The New York Giants bolstered their linebacking corps late Thursday evening via free agency, inking former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain to a two-year, $4.1 million deal.
The signing will solidify an often unstable group of linebackers for the Giants that has required attention for a few years now. With five years of experience working alongside Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and the Ravens’ defense, McClain should bring a fierce edge to the Big Blue defense that has lacked a bit recently.
But that’s not all he brings to the table. The 28-year-old linebacker has amassed 338 tackles, 4.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries through his first six seasons in the NFL. All this despite being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008.
That type of underdog story is commonplace for the Giants, who have had substantial success over the last decade behind the stalwart play of guys who were never supposed to cut in the league (Victor Cruz, Chase Blackburn, Shaun O’Hara, Ahmad Bradshaw and the list goes on). Not misguided by success—having been a member of the Ravens’ Super Bowl championship team in 2012—McClain made it clear he still lives that underdog role everyday on the gridiron in an interview with the G-Men following his signing.
That will be important. The Giants are hungry to get back to the Super Bowl championship themselves and their hopeful McClain will play a major part in that.
Of course, it’s not all gumdrops and unicorns when it comes to the new Giants linebacker. While McClain might be a superb tackler with a nose for the football, his play against the run can leaves something to be desired. He did not grade well with Pro Football Focus against the run, as Pete Damilatis noted.
For those asking about Jameel McClain: solid blitzer, sure tackler, but dreadful vs the run in the last 2 seasons.
— Pete Damilatis (@PFF_Pete) March 14, 2014
That could spell some trouble within the division, where the Giants will be faced with stop some of the league’s best running backs in the Redskins’ Alfred Morris, Cowboys’ DeMarco Murray and the Eagles’ duo of LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles.
McClain was playing in a 3-4 system with the Ravens, however. A move to the Giants’ 4-3 base defense and a sturdy spot at strong side linebacker could boost his performance. He is far better suited to play in the 4-3 at the pro level.
The Giants should benefit from his versatility. Though he has weaknesses like every player does, he is willing and able to play all three linebacker positions as he was often asked to do in Baltimore. On top of that, he is an adept special teams player, having recorded 60 special teams tackles in his career.
His play against the pass is where the Giants will benefit the most. Two years ago, he was among the league’s best linebackers vs. the pass, and though his performance last season dipped a bit due to a late start, he is still an improvement over the man he will be replacing, Keith Rivers.
McClain shows great instincts in pass coverage, making the right reads and breaking on the football. The Giants have been punished over the last few seasons with subpar talent filling the strong side linebacker role, such as Rivers, unable to keep up with the NFL’s ever-adapting crop of athletic receiving tight ends.
McClain should change all of that. The Syracuse alum is not a star by any means, but the Giants didn’t need that. If he is even average, at the position he plays and the price tag they landed him at, it will be a win for Big Blue.
In the process, they add an upgrade over what they had in his place last season. A step forward is better than a step sideways or backward. That’s progress for a defense that was actually better than given credit for in 2013.