Terrell McClain Could Be a Sleeper on Defense for the Cowboys

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJune 18, 2014

Sep 29, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Texans defensive tackle Terrell McClain (97) reacts after recovering a fumble during the second quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Reliant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys are in a tough spot having to replace top 2013 defenders Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. And considering that Lee missed a significant amount of time last year, while Ware was severely limited for health reasons, Hatcher—who made the Pro Bowl in a career year—might actually have left the biggest shoes to fill at Valley Ranch. 

But don't be surprised if the Cowboys have very little trouble getting on without Hatcher at defensive tackle. Because not only does free-agent addition Henry Melton bring Pro Bowl potential, but Terrell McClain has apparently been tearing it up during organized team activities. 

Wait, who?

The dude who was a complete bust with the Oakland Raiders? No, no, that's Rolando McClain. 

Oh, the guy who started each of the last four years for the Baltimore Ravens? Wrong again. That's Jameel McClain. 

We're talking about Terrell McClain, who has one career sack and 21 career tackles and has played for three different teams in three NFL seasons. 

"He’s one of those guys who doesn’t say anything to anybody," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said of McClain this week, according to ESPN.com's Todd Archer. "He’s just quiet and goes to work every day, but he’s absolutely one of the guys who is showing up the most in these (OTA) practices. He has great intensity in all that he does. He flashes some ability. We really like how he goes about his business."

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has a knack for turning good defensive linemen into great ones and mediocre defensive linemen into good ones. If Melton can stay healthy, the Cowboys will only have to hope that Marinelli can perform the latter task with McClain. 

He did exactly that with journeyman George Selvie last season. Prior to arriving in Dallas, Selvie—who was coincidentally a teammate of McClain's at South Floridahad three career sacks and had started zero games in three different cities over a three-year span. But then he had seven sacks while starting all 16 games in place of injured Pro Bowler Anthony Spencer. 

Marinelli also worked his magic with Nick Hayden, Jarius Wynn, Drake Nevis, Everette Brown and Caesar Rayford, all of whom easily exceeded dirt-low expectations. 

McClain fits the rags-to-riches profile. He's played just 203 snaps the last two years and struggled so much as a rookie third-round pick in Carolina in 2011 that the Panthers didn't even keep him around for a second season. That year, he was graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the game's fifth-worst defensive tackle among 88 qualifiers. 

But the Cowboys obviously see something in McClain, and you get the feeling Marinelli is making him his next project. The 25-year-old has the versatility to work as a 3-technique or as a nose tackle, which is a huge asset considering the health concerns this defense faces. Melton's knee is a question mark, and this is a line that was forced to use 20 different players over the course of the 2013 campaign. 

It also appears that McClain is rejuvenated partly because he's in a system that better suits him. He was drafted by a 4-3 team and may have been out of place at his last stop in Houston

"He’s not the typical zero nose tackle in a 3-4 defense where he just sits over the center and two-gaps," Garrett said, per David Moore of The Dallas Morning News. "That hasn’t been his mode since he’s been playing. He’s always been a guy who has been on an edge, being able to play up field a little bit."

And yet this is the only semi-significant play he's been able to make thus far in his once-promising career:

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At least he's got Marinelli on his side now and a new lease on his football life within a familiar D. 

"Just getting back into the 4-3 system and being able to come off the ball, flying around, making plays, it’s been good," McClain said, per Archer. 

Of course, it's only June, and they aren't hitting yet. Hell, they're not even really going full speed. But at least the Cowboys have strong feelings for those charged with having to step in for a Pro Bowler. 

Now, who wants to replace Ware and Lee?


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