ILB Jameel McClain: From Undrafted To Unbelievable
NOTEBOOK: MCKINNIE ABSENT; ROSTER BREAKDOWN; READER MAILBAG
By Joe Platania
OWINGS MILLS -- Early during the team-drill portion of Thursday afternoon's training-camp practice, Ray Lewis charged through the "A" gap in the center of the box.
Following right behind him was Jameel McClain, a development that should not shock anyone.
McClain has wisely learned from Lewis and all his teammates during his meteoric rise from the ranks of the undrafted rookie free agent -- a journey chronicled in an August 2008 PressBox cover story -- to one of the mainstays of one of the league's most consistent defenses.
"It's just been amazing," McClain said Thursday afternoon. "To be able to grasp the system and grow up in this organization, I mean, everybody knows where I came from.
"But it's all been amazing. That's the word I keep using for it."
McClain has kept pace with the team's top draft pick from his rookie year, quarterback Joe Flacco, by playing in all 64 regular-season games. During the past two seasons, McClain has started 31 of 32 contests.
When Lewis had to miss a month's worth of action with a toe problem, it was the 6-foot-1, 245-pound McClain that was entrusted with the defensive radio headset, as he got to make the pre-snap calls for an elite NFL defense.
McClain ended 2011 with 81 tackles -- second on the team, trailing only Lewis -- as well as five pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.
One of those recoveries came early during a pivotal prime-time game against the New York Jets last September.
Free safety Ed Reed came around the edge and sacked quarterback Mark Sanchez, forcing the ball loose deep in New York territory. In the ensuing scramble, McClain picked up the ball and shoved his way into the end zone for the first of a league-record-tying three defensive touchdowns during the Ravens' win.
"Great story about an undrafted guy," head coach John Harbaugh said. "You always try to gauge guys through their first contract to see if you want to keep them around.
"I think [Jameel] has become one of the top linebackers in football. That was his goal."
It was a goal that was not so quickly achieved.
The South Philadelphia-born McClain actually had ambitions of being a Golden Gloves boxer; former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, an idol of McClain's who passed away last year, signed his first pair of gloves.
But despite a second-team All-Big East Conference berth and reaching the Ted Hendricks Award semifinal stage, McClain did not hear his name called on draft weekend. So, like any undrafted player, McClain had to earn his keep on special teams.
In 2008, he was the only undrafted player to make the roster, seeing his hard work pay off when he notched 17 special-teams tackles -- third on the team -- and blocked a punt against the Philadelphia Eagles that resulted in a safety.
It was actually McClain's second two-point play of the year, having sacked Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell in the end zone for another safety in the Ravens' 100th regular-season home game.
In 2009, McClain throttled opposing returners for 33 special-teams tackles, but saw his path to the "Jack" linebacker spot -- on the inside, right next to Lewis -- blocked by second-round draft pick Tavares Gooden.
The 2010 campaign proved to be McClain's breakout year, with 91 tackles (third behind Lewis and Dawan Landry) and a regular place as the "Will" in a lineup that helped advance the team to the second round of the playoffs, where the season ended with a loss in Pittsburgh.
These days, McClain approaches the media microphone the same way Lewis does, with a confident swagger and a forceful tone, a far cry from the days when an assistant coach had to literally put his arm around him and tell him where and how to line up.
McClain now mentors rookies, evaluates their performance (on Courtney Upshaw: "He has to mind his p's and q's.") and uses cliches such as "gut-check time."
"Everybody has to know when to step up," McClain said. "Everybody knows when it's their time."
Thanks to knowing which players to follow and which holes of opportunity through which to charge, Jameel McClain knows that better than most.
PRACTICE REPORT: Sunny and hot conditions greeted the Ravens as they began their Thursday afternoon shorts-and-shells session, the first full-team practice of the 2012 training camp:
- Rookie cornerback Asa Jackson practiced, showing no ill effects of the late-practice wrist injury from Wednesday. But wideout Patrick Williams and safety Emanuel Cook left the session early, as did tackle Ramon Harewood after rolling his ankle. Wideout Torrey Smith had a cramping problem, which is common for him.
- Early during the session, Harewood was running with the first-team offensive line at right tackle, while Michael Oher was moved to left. The middle three spots, to no one's surprise, were manned by Bobbie Williams -- whom Harbaugh cited for being in exceptional shape -- Matt Birk and Marshal Yanda.
- After Harewood got hurt, Jack Cornell took his spot with the ones during team drills and did a fine job holding off edge rushers such as Sergio Kindle on two occasions.
- Left tackle Bryant McKinnie (unspecified issue) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (hamstring) did not appear on the field; McKinnie has not reported to the UAPC at all and Ngata hurt himself during the conditioning test. Meanwhile, the four players on the Physically Unable To Perform list also did not practice: guards Kelechi Osemele and Jah Reid, defensive end Pernell McPhee and wideout David Reed.
- Joe Flacco's footwork saved him from a potentially disastrous situation when rookie pass rusher Courtney Upshaw pushed newly signed Cordaro Howard right into the quarterback.
- Flacco seemed determined to stay in the pocket on several plays. On one occasion, he decisively fired a pass to the sideline to Anquan Boldin, but Lardarius Webb picked it off, one of many fine plays made in the secondary.
- Kickers Billy Cundiff and Justin Tucker each nailed three straight kicks in between 25-45 yards in length.
- Plenty of pre-snap and holding penalties marred the team drills, but when Ray Lewis aggressively broke up a goal-line pass for Anthony Allen, no flag was thrown, much to the chagrin of the offensive players on the sideline.
- Smith made a spectacular diving catch in front of cornerback Cary Williams, and Jacoby Jones did the same while being guarded by Corey Graham. Jones caught everything thrown his way without displaying some of the ball-handling jitters he's shown in the past.
- A pair of vacant jerseys are now being used, with linebacker Darryl Blackstock getting 54 and new wideout Logan Payne assigned No. 18. Also, offensive linemen Cecil Newton and Tony Wragge switched numbers, with Newton going from 64 to 61 and Wragge making the vice-versa switch.
- There are still two 79s on the roster (guard/tackle Paul Madsen, defensive end Terrence Moore), and a pair of 67s as well, with newly-signed guard Cord Howard and nose tackle Ishmaa'ily Kitchen each donning those digits. Howard took over his jersey from the released Howard Barbieri.
- Jersey numbers not presently being used are 3, 19 and 75 (the former numbers of Matt Stover, Johnny Unitas and Jonathan Ogden), as well as 10, 32, 38, 39, 40, 57, 58 and 86.
ROSTER BREAKDOWN, PART I: The signing of Payne, an ex-Seattle and New York Jets wideout, and the release of fullback Jamison Berryhill means the Ravens now have the full training-camp complement of 90 players.
Let's see how the team breaks down:
- As far as position units are concerned, there are five quarterbacks, five running backs, one fullback, five tight ends, 12 wide receivers (seven flankers, five split ends), 17 offensive linemen, 11 defensive linemen, 14 linebackers (eight outside, six inside), 15 defensive backs (seven safeties, eight corners), three specialists and two long snappers. All told, that adds up to 45 offensive players, 40 on defense and five special teamers.
- There are 10 players that were employed by other NFL teams last year, including two former Oakland Raiders (linebackers Darryl Blackstock and Ricky Brown), plus one who was completely out of football in 2011 (nose tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu).
- Including the free agents, there are 41 total players that were not in Baltimore last year. Eight of them are the team's draft picks, along with the 10 free agents, one unattached player and 22 undrafted rookies and first-year players.
- There are 28 Ravens that played in all 16 games in 2011, 25 of them with Baltimore (the exceptions are wideout Jacoby Jones, cornerback Corey Graham and nose tackle Ryan McBean). Fourteen players started every game of the season, all of them with the Ravens.
- A surprisingly low total of five Ravens did not play in at least one game in which they were active in 2011. Backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor was DNP'd for 13 games, while Curtis Painter suited up and rode the Indianapolis bench seven times.
Part Two of our roster breakdown will appear in tomorrow morning's Ravens Report entry.
MAILBAG: With the fans being allowed to watch a practice at the Under Armour Performance Center for the first time, we figured this would be a good opportunity to bring back the fans' mailbag.
If you want to chime in on the Ravens Report blog, or about the team in general, you can either put your thoughts in the comment field below, or send them to email@example.com.
"Ravendeb" took issue with last Friday's list of the best Ravens rookie seasons in team history. She thought we got some of the rankings wrong.
"Sorry, but you should rank Suggs 4th, Flacco 5th and Torrey Smith 6th," she wrote. "You can't just look at numbers, you look at impact. Flacco gave this team a lift that they were missing all the way to the AFC Championship and it was all unexpected. He also came in 2nd for Rookie of the Year voting, behind Matt Ryan, and did win the fan vote for the NFL.com Rookie of the Year."
Ravendeb, maybe we did have Flacco too low at eighth, but Smith's impact on a position that has frustrated the Ravens for many years was too great to ignore.
"Mr. Bad Example" also thought the Ravens' quarterback should have been placed higher:
"Flacco only eighth? Harsh.
"I realize there is no science to rating players on different teams -- and they were all on different teams even if they were within the same lineage --and different situations, but QB is the most important position. Sure, Jamal's rookie season compares more favorably to an excellent season at his position than Joe's, but look at the components helping Jamal in '00 compared to Joe taking over a 5-11 team at the most important position."
MBE also had his memory bank stirred by our "This Week In Baltimore Football History" commemoration of John Unitas' 1979 Hall of Fame induction:
"Seeing Unitas and [Chicago linebacker Dick] Butkus inducted the same year reminded me of a Bears-Colts game at Memorial Stadium some years back [actually, 1970].
"Nothing went right for the home team early as Chicago built a 17-0 lead. One play in particular has stayed entrenched in my memory as if it happened yesterday. Butkus blitzed untouched and he sacked Unitas. What made the play so amazing is Butkus almost beat the ball back to Unitas but he was clearly onsides with the play. The crowd, with me included, just let out a groan like the air just went out.
"Somehow or another, the Colts came back and still won the game [21-20]."
QUOTE OF THE DAY: During his first media session since signing a five-year, $40 million contract, running back Ray Rice dealt frankly with the perceived tenor of the negotiations and the allegedly diminishing role of the modern-day running back.
"I never asked for Adrian Peterson kind of money," Rice said of the Minnesota Viking standout's seven-year, $96 million deal. "I don't know how it got out there, but I was just told to keep my mouth shut at the time.
"I see why the running backs are going the way it goes. There is a history. There is a study that there is a decline after a certain point. But it's our job to try to maintain that level of play. There are guys who have done it. Those are the guys you call the great ones."
JOEY P'S TRIVIA TIME ANSWER: Here's the question we asked you in our previous entry:
Even though Ray Lewis' relentless work ethic would seem to indicate that he's the kind of player that is never satisfied, one moment that had to make him feel content for at least a little while was last year's 35-7 home-opening demolition of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
During that game, which Steelers player was the victim of Lewis' first tackle of the 2011 season: Ben Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall or Mike Wallace?
It was a total team defensive effort (seven takeaways) during the Ravens' blowout win against the Steelers, one that led to the Ravens' second-ever season series sweep of Pittsburgh (the previous one was in 2006).
The offense got off to a hot start, driving 66 yards in just three plays to take a 7-0 lead. But a horse-collar tackle penalty on Brendon Ayanbadejo on the ensuing kickoff set up Pittsburgh at its own 42-yard line, a good starting point for a game-tying drive.
Mendenhall got the ball on two straight plays, the first being a 9-yard gain to set up a second-and-short situation. The big Steelers back, whose shoulder was broken by a Lewis season-ending hit during his rookie season, wedged out 2 yards on the second carry to get a first down even though Lewis pulled him down for his first tackle of the year and the first of seven tackles that day.
Pittsburgh abandoned the ground game at that point and punted four plays later. That decision seemed questionable until one considers what happened on its next possession.
That was the point when Haloti Ngata pounced on a Steeler fumble and set up the Ravens at the Steelers' 37-yard line. Four plays later, Ray Rice was in the end zone, the lead was 14-0 and the rout was on.
Posted July 26, 2012