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updated: 1/6/2014 8:03 PM

Bears' McClellin remains one big question mark

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  • Bears defensive end Shea McClellin pressures Saints quarterback Drew Brees during the Bears' 26-18 loss at Soldier Field in October.

      Bears defensive end Shea McClellin pressures Saints quarterback Drew Brees during the Bears' 26-18 loss at Soldier Field in October.
    Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • The Bears' Shea McClellin shows who the boss after his sack on the Chargers quarterback.

      The Bears' Shea McClellin shows who the boss after his sack on the Chargers quarterback.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

During last week's season recap at Halas Hall, general manager Phil Emery responded to a question about underachieving defensive end Shea McClellin with a 686-word response.

That's more than 100 words for each of McClellin's 6 career sacks.

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But that's typical of the reaction McClellin elicits from fans, media and coaches, in addition to Emery, who selected the Boise State product with his first draft choice (19th overall) as Bears GM in April 2012.

Mention McClellin's name and the questions and opinions seem to roll in like they do for no other player.

Is he a first-round bust?

Should he be traded?

Should he be cut?

Is he too small to play defensive end?

Would he be more productive as a linebacker in the Bears' 4-3 scheme?

Is he better suited to play linebacker in a 3-4 scheme?

Should he be strictly a pass rusher?

Is he a hybrid-type player who could be maneuvered back and forth between defensive end and linebacker depending on the down and distance or the opponent?

McClellin's play has not provided definitive answers to any of those questions yet, and the Bears still don't seem to have a clear-cut plan for the 6-foot-3, 260-pounder who played as both a down lineman and a stand-up linebacker in college.

In his two NFL seasons, McClellin has played in 28 games, and all nine of his starts came in 2013, eight of them after injuries at defensive tackle forced starting left end Corey Wootton to move inside. Minus the injuries to tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins, it's likely McClellin would have started one game last season.

Nearly half of McClellin's career sacks came in the Nov. 4 victory at Green Bay, when his first of 3 sacks resulted in a fractured collarbone for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He finished with just 4 sacks all season.

McClellin finished tied for 14th on the Bears with 28 tackles in 2013, although he tied with Julius Peppers for the team lead in quarterback pressures with 17.

McClellin does not appear to possess the bulk or the strength to hold the point of attack as a defensive end against the run, but he has enough speed to make plays in pursuit. As a pass rusher, it's more like "close but no cigar," as evidenced by his numerous pressures but minimal sacks.

"Shea is capable of more, and it's our job and our responsibility as coaches to get that out of him," coach Marc Trestman said. "We're going to do everything we can to do that."

In 23 of his 28 NFL games, McClellin has not managed so much as a shared sack. But Emery insists that McClellin has made an impact, although there doesn't seem to be much evidence to back him up.

"When we needed a pass rusher to step up, Shea contributed greatly in terms of our overall production," Emery said. "No matter how we shake out the stats as far as the importance of the person on the field to our pass rush, Shea was No. 1. But he did not have enough impact plays. Sacks are king, and Shea did not have enough of those.

"What we have to do with Shea is find ways to use the unique talents and skills of the players that we have. Putting him at defensive end, that's on me, not giving him the ultimate opportunity to succeed. He produced in a positive way, but the overall impact of the last two seasons has not been at a high enough level."

ProFootballFocus.com does not agree. Their rankings gave McClellin a negative grade in each of his final nine games and had him as the lowest-graded defensive lineman on the team in both run defense and as a pass rusher.

McClellin is similar in size to 6-foot-4, 258-pound, eight-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, but that's about where that comparison ends.

McClellin has never demonstrated the nose for the football that helped make Urlacher special, and he has hardly ever been asked to drop into coverage, an Urlacher skill that was an integral part of the Bears' Cover-2 scheme that was successful for more than a decade.

Emery seems to hint at a position change for McClellin but doesn't really commit to it. Trestman also seemed to propose it but not endorse it.

"We'll look hard at Shea doing other things besides being lined up at defensive end," Trestman said. "If that means moving him to linebacker as we move forward, that will be under consideration as well.

"But there's no doubt, as Phil and I watched the tape this week, that he's capable of more, and we'll work toward that as we move forward. He's got it in him. It's our job as coaches, and it starts with me, to get him in a position to be more successful, and we feel confident we can get that done."

The Bears wouldn't switch to a 3-4 scheme just to accommodate McClellin, but a move is possible, whether or not embattled defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is retained.

"It doesn't have to be an option to line up Shea at Sam (strongside) linebacker," Trestman said. "It doesn't have to be a 3-4. Could it? Certainly. It just sounds easier because there are four linebackers and there's two other potential pass rushers involved, but it doesn't have to be. All of that will be on the table as a consideration to how we get more out of him."

For his part, McClellin is game for however the Bears want to deploy him. As a 37-game starter in four years at Boise State, he had 20 sacks and 33 tackles for loss switching back and forth from the defensive line to linebacker.

"We'll see how it goes," he said, when asked about next season. "We'll see what they want me to do. Whatever they want me to do, I'll do it. If they want me to stand up, that's fine. I'm comfortable doing that."

A position switch might be the only way for the Bears to get as much out of McClellin as they expected when they drafted him. And it would give everyone even more to talk about.

rlegere@dailyherald.com

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