In 2011, the Chicago Bears finished 19th in the NFL in team sacks with 33.0. For a defense that prides itself on its pass rush from the front four, this is far from acceptable.
The lack of pressure up front exposed a secondary that isn't built to cover receivers man-to-man for six or more seconds. In fact, any secondary in the league is going to get carved up if opposing quarterbacks are allowed time to throw.
In today's NFL, the most important position is obviously the quarterback, followed closely by edge rushers. The ability to rattle an opposing quarterback and get him out of rhythm is crucial in a league that becomes pass happier by the season. It's the reason teams invest huge sums in defensive ends and, subsequently, offensive tackles, those tasked with protecting QBs.
The team that fails to keep its signal caller clean is usually the one that loses on Sundays. To that end, the Bears made it a priority to upgrade the club's pass rush in this year's draft and selected former Boise State outside linebacker Shea McClellin with the 19th overall selection.
McClellin (6-3, 260) is smaller than a typical 4-3 defensive end. Many analysts believed he would be a better fit in a 3-4 system, as he showed well in coverage. Yet the Bears want McClellin to put his hand in the dirt and rush off the edge, something in which he excelled in college.
DE Shea McClellin
He's extremely quick off the ball, has quick feet and hands, and is relentless when getting after the quarterback. His high-effort style of play endeared him to Bears coaches, who were willing to put aside his deficiencies as a run stopper, as well as his lack of strength (19 bench press reps), to make him a first rounder.
On film, McClellin struggled mightily to set the edge against the run. He was often overmatched by collegiate tight ends, which has folks justifiably worried about what NFL offensive tackles will do to him.
Yet, if McClellin can have success as a pure pass rusher, most Bears fans will be willing to give him a pass on his inability to stop the run – which the club will mitigate by rotating him with Israel Idonije this season.
So what should our expectations be of a first-round pass-rush specialist? Let's take a look back at the production of some first-round rookie pass rushers, selected 19th overall or better, over the past 12 seasons (compiled by the good folks at MidwayIllustrated.com).
2000: Shaun Ellis, 8.5 sacks
2001: Justin Smith, 8.5 sacks
2002: Julius Peppers, 12 sacks
2002: Dwight Freeney, 13 sacks
2003: Terrell Suggs, 12 sacks
2004: Will Smith, 7.5 sacks
2005: DeMarcus Ware, 8.0 sacks
2006: Mario Williams, 4.5 sacks
2007: Gaines Adams, 6.0 sacks
2009: Brian Orakpo, 11 sacks
2010: Jason Pierre-Paul, 4.5 sacks
2011: Von Miller, 11.5 sacks
2011: Aldon Smith, 14 sacks
This is a partial list but it gives us a really good idea of what should be expected from McClellin this season. The average number of rookie sacks on this list is 9.3. McClellin, if he's going to earn his status as a first rounder, must have at least that many sacks.
Yet that still might not be enough. If he proves us right by struggling against the run and shows himself to be a one-dimensional player, then he'll need at least 12 sacks before he justifies being the 19th overall pick. If he's going to hurt the run defense, he'd better be outstanding as a pass rusher.
So far this offseason, McClellin has demonstrated his quickness and speed. He stood out during defensive line drills for his foot speed and ability to turn the corner. Yet those practices were in shorts. We'll have to wait until the pads come on in training camp before we get a better idea of his potential as a pass rusher.
Being average isn't going to cut it. He needs excel coming off the edge or the "bust" label will be entirely justified.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of 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.