With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Boise State end/linebacker Shea McClellin. Everybody wants to talk about this or that offensive player when discussing the Broncos' recent run of success, but Boise State has enjoyed one of the NCAA's best defenses every year over the last half-decade. McClellin is a big reason why. In 2011, he was named first-team All-Mountain West Conference with 46 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. He built off a 2010 season in which he racked up 13.5 tackles for loss and a team-high 9.5 sacks. It's clear that McClellin has everything it takes from a raw athletic perspective to be an elite pass-rusher, but how do his abilities best transfer to the NFL?
Pros: Very impressive pursuit ability in pass rush from one side of the field to the other -- if you're blocking McClellin out and you succeed at first, you'd still better try again, because he will get sacks by bailing out of those blocks and chasing the quarterback down. Extremely athletic player who will burst off the tape at times and make everyone else look as if they're in slow motion. Good burst from a standing position allows him to make up ground quickly. Occasionally fast enough to blow right by a tackle before he can get set to block. Especially effective in slanted formations where he can bear down on the ballcarrier and use that first step to gain even more of an advantage.
Decent at sifting through trash to get to a running back, but could use his hands more effectively. Looked very adept away from the line when Boise State had him play linebacker in certain fronts, and might be even faster with his hand off the ground. Average ability when dropping into coverage, but there's no reason to believe he couldn't be great at this with more reps. Good sense of gaps and when to split them. Didn't loop inside a lot on the tape I saw, but he would seem to be a real potential weapon in that capacity.
Cons: McClellin is so concerned with being the fastest guy on the field that he will overrun plays on occasion -- sometimes, pretty wildly. Does not yet possess the upper-body strength to run consistent bull-rushes on NFL-caliber blockers; his game is all about speed and agility. Comes off the snap high at times and can be absolutely erased by blockers as a result. Not at all set to handle drive-blocking against power teams -- you can see him get bulled back a lot on sweeps and pulls. Needs to develop better hand moves, footwork and change of direction skills to get around blocks; he won't be able to just sweep around the NFL's tackles as a defensive end.
Conclusion: Most of McClellin's obvious negative issues as an NFL prospect could be mitigated, or eliminated, with a switch to strong-side linebacker, or to straight "endbacker" in the Clay Matthews mold. Like Matthews, McClellin transcended his original status as a lightly recruited player to become a true difference-maker on an elite defense. His coaches at the Senior Bowl had him playing linebacker for the most part -- they had the right idea. It's clear that McClellin's primary attributes (demon speed and spatial awareness) would benefit him most at a position where he could simply pin his ears back and go.
The 4.63 40-yard dash McClellin ran at the scouting combine would have placed him sixth-fastest among outside linebackers in Indianapolis, and at a time when pass rushers are more valuable than ever in the NFL, look for creative defensive coordinators to watch McClellin's game tape, get big cake-eating grins, start planning how best to use this second-round prospect, and turn him into a first-level quarterback disruptor. The challenge will be when he's asked to kick inside to end in sub packages; he'll most likely be a rotational guy at first. The Reed pro comparison is a bit of a compromise -- McClellin is more explosive than Reed, but he's certainly not at Matthews' level yet. You can also see elements of Trent Cole and Patrick Kerney in his skill set.
Pro Comparison: Brooks Reed, Houston Texans/Arizona Wildcats