The ILB Role in the 3-4 Defense, and My Misgivings About McClain


You’ve read my 7-round big board. Several things, I’m sure, were startling about it. But judging from the comments, none moreso than listing Alabama ILB Rolando McClain as a middle-of-the-second-round prospect. It’s true, I really feel that way.

So let me get this out of the way. I really don’t like the idea of selecting Alabama ILB Rolando McClain with the #5 overall. I really don’t like the idea of selecting Alabama ILB Rolando McClain #7 overall after trading down with Cleveland. I really don’t like the idea of selecting Alabama ILB Rolando McClain #9 overall after trading down with Buffalo.

I dislike this pick more than drafting Bryan Bulaga, which is saying something. I just plain don’t like the idea of selecting Rolando McClain with anything less than our “2b” pick, although it’s obviously a less egregious error if we select him at “2a.”

More, after the jump.

This is a topic I have to get off my chest, because it’s been a hesitation I’ve had all offseason. But the buzz is picking up on McClain, and he’s been endorsed by several Chiefs blogs at this point so let me get my reasoning out of the way and weather whatever storm may accompany it.

In a 3-4, the #1 hardest thing a linebacker has to do is get to the quarterback, and rack up dozens of sacks. That’s the most difficult thing a linebacker is asked to do. But that role is emphasized in the outside linebacker (OLB) position, not the inside linebacker (ILB) position. ILB has many responsibilities, but they are primarily run support and coverage of running backs out of the backfield, slot receivers, or tight ends. Responsibilities which, even if you’re elite at those skills, aren’t game changers unless you’re essentially a Ray Lewis mental-and-emotional leader on the field.

Simply put, the 3-4 ILB is not a priority. Like interior offensive lineman, it is a position where you can find perfectly adequate and even outstanding talent in the midrounds. Like interior lineman, occasionally you’ll run across talent that is elite and may deserve a 1st round pick. But since they are not asked to do that incredibly difficult task of getting to the QB, they are simply not worth a Top 10 pick,  and rarely if ever are they worth a 1st round pick.

McClain possesses the intangibles to be a great on-field leader. But his coverage is completely suspect. We’re not talking about the bolting speed of Aaron Curry here. We’re not even talking about Jared Mayo. We’re talking about a downright slow linebacker. In third and short situations, his great size and ferocity will work out great. But in third and long… speedy slot receivers, faster backs out of the backfield, and the more adept tight ends will very likely have their way with him. This makes McClain a two-down player.

A two-down player with poor speed at a devalued position? You can find that in the midrounds. We have three fifth round picks. And while McClain’s leadership is amazing, and his fiery spirit evident, you can find vocal leaders all over the Draft.

I wouldn’t be terribly opposed to taking him at 2a, but he’s not going to last that long. McClain will be a first round pick to a team with less needs that will be happy to drop a first on him because it costs them less. But we are selecting with, in all likelihood, a Top 10 pick for a team that needs to very carefully select its cornerstones.

McClain would have an immediate impact; non-passrushing linebackers always do. But the sheer influence of that impact pales compared to a stud safety, nose tackle, corner, quarterback, offensive jaggernaut, or yes, even offensive tackle, as much as we’ve fought that notion at AA. It’s simply not a pick we can afford.