The Baltimore Ravens made another free-agency addition on Friday when inside linebacker Rolando McClain passed his physical and was rewarded with a one-year, $1.1 million maximum-value contract from the team. However, unlike their other signings this offseason, it'll take a bit of time to see if McClain was a steal for the price or simply a low-risk experiment.
McClain, the Oakland Raiders' eighth-overall pick in the 2010 draft, has often been called a bust after three seasons in Oakland were marked by inconsistent, oft-disappointing production as well as a number of legal and character issues. He's appeared in 41 games, with a total of 244 combined tackles, 6.5 sacks, one forced fumble, an interception and 20 passes defensed.
His best season came in 2011, when he notched five of those 6.5 sacks and 14 passes defensed and 99 combined tackles. His 2012 season came to an early end, however, after being suspended by the team after a heated argument with Raiders head coach Dennis Allen. He was then unceremoniously released from his contract in early April.
Clearly, the Ravens snagged McClain to meet an immediate need at an affordable price. At best, McClain will take over as a full-time starter for the retired Ray Lewis; at worst, he'll be released in training camp for a very small ($700,000) salary cap hit.
Though the signing was risky considering McClain's history both on and off the field, it was a calculated risk that won't cause the Ravens much damage should he not work out.
Though McClain played just 505 snaps in 2012, appearing in 11 games with nine starts, he was Pro Football Focus' 11th-ranked inside linebacker (subscription required) despite having a disappointing season compared to his successful 2011 showing. His run-stopping skills in particular are quite impressive, and moving from Oakland's 4-3 front to the Ravens' 3-4 (which he ran in college at Alabama) should provide him with ample opportunity to really showcase his talents—and take over Lewis' starting job should he impress coaches during camps over the next few months.
The signing also gives the Ravens some leeway when it comes to the upcoming draft. With Lewis retiring and Dannell Ellerbe leaving in free agency, inside linebacker became one of the highest-priority positions to address in the first two rounds of the draft. With the McClain signing, it frees them up—they are no longer beholden to drafting an inside linebacker early simply because of overwhelming need.
While they may draft one at some point—even in the first two rounds should need and the best player available overlap—the word "must" is now out of the equation. They can look for depth on the inside, for example, if they see McClain as a starter, allowing them to look more closely at wide receivers, safeties and offensive linemen early on.
Basically, what McClain can accomplish in his year in Baltimore is up to McClain and not the Ravens. The price tag and length of the deal benefits only the Ravens and will require McClain to prove himself worthy of the deal itself, the $400,000 in playing-time incentives and potentially a longer-term contract after the 2013 season wraps.
Considering his legal issues in the past—which include an arrest for assault (charges were later dismissed)—if he falls out of line either with the law or with head coach John Harbaugh, it will probably result in his release. He'll need to keep his past in his past, prove that his on-field struggles in Oakland were a product of the system rather than his play and beat out whoever they choose to have him compete with for a starting job.
The odds are tipped against his favor, but the fact that he has a contract to begin with gives him something to fight for on a team that could very well take him to the playoffs and beyond. Signing McClain could end with him being a starter or with him being released, but either way, the Ravens are well-protected. For the cost and the college pedigree of McClain, the Ravens made another successful signing even if he never takes the field.