Matthew Judon was beaten. It happens often in this drill with defensive players being asked to cover running backs or tight ends far down the field without any safety help. Nick Boyle left Judon completely behind and that’s where the second-year linebacker remained as the tight end ran unimpeded toward the end zone.
Offensive players hooted and hollered and Judon was a solitary figure in the middle of the field when a horn sounded to signify the end of the drill. Albert McClellan, who occupied the starting strong-side linebacker job last year that Judon is now the front runner for, eschewed a quick water break to approach Judon to offer some encouragement and advice.
“This is an organization that everybody holds each other accountable. If they’re not going to hold me accountable to help out, then I’m not doing my job as a leader on the team,” McClellan said. “If you see something, you have to speak up. This is an organization where we all give advice. We don’t let anybody sink. We’re trying to let everybody swim out here.”
McClellan, 31, has been one of the Ravens’ top special teams players and Ravens associate head coach and special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has long believed he’s one of the best in the league. McClellan is a valuable and versatile linebacker who filled in for an injured Ray Lewis in 2012, and has started 23 career games at multiple positions over the course of his career.
But if you truly want to find out how McClellan has made it seven years in the league as an undrafted free agent, and why he’s become one of the most beloved and respected players in a veteran-laden locker room, watch a Ravens practice and see how many times he pulls aside a young teammate who just got admonished by a coach.
Go to a special teams meeting and watch how McClellan, one of the captains of the group, sits next to the player who is struggling to grasp certain assignments. Spend some time with McClellan in the offseason as he annually reworks his body and either adds or subtracts bulk, depending on what the Ravens want him to focus on in the upcoming year.
“One of my favorite things about this job is getting guys like Albert, undrafted free agents, particularly young players that you watch grow and develop — both as players and as men,” Rosburg said. “He’s a remarkable man, and he’s a huge asset to our organization.”
Head coach John Harbaugh considers McClellan a trusted voice in the locker room. To defensive coordinator Dean Pees and linebackers coach Don Martindale, McClellan is a Swiss Army knife because he can and has played every linebacker spot. Ex-Ravens linebacker and special teams ace Zachary Orr, one of many players McClellan has mentored, affectionately calls his former teammate “the big brother” of the Ravens.
“He’s one of the most important pieces to the Ravens,” Orr said. “That’s why he’s been there so long. He started from the bottom and worked his way into a very good football player.”
Said Ravens middle linebacker C.J. Mosley: “He’s a safety valve, and those are the kind of people that you want on your side. Since he’s been here for seven years, just the knowledge that he knows from the game, he’s pretty much a mentor to just about everybody.”
Only six current Ravens — Terrell Suggs (2003), Sam Koch (2006), Marshal Yanda (2007), Joe Flacco (2008), Lardarius Webb (2009) and Morgan Cox (2010) — have been with the team as long or longer than McClellan, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Marshall in 2010 and spent his rookie year on the practice squad. While McClellan has come to training camp every season since 2010 and earned a job on the 53-man roster, the Ravens don’t have a single member of the 2010 and 2012 draft classes still in the organization, and only cornerback Jimmy Smith remains from 2011.
“It’s amazing what he’s done and how long he’s been able to do it,” Orr said. “For the most part, he’s probably had to fight for his job every single year and he always finds a way out there. We know he’s one of the best special teams players in the league, but he can play every linebacker position well.”
McClellan’s ties to the Ravens stretch far longer than 2010. He went to Kathleen High School in Lakeland, Fla., the same school that produced Lewis, the former Ravens’ linebacker. McClellan grew up idolizing ex-Tennessee Titans star Jevon Kearse, but he was obviously well aware of Lewis’ exploits on the field. Lewis was so close to a few of McClellan’s cousins that the Ravens’ all-time leader in tackles appears in some of his family photos, McClellan said.
When it came down to picking an NFL team after a solid career at Marshall, McClellan had several offers. He told his agent, Glen Lansky, that he wasn’t interested in going to the team where he had the best chance of making the roster. He wanted to go to the team where he’d have the biggest opportunity to improve as a player.
“I figured [the Ravens] were always the best linebackers corps in the league. Why not go there and learn?” McClellan said. “If you can make the team there or even if you can come close to making the team, you will make a team anywhere else in this league. That’s the mindset that I had coming here. I’ve got to learn from the best. If I learned from the best, I can go play somewhere else.”
The 2010 Ravens’ linebacker group included Lewis, Suggs and Jarret Johnson. But there were two other linebackers on the roster that perhaps made the biggest impact on McClellan. Both Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe came to the organization as undrafted free agents and wound up becoming fixtures on special teams, then starters on one of the league’s best defenses.
A strong work ethic was already ingrained in McClellan. His grandmother always had two or three jobs. His father and mother constantly worked. Being around McClain and Ellerbe, who had to fight for their roster spots every day, further reinforced to McClellan how things needed to be done.
“Growing up, I was always told to work for everything or fight for everything you want in life,” McClellan said. “If you’re not working for it or fighting for it, you will never appreciate it. That’s the mindset that I always have. And then guys like Jameel and Ellerbe, those guys took me under their wing and basically told me, ‘Hey, you have to do this work. This isn’t even an option if you want to make it here.’ That stuck with me and basically got me to where I’m still here today.”
McClellan now imparts the lessons he learned to undrafted free agents Patrick Onwuasor, Donald Payne and Bam Bradley. But he’s not exactly just getting out of the way to make room for the younger linebackers and potential special teams standouts.
Due to make $1 million this year in the second season of a three-year deal, McClellan shed a significant amount of weight this offseason for what he expects to be a special teams-heavy role.
“My daughter’s got to eat. My family, my wife, we’ve got to eat,” McClellan said. “Each and every day, you’ve got to come out here and make sure you get better at something. You’ve got to find something to really focus on. You have to really focus on what you’re going to improve on that day. Obviously, you can improve on a lot of things, but you have to make one thing noticeable each day.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.