Jameel McClain has grown up in the Ravens defense, playing in the shadows of some of the game's biggest stars.
With Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata all lining up next to him, McClain spent much of his first four seasons in the background. But this offseason, after signing a new three-year contract, McClain has found himself becoming another leader of the defense.
"It's fun to be out there and be able to take on more of a leadership role," McClain said after last week's minicamp. "That's something in general that I knew was going to be expected of me."
McClain has been one of the constant faces in the Ravens facility since the team began voluntary conditioning in March. With veterans like Lewis, Reed and Suggs not in the building for much of the offseason, greater expectations fell on the 26-year-old McClain to lead the team in the meeting rooms and during practice.
"It's something that just comes natural to be honest," McClain said. "I feel like I'm more a piece of the puzzle to help carry on the tradition that all those great guys set. Far be it for me to not accept the responsibility head on."
Part of McClain's focus on transitioning into a leadership role has been bred out of necessity, he said, as the team lost veterans like Jarret Johnson and Corey Redding to free agency.
"When you lose leadership, other people have to step up and I'm more than willing to do that," McClain said. "At the end of the day, I think it comes with respect from your peers. You can't be considered anything if your peers don't respect you."
In addition to establishing a more vocal role on the team's defense, McClain is also focused on taking his play to the next level.
He's been a starting inside linebacker for the last two seasons and finished second behind Lewis with 81 tackles last year. He's gone from being an undrafted free agent to starting linebacker, and he sees the next step as earning recognition as one of the game's top inside linebackers.
"I'm focused on making myself a Pro Bowl player," McClain said. "It's always been in my mind and I've always had a progression for everything that I do. I worked my way up from the bottom to where I'm at now and I still have a long way to go, so if I wasn't reaching to be a Pro Bowler, to be an all-star in this game, why am I playing?"