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What if the Bears hadn’t picked Shea McClellin?

How would the NFL have changed if the Bears had made a different selection in the 2012 NFL Draft?

Chicago Bears v Kansas City Chiefs
The Shea McClellin experiment didn’t quite work out for the Bears.
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Over the past week, our pals across SB Nation have been writing a series of “what if” articles, in which they take a look at a significant event in their team’s franchise and talk about what would have happened if said event never took place. We here at Windy City Gridiron have already done a few of these, but we’ve decided to take this concept a little bit further and dig into more than one event. This time around, we’re looking at one of the most notorious Chicago Bears draft picks in recent memory: Shea McClellin.

The draft pick was a surprising one from the start, as McClellin was perceived as a much better fit for a 3-4 system than he was in a 4-3, the system that the Bears ran at the time. He was a very good athlete, but he wasn’t quite strong enough to play in a 4-3 as a defensive end.

The move was made even more surprising considering the talent that the Bears passed up on at the edge rusher position. Chandler Jones and Whitney Mercilus were both picked within seven picks of Chicago’s first-round selection, and both have had much better careers than McClellin. The first pick of Phil Emery’s tenure as general manager, the selection was a symbol of bad decisions that would plague the team for years to come.

Let’s dive into what might have happened if the Bears had passed on McClellin.

  • With the No. 19 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears instead select Whitney Mercilus, edge rusher out of Illinois. Many assumed that Mercilus was going to be the pick to begin with, considering his local ties, scheme fit and his performance in 2011, including 16 sacks, nine forced fumbles and 22.5 tackles for a loss. Chandler Jones has had a better career than Mercilus, but, given Chicago’s ties to the latter player at the time, we’re going to assume that the Bears go down that route.
  • Without Mercilus on the board, the Houston Texans select Harrison Smith in the first round. Their secondary was less than stellar in 2011, so Smith would have been a needed addition to their defense. The Minnesota Vikings, who were even worse off than the Texans were in the secondary at the time, end up picking Janoris Jenkins, so they don’t totally get screwed over.
  • Where does Shea McClellin end up? When looking for a landing spot for him, one must find a team that ran a 3-4 that needed youth off the edge. That team, of course, is the Green Bay Packers. Now, I know what you guys are thinking. Sending McClellin to the Packers? This just reeks of pro-Chicago bias. You’re only partially correct. The Packers were actually really interested in McClellin at the time, and they sent a lot of team scouts and personnel to his Pro Day. Green Bay would have been a much better landing spot for the Boise State alum, as he would have been able to rush the passer as a stand-up edge and learn from Clay Matthews, with whom he shared a lot of similarities as a prospect.
  • Mercilus put up six sacks in his rookie season with the Texans while only starting in four games. The Bears used McClellin as a rotational piece in his rookie year, so Mercilus would presumably take on a similar role in 2012. Having Julius Peppers and Henry Melton at his peak taking up a lot of the focus of offensive linemen, Mercilus puts up 7.5 sacks in his rookie season for the Bears.
  • Since the Vikings don’t have Harrison Smith in this scenario, they don’t have anyone to intercept a Jay Cutler pass for a touchdown in the third quarter of the Week 14 matchup between the Bears and the Vikings. The deep pass intended for Brandon Marshall on that play is completed, Chicago ends up with a field goal on that drive, and they win 17-14.
  • Because of this win, the Bears end up with an 11-5 record. The Vikings still defeat the Packers in Week 17, but it has no effect on Chicago’s playoff hopes, as they clinch an NFC Wild Card spot. As a result of this playoff appearance, Lovie Smith does not get fired as the Bears’ head coach, so Rod Marinelli stays on as the team’s defensive coordinator.
  • However, since Phil Emery is still the general manager, Brian Urlacher is still not brought back at the end of the year.
  • The Bears end up with the No. 24 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft after losing in the Wild Card to the Packers. They still end up with Kyle Long in the first round, because he was seen as a reach at the time. They also still end up with Jon Bostic in the second round, because Phil Emery is the general manager, so of course they do.
  • The Minnesota Vikings no longer need a cornerback, so they pass on Xavier Rhodes in the first round. Instead, they pick DeAndre Hopkins with their second first-round pick, and they add Matt Elam instead of Cordarelle Patterson with their third first-round pick. Hopkins goes on to make Christian Ponder look halfway decent, so they don’t pick Teddy Bridgewater in 2014. Instead, they wait until the second round, when they take Jimmy Garoppolo. Garoppolo goes on to be a good quarterback, but he isn’t thought of as positively by the national media since he never sat under Tom Brady.
  • Rhodes ends up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after they trade up into the back end of the first round with the Baltimore Ravens. The Buccaneers receive the No. 32 overall pick, as well as the No. 129 pick, and the Ravens receive the No. 43 pick and the No. 73 pick. At No. 43, the Ravens select Kiko Alonso as the eventual replacement for Ray Lewis. As a result, the trading of Alonso to the Philadelphia Eagles for LeSean McCoy never happens. McCoy never joins the Buffalo Bills, and DeMarco Murray stays with the Dallas Cowboys. We’ll get to what happens to Ezekiel Elliott in a little bit.
  • The No. 73 pick was originally used for Mike Glennon, but the Ravens don’t need a quarterback. Glennon falls to the Pittsburgh Steelers to the No. 79 pick. Glennon doesn’t get much of a chance to play with Ben Roethlisberger in place, so there’s none of the mystique and upside that many teams saw in him during the 2016 free agency period. As a result, the Bears never sign Glennon (you’re welcome, Bears fans).
  • In the 2013 season, the Bears don’t have the same offensive explosion that they did in real life. However, there is still significant improvement from previous seasons under Lovie Smith. The Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett group maintains its momentum, and the offense is still a top-10 scoring unit. The defense still lacks in linebacking and safety skill, but the edge rusher duo of Whitney Mercilus, who finished the season with nine sacks, and Julius Peppers keeps their pass rush effective. The duo of Smith and Marinelli aids the development of Jon Bostic, who actually becomes a decent middle linebacker for the Bears. He doesn’t become a star by any means, but he’s much better in this alternate reality than he is in real life.
  • Having an actually decent defense to go along with an impressive offense helps the Bears win a lot of the close games that they lost in reality. Instead of 8-8, they finish at 11-5, with the Washington Redskins, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers being the three additional wins added to the win column. The latter victory comes in Week 17, the infamous Randall Cobb touchdown never happens (or it at least doesn’t mean much), and Chris Conte doesn’t have a terrible reputation around the Windy City.
  • The Bears win the NFC North and get the No. 3 seed in the conference. They face the New Orleans Saints in the first round at Soldier Field in the middle of the snow and sneak their way to a win off of a last-minute field goal by Robbie Gould. Chicago then advances to face the Carolina Panthers in a very tight matchup. In the end, though, Cam Newton does well enough against the Bears’ defense to outscore Chicago’s offense, which has trouble getting going against Carolina’s defense. The Panthers advance to the NFC Championship and lose to the eventual Super Bowl winners, the Seattle Seahawks.
  • Mercilus changes up the Bears’ edge rusher plans a tiny bit. Peppers is still released to save money, but the Packers don‘t sign him, considering the fact that they already have Matthews and McClellin. Peppers ends up signing with the Dallas Cowboys. Chicago doesn’t sign Jared Allen, but they do sign Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. With the extra money from having not signed Allen, they sign safety T.J. Ward to help improve the secondary.
  • Instead of the No. 14 pick, the Bears have the No. 28 overall pick. In the first round, they take defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman to beef up the middle. Unfortunately for the Bears, he doesn’t take the world by storm. He serves as a decent starter for a few years, but he doesn’t get his fifth-year option picked up. In the second round, Chicago drafts offensive tackle Morgan Moses. He develops into one of the league’s best right tackles, Kyle Long never moves to right tackle, and Bobby Massie is never signed.
  • In 2014, the Bears remain competitive in the NFC North. They’re unable to do better than the Packers, who have a healthy Aaron Rodgers again, but they make it to the Wild Card. Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are aging and the defense, while not as disastrous as it was in real life, needs some more youth. They go 10-6 and lose in the Wild Card round to the Dallas Cowboys.
  • Since Rod Marinelli is still the defensive coordinator, the Bears don’t move to a 3-4 in the 2015 offseason, and John Fox is not hired. Instead, he goes to the San Francisco 49ers. Vic Fangio and Fox work together in this scenario, too. The 49ers don’t fall apart as badly as they did in real life, and they get things patched up quicker than they did in real life, but this coaching hire prevents Kyle Shanahan from ever becoming their coach, and they never trade for Jimmy Garoppolo.
  • Pernell McPhee is not signed. In fact, the Bears stay relatively quiet in free agency in 2015.
  • With the No. 21 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, the Bears select linebacker Shaq Thompson. In the second round, they pick cornerback Quinten Rollins. Their overall haul in 2015 is pretty lackluster, since Phil Emery is still the general manager.
  • From then, a rebuild starts to take place. Mercilus, Houston and Ward emerge as the defense’s bright spots, but everywhere else is rough. The Bears’ offense starts to slow down, as a lot of their playmakers are getting older. Marshall and Bennett are both traded at the end of a lackluster season, and Emery and Smith are both fired (Smith, by the way, never joins the Buccaneers. He still joins Illinois as their head coach eventually).
  • Mercilus is re-signed.
  • Ryan Pace becomes the general manager of the New York Jets in 2015. Leonard Williams is still their first-round pick in 2015, but the Jets don’t have the same success that they did in the 2015 season. Having never traded for Brandon Marshall, their offense lacks firepower. To give them a versatile weapon on offense, the Jets draft Ezekiel Elliott in 2016. Elliott doesn’t have the immediate success that he did in Dallas, but he still proves to be a lone bright spot on a dismal Jets team. They draft their quarterback of the future, Deshaun Watson, in 2017.
  • As for the Bears, current Indianapolis Colts general manager and former Kansas City Chiefs executive Chris Ballard becomes the team’s general manager in 2016. He hires fellow Chiefs staff member Doug Pederson as his head coach. The Eagles never trade up for Carson Wentz, who gets drafted by the 49ers, and their Super Bowl run of this season doesn’t take place.
  • After finishing 7-9 in 2015, the Bears take left tackle Taylor Decker with the No. 14 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. With Decker and Moses teaming up with Long on the offensive line, the group is quite promising.
  • Leonard Floyd goes to the New York Giants, by the way.
  • To fill the outside linebacker spot alongside Shaq Thompson, the Bears draft Deion Jones in the second round. In Round 3, they draft Kendall Fuller to play in the slot at cornerback. A Fuller brother ends up in Chicago in this scenario, too.
  • In free agency, Chicago doesn’t sign Danny Trevathan, Akiem Hicks or Jerrell Freeman. Instead, the Bears sign Casey Hayward, Jaye Howard and Jermaine Kearse.
  • 2016 is a rough rebuilding year for the Bears. Jay Cutler is cut at the end of the year. Jordan Howard is drafted by Chicago, but he ends up backing up free agent signing Lamar Miller. The passing attack is not very strong, as Jeffery battles injuries and Kearse proves to be incapable of a No. 1 receiver load. They go 5-11 and get the No. 5 overall pick in the draft.
  • The 49ers trade for Kirk Cousins in the 2017 offseason. The Vikings have Garoppolo, so they won’t need Cousins.
  • The Bears end up with a young quarterback who fits Pederson’s West Coast system: North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky. It’s fate, really.
  • On Day 2, the Bears take Quincy Wilson and Cooper Kupp in Rounds 2 and 3, respectively. No trade up happens here, as the Browns still go with Myles Garrett and no other quarterback-needy teams pick that high.
  • As we get closer to the current day, let’s quickly sum up what happens from there. By this time in my fake reality, Mercilus is a consistent double-digit sack machine in Chicago’s 4-3 system. The Bears have an offseason similar to the one of this year, signing Allen Robinson to replace Alshon Jeffery. They end up paying Albert Wilson to play under Pederson again instead of bringing in Gabriel, though. They pick Minkah Fitzpatrick with the No. 10 overall pick. Roquan Smith ends up getting picked before the Bears, as he ends up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who don’t have Kwon Alexander in this situation. In Round 2, Chicago still takes center James Daniels, but he is drafted as a center instead of a guard, as Cody Whitehair was never picked by the Bears.
  • As for Shea McClellin? He doesn’t quite live up to the first-round hype, but he ends up being better than he was in real life. He serves as a decent starter off the edge for the Packers for quite some time.

Boy, that’s quite a lot. After this exercise, it becomes more clear the Bears would have ended up doing better had they passed on Shea McClellin. They were inevitably bound for a crash and burn at some point, though, considering that Phil Emery was still their general manager.

The Bears in my alternate reality aren’t much different from the actual Bears, as they’re a team coming off of a rebuilding period that has a young quarterback, an innovative, offensive-minded head coach who just so happens to be an Andy Reid protégé, some good weapons, and talent on defense. The only big differences in the two teams is that the fake Bears are better at edge rusher, cornerback and offensive tackle, while the real Bears are better on the interior offensive line, tight end and, arguably, wide receiver.

Making these hypothetical situations doesn’t change the past, but it’s fun to look back and think about what chaos could have ensued throughout the NFL based off of one miniscule tweak in decision making.