Not only might the New York Giants be tasked with having to replace Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker Jon Beason to start the 2014 season, but it's important to keep in mind that the Giants' linebacking corps wasn't considered to be very good even before Beason suffered a major foot injury.
Jacquian Williams and Spencer Paysinger have plenty of experience at this point, but neither has broken out thus far despite the fact they've both been in the league three years. Mark Herzlich has yet to prove he can be relied on and will likely have to fight to make the 53-man roster. And fifth-round rookie Devon Kennard is obviously a major question mark this early, especially when you consider that head coach Tom Coughlin likes to essentially redshirt his first-year players.
That could mean that veteran offseason acquisition Jameel McClain will be tasked not only with having to potentially replace Beason at middle linebacker, but also with having to boost a position group that lacks oomph as is.
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McClain could be the key. If the 28-year-old is going to have a breakout season, it has to come now. Six years into his NFL career, he's got one hell of a resume for a dude who wasn't even drafted in 2008. Now, in his first season outside of Baltimore, the onus is on him to become a leader and help a defense in flux.
Back to that resume. McClain started 54 games the last four years with the Ravens—including 13 during their 2012 Super Bowl campaign—registering 286 tackles while learning from the likes of Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs. He played every linebacker position within that 3-4 defense and was often the guy making calls as he became an elder stateman in recent years.
The Giants clearly believe McClain can step in for Beason without hurting the defense, which is why he received that two-year, $4.1 million deal in the spring. But they'll need him to step up regardless.
"When we acquired him, we acquired him with the thought that he and Jon could play beside each other," said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell, according to Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News. "And if something did happen to Jon, that he would be the person of interest that could go in there and do that."
McClain has been through a lot. He was told he'd never play football again after suffering a severe spinal injury during that Super Bowl season. But he returned before midseason last year and was able to get back to his old self pretty quickly.
The Giants keep talking about his energy, his versatility and his experience.
"[McClain] knows exactly what to do, when to do it and how to do it," safety Antrel Rolle said, per ESPN.com's Kieran Darcy. "He's a guy that, if need be, can definitely step up and fill whatever role that he needs to fill and make sure we don't miss a beat."
But the thing about McClain is he's not a technically sound linebacker. He knows where to line up and how to make calls, and he can do pretty much anything you need him to do. But he often takes poor angles, he's a little stiff, he's far from speedy and he sometimes gets manhandled by blockers. A few negative examples from one especially bad quarter last December against Detroit...
But he's got good instincts and is usually a very solid tackler, which is really what the G-Men are looking for in the middle.
And it does appear he's developed the ability to jar the ball loose—something he displayed twice in the final two weeks last year.
As we've witnessed during most of the Coughlin era, this Giants defense is at its best when it is making plays like those. This is a naturally aggressive unit that will need to take the ball away as often as possible, and although McClain has just two takeaways in his career, there are clues that he could explode in that area as he starts a new chapter in a fresh setting.
On paper and on tape, the guy is about as average as they come. He's not supposed to save this front seven, but he does have a high enough ceiling and a strong enough resume to do so. Keep in mind that the expectations were even lower for Beason when he arrived in New York last October, and that panned out pretty well.
McClain will be a starter regardless of whether or not Beason is ready to pick up where he left off. And while he remains a wild card with some flaws, Giants fans shouldn't be surprised if he delivers beyond the expectations of many in 2014.