously thought.
The New England Patriots signed McClellin to a 3-year deal this offseason and I thought his role was pretty obvious; he’s a versatile player like 2014’s Akeem Ayers, who can line up at any linebacker and edge defender role. I expected him to be a back-up for every starter in 2016, and to serve as insurance as both linebacker starters and edge defender starters would be free agents after the season.
His role is a lot more involved, and I wonder if this is what the coaching staff previously had in store for Rob Ninkovich.
When the first team defense was on the field, McClellin played everywhere. He was a stand-up linebacker. He was playing on the edge of a 5-man defensive line (more on that in a bit). He played defensive end on a 4-man front. When the Patriots sat Jabaal Sheard halfway through the first half, McClellin assumed his role as the defensive end, only moving outside when Trey Flowers took the field as a pass rusher.
He stuffed the run, he rushed the quarterback, he covered running backs and tight ends, and he dropped into zone coverage in the flat. He’s going to be a fun player to watch.
The Patriots liked to line him across from the opposing team’s tight end on the strong side, with Jamie Collins taking the weak side. What’s interesting is that his presence meant the Patriots generally fielded four defensive backs, instead of the five they used so frequently in 2015. Is this a long term change in the scheme? Or is this just a temporary preseason moment to match up against the Saints vanilla personnel? We’ll find out over the next few weeks.
By far the most common usage of McClellin in the first team defense was as a cover for the tight end in a 5-2 front.
McClellin’s role was multiple out of the snap. He served as a chip against the tight end, should they go into coverage, and he was in position to hold the edge if the run was in his direction. McClellin adopted this role on 17 of the 20 first team snaps with McClellin. Collins actually played a mirroring edge position on four of the snaps, to create a 6-man front. The Patriots would drop their safeties into the box in order to serve as linebackers.
The Patriots were able to control the line of scrimmage with this personnel, with the Saints top two backs of Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower combining for 20 yards on 11 carries.
McClellin was also a contributor in pass coverage as he dropped into coverage of tight ends and running backs in the flat. (Below, McClellin is on the near side #58)
The Patriots used McClellin as a rusher, at times, and he was effective at collapsing the pocket when playing with the second team defense. It seems as if the second quarter was primarily so McClellin could get his feet wet as a pass rusher.
Overall, McClellin’s versatility rivals, and might even surpass, that of Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich has been a solid edge defender over his career, but he has clearly declined in recent seasons. McClellin brings athleticism and youth to the role and it seems like Bill Belichick has created a new defense just for him.
And to that point, I don’t think we’ve seen this before at such a consistent level. Ninkovich allowed defensive flexibility in the past, but the Patriots never seemed to capitalize on this. The Patriots used Hightower in a similar capacity on a few snaps last year, but the quality of linebacker play with Jonathan Freeny on the field made it a vulnerability.
Now McClellin is a perfect fit for what Belichick has cooked up, and it allows Hightower and Collins to stay at their dominant linebacker positions. McClellin will definitely be a point of focus during film evaluation moving forward.