It was around 9 p.m. during the opening round of the 2012 NFL Draft when new Chicago Bears GM Phil Emery made his first selection as head of the organization.
His pick, Boise State DE Shea McClellin, was surprising, especially considering the talent that was still available at the time. At first blush, McClellin appears to be a highly effective pass rusher, but beyond that, his game is riddled with question marks.
Yet after making his first selection, Emery appeared content with his first draft pick.
"Very excited to have Shea become a Chicago Bear," said Emery. "Obviously it helped fill a need for us as a pass rusher."
DE Shea McClellin
McClellin played linebacker as well as defensive end during his three years as a starter in college. He's a hard-working, aggressive player with an all-day motor. Of his 130 career tackles, 33 came behind the line of scrimmage.
During his senior season, McClellin rotated all over the field from play to play, switching from a two-point stance down to a three-point stance depending on the game situation. This flexibility was very attractive to Emery as he considered the player with which he wanted to begin his legacy.
"We are excited about him for several reasons: He's got really quick feet and hands as a pass rusher, he has natural hips as a pass rusher," said Emery. "In his role, his normal starting role at Boise was as a MIKE backer and he would come down and rush in third down or in sub package situations, so there's a lot of versatility to this player – especially with us in terms of teams, where he would line up, right or left side.
"He's a good natural athlete and can do either one of those depending on what rush unit we want to send out there. What particular lineman of our opponent we want to attack. What matchup would create the best, if we felt Peppers needed to go inside and Shea needed to go over to the right, that might be a variability. In this young man, in his athletic ability, in his very high-level natural football instincts, gives us that versatility."
It was McClellin's on-field IQ that ultimately landed him in Chicago.
"If there was one area that stands out for me as an evaluator, in evaluating Shea, in myself and our coaches and our scouts, is that we all came away from looking at him, is the high level of football instincts," Emery said. "This is very natural player. He plays with low pad level, he finds the ball quickly through blocks, which is a skill in itself, he reads pressure well he can feel where the ball is going and he has a very natural ability to find the right path to the ball off blocks to make the tackle as quick as possible."
Yet, across the NFL, instincts is a relative term – the inherent objectivity of which makes the draft so fascinating. A typical 4-3 defensive end is tall with long arms. Length is critical from a down edge rusher. Yet McCellin (6-3, 260) is undersized and has relatively short arms (33 ¾ inches). He looks the part of a 3-4 OLB, not a 4-3 DE. But Emery pushed those established physical expectations aside and took the player he felt was most instinctive.
DE Shea McClellin
Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire
"It's just natural instincts in terms of feeling pressure. Say if an offensive tackle was trying to reach to my outside, [McClellin] instantly has a feel for feeling that block, getting his body in a right leverage position and working off that block to the ball. Taking his natural and his quickest path from the blocker to the ball possible. Some people possess it at a high level. He does. Some don't, they get stuck on blocks. They are the type of guy you see in good lock-out position and they are all squared up and they are ready and the ball carrier goes right by them. They are not reactive from block to ball. Shea has that ability at a very high level."
Emery said those instincts will allow McCelllin to contribute right away.
"Yeah that's really going to help that curve. That was a big part of it. We are looking for guys that can contribute right now, right away. As I told [defensive coordinator] Rod [Marinelli] as he came out of the room, right after he talked to him I said, ‘Rod, you got a Monster of the Midway, let's get to work.' He's very excited about him."
The Bears passed on a handful of defensive ends that were ranked higher than McClellin by most analysts, including Chandler Jones, Syracuse; Whitney Mercilus, Illinois; and Nick Perry, USC. Following Chicago's selection, New England traded up to 21 so they could select Jones. It's never a good sign when the Patriots trade up to grab the guy your team just passed up.
"I'm not going to compare [McClellin] against individuals but I will just say that this pass rusher we felt very good about in terms of his natural ability, he showed us some natural things that the other D-ends did not show us," said Emery.
Despite his versatility, the Bears will initially give McCellin a shot at defensive end, not outside linebacker.
"We like him at D-end. He has versatility if we were to have a string of injuries there to play SAM but we like who he is as a football player better as an end than at linebacker for us.
"We will start him off at left [end] because of [Julius Peppers] but he can play either side. He has the pass rush ability of a right D-end, he has good strength along with his combination of instincts and motor to play the left side."
There are questions about whether or not McCelllin has the strength to be successful against the run in the NFL. In college, he appeared easily blocked by bigger offensive lineman and his 19 bench press reps at the NFL Scouting Combine demonstrated his lack of pure power. Despite that, Emery isn't worried about him being a liability against the run.
Roger Goodell & Shea McClellin
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
"[McClellin uses] a combination of instincts and leverage. He has an ability to keep his pads very low. He has very good hands and that's key in terms of having the ability to hold the edge. Hands in the right place, keeping your pads low, using your leverage to your advantage."
Chicago sent defensive line coach Mike Phair to workout McClellin individually this offseason. Phair came back impressed.
"As we worked through this process we sent one of our coaches, Mike Phair, to work him out one-on-one and spend some time with him and he felt very good about him," said Emery. "One thing that happened to Shea was that at the Senior Bowl he played more linebacker than rushing, so that was kind of good for us. Not as many people saw him as a rusher. He played SAM backer at that game and all that we could find on tape of all the one-on-one rushes was one rush, so there was a little bit that people got into him late.
"I think everybody heard that Shea was a late riser and was getting really hot and that is kind of what we talk about in terms of keep working that tape as many ways as you can. Especially when you've gotten to the group of players you like and you start working on one against the other, the guys that get are the guys that start telling people, ‘Hey we like that guy,' and you start hearing his name enough you know that's one of the better players.
"He was in our process and as we were working through this process he started looking better and better to us compared to the rest of the group we were comparing him to."
Time will tell if McClellin turns out to be the next Jim Flanigan or the next Dan Bazuin. But Emery, despite his publicly expressed confidence, definitely stepped out on a ledge with his first ever draft selection as an NFL general manager.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.