What Can Patriots Reasonably Expect From Shea McClellin In Potential Return?

The New England Patriots weren’t buyers at Halloween’s NFL trade deadline, but they could be receiving some midseason front-seven help in the form of Shea McClellin.

Some background: McClellin was placed on injured reserve after roster cutdowns but prior to Week 1 with an undisclosed injury. The Patriots can activate two players off of injured reserve this season, and McClellin returned to practice the earliest he was allowed after the Patriots’ Week 6 win over the New York Jets. McClellin was permitted to be activated off of injured reserve after Week 8, but the Patriots had a Week 9 bye. McClellin can be activated as late as Saturday at 4 p.m. and still play Week 10 against the Denver Broncos.

It seems likely McClellin will, in fact, be activated. The Patriots have an obvious way to free up a roster spot by placing linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who suffered a torn pectoral muscle, on injured reserve. The Patriots seemingly have waited to place Hightower on injured reserve until they need the roster spot to activate McClellin. The Patriots might choose to keep the Broncos guessing until the last minute at whether they’ll activate McClellin this week.

So, how can McClellin help the Patriots? He has experience both as an off-the-line linebacker and edge defender. The Patriots need more help on the edge, especially their third-down pass rush, with Hightower out. Hightower was consistently the Patriots’ most pr0oductive third-down pass rusher prior to his injury.

McClellin wasn’t overly productive as a pass rusher last season, though. He had 11 total pressures and one sack on 105 pass-rush snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus. He ranked 72nd among 108 qualified edge defenders in PFF’s pass-rush productivity metric.

He was, however, better in coverage. He let up just 12 catches on 14 targets for 127 yards with one touchdown, per PFF. He ranked better than Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts in cover snaps per reception, yards per cover snap and snaps per target in 2016. His numbers in those categories also are better than Kyle Van Noy has fared in 2017.

McClellin wasn’t overly productive in the run game last season, however, recording just four “stops” on 133 run snaps. “Stops constitute a ‘loss’ for the offense,” according to PFF. Roberts has 11 stops on 108 run snaps this season, while Van Noy has 11 stops on 166 run snaps. Cassius Marsh, who McClellin might be competing with for edge snaps, has seven stops on 76 run snaps.

McClellin also missed five tackles last season on 27 attempts, which ranked 57th among 84 eligible edge defenders.

McClellin was considered a first-round bust by the Chicago Bears before he signed a three-year, $9.05 million contract with the Patriots last offseason. Although he wasn’t great in his first year with the Patriots, he certainly could be better in 2017 with a full offseason under his belt.

It’s not fair to consider him a potential savior, however. He adds depth at linebacker and on the edge, but it’s no guarantee he’ll start over players like Roberts, Marsh, Deatrich Wise, Adam Butler or David Harris.

It’s worth rotating McClellin onto the field to see if he can serve as an upgrade as a pass rusher, in coverage or in run defense. It’s not as if the Patriots’ front seven is so solid the team can’t experiment by inserting a returning player into the mix.

Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images

Thumbnail photo via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images

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