The McClellin Project: Part I

The Bears this year are attempting to salvage the career of Shea McClellin by switching him from defensive end to linebacker. We document the transition of the former first rounder.

After selecting Shea McClellin with his very first draft pick as general manager of the Chicago Bears, Phil Emery took a lot of heat.

McClellin was an undersized defensive lineman who played as much linebacker at Boise State as he did defensive end. The Bears were banking on his ability to speed rush off the edge but at just 6-3 and less than 260 pounds, with just 19 bench-press reps at the combine, questions immediately arose about McClellin's ability to be an every-down player.

Those concerns proved justifiable the past two seasons, during which McCelllin has struggled against both the run and pass. As an edge rusher, he accumulated just 6.5 sacks his first two years, with 3.0 coming in one contest, and against the run, he was a liability.

According to Pro Football Focus, no defensive end in the league last year was worse than McClellin in stopping the run.

Emery has tucked his tail between his legs and admitted his mistake. As a result, McClellin will play linebacker for the remainder of his career in Chicago.

This is an important move for a number of reasons. First, the value of first-round picks in today's NFL is akin to gold. Hitting or missing on first rounders can either propel your team to greatness or drag down an organization for years.

It's safe to say that, had McClellin played like a first-round defensive end last season, things wouldn't have spiraled completely out of control and the Bears may have been able to make the playoffs. So finding some way to get value out a former first rounder is of critical importance.

Second, this is a defense in transition and McClellin could play a huge part in that process.

With McClellin, the Bears have a player with experience at multiple positions, one with the speed to cover sideline to sideline and the pass-rush ability to be productive if given a head of steam. The possibilities with a player of his skill set are endless and if defensive coordinator Mel Tucker finds a way to make McCelllin effective this year, first-round effective, Chicago's defense could go from a team weakness to a team strength.

This is especially so when you consider the state of the linebacker positions. Lance Briggs and D.J. Williams are aging veterans who will not be playing in the Windy City beyond this season, while last year's draft picks, Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene, were disappointments as rookies.

It's a very shaky position, one that could collapse for the second season in a row if injuries befall Briggs, Williams or both.

Yet McClellin, if he proves a viable 4-3 linebacker, could erase a lot of those worries. Which is why we intend to document his transition and progression as a linebacker throughout the preseason.

In this first installment, we lay the foundation for what could be one of the most important position switches in recent Bears history.

"My first two years weren't the greatest but I think linebacker is a natural fit for me," McClellin said last week. "I think it's what I should be doing and I'm very excited about it."

The first practice of organized team activities (OTAs) was held last Tuesday and Williams, for reasons unknown, was not present.

As a result, the starting linebackers consisted of Briggs at WILL, Bostic at MIKE and McClellin at SAM. In nickel sets, McClellin came off the field.

With the second team, McClellin worked at MIKE alongside Greene at WILL and rookie Christian Jones at SAM. In passing situations, McClellin and Greene stayed on the field, with Jones departing.

What this tells us is that even Chicago's coaching staff has no idea what to make of McClellin. Right now, they are working him at multiple positions to get an idea of his strengths and weaknesses as a linebacker.

"He's an athlete. He's an athletic linebacker and athletic linebackers can play in this league," Briggs said. "Shea size-wise, he can play MIKE. Right now he's playing SAM. I'm sure coaches are going to move him around see where his best fit is."

That's our starting point, with uncertainty its strongest characteristic.

The OTA sessions are not padded, so we won't get a chance to see McClellin's toughness and ability to take on blocks until training camp. What we did get a look at was his skill set in coverage, which needs work.

In zone sets, McClellin showed good movement. He lost roughly 15 pounds this offseason, which increased his speed, range and closing ability.

In man sets, he displayed his inexperienced. He lacks instincts and allowed separation far too easily. On one snap, he lined up across from tight end Martellus Bennett, then watched as Bennett sprinted past him and made a wide-open catch on a post-corner route.

Of note was McClellin's positioning as an outside linebacker with the first team. On more than one occasion, he was stationed on the line of scrimmage, just outside of the defensive end. We never saw him rush from that spot but it appears he'll get plenty of opportunities to blitz off the edge, which could end up being his biggest contribution this year.

Who knows what he can do hitting gaps with a full head of steam? It may be his perfect role.

For now though, Chicago's coaching staff is still in its evaluation stage with McClellin. It's a feeling-out process that could last well into training camp, one we plan on documenting in full.

The McClellin Project promises to be very interesting and we'll be front and center for the show.


Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.


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