Now that the season is underway, we’ll be breaking down some of the players who are signed to the Jets’ practice squad and could potentially be elevated or activated to play for the team at some point during this season. We continue today with linebacker Marcelino McCrary-Ball.
The 24-year old McCrary-Ball was undrafted out of Indiana in 2022. He has yet to make his NFL debut but spent the past two preseasons with the San Francisco 49ers and his rookie season on their practice squad.
McCrary-Ball, who went by Marcelino Ball until late in his college career, was a three-star high school recruit who went to Indiana as a safety. He racked up 75 tackles as a true freshman even though he didn’t turn 18 until after the season. He also broke up eight passes and intercepted two.
In 2017, he was injured in the third game of the season and opted to take a medical redshirt. He then returned to the lineup in 2018 and racked up 59 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks as he was named as an all-Big Ten honorable mention. He then had 47 tackles and two sacks in 2019.
In 2020, McCrary-Ball suffered another season-ending injury before the first game but took advantage of the special Covid-19 rules to return for a sixth year of eligibility in 2021. He had 40 tackles, a sack and an interception.
Although some scouts reportedly had a day two grade on McCrary-Ball heading into the 2021 season, he went unselected in the 2022 draft and the 49ers were able to sign him as an undrafted free agent and immediately converted him to linebacker.
Despite an impressive preseason, McCrary-Ball was released in final cuts and spent his entire rookie year on the 49ers’ practice squad. This season he was in the mix for a starting role early on in camp, but ended up getting released in final cuts and signed to the New York Jets practice squad after clearing waivers.
Now let’s take a look at what McCrary-Ball brings to the table, divided into categories.
McCrary-Ball is undersized for a linebacker and has average strength but his speed and explosiveness are excellent for the position. He ran a 4.51 at his pro day in the 40-yard dash and had a 35.5-inch vertical jump.
As noted, McCrary-Ball played as a safety in college, albeit mostly in a hybrid safety/linebacker role which made him ideal to switch to linebacker at the NFL level.
He’s played plenty of snaps in the slot and got a lot of preseason action as a middle linebacker, but he was mostly competing for a strongside role with the 49ers.
His versatility on defense is impressive but Indiana also experimented with using him on offense. In the team’s spring game one year, he had a spectacular long run on an end around after having lined up at wide receiver.
McCrary-Ball was a productive run defender in college but his impact was inconsistent. At the NFL level his issue will be coming up into the box, where he needs to make faster reads to avoid blocks and take good angles to the ball carrier.
He’s impressed with his ability to get sideline-to-sideline and his speed can be an asset coming downhill.
On this play he shows discipline on the backside and then comes up to fill on the edge for the stuff.
Here’s a play where he comes up to fill the primary running lane but keeps himself clean so he can get in on the stop as the back tries to cut the other way.
McCrary-Ball’s experience as a defensive back should serve him well in terms of playing the linebacker position. He’s had plenty of experience of taking deep drops and has had good production in terms of making plays on the ball with 16 pass breakups and four interceptions in college.
His film shows that he is adept at tracking downfield throws and reacting to deflected passes.
At the NFL level, he’s only really been targeted on short passes and has generally done well to limit the yardage on these. He did give up few big plays on downfield passes in college but isn’t likely to find himself in those situations very often from the linebacker position.
On this play, McCrary-Ball is slow to turn and run with the receiver after allowing him a clean release from the slot, so his footwork and technique may need some refining.
Over the course of his career, McCrary-Ball has been a pretty consistent tackler and was never into double figures for missed tackles in any college season. He’s only had a few in preseason action too.
He generally seems to take good angles to the ball, although sometimes he will give ground when trying to ensure he doesn’t get caught up in traffic.
McCrary-Ball only had one forced fumble in his college career and doesn’t really have much of a reputation as a big hitter, but when he squares up ball carriers he can pack a punch.
There were a few plays, however, where he didn’t square the runner up like this and allowed them to fall forwards or drag him for a few extra yards.
McCrary-Ball hasn’t blitzed much at the NFL level, with just one pressure to his name in preseason action, but he was an effective blitzer in college with 5.5 sacks in his career and a solid pressure rate.
McCrary-Ball was a solid contributor in kick coverage in college, racking up 12 special teams tackles in his career with just one special teams penalty. He followed this up with a couple of special teams tackles in preseason in 2022.
It’s not just on kick coverage where he’s contributed, though. He’s also been employed as a blocker and even returned seven kickoffs for 144 yards in college. He also ran the ball on a fake punt, although he gained just three yards when they needed 10.
As with any defensive back converting to linebacker, it’s an adjustment for them to play in the box more and have to take on or fight off blocks.
Here’s a play where McCrary-Ball does well to prevent the tight end from stopping him from getting to the edge.
Since he was already in a hybrid linebacker role, it’s perhaps not that much of an adjustment for McCrary-Ball to make quick reads. Here’s a play where he diagnoses the short pass and keeps his head up as he engages the blocker.
This play was on 3rd-and-long. It was the right thing to do for McCrary-Ball to stay alert and ready to free up his outside arm rather than trying to make a play behind the line and potentially over pursuing or leaving himself open to being sealed off.
In college, his awareness in coverage could let him down at times. Here’s a blown coverage that led to a big play late in a close rivalry game with Penn State.
However, now that he’s moved to linebacker, McCrary-Ball’s experience of making full-field reads from the safety position can be an asset to his coverage abilities.
McCrary-Ball was a two-time team captain who impressed his coaches by working through game film with the other players in his position group when he was injured.
He’s also regarded as mature and is extremely confident, having told the San Francisco media in 2022 that he was making the team as an undrafted rookie.
McCrary-Ball has also been honest about some issues he has dealt with involving his mental health and anxiety in particular.
McCrary-Ball had two season-ending injuries in his career, a torn ACL before the season began in 2020 and an undisclosed injury early in the 2017 season. He was reportedly wearing a knee brace after the 2017 injury.
Athletic safeties who played in a hybrid role in college are ideal for teams like the 49ers to convert into a linebacker role. This is something Robert Saleh has brought with him to the Jets, so they see McCrary-Ball as an ideal fit for their system, much like they viewed college safeties Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen when they were drafted.
He was a teammate of fellow practice squad member Jason Poe in San Francisco last season and at training camp this year.
After Samuel Eguavoen was signed to the active roster, this leaves McCrary-Ball as the only linebacker on the practice squad, so he could potentially get called up if there’s another injury.
Of course, rookie Zaire Barnes is sitting on the 53-man roster as a healthy scratch every week, presumably because the Jets think Eguavoen offers more at this stage. If there’s another injury, it will be interesting to see if they turn to McCrary-Ball or Barnes next.
The Jets have brought McCrary-Ball in hoping to turn him into a contributor. 49ers fans were calling him a steal at one stage and many of them were surprised he didn’t make the roster, figuring that this was a player who belonged on a 53 that was missing out because San Francisco was deep at that particular position.
It will be interesting to see how he fares if he gets his shot. He could definitely be back on a futures deal and in camp next season even if he doesn’t.