Rolando McClain: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Risks

Nov 15, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain (55) hits Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) during the first quarter of a football game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 15, 2015; Tampa, FL, USA; Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain (55) hits Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin (22) during the first quarter of a football game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports /

Rolando McClain is a free agent and fans are split as to whether the Cowboys should re-sign him or let him go this offseason.

Cowboys’ middle linebacker (MIKE), Rolando McClain, is set to once again be a free agent in the offseason. Following two consecutive one-year deals with the Cowboys, it may be time to find a permanent solution at the MIKE.

Only a week ago I declared Rolando McClain “replaceable”, finding passionate agreement as well as rabid outrage. Hitting the email mailbag this week is disagreement from a longtime mailbag emailer:

"“Why so much hate for Rolando McClain,” Mike asked. “As long as he doesn’t ask for too much money the Cowboys need to re-sign him. He’s been a great player for the Cowboys and I find it hard to believe the Cowboys will be able to find anyone better.”"

Thanks for the email, Mike (Cowboys Mailbag: You make great points with McClain so let’s jump into that.

A free agent like Rolando McClain must be broken down into three categories in order to draw a conclusion: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Risk. This combined with the obvious cost benefit analysis and replaceablity are what most teams use to determine whether or not to invest further

Rolando McClain Strengths

Without a doubt, Rolando McClain’s strength is his coverage ability. In 2015, McClain ranked as Pro Football Focus’ #11 LB in coverage and watching him play it’s easy to see why he ranked so high. At 6’4” 255 lbs, Rolando McClain is the ideal build to play MIKE in Rod Marinelli’s defense.

McClain can drop back and cover the seam, utilizing his length to keep windows small, and reading passers as they scan the field. McClain can play shallow and deep zone coverage, as well as apply man coverage when called upon.

Rolando McClain Weaknesses

While McClain excelled in coverage, he was a complete liability against the run. Last season, his tackling was abysmal. His technique, effort, and execution where severely lacking in many ways. All too often it was routine tackles that were missed, causing one to wonder how hard he was really trying.

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What was so curious was the number of times McClain used his instincts and athleticism to get into the backfield but just fall short of making the play. So many times he put himself in position but couldn’t complete the task. And ofte times the result was extremely damaging. Again, it wasn’t just poor technique, but the effort and willingness to make the play seemed to be lacking.

Have the repeated concussions finally taken their toll? It’s hard to say but 2015 was not the Rolando McClain we’ve seen flash in previous seasons. Even PFF had McClain ranked as one of the lowest LBs against the run last season (for perspective, Sean Lee had a score of 82 while McClain logged a 43.8 against the run).

Rolando McClain Risk

Which brings us to risk. Rolando McClain has a history of concussions. Even worse than isolated concussions, he has a history of back-to-back concussions, which are considered exponentially worse. Combined with his otherwise substantial injury history, McClain is a high-mileage 26-year-old with a very uncertain future.

His off-the-field behavior also offers substantial risk. Having already served a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, the next violation would keep him out considerably longer and make him virtually worthless to whatever team holds him at the time.

Mix the injuries, drugs and the other questionable brushes with the law (suspicious arson situation), and you have more risk than PacMan Jones would endorse.

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Too Much Bruce Carter in Rolando McClain

I call it The Bruce Carter Effect: When a player endures himself to fans with a couple flashy plays, causing many to overlook the much more frequent blown plays.

Bruce Carter was a high-potential player who never figured things out with the Cowboys. He was so absolutely terrible in coverage, the Cowboys benched him for a portion of his last season, only playing him when injuries forced no other alternative.

When he returned, he was largely the same old fringe player. But a couple fantastic plays later, all was forgiven. For every good play there were five poor plays, but those good plays overshadowed the poor, and many were left thinking he was better than he really was.

Rolando McClain is much better than Bruce Carter, but I think many people are only thinking of the big splash plays and ignoring the bad ones. McClain missed far too many makeable tackles last season to remotely balance the scales of his evaluation.

Rolando McClain Conclusion

I don’t think the Cowboys will be able to seamlessly replace McClains pass-coverage, but I do think they’ll make up for it in run-stopping and reliability if they go a different route. Like most positions, free agency isn’t a long-term answer and the Cowboys need to try their youth or invest further in the draft this spring.

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“For the right price” is something every team says this time of year, and with Rolando McClain, that’s probably no different. If he plays for a fraction of his 2015 price, I’d have no problem keeping Rolando McClain as insurance, but he’s not good or reliable enough to be the future of the position and the Cowboys need to find a long-term answer at that all-important MIKE spot.