New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has the final say in how we classify a player, in my opinion. If he says that a lineman is a guard, then I’m calling him a guard. If he says that a safety should be considered a defensive back, then I’m calling him a defensive back. I’ll defer to Belichick on these sorts of things.
Belichick shed some light on how he views Shea McClellin in his Monday press conference.
“We only really played three linebackers last night,” Belichick said. “Jonathan [Freeny], Jamie [Collins] and High [Dont'a Hightower]...All of those guys and on the defensive line we rotated really all eight players on the defensive line, defensive end and defensive tackle.”
And that’s all I need to know. When I did my film review of McClellin from the first preseason game, I thought it was some fancy defensive lineman/linebacker hybrid, but I was told that it was just a standard strongside linebacker (SAM) role.
But if Freeny (6 snaps), Collins (61 snaps), and Hightower (58 snaps) were the only three linebackers on the field, then it would seem that McClellin (24 snaps) is viewed as playing a different position.
Belichick would be the first to tell me that pigeon-holing a player into a position is nothing but a media fantasy to make players easier to categorize (and he’s right), but I think it’s worth noting that McClellin joins Jabaal Sheard, Chris Long, and Trey Flowers as the edge defenders.
It’s also interesting to note that McClellin played more than Flowers and could be considered the third edge defender on the depth chart. I’m curious to see if Rob Ninkovich would have been #3 on the chart if he were active.
I think that McClellin and Flowers are actually an interesting rotational grouping in that third edge defender spot because they are vastly different. Flowers is more like Sheard as being able to kick inside to pressure the quarterback from the interior of the line, while McClellin is similar to Long, as both are more likely to play on the outside and drop back into coverage.
Having these edge players with different skill sets allows Belichick to game plan his pass rush more efficiently on a week-to-week basis, and to also make in-game adjustments based on the game script. The deep roster rotation also keeps the players energized for more of the game.
“I think our ability to kind of stay fresh and have some stamina there at the end of the game when we needed to be able to rush the passer-that ended up being beneficial,” Belichick noted.
Sheard led the edge defenders with 44 snaps on defense, or 72.1% of the available snaps. Last year, the starting duo of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich exceeded that percentage in all but the Jaguars and Titans blowouts, and then Ninkovich only played 64.8% of snaps against the Jets in week 16.
In other words, the Patriots started a rotation with their edge defenders in 2015 that was not present in prior seasons. The 2015 rotation featured three edge defenders in Jones, Ninkovich, and Sheard.
The Patriots have gone one step further in 2016 with a four-man rotation, so players will likely not reach the snap counts of edge defenders in past years. McClellin’s versatility plays a big role in opening up another chapter in the defensive playbook.