Secret Superstar: Robert McClain
From late-round pick to key part of the plan three years and two teams later, Robert McClain's rise and future role is broken down by PFF's Khaled Elsayed.
Secret Superstar: Robert McClain
Heading into the 2012 season, the Atlanta Falcons felt they had the kind of trio at cornerback that would serve them well against the high-powered passing offenses they were due to face.
Just 52 snaps into the season they lost the most talented member of that unit when Brent Grimes went down with an Achilles injury that would end his 2012. It meant Atlanta was forced to look at other options until one stepped forward and made himself a fixture as the team’s slot corner.
That man was Robert McClain, and he’s our Secret Superstar for the Atlanta Falcons.
The Makings of the Man
You only need to look at the Wikipedia page of McClain to know what his NFL prospects were like when he was getting ready to leave the University of Connecticut. By no means a sure thing to be drafted, he was “hopeful to get invited somewhere” with a backup plan that would see him join the military.
Given how many late-round and undrafted prospects go on to have long NFL careers, his awareness was refreshing. Yet, initially at least, he could put his plans to enlist with the Marines on hold, as the Carolina Panthers made him the 249th overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Still, there were no guarantees that he would make the roster as a seventh-round pick, and it would have been a relief when he made it through final cuts and was on the roster for the start of the 2010 NFL season.
As you’d expect he initially made his name on special teams, picking up his first two NFL tackles as part of the team’s coverage unit against the Buccaneers in Week 2. It was a role he would feature in heavily for the rest of the year, playing 66.1% of all special teams snaps and amassing eight special teams tackles that would see him finish fifth on the year.
A good effort, I think we can all agree. What’s more, McClain handled himself relatively well when he got on the field for 134 defensive snaps. His -1.5 grade won’t blow you away, but in allowing just 9 of 14 targets to be completed for 150 yards, he showed some talent while going up against the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Roddy White and Mike Wallace.
Dealing with Adversity
While McClain had a rookie year to suggest a growing role in 2011, Coach John Fox was predictably axed and a new regime obviously wasn’t as keen on the young CB. He was released at the final round of roster cuts before the start of the 2011 season, and he would spend the majority of the year out of football, signing on with the Jaguars only at the beginning of December. Despite the team struggling, he didn’t get on the field and found himself released again before the year ran out.
It wasn’t encouraging and you’d have understood McClain deciding his future lay somewhere other than in the National Football League.
But McClain didn’t. Signed by Atlanta as a future free agent he seemed at best a long shot to make the roster. The team not only had Grimes, Dunta Robinson and Asante Samuel on the roster, but long-time depth in the shape of Christopher Owens. Saying not much was expected out of him would be an understatement, but when injuries depleted the Falcons’ defensive back ranks McClain found himself called upon.
It started off briefly. In Week 2 he was on the field for just two snaps yet managed to pick off Peyton Manning on one of those. He’d have to wait until Week 4 to play again, but with that one pick people were starting to look at him, and more playing time was to follow as the Falcons realized that the 5-foot-9 cornerback might be the answer to their slot coverage woes.
It started against the team and coach that had cut him — Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers. He was on the field for 37 snaps and gave up only one reception for 8 yards all game. However, the league is filled with players who come in and do a job one game and then are exposed as teams find out more about them. McClain was bound to be more thoroughly tested against the Redskins a week later, and he was. He had three balls thrown into his coverage, allowing two of them to be complete for a combined 6 yards.
It was to be a similar story for the rest of the year. McClain would wind up allowing 64.8% of the 71 balls (including playoffs) to be complete, but at just 9.2 yards per catch and with no touchdowns allowed he had impressed. In giving up just 0.91 yards per snap in coverage while in the slot (ninth-lowest of all defensive backs) he had found his role. In surrendering a first down on just 4.75% of coverage snaps (11th-best of all cornerbacks) he had proven himself.
The Falcons were quick this offseason to say goodbye to the disappointing investment that was Dunta Robinson, and they were happy to let Brent Grimes hit the open market and sign with the Miami Dolphins. The play and development of Robert McClain was a big reason why.
The other part of that equation saw them trade up for and draft Desmond Trufant, but don’t think for a second that’s an indictment of McClain. Instead, it’s a reality of what he can do and where he can succeed — defending the shiftier players you see in the slot. In the modern NFL your team needs a guy who can do that, and while the Panthers didn’t realize what they had, it’s pretty clear that Mike Smith & Co. do.
Another year like last year and they won’t be the only ones. Until then, though, McClain is the PFF Secret Superstar for the Atlanta Falcons.
Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled