The New England Patriots signed LB Shea McClellin prior to the 2016 season to serve as insurance for multiple different roles. He could play either linebacker position to back-up Dont’a Hightower or Jamie Collins, and he could play on the edge to back-up Rob Ninkovich.
The door opened for McClellin after Collins was sent to Cleveland, but the emergence of rookie LB Elandon Roberts as a run defender prevented McClellin from becoming a full time linebacker. But once Roberts showed that he wasn’t ready to contribute in coverage and once Hightower started to miss time down the stretch, McClellin’s role increased from playing one-third of snaps to nearly half of all defensive snaps.
McClellin settled in as a passing down linebacker that offered some value in coverage and as the league’s 5th most efficient pass rusher down the final stretch of the season. Opposing teams averaged 1.03 passing yards fewer than average with McClellin on the field, the best mark by a Patriots linebacker and a testament to how McClellin quietly went about his business and allowed other players to make plays.
With LB Dont’a Hightower not on the practice field in OTAs, McClellin will have more opportunity to show his worth in the starting defense, and he’s already started to turn heads.
“It is rare to see Brady appear to make a mistake with a read that results in him throwing an interception,” ESPN’s Mike Reiss relayed in his Sunday Notes. “It happened in Super Bowl LI, and the Patriots’ own defense was buzzing on Thursday when it happened again at the team’s voluntary organized team activity. With two defenders dropping into the flats, and linebacker Shea McClellin ‘jamming’ a running back to disrupt timing, McClellin showed his reliable hands when Brady attempted to dump the ball off to D.J. Foster but wasn’t expecting McClellin to be there. Ever the competitor, Brady probably lost some sleep over that one in recent days.”
The Patriots elected not to add much talent to the linebacker position this offseason, giving Elandon Roberts an opportunity to make a sophomore leap and Kyle Van Noy a chance to have a full offseason with the team. McClellin should get another shot to win a job, and he should also find time in the Patriots unique 3-3 defensive front.
(Note: There’s no real difference in calling the defense a 3-3 or a 4-2 front- Bill Belichick will be the first to explain it’s nothing more than a “media fabrication”- and it’s all about presenting information in an easily digestible format.)
The Patriots three defensive linemen in the 3-3 are Trey Flowers at the 5-technique, Alan Branch at the 1-technique, and Malcom Brown at the 3-technique. McClellin can play all three linebacker positions in this front.
- Middle Linebacker. Starter: Dont’a Hightower. McClellin served as Dont’a Hightower’s back-up and he’s proven himself capable of making tackles in the middle of the field when thrust into a larger role. McClellin would compete with Elandon Roberts for this back-up role.
- Strongside Linebacker. Starter: Kyle Van Noy. This linebacker supports outside of Flowers and lines up against the tight end, and is expected to eat blocks and cover in the flat. McClellin would compete with Jonathan Freeny for this back-up role.
- Elephant Linebacker. Starter: Rob Ninkovich. Ninkovich spends his time on the line of scrimmage as a 4-man front defensive end, but he offers a chance to drop into coverage. McClellin would compete with Kony Ealy or Derek Rivers for this back-up role.
McClellin played all of these roles in 2016 and will likely do the same in 2017. His ability to back-up multiple roles and contribute on special teams and his team-friendly contract make him likely to stick with the team, but he’s certainly not a roster lock.
But with Hightower possibly missing time in the coming weeks, there is certainly an opportunity for McClellin to make a statement.