A Cut Above the Rest

Rookie linebacker Rolando McClain has yet to even play in even a preseason game, but he has already impressed many around the organization with his leadership, drive, and maturity. It has got some people thinking that McClain has a real shot at some post season honors and awards.

I am not usually one for outlandish claims or bold predictions, but I just might have to break from the norm for this article.

Rolando McClain will be the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010.

You can blame it on Head Coach Tom Cable and his inability to say anything disparaging about his new first round pick. So far, all the talk has been about how smart the guy is, how hard of a worker he is on and off the field, and his willingness to be a leader in the locker room despite his youth. Like a proud father gushing to friends and strangers alike about his first born, Tom Cable is finding it hard to control his enthusiasm over the kid in the middle, Rolando.

But can you blame him? Cable is now entering what is essentially his third year as head coach, second to start a season. Since he took the job during the 2008 season, he hasn't really had the privilege of having his first round rookie ready to go from the get-go.

Darren McFadden has shown brief flashes, but injuries and inconsistency have only frustrated Cable and worn on his patience. Of course, last year, Darrius Heyward-Bey had a disastrous rookie season, and despite an impressive start to this offseason, Cable can only hope that his speedy wide receiver can translate that success into the regular season.

But there's something different about McClain. Coming into the draft, everyone already knew the tremendous physical gifts he possessed. At 6-3 and 254 pounds, McClain has great size to man the middle of a defense. Although he doesn't possess the blazing speed of a Patrick Willis, McClain is quick where it counts for a middle linebacker, while working in traffic and in limited space. Strength? He put up 24 repetitions in the bench press at the NFL Combine.

But what really made McClain the consensus top linebacker in the draft wasn't so much his obvious physical gifts, but rather, it was his ability to lead a team on and off the field, and also, his willingness and incredible desire to succeed and win.

JaMarcus Russell didn't have it, and Darren McFadden, albeit slowed by injuries, hasn't made headlines for his offseason work ethic. Darrius Heyward-Bey, so far, has made great strides in his attitude and approach to the game, but again, it remains to be seen if he is ready to take on the role of a number one receiver.

McClain is a special player because he truly is wise beyond his years. So much has been made of McClain's first contact with the organization following his eighth overall selection. After the predictably many celebratory congratulations, McClain was quick to ask the Raiders to send a copy of the playbook so that he could get to learn the plays as soon as possible.

As soon as he stepped onto the field at mini camp, it was obvious that McClain was unlike any of the former Raider first round picks of recent memory. At only 20-years old and without a minute of time logged in as an official NFL player, McClain was running around making plays, barking out orders, and telling his veteran teammates where to be and how to operate.

And while JaMarcus Russell and his impending fate took most of the headlines during mini camp, McClain was the talk of camp among media circles. Sure, he made a few mistakes while out there, but in assuming control of the defense so quickly, McClain already looked the part of a NFL middle linebacker.

McClain will have plenty of competition for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Of course, it's hard to mention the two guys the Raiders really wanted, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, but McClain's biggest competition just might be former SEC rival and current AFC West foe, Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs. Berry, like McClain, is as strong mentally as he is physically, and he is noted for his playmaking ability in the defensive backfield, much like Baltimore's Ed Reed.

But history is working in McClain's favor. Nine of the last ten Defensive Rookie of the Year Award recipients have been linebackers, including the past seven. McClain is also the highest drafted linebacker out of Alabama since former Chief great Derrick Thomas, who won the award in 1989.

It's not that linebackers have it easy, but if there ever were a "glamour" position on defense that could compare to the quarterback on offense, it just might be the linebacker. The nature of their position puts them in positions to make plays and produce numbers.

Add to that the fact that the Raiders have been doing everything they can to make McClain's job easier this upcoming season. According to Tom Cable, one of the things the Raiders wanted to do through the draft and in the offseason was to completely revamp the defensive front seven, and the team has certainly done just that.

With their second round pick, the Raiders took Texas defensive lineman Lamarr Houston. Houston was listed as a defensive tackle, which made sense because at the time, the Raiders only had two interior linemen on the roster. However, in a somewhat surprising statement, Cable said in his post draft talk with the media that the staff intended to use Houston as a strongside end. The thinking behind this is that Houston's ability to play the run will be valuable in containment along the edge, but that he still has enough speed to be a threat as a pass rusher.

Of course, the two big fish the Raiders will feature on the defensive line are Richard Seymour and the recently signed John Henderson. Both Seymour and Henderson are versatile linemen who can play inside or outside, so it will be interesting to see how Cable and his staff intend to use them in conjunction with Houston, Tommy Kelly, and others.

Add to all this the holdovers and the few undrafted rookie free agents who might make the roster, and suddenly, the Raiders' defensive front looks rather impressive for a team that has been at or near the bottom of the league in run defense for the past seven years.

Barring any huge drop off from Seymour, Henderson, or Kelly, McClain should have an easier time of working behind the line, pursuing ball carriers, and making the tackles. If anything, McClain will have an easier time than his predecessor, Kirk Morrison, who led the team in tackles in each of his five seasons.

Morrison's departure was met with lukewarm farewells. On one hand, he was arguably the most consistent performer for the Raiders, was never involved in any issues on or off the field, and was also a local boy having played his high school football at Bishop O'Dowd. On the other hand, many noted that Morrison was not a proactive tackler that did not make plays, but instead, waited for them to develop before committing.

McClain is seen as an immediate upgrade at the position, despite being a 20-year old rookie. At the linebacker position, McClain is unique in that he is a ball hawk and a playmaker at the most crucial of times. Although he admits he can be somewhat of a recluse off the field, his aggressiveness and willingness to get in an opposing players' facemask is all the more reason why McClain is the perfect linebacker at an important time for the Raiders.
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