Rob Ninkovich

Could McClellin help Patriots defense cope with Ninkovich retirement?

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Could McClellin help Patriots defense cope with Ninkovich retirement?

 

FOXBORO -- The Patriots are only five days into training camp so the fact that they haven't settled on a replacement for Rob Ninkovich should come as no surprise. 

It's not like they don't have options. 

Kony Ealy would seem to be the biggest name on the depth chart behind Trey Flowers, but he doesn't have quite the coverage experience to make him a seamless fit at left end. Kyle Van Noy has some experience as a versatile piece who can play on the line and off. Geneo Grissom has been the top left end thus far in training camp. 

But what about Shea McClellin? At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, he's not all that different from Ninkovich in terms of his height and weight. He has had experience at multiple positions over the course of his career in New England and Chicago before that. Might he be the next best thing with Ninkovich now out of the mix? 

"He was a guy I looked up to before I even got here," McClellin said on Tuesday. "In college I watched him on film. At the Bears I watched him on film. I always thought we had a similar skill set so I'd watch him, see what I could learn from him. 

"To come in here last year and be here and him mentor me . . . I looked up to him so much my whole life. It was just a great opportunity for me, and I can't thank him enough for what he's done for me."

Before Tuesday's practice, Belichick gave an explanation of what types of skills he's looking for from his team's next left end -- the spot Ninkovich held down since 2010. 

"I think it really becomes more of a coverage discussion," Belichick said. "How much and what type of coverage responsibilities would you put them in? You know, Chandler Jones versus Ninkovich or Trey Flowers versus Ninkovich. 

"There’s some differences in their coverage responsibilities. Especially most teams are, for us, defensively left-handed formation teams, so not that they couldn’t do it the other way, but more times than not, there’s a high percentage of situations that come up on the left side that are different from the right side, especially with a right-handed quarterback, which most of them are."

McClellin's variable skill set could make him a fit on that side of the field, where quarterbacks may be more prone to dumping off short passes -- or taking off to run it themselves. And if the Patriots feel as though they'd like to go in a different direction there -- say, Dont'a Hightower when he's healthy? -- maybe McClellin can give the Patriots a dependable off-the-ball linebacker. 

"He had a lot of experience before he got here of playing on the line in college, and for a year in Chicago, then he played primarily off the line," Belichick said. "We did both with him last year as a primary position and then we have different calls on different defensive fronts and alignments where he could be in either spot from one play to the next, even though the same people are in the game. 

"So, he’s worked very hard to play with those different techniques and have versatility for us playing on the end of the line, playing off the line, playing in pass coverage, rushing the passer, running games with the defensive linemen and has a number of roles in the kicking game for us. He’s smart, he’s athletic, he runs well, he’s got good size, he’s got experience, so he’s really a very valuable and versatile guy for us. He can do a lot of different things."

Including, perhaps, helping the Patriots deal with Ninkovich's departure.  

"They both played on the line in college. Shea’s probably played a little more off the line than Rob has, but Rob’s played off the line, too," Belichick said. "They’ve both played a lot in the kicking game. Yeah, I think there’s definitely some similarities in their skillsets."

Belichick on Ealy: 'He's building his versatility'

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Belichick on Ealy: 'He's building his versatility'

FOXBORO -- Kony Ealy indicated last week that he was held out of Day 1 of training camp practice by Bill Belichick, but he seems to have impressed his new head coach with what he's shown over the course of the last few days. 

The former Panthers defensive lineman has had a bit of a bumpy start to his Patriots tenure. He left a minicamp practice early and then was not present for one of the team's OTA sessions. When he wasn't on the field for Day 1 of camp, it raised some eyebrows.

New player. New scheme. Last year of his rookie contract. Big opportunity in front of him with Rob Ninkovich's departure. It felt as though he should be on the field as much as possible if he was going to carve himself a role. 

What Belichick said about Ealy on Tuesday, though, made it appear as though the team was encouraged with his progress of late.

"Good," Belichick said of Ealy's transition from Carolina to New England. "We've worked him in a number of different positions, both inside and outside. I think we've asked him to do more in coverage than he did in Carolina. Carolina doesn't do a lot with their defensive ends in pass coverage. We probably do significantly more than they do. Not with their linebackers, but with their ends and their coverage responsibilities . . .

"Those are things he's had to adjust to. But he's a smart kid. He works hard, and he's building his versatility. We'll see how far that goes but he's got the ability to play inside, to play outside on the end of the line, to play in some coverage situations, have a role in the kicking game, which was another thing that wasn't a big role in Carolina. I don't know how big it will be here, but it's already, I would say, more than what he had there. We've asked him to do some new things, and we'll evaluate those as we go through camp and see how it goes."

Belichick later highlighted some of the things the Patriots are looking for in their left ends and right ends. Ninkovich held down the left end spot for years with the Patriots, and in camp practices thus far we've seen Geneo Grissom handle those duties. Trey Flowers, meanwhile, has manned the right spot. 

The difference, Belichick explained, is in large part what the team entrusts a player to do coverage-wise. The left end spot typically needs to be able to cover -- oftentimes because a right-handed quarterback may be prone to testing that side of the field more frequently. 

Can Ealy be that combination of pass-rush-and-coverage option? That kind of role would be new to him so these next few weeks of training camp could be an audition to serve as Ninkovich's successor.