FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – When considering if the New England Patriots might be able to do what the Chicago Bears couldn’t, and tap the potential that made linebacker Shea McClellin a 2012 first-round draft choice, Tully Banta-Cain comes to mind.
The 2003 seventh-round Patriots draft choice had been groomed in the team’s system as a defensive end/linebacker, departed as a big-money free-agent signing of the San Francisco 49ers four years later, but never produced the results the 49ers hoped. He returned to New England after two years in San Francisco and had a breakout 2010 season with 10 sacks.
Banta-Cain is one example of how the Patriots often maximize the skill set of their hybrid edge players, and mask their deficiencies, to yield successful results.
Mark Anderson is another.
When the Patriots signed the defensive end/outside linebacker as a veteran free agent in 2011, the move hardly registered on the radar. Anderson was coming off a moderate season with the Houston Texans and settled on a one-year deal in New England that was worth just more than $1 million.
But similar to Banta-Cain, things didn’t work out for Anderson after leaving New England. He’s another example of how the Patriots have had success with players at the position, a history that traces to 2001 with free-agent signee Mike Vrabel.
A seldom-used reserve with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Vrabel was signed by the Patriots as a free agent in ’01 and emerged quickly in New England as an end-of-the-line player in the team’s scheme. Reflecting his success, he’s now a Patriots Hall of Fame finalist.
Vrabel is yet another reminder of how the Patriots have a defined role for their edge players that often brings out the best in them. Just like Rob Ninkovich, who is still on the roster and whose story is well documented.
One more example of note: Akeem Ayers.
Acquired for a bargain-basement price in a 2014 midseason trade after he had fallen out of favor with the Tennessee Titans, Ayers became a nice cog as a defensive end/outside linebacker. He then parlayed that success into a two-year, $6 million deal with the Rams as a free agent.
All of which brings us to McClellin, who fits into a similar category position-wise as Banta-Cain, Anderson, Vrabel, Ninkovich and Ayers. He played various roles in Chicago over the last four seasons, under three different coordinators, and the Patriots have a clear-cut vision for how he fits in their scheme.
When I recently asked McClellin where he felt most comfortable in Chicago, he said, “Definitely rushing the passer – any aspect with my hand down or standing up, any kind of blitzing, any linebacker position really, where I’m rushing the passer.”
McClellin acknowledged that he didn’t do much of that last season as an inside linebacker in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 scheme. He was sent on a blitz from time to time, but “they asked me to drop into coverage more and take more of that role. I was fine with it.”
Look for McClellin to rush more in New England, and be used in similar ways as Banta-Cain, Anderson, Vrabel and Ayers.
And based on that history, don’t be surprised if his production and success is greater than the last four years with the Bears.