A 'dilemma' for Bears coaches: How to get McClellin on the field


A 'dilemma' for Bears coaches: How to get McClellin on the field

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. First, a disclaimer: This is not a suggestion that Shea McClellin belongs at linebacker. 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.

Bears could develop “twin towers” personnel package at WR with Robinson, White

Bears could develop “twin towers” personnel package at WR with Robinson, White

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Coaches are loath to give away competitive information, which can cover just about anything from play design to flavor of Gatorade dispensed by the training staff. But Matt Nagy offered an intriguing what-if personnel grouping that his offense could confront defenses with in 2018. It’s one that has been overlooked so far, for a variety of reasons.

The what-if personnel pairing is Allen Robinson and Kevin White as the outside receivers, a tandem that would put two 6-foot-3 wide receivers at the disposal of quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The Bears have not had a tandem of effective big receivers since Alshon Jeffery (6-3) and Brandon Marshall (6-4) averaged a combined 159 catches per year from 2012-14.

White’s injury history has relegated him to found-money status in many evaluations, and he has typically been running at Robinson’s spot while the latter was rehabbing this offseason from season-ending knee injury.

But Nagy on Wednesday cited Robinson’s ability to play multiple positions and clearly raised the prospect of his two of his biggest receivers being on the field at the same time.

“The one thing you’ll see here in this offense is that we have guys all over the place in different spots,” said Nagy, who credited GM Ryan Pace with stocking the roster with options at wide receiver. “Ryan did a great job of looking at these certain free agents that we went after, some of these draft picks that we went after and getting guys that are football smart, they have a high football IQ and they’re able to play multiple positions.

“When you can do that, that helps you out as an offensive playcaller to be able to move guys around. Is it going to happen to every single receiver that comes into this offense? No. But we do a pretty job I feel like at balancing of where they’re at position wise, what they can and can’t handle, and then we try to fit them into the process.”

The organization and locker room can be excused for a collective breath-holding on White, who has gone through his third straight positive offseason but whose last two seasons ended abruptly with injuries in the fourth and first games of the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

White was leading the Bears in with 19 receptions through less than four full games in 2016, then was lost with a fractured fibula suffered against Detroit. The injury was all the crueler coming in a game in which White already had been targeted nine times in 41 snaps and had caught six of those Brian Hoyer passes.

White’s roster status has been open to some question with the signings of Robinson and Taylor Gabriel together with the drafting of Anthony Miller. All represent bigger deep threats in terms of average yards per catch than White (9.2 ypc.) at this point: Robinson, 14.1.; Gabriel, 15.1; and Miller, 13.8 (college stats).

But Trubisky’s budding chemistry with White was evident throughout the offseason. And the second-year quarterback has studied what Robinson has been and seen some of what he can be.

“We know he has great hands, he’ll go up and get it,” Trubisky said. “Explosive route-runner. The more reps we get, it’s all about repetitions for us, continue to build that chemistry. Just going against our great defense in practice is going to allow us to compete and get better.”

Folding in the expectations for an expanded presence at tight end (Trey Burton), “targets” will be spread around the offense. How often the Bears go with a Robinson-White “twin towers” look clearly depends in large measure on White’s improvement as well as his availability.

Opportunities will be there. The Kansas City Chiefs ran 51 percent of their 2018 snaps, with Nagy as offensive coordinator, in “11” personnel (one back, one tight end, three receivers, according to Pro Football Focus. Whether White earns his way into that core nickel-wideout package opposite Robinson is part of what training camp and preseason will determine.

“[White] has had a good offseason and just like our team, he needs to carry that momentum into camp,” Pace said. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, he’s very focused. The real expectation, just be the best he can be. Focus on himself, which is what he’s been doing.”

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

Cubs bolster pitching staff with minor trade, foreshadow more moves coming

The Cubs didn't wait long to make Joe Maddon's words come true.

Roughly 5 hours after Maddon said the Cubs are definitely in the market for more pitching, the front office went out and acquired Jesse Chavez, a journeyman jack-of-all-trades type.

It's a minor move, not in the realm of Zach Britton or any of the other top relievers on the market.

But the Cubs only had to part with pitcher Class-A pitcher Tyler Thomas, their 7th-round draft pick from last summer who was pitching out of the South Bend rotation as a 22-year-old.

Chavez — who turns 35 in a month — brings over a vast array of big-league experience, with 799 innings under his belt. He's made 70 starts, 313 appearances as a reliever and even has 3 saves, including one this season for the Texas Rangers.

Chavez is currently 3-1 with a 3.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 50 strikeouts in 56.1 innings. He has a career 4.61 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching for the Pirates, Braves, Royals, Blue Jays, A's, Dodgers, Angels and Rangers before coming to Chicago.

Of his 30 appearances this season, Chavez has worked multiple innings 18 times and can serve as a perfect right-handed swingman in the Cubs bullpen, filling the role previously occupied by Luke Farrell and Eddie Butler earlier in the season.

Chavez had a pretty solid run as a swingman in Oakland from 2013-15, making 47 starts and 50 appearances as a reliever, pitching to a 3.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 8.2 K/9 across 360.1 innings.

"Good arm, versatile, could start and relieve," Joe Maddon said Thursday after the trade. "I've watched him. I know he had some great runs with different teams. 

"The word that comes to mind is verstaility. You could either start him or put him in the bullpen and he's very good in both arenas."

It's not a flasy move, but a valuable piece to give the Cubs depth down the stretch.

There's no way the Cubs are done after this one trade with nearly two weeks left until the deadline. There are more moves coming from this front office, right?

"Oh yeah," Maddon said. "I don't think that's gonna be the end of it. They enjoy it too much."