FOXBORO, Mass. — Shea McClellin was familiar with Rob Ninkovich’s game well before he joined the New England Patriots last offseason.
McClellin has been watching Ninkovich since his days as a college pass rusher at Boise State and continued to study him in his first four seasons with the Chicago Bears after being selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. McClellin said he looked up to Ninkovich before he even met him.
Now, with Ninkovich retiring over the weekend, McClellin might need to become the next Ninkovich of the Patriots’ defense.
“Last year I just had the opportunity to come in here and learn from him,” McClellin said Tuesday. “He was a great mentor for me. I’m definitely going to miss him. …
“He taught me a lot about pass rush, setting the edge, really whatever I needed.”
The comparisons are so easy to draw between McClellin and Ninkovich that even head coach Bill Belichick was willing to do it Tuesday morning before Day 5 of Patriots training camp, noting both players were defensive ends in college but have played more versatile roles in the NFL.
“Sheaâs probably played a little more off the line than Rob has, but Robâs played off the line, too,” Belichick said. “Theyâve both played a lot in the kicking game. Yeah, I think thereâs definitely some similarities in their skill sets.”
Belichick had nothing but positives to say about McClellin even though the edge defender didn’t play as big of a role as expected in 2017 after signing a three-year, $9.05 million contract. He was on the field for just 36.43 percent of defensive snaps in a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role, producing one sack, two fumble recoveries and 39 tackles.
“Sheaâs really been good,” Belichick said. “He had a lot of experience before he got here of playing on the line in college, and for a year in Chicago, then he played primarily off the line. We did both with him last year as a primary position and then we have different calls on different defensive fronts and alignments where he could be in either spot from one play to the next, even though the same people are in the game.
“So, heâs worked very hard to play with those different techniques and have versatility for us playing on the end of the line, playing off the line, playing in pass coverage, rushing the passer, running games with the defensive linemen and has a number of roles in the kicking game for us. Heâs smart, heâs athletic, he runs well, heâs got good size, heâs got experience, so heâs really a very valuable and versatile guy for us. He can do a lot of different things.”
Given his ability to play linebacker or rush the passer, McClellin could be the next in line to fill Ninkovich and Mike Vrabel’s old role in the Patriots’ hybrid defense. He has some competition, however. Kyle Van Noy, rookie Harvey Langi and even veteran linebacker Dont’a Hightower all have the versatility to defend the run, rush the passer and cover from multiple positions.
McClellin said he feels more comfortable in New England’s defense entering Year 2 in a Patriots uniform. With a greater opportunity in front of him, McClellin has a chance to live up to his first-round billing.
Thumbnail photo viaÂ Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports Images