Shea McClellin returning to roots in new Bears 3-4 scheme


Shea McClellin returning to roots in new Bears 3-4 scheme

Shea McClellin is going back to high school and couldn’t be more pleased at this latest step in his NFL career.

McClellin, working under his third different defensive coordinator and position coach and at his third different position in three calendar years, is holding down one of the two inside-linebacker spots in the developing 3-4 defense of coach John Fox and coordinator Vic Fangio.

The organization, not surprisingly, did not pick up the $7.7-million fifth-year option in McClellin’s rookie contract. McClellin understood the decision, which made him one of only a handful of 2012 draftees eligible but whose options were not picked up (one of the others was Bruce Irvin, first on the Bears’ wish list but selected by Seattle at No. 15, four picks ahead of McClellin).

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That seeming no-confidence vote could not matter less to McClellin, who has rediscovered something in football within the move of him to yet another position.

“I like it,” McClellin said. “It’s like high-school days, what I played in high school.

“For me this is the most fun I’ve had in the past couple of years. It was rough. We weren’t doing well as a team and that can get you down. You gotta have fun. It’s hard enough as it is and it’s really hard to play well when you’re not having fun.”

“Fun” at inside linebacker will involve a different skill set than his time at defensive end required: “You’re taking on guards almost all the time. But I did that last year, too, so it’s not going to be that much of a change.”

If there is an oddity about McClellin’s situation it is that the incoming coaching staff has a higher opinion of McClellin than either of the previous two, including the one that drafted him.

Fangio raised some eyebrows when he named McClellin among the players which Fangio envisioned as building blocks for the new defense.

“I think he’s got a chance to be a good inside linebacker,” Fangio said last month. Fangio comes from San Francisco with a reputation for blunt talk, and has seen what good inside linebackers look like after working with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis in the 49ers’ 3-4 scheme. “We’re going to give [McClellin] a full opportunity and full chance to learn the position so we can evaluate him and see if that’s a good spot for him.”

McClellin was force-fit into defensive end after his drafting in 2012 – former GM Phil Emery acknowledged that mistake, although exactly who pushed McClellin’s hand onto the ground is unclear, and now irrelevant – and the Lovie Smith/Rod Marinelli staff refused to look at McClellin at middle linebacker. The Marc Trestman/Mel Tucker group left McClellin at end initially, tried him at strongside linebacker last season, and considered him barely “sufficient,” according to one former staff member.

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Fox liked McClellin in the 2012 draft but did not have a first-round pick and selected defensive tackle Derek Wolfe with the 36th pick.

“I thought highly of him when he came out of Boise State,” Fox said. “He was more of an outside linebacker in that scheme.  But that’s a switch… . Right now [we are] putting him inside, we’ll see how he does there, see how he progresses because he is a good athlete. He does have good size, good length… . It will be an easier switch to put him someplace where he is more familiar.”

For McClellin, it is very much a place with which he is familiar: “I think it’s a good fit for me,” he said, “so I’m going to try to show what I can do.”

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.