NEPD Staff Writer: Matthew Jones
During the 2011 pre-draft process, the New England Patriots revealed a surprising amount of interest in the University of South Florida. Head coach Bill Belichick attended the Bulls’ pro day, and later in the week New England invited two USF prospects, defensive tackle Terrell McClain and defensive back Mistral Raymond, to participate in private workouts.
The Patriots didn’t end up drafting either player – McClain was selected with the 65th overall pick by the Carolina Panthers, Raymond with the 170th overall pick by Minnesota – but this week the Patriots (temporarily?) parted ways with rookie defensive tackle Marcus Forston in order to sign McClain, who had been released after just one season with the Panthers.
McClain spent four seasons at USF, appearing in 49 games and making 33 starts. His production increased every season in Tampa, culminating in a 24-tackle, three-sack senior campaign which earned him conference-wide recognition as a member of the All-Big East first team. McClain impressed during the pre-draft process, turning heads in the East-West Shrine Game and running the 40-yard dash in 4.98 seconds and completing 29 repetitions on the bench press at the NFL Combine. His intriguing combination of size (6’2″, 297), strength, and athleticism impressed the Panthers enough to select him ahead of more productive tackles such as Jurrell Casey, Drake Nevis, Kenrick Ellis, and Karl Klug.
Upon joining the Panthers, McClain was immediately thrust into a pivotal role along the defensive line. He ended up starting all 12 of the games he appeared in last season, missing Carolina’s final four games with a knee injury but nonetheless taking more snaps (481) than any other Panthers defensive tackle. McClain ultimately totaled 19 tackles and one sack as a rookie, but he was often criticized for his porous run defense; his lack of production in the passing game contributed to his eventual release, as Carolina replaced McClain with free agent Dwan Edwards (formerly of the Buffalo Bills.) Commenting on the decision, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera suggested that Edwards had supplanted McClain because of his superior push.
Despite McClain’s rookie struggles, he remains an interesting developmental prospect because of his combination of youth (he turned 24 years old in July) and his physical tools. McClain’s frame suggests that he may eventually be able to work his way into New England’s deep defensive line rotation, which currently consists of starters Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love as well as reserves Ron Brace and Brandon Deaderick (who missed last week’s game at Baltimore and has been a limited participant in practice this week.) Rotational pass rusher Myron Pryor is on the physically-unable-to-perform list. In order to succeed in New England, McClain must be more active with his hands in order to demonstrate that he is capable of shedding blocks; the ability to discard defenders is a critical characteristic of New England’s front seven.
With Deaderick sidelined last Sunday, Marcus Forston saw eight snaps on defense, a workload which seems reasonable to expect from McClain this week against Buffalo. Terms of McClain’s contract were not released by the Patriots, but assuming the deal is for one year, McClain would become an exclusive-rights free agent at the end of the season since 2012 will be his second accrued season in the NFL. Should New England choose to offer McClain a contract at the end of the season, he would have to sign their tender or be forced to sit out the season, as exclusive rights free agents are unable to sign with other teams.