How the Raiders could capitalize on suspended Rolando McClain
As a Raider fan who has seen every one of McClain's games since he's been in the NFL, here's my opinion on the young linebacker: he's inconsistent and has some glaring weaknesses, but is great at his strength - stopping the run.
Though McClain has lost a lot of snaps to rookie Miles Burris in the passing game, McClain continues to be incredibly strong in run defense. Pro Football Focus has him ranked 7th in Run Stop Percentage, and 9th in Tackling Efficiency - he's only missed one tackle all season.
You may be wondering why, if McClain is so good against the run, are the Raiders so bad at run defense as a whole? McClain is one small piece to the puzzle, he can't single-handedly turn one of the league's worst defensive units into the second coming of the Steel Curtain. He does, however, take an utterly pathetic defense and make it respectable.
The Raiders were ranked 27th in run defense last season, but they were even worse without McClain on the field. The one game that McClain missed last year was against the Broncos, and the Raiders gave up a season-high 299 yards on the ground. The first time the two teams faced off that season (with McClain active), the Broncos ran for only 38 yards - albeit with Tim Tebow on the bench.
McClain missed a week of practice later in the year due to a run-in with the law, and his status for that Sunday's game was up in the air until late in the week. McClain ended up not starting, and was obviously less prepared due to missing practice, and the Raiders gave up 209 yards on the ground to the Dolphins - the Raiders' third worst mark of the season.
McClain definitely struggles in the passing game, and definitely lacks any sort of elite speed, but I should have, by now, convinced you he is a valuable piece against the run. Though he's set to make $4 million next season, I'd like to see the Raiders hold on to McClain, as he's one of the few bright spots on their miserable defense. Here's what I'd like to see the Raiders do to help McClain fit into a defensive role in which he can be successful:
If the draft order were decided today, the Raiders would have the third overall pick. That position in the draft would most likely give them the opportunity to draft Notre Dame middle linebacker Manti Te'o. The Raiders should draft Te'o, and transition to a 3-4 base defense. Te'o is arguably the best overall player in the draft this year, and his close out speed and ability to defend the pass make up for a lot of McClain's inefficiencies. Te'o is no slouch against the run either - in fact, he's exceptional - so he and McClain could make it very difficult to run between the tackles against the Raiders.
If the Raiders do go this route, however, there's one more thing they'll need to address: a pass rushing presence. The Raiders have gotten an embarrassing lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, and it's made their depleted secondary's inabilities even more evident. With absolutely no pass rush, it's nearly impossible for any defense to cover opposing receivers long enough to slow teams down through the air. The Raiders could pair Te'o and McClain in the middle, but they'd still be eaten up by opposing pass attacks without a pass rush threat.
The Raiders could attempt address this via the draft or free agency. The Raiders' pass rushing options in the third round of the draft (they don't have a second round pick) could include Chase Thomas from Stanford and Sean Porter from Texas A&M. Some of the big names scheduled for free agency are Sean Phillips, Cliff Avril, and Osi Umenyiora.
Rolando McClain is not Ray Lewis or Patrick Willis, and he probably never will be, but just because he hasn't completely lived up to the hype as the 8th overall pick does not mean there aren't plenty of positives to be happy with. Pair McClain in a 3-4 defense with a dynamic linebacker like Manti Te'o, and find an edge pass rusher to make things a little more difficult on opposing quarterbacks, and this could be a whole different defense next season.