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The Issue with Rolando McClain

As of right now, it's fairly easy to narrow down who the Jacksonville Jaguars are going to select if they stay at the 10th overall pick in the draft next week.  If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain.  He fits what they're looking for in a linebacker.  He's a student of the game, a leader, he goes 100% every play, he makes big-time plays, and he's a thumper.  There is a big area of concern however, with relation to where the Jaguars are selecting.  I like Rolando McClain a lot as a player and I think he'll be a fine linebacker at the next level, but is he fast enough to warrant picking in the Top 10?

Below is a chart I made comparing linebackers taken in the Top 10 since the 2000 NFL draft.  Lately when comparing past drafts and draft trends, I've been using 2000 as a cut-off because it makes a nice even 10 years (so a decade) and it's in the same "era" of the NFL.  The game from 2000 isn't that much different from today, where as something like 1995 is completely different.

Player Overall Pick 40-Yard Dash
Lavar Arrington 2 4.51
Brian Urlacher 9 4.58
A.J. Hawk 5 4.53
Ernie Sims 9 4.50
Keith Rivers 9 4.51
Jerod Mayo 10 4.54
Aaron Curry 4 4.52
Rolando McClain Proj. Top 10 4.69

As you can see, all of the linebackers taken with in the Top 10 cracked the 4.6 mark, most of them by quite a bit.  Also just to throw it out there, there were reports that Patrick Willis, who was selected 11th overall, ran in the 4.39 range at his pro-day.  Johnathan Vilma who was also taken just outside the Top 10 ran in the 4.52 range.  Part of the reasons all of these linebackers were taken so early was because of their athleticism, it allowed them to be versatile. They were not pigeonholed into a particular position or even defense.  All of them could play strong-side, weak-side, and middle linebacker.  All of them could find a spot in a 4-3 defense or a 3-4 defense.

As I said previously, I like Rolando McClain a lot as a football player and I think he'll be a good player in the NFL.  The problem is however, I don't think he's worth a Top 10 selection, especially given that the Jaguars claim their going to be running a 4-3 alignment.  If the Jaguars were sticking with the 3-4 that they experimented with last year, I wouldn't really have an issue with the pick.  McClain is a great building block for making the transition to a 3-4 defense, especially considering Jacksonville has a guy in Terrance Knighton who excelled at the nose tackle position.  He's a perfect fit as in inside linebacker and he has plenty of experience in the 3-4, as he played and excelled in it at Alabama.  This is part of what I take issue with.  If the Jaguars plan on sticking with the 4-3 (which I still have doubts about, but that's for another day) McClain only fits at a single position due to his lack of speed; middle linebacker. His speed is a big issue, as he barely cracked a 4.7, and in today's NFL speed at the linebacker position in the 4-3 is a necessity.  You don't really want your middle linebacker running as fast as 270 pound defensive ends. You want your middle linebacker to be able to play sideline to sideline.

That's fine and well, and I think he'd be a good middle linebacker... but you don't draft linebackers in the Top 10 with the hopes of them just being "good" within your scheme at a single position.  Linebackers traditionally are not considered a premium position (not counting 3-4 rush backer, obviously) in today's NFL.  Generally when they are taken in the Top 10, or just outside of it, it's because they posses great speed, athletic ability, play recognition, and they're versatile.  McClain has some of these attributes, but not all of them.  If he's playing the middle linebacker position in a 4-3, which is really the only position he can play in a 4-3, opposing team's offensive coordinators are going to find ways to exploit him in coverage.  They'll find ways to stretch running plays that will require him to cover a lot of ground.

That's the whole crux of the issue. You don't want to select a limited player in the Top 10 unless you have to.  You can't draft a linebacker in the Top 10 who isn't a 3-down player.  As I said before, if the Jaguars were running a 3-4 alignment, it'd be a little different.  You don't need the inside linebackers to be as complete, you can hide their coverage deficiencies... but the Jaguars don't currently run a 3-4 defense, they run a 4-3 where those cannot be hidden. McClain will either have to come off the field on obvious passing downs, blitz, or risk getting exploited in coverage. 

As I mentioned earlier, if I were a betting man McClain is who I'd put my money on for the 10th overall pick, depending on who's available.  From the sounds of it though, it would almost be a pick made begrudgingly and almost out of need, as the Jaguars are trying to find a linebacker outside of Daryl Smith they feel is worth a damn.  If McClain has his named called on April 22nd I'm not going to be upset with the pick, but I can't say I'd be entirely thrilled with it either.