Remember Rolando McClain? The star Alabama linebacker the Raiders took with their first pick in 2010, hailed as a surprisingly wise move by then-owner Al Davis? The guy who was, naturally, a huge bust because the Raiders can’t have nice things? Well, he popped up on the Cowboys this season playing a competent middle linebacker. How the hell did that happen?
McClain’s three seasons on the Raiders were garbage, to put it nicely. His play on the field was forgettable, and his highlight was this photo, after he was arrested for allegedly firing a gun near a dude’s head:
By the middle of the 2012 season, McClain was fed up. He openly complained on Facebook about how he wanted out of Oakland. McClain stopped playing after Week 12, and the Raiders let him go on April 5, 2013. Five days later, he signed with Baltimore. About a month later, he retired. McClain didn’t play in the 2013 season.
This offseason, Dallas traded a late pick for the chance to get McClain. Why? Sean Lee. Their original middle linebacker ended his 2014 season in May when he tore his ACL and meniscus in OTAs. Free agency had already come and gone, so options were limited. The McClain trade was a gamble, but his play in five games this season has made the swap look like a steal.
Due to injuries and a weird matchup with the Saints, McClain has played fewer snaps than most other starting middle linebackers—222 compared to the 300-400 range of other starters. He missed Week 3 with an injury, and he played 35 of 63 snaps against the Saints, but that wasn’t really his fault. Against Drew Brees and a strong passing offense, Dallas used the nickel frequently with linebackers Justin Durant and Bruce Carter. The defense mainly brought in McClain for likely running situations. (The Cowboys won, 38-17.)
Though McClain’s sample size is smaller, it’s instructive. Just keep that 222 in mind when you learn that Pro Football Focus (login required) gave him a 9.0 overall grade for inside linebackers, third-best out of all, and the top pass coverage rating at 5.9. McClain’s biggest responsibility is pass coverage; he’s played 120 snaps there. Though he’s allowed eight catches on nine targets, there’s a more important number: 0.46, McClain’s yards per snap in coverage. That’s good enough for fourth-best among all inside linebackers with significant snaps this season. Translated another way: McClain isn’t breaking up passes thrown his way, but his coverage is good enough to scare quarterbacks out of his zone. Compare that to the 194 coverage snaps he played in Oakland in 2012, where he gave up 1.23 yards per snap. The Raiders sample uses a few more games, but it’d take a lot of screwing up for McClain to match that pace this season.
This is crucial, because it’s not easy to find starter-worthy inside linebackers who can handle tight ends and other short routes without showing their asses. This version of McClain predicts well, does a good job of watching the quarterback’s eyes, doesn’t make dumb mistakes (zero penalties so far), and finds a good route of pursuit as a play happens in front of him.
Take this play from back in Week 2, when Dallas played the Titans. In the third quarter, McClain dropped back in coverage, but once he sees the pocket fall apart around Jake Locker, he changes his objective, doesn’t overcommit before Locker’s cutback, and takes the quarterback down.
This play is good and bad. Titans WR Justin Hunter caught a pass on a drag route that ended in a three-yard gain. McClain displayed his ability to chase down receivers and prevent yards after the catch. That’s good! He hesitated after the snap, and on a third-and-short, the Titans got the first down. That’s bad.
He’s not perfect against running backs coming out of the backfield. On this play in Week 5, Texans running back Arian Foster ran a wheel route while McClain played man, and once he turned right, Foster had 14 yards before the linebacker caught up. That’s probably McClain’s biggest weakness. He’s screwed on plays that get behind him.
But let’s end with one of the best plays of McClain’s season, last Sunday against Seattle. He drops back in zone with a four-man rush, gets in front of tight end Luke Willson, and shuts down Russell Wilson’s tight window. He was always dropping back to get enough depth to interfere with the pass, but he got in and out of his coverage position smoothly enough to turn and get the ball, sealing out the win over the Seahawks.
McClain’s tackling and hitting are stellar, as you might expect from an Alabama alumnus. He’s astute enough to find holes in the line, and the Cowboys have utilized that by giving him 89 snaps on run defense. He’s a play-killer: His run stop percentage, at 14.8%, is third-best behind Stephen Tulloch and Luke Kuechly. Even when McClain doesn’t get the chance to fully wrap up, he holds on long enough for a teammate to finish the takedown. That’s a good attribute to have when you’re playing in Monte Kiffin’s bend-don’t-break defense. (Kiffin and Rod Marinelli are probably better teachers than Oakland’s shuffling coaching staffs.)
McClain’s on a one-year deal for $700,000, so the dangling carrot of a new contract is probably his biggest incentive to not fuck up on the field (or off it). There were reasons why McClain was the first linebacker picked in his class. It just took a bit longer than most for him to justify why.