Year three of his NFL career, and it's back to square one for everyone's favorite first-round pick, Shea McClellin. People have been wondering since the moment he was first drafted if he ultimately was a better fit at linebacker than at defensive end. Now that he's been given the "opportunity" to try his hand at linebacker, it's time to see if all the doubters were right after all.
His first outing in the preseason opener was rough, but midway through the second quarter of his second game at his new position, Shea was at the top of the Bears' tackle leaderboard. While you can tell he's still developing the feel for the position in pass coverage, he put in a good showing against the run and shows a definite potential to be a bigger contributor at LB than he ever was at DE.
Let's look at some of those plays by McClellin in the run game. Just before the GIF below starts, Shea motions up to the line in a two-point stance across from the right guard. Once the ball is snapped, he puts his off-season strength training to good use. Fist, he uses his arms to keep the guard at bay; then, he sheds the block with a right arm push-off and strides to the point of attack on the right edge.
By maintaining that early separation with his arms and keeping his feet under him, Shea is able to diagnose the play, shed the block, and work his way down the line to the right end. Once on the scene, he joins in the gang-tackle for short loss. Strong fundamentals, positive outcome.
On this next play, we see pretty much the same thing, but with one key difference - this time, McClellin beats out two blockers on his way to the point of attack. Again, he maintains good leverage with his base and uses his arms to fight off the blockers. Once he broke through the double team, he weaselled his way through the scrum at the line of scrimmage and found the running back:
Again, McClellin's use of leverage and arm strength to keep the blockers at bay gets him into the backfield to make the tackle. This is every bit what you would hope for from a first-year, first-round linebacker. Put another way, if Jon Bostic was making plays like this on a consistent basis last season, the Bears might not have posted the worst defensive numbers in team history.
It wasn't all gumdrops and lollipops for Shea and the rest of the Bears LBs, and I'm certainly not ready to crown him as the second coming of a more famous Bears #50 or even the second coming of Briggs-Urlacher sidekick Hunter Hillenmeyer. Indeed, much of the Jaguars' success came when they ran plays designed to take advantage of the linebacker squad - curls in front of shallow linebacker Cover 2 zones, power running, and misdirection bootlegs all fooled the defense and helped Jacksonville take an early lead in the game.
For some of that linebacker bad coupled with some McClellin good, let's take a glance at the start of a long running play by Jacksonville in the first quarter. Nothing too special by Jacksonville on this basic power run play. But, in words I can't believer I'm typing, this one is played perfectly by McClellin on the left edge but poorly by fellow linebackers D.J. Williams and Lance Briggs:
McClellin has a simple job on this play: keep the running back to his inside. He maintains outside leverage and sets a clean edge to ensure the run goes inside. Once that edge is set, however, it's up to the other two linebackers to shed or avoid a block to make the play. Briggs gets caught in a traffic jam and a double team, and Williams is blocked out by the pulling right guard. With nobody left at the point of attack to make the play, our old friend from Minnesota Toby Gerhart busts this one off for first-down yardage.
Is McClellin going to end up working out at linebacker? Just as it would with any actual rookie, it's going to take time to tell how well the transition works out. But if McClellin can continue to put in progressively better performances game to game, this one-game uptick can become a clear trend toward acceptability. I doubt that we'll ever see McClellin get a Pro Bowl nod, but if he can help shore up the worst run defense in Bears history with solid fundamentals, his position switch will have been a net positive.