There’s an unexpected player running with the Ravens’ first-team defense.
Longtime special teams ace Albert McClellan is lining up as the starting SAM linebacker, stepping into the vacancy left by Courtney Upshaw’s departure in free agency.
And according to Head Coach John Harbaugh, it’s McClellan’s job to lose.
“Albert has started here at times, and he’s never disappointed,” Harbaugh said Thursday. “He’s battling for the spot. The spot is certainly up for grabs, just like a lot of spots are, but he’s the leader right now, and he’s doing a good job.”
McClellan has been one of the Ravens’ best special teams players over the past several years. He’s a captain on the unit and notched six tackles last year, tied for the second-most on the team.
In his growing role, he would likely continue playing special teams and share the starting outside linebacker gig opposite Terrell Suggs with Elvis Dumervil.
McClellan would take the majority of running situations to leave Dumervil, who saw a drastic increase of snaps last year after Suggs’ Week 1 injury, fresh for rushing the quarterback. Dumervil posted 17 sacks in 2014, when he split starting duties with Upshaw, compared to just six sacks last season.
The Ravens have leaned on McClellan before, just not in this particular role. He started 11 games in 2012 after Suggs suffered his first Achilles tear. McClellan notched a career-high 49 tackles, one sack, two passes defensed and one forced fumble.
McClellan has mostly played inside linebacker when called upon, but his college roots were as a pass-rushing defensive end. He notched 21 career sacks in four seasons at Marshall.
“We’ve got a saying here that the more you can do, the better chance you have of playing,” McClellan said. “So being versatile plays to my advantage.”
The Ravens have a history of undrafted linebackers starring on special teams before eventually becoming impact players on defense. It happened with Bart Scott, Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe. Josh Bynes also became a spot starter.
Unlike all of those players, McClellan got a three-year contract this offseason to stay in Baltimore.
“He probably continues to get better because of all of the reps he’s having at SAM linebacker, but Albert has always been a good player,” Harbaugh said.
McClellan acted as if he wasn’t even aware that he’s in the conversation to be a starter. He is built like a tank at 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, but he has an unassuming, low-key attitude. He said his role with the first-team first team could chance change once Dumervil and Suggs return.
“It’s an opportunity,” McClellan said. “I think the coaches believe in me a lot, so I’ve got to take advantage of what’s given. I think they’ve got faith in me.”