BOURBONNAIS, Ill. First, a disclaimer: This is not a suggestion that Shea McClellin belongs at linebacker. CSNChicago.com is not in the business of advocating personnel decisions. But:
What if rookie defensive end Shea McClellin were only the Bears fourth-best defensive end but one of their best 11 defensive players? Corey Wootton, who had a strong game Thursday against Denver All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, is far and away the best end after Israel Idonije and Julius Peppers. Wootton could be playing his way into the discussion for starting, but that's for another time.
McClellin isnt Best-11 right now, although few players warranted more watching on Thursday than McClellin. Several experts have said he will be at his best when he is in game action that demands instinctive reactions to developing situations.
That was indeed the case. McClellin had a sack, two quarterback hits and a tackle for loss and was involved. He was road kill on a couple of running plays, but so were more than a few of his teammates in a game that saw the Denver Broncos pile up 158 rushing yards.
McClellins progress has been significant almost daily, despite his being assigned a huge dose of work deep into practice with backup units that have him visibly gassed. One thing the staff has not done is coddle the No. 1.
He is definitely not yet a top-11, however. Still, what if...
If he were an offensive lineman, he would be starting. Mike Tice as line coach and now coordinator has long espoused that the five best in that group will start. That principle cant automatically be applied to a larger group like an entire defense.
But that principle in its loose form does apply; the best 11 at getting to and attacking anyone with a football on any given play usually do ultimately find their ways onto the field.
McClellin was not repeat, not drafted to be a linebacker. He was, however, drafted to be a pass rusher. How he does it, or from where, is a franchise-grade story to watch.
The Urlacher Case
Coaches once made an acknowledged mistake with another elite football player when they put a rookie Brian Urlacher at strong-side linebacker in 2000. The thinking was that Sam was a way to get Urlacher on the field, at a spot where assignments were ostensibly simpler than in the middle, 54s eventual spot.
That didnt work because Urlacher, an instinctive player with extraordinary speed for his size (260 pounds), was getting locked up with tight ends at points of attack. That wasnt the case when he was an All-American safety at New Mexico. He was the point of attack, or at least got there before the ball carrier.
The mistake was forcing a player with a certain mix of mental and physical skills into a position that did not fit the skill set. Coaches in fact had underestimated Urlacher (and Roosevelt Colvin, whose job had been handed to Urlacher on draft day) and what he was capable of.
Coaches are giving McClellin a seemingly simple mission statement: Beat the tackle or tight end right in front of him. Unlike Urlacher, McClellin has played on the line of scrimmage extensively in college and he did it well, with seven sacks last year at Boise State.
Instead of over-estimating what McClellin can do with his hand on the ground, though, is he being under-estimated in the bigger picture?
An objective with the three-point stance is to shrink the target area for McClellin, so he is not peeking into backfields or being swarmed by blockers and deceptions that are part of NFL offenses.
But what if he is at his best, like Urlacher, when all about him is chaos?
The Miller Case
The Denver Broncos and coach John Fox are practitioners of the 4-3. Von Miller, the No. 2-overall pick in last years draft, was defensive rookie of the year after collecting 11.5 sacks. He operates largely out of a strong-side linebacker slot in a 4-3 scheme at 237 pounds.
Thats too light for a true Sam linebacker, except that Miller doesnt play that position like a classic 4-3 Sam backer. He rushes the passer. Against the Bears last year: a sack, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, five tackles. On the other side, Elvis Dumervil (a defensive end at 5-11, 260) also had a sack, five tackles, and a tackle for loss and three QB hits.
McClellin isnt Miller, any more than he is Clay Matthews, another edge bullet for Green Bay. He isnt Dumervil, either. But if he plays his way into being one of the best 11 defensive players, Bears coaches will have a good problem on their hands.