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Can Cowboys' Terrell McClain Be A Starting Defensive Tackle?

Recent free agent acquisition Terrell McClain stated that he's angling for a starting position in Dallas. How likely is this scenario?

Yesterday, ESPN's Calvin Watkins authored a blog post in which newly-signed free agent defensive lineman Terrell McClain notes that, since he is entering his fourth year - and, perhaps because he's signed a comparatively lucrative second contract - he's gunning for a starting position. As he tells it, he's:

Just trying to find a place to fit in [after] I got released. But now that I'm going into my fourth year, it's time for me to get back on that horse and become another starter. Just try to see if I can fit in the NFL like I did my rookie year.

What McClain is referencing here is the fact that, in 2011, as a rookie, he started twelve games for the Carolina Panthers (registering a sack, 19 tackles and a fumble recovery). In the two intervening seasons, however, McClain logged a grand total of zero starts. This has lead many pundits to consider him as a rotational player at best; indeed, Watkins intimates that, with the acquisition of Henry Melton, who mans the same position - under tackle or three-technique - that McClain plays, it would appear that McClain's chances of starting are fairly slim.

This may indeed prove to be the case. But I'd like to direct your attention to Pro Football Weekly's draft profile of McClain when he came out in 2011, as I thought it offered an interesting narrative about the player, especially as it pertains to this situation. Characterizing McClain as a nose tackle, PWF's draft guru Nolan Nawrocki wrote the following:

Positives: Has large hands. Very strong - squats 600 pounds and bench-pressed 225 pounds 29 times at the Combine. Quick and athletic. Can push the pocket. Flows down the line. Flashes disruptive ability and stood out in one-on-one drills at the East-West shrine game.

Negatives: Lacks Ideal height. Has a fleshy body and carries nearly 25 percent body fat. Inconsistent. Takes plays off. Loses sight of the ball. Top-heavy, plays too narrow-based and is on the ground too much. Needs to develop counters - struggles when his initial thrust is neutralized. Questionable mental and physical toughness and compete level. Average production.

Summary: Does not look like a dominator but has surprising strength, quickness and flexibility and shows the ability to play behind the line when he wants to do so. That said, concerns about his inconsistency, makeup and toughness could temper his appeal. Has starter-caliber physical traits if a strong positional coach is able to light a fire under him and keep it burning.

As with most draft profiles for mid-round guys, there is some good and some not-so-good here. But what really caught my eye was that last sentence. Its clear that, coming out of college, McClain had the physical tools to succeed in the NFL. What he needs is the kind of coach capable of getting it out of him. And that's exactly the "strong positional coach" he now has in Dallas.

The description of his positive characteristics, particularly his quickness and ability to disrupt, do indeed make him sound like a Kiffinelli three-technique. At the same time, his raw strength (and, extrapolating from his squat numbers, his ability to anchor) might make him a suitable candidate for the one-tech. That was, after all, the position scouts tagged for him when he was coming out for the draft.

In fact, that's what a close observer of his work last year in Houston suggests. After McClain was signed, our fearless leader, Dave, sought out a writer from the Texans SB Nation sister site, Battle Red Blog, for a quick report on McClain, and was gifted with the following:

He's not as quick twitch as a prototypical 3-tech, and not as stout against the run as a prototypical nose tackle, but he had a nice blend of both...if I had to bet [they'd] put him as a cocked nose in your system since he isn't the all-world three technique they want there.

There you have it. Unless Dallas drafts the likes of a Timmy Jernigan, is it too much of a stretch to say that McClain might very well make a bid to start alongside Melton? Have doubts? Think about it: his primary competition is Nick Hayden.


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