The nickel cornerback position has been a problem area for the Falcons for a number of years. That is until Robert McClain stepped in last year.
McClain gave the Falcons their most consistent and reliable nickel corner since early part of 2009. Then, Brent Grimes served in the nickel role, coming in at left corner to move Brian Williams into the slot. But Williams got hurt in the fifth game of that year, and the Falcons had to try and make due with the likes of Chris Owens, Tye Hill, and Chevis Jackson the rest of the year. It resulted in one of the NFL’s weakest secondaries in 2009.
McClain emerged from virtually nowhere a year ago. He joined the Falcons as a street free agent following the season, being signed to a future contract. Typically those players are previous season’s practice squad players, and the occasional street free agent. Typically those street free agents are long shots to make the roster. In fact, the last two times the Falcons signed a street free agent to a future contract that really made a difference came in 2002 when they added cornerback Juran Bolden and 2000 with linebacker Chris Draft. The majority of the time, even if the player does wind up making the teams’ roster, they don’t really impact.
But McClain certainly did impact in 2012. He earned the distinction of being named “Secret Superstar” by Pro Football Focus.com. In large part due to his production in coverage. Among slot corners that played 200 or more snaps, McClain had the second best yards allowed per attempt, only allowing 5.1 yards per throw against him per that site’s metrics.
If that seems like an ambiguous statistic, one should note that in 2009 when Charles Woodson won Defensive Player of the Year, thanks in large part to his ability to shut down opposing slot receivers, he allowed 5.3 yards per pass attempt when lined up in the slot.
Good slot corners are hard to come by, largely because of how much space one has to be able to cover. Playing on the outside, you get help from the twelfth man: the sideline. Slot corners on the other hand have to be able to cover the entire field. That coupled with the fact that slot receivers just aren’t small, quick receivers anymore. Sure, there are still players like Wes Welker and Danny Amendola, along with Randall Cobb and Victor Cruz, but nowadays you also have to deal with bigger players like Miles Austin, Marques Colston, Anquan Boldin, and Reggie Wayne if you’re going to line up in the slot. Teams like Tampa Bay regularly use Tiquan Underwood in the slot, but also like Vincent Jackson. Megatron is Detroit’s go-to slot receiver. If you go with the smaller quicker player, those bigger guys will have a field day. And if you opt for size to match up with the Colstons and Boldins of the world, then quick guys like Cruz and Welker are going to eat you alive.
That’s why a good slot corner nowadays has to bring a little bit of both. McClain isn’t very big (standing 5-9 3/8 inches), nor is he the fastest corner (clocking a 4.51 at his UConn Pro Day 3 years ago). But he makes up for that with discipline, ball skills, and awareness. He’s rarely out of position, and it allowed him to be one of the Falcons most effective options in coverage last year. He even was able to line up against a big tight end like Jimmy Graham and be effective. What one can’t make up with physical and athletic gifts, one must make up for with intelligence and technique, exactly what McClain does.
McClain’s ball skills are probably his best trait. He was credited with 8 pass breakups last year according to Moneyball, which was more than starter Dunta Robinson (5). That’s noteworthy especially when you consider Robinson was targeted by opposing quarterbacks 30 more times last year (per PFF), making McClain nearly 2.5 times more likely to break up a pass when thrown at.
But despite his success in 2012, it won’t translate to automatic success in 2013. Many folks would be surprised to know that the Falcons had previously gotten solid production from a young nickel corner in Chevis Jackson in 2008. That year, Jackson allowed 6.3 yards per attempt and only 57% completions. Then the following year, he allowed 6.8 yards per attempt but 72% completions when working in the slot per PFF’s numbers.
While McClain will once again be asked to draw familiar matchups like Colston and Underwood within the division, he’ll also be seeing Danny Amendola (Patriots), Tavon Austin (Rams), Percy Harvin (Seahawks), and Randall Cobb (Packers) for the first time in his career. They represent four the most explosive, productive, and dangerous slot receivers in the NFL. It won’t be any easy task to try and contain those players as effective as he did others last year. There’s certainly no room for complacency.
And how McClain handles those assignments will go a long way to determining his NFL future. It’s not being too overly dramatic to suggest it could potentially make or break his career. McClain will become a restricted free agent at the end of 2013. And with the team drafting Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant with their top two picks this year, and having Asante Samuel under contract through 2014, there’s no guarantee that McClain will be in the team’s future plans without another productive season. That would put him in prime position to get a long-term extension. The team probably envisions Alford and Trufant being bookends on the outside. And if they can confidently fit McClain as the long-term option in the slot, then they potentially have their trio of corners set for the next five or more seasons. McClain turns 25 next month and could have several more productive years to come in the pros.
He may even be in the mix as the potential starter if he continues to play at a high level. While the team does have high hopes for their 2013 rookies, they are by no means guaranteed to become or remain starters in the future. If McClain continues to produce at a high level, he could be the front-runner to take over for Samuel come 2015.
If McClain goes the way of Chevis Jackson, and struggles in 2013, he’ll be hard-pressed to regain the team’s confidence. The Falcons have had too many inconsistencies at nickel cornerback and would likely bring in someone to push or replace McClain in 2014 if he has a lackluster 2013.
But the thing that weighs in McClain’s favor is that he’s not a player that is likely to get complacent. A former 7th round pick by the Carolina Panthers in 2010, McClain has already been cut from a pair of NFL teams, with the Panthers dumping him in 2011, and having only a brief appearance with the Jaguars that same year. McClain is already well-versed in how fleeting success in the NFL can be, and that nothing is guaranteed especially for a 5-9 corner with 4.5 speed. Not a lot of NFL teams are going to be knocking down his door despite solid production so far in his brief NFL career. So this opportunity in Atlanta may not be his last, but certainly is his best opportunity to really gain a foothold in the NFL. I for one am confident that McClain will do what it takes to take advantage of it.