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Great? Bears need McClellin to be good

2nd-year pass rusher simply must establish himself as a dependable NFL starter

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

10:46 PM CDT, August 7, 2013

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BOURBONNAIS — When Bears defensive end Shea McClellin made the play of training camp the other day by leaping to intercept a screen pass, exaggeration that often accompanies August football brought several comparisons to another No. 99.

But, sorry, folks, J.J. Watt of the Texans, this isn't.

Memo to Chicago: Stop any silly notion before it starts. Such expectations aren't fair to McClellin or apt. The Bears don't need McClellin to be like the NFL's king of the batted pass who made a giant leap in his second season. They need McClellin to become a dependable NFL starter first before somebody compares him to John Thierry next. Comparing McClellin to Watt? What?!

Never mind that McClellin has yet to prove he can consistently handle the NFL's bright lights while Watt short-circuited every offensive line on the grid during a dominant All-Pro season. Nor the fact that McClellin tried reminding everybody from Bearbonnais to Boise State that it was one play from one practice.

"I was just doing my job and reading my keys and the ball happened to be there and I snagged it,'' McClellin said Wednesday. "No big deal.''

When Brian Urlacher and the Bears parted ways last March, speculation centered on McClellin becoming the man in the middle. If it wasn't a member of former coach Lovie Smith's staff telling the Tribune the Bears viewed McClellin as Urlacher's replacement, it was a Grabowski who heard from a friend of a friend perpetuating the Halas Hall rumor that refused to die.

Like anybody waxing about a mini-Watt, everybody in town would be better off focusing on what McClellin is rather than what he never will be. Quit casting McClellin in the role of Urlacher 2.0. Worry about him initially being better than Corey Wootton, whose iffy health during camp increases McClellin's importance opposite Julius Peppers.

"I don't know why people kept saying I was going to play middle linebacker,'' McClellin said. "It was annoying.''

Even acknowledging his annoyance, McClellin cracked a half-smile. If a more considerate football player walks on campus, he must be an Olivet Nazarene student majoring in manners. McClellin makes eye contact when shaking hands, signs enough autographs to risk carpal tunnel syndrome and is the Bear most likely to help Virginia McCaskey cross the street. Raised the right way on Chicken Dinner Road in Marsing, Idaho, McClellin exudes enough niceness to make you wonder if an NFL defensive lineman can be too nice.

The Bears have no such worries about their 2012 first-rounder who must play more than 35 percent of the snaps he did as a rookie to confirm general manager Phil Emery's hunch. In that way, McClellin represents more than a guy in a three-point stance. In the perception-is-reality world of the NFL, McClellin showing progress would give credence to the premature praise surrounding Emery's excellence as a GM. But if McClellin reveals himself as little more than a 6-foot-3, 248-pound "tweener" trapped in the wrong defense, skeptics will start wondering about rookie first-round guard Kyle Long's future and what else Emery might have misjudged.

"There's pressure on me because I'm a higher pick, but I don't really feel it,'' McClellin said. "I realize that I just have to play well and things will take care of themselves.''

Before the 2012 draft, Smith coveted West Virginia pass rusher Bruce Irvin, whom the Seahawks took at No. 15, and afterward the ex-Bears coach never seemed as enamored privately or publicly as Emery did about the Bears picking McClellin four spots later. Fresh eyes and a new staff will benefit McClellin more than a defensive scheme less than ideal for his skill set.

"It's not really a new defense,'' McClellin said. "I feel more comfortable and excited just by getting that experience. Last year was very nerve-wracking. It was all new and it was tough. I've not arrived by any means.''

That arrival will come when McClellin starts getting to the quarterback more frequently. Ultimately, sacks determine the value of pass rushers and the Bears expected more from McClellin than 21/2 last year in a situational role limited by a knee sprain and concussion. Improving that total will depend largely how well McClellin, a pure speed rusher, develops a counter move. Yet before the Bears can trust McClellin to chase quarterbacks, he must improve his ability to stop running backs.

"Shea's been consistent, (but) he's got to be a run-down player as well as a pass-down player,'' Trestman said.

You can't be a run-down player in the NFL by being run over. So the 7 pounds McClellin wants to put back on before Sept. 8 sure would help him stay in holes and on the field — which is where the Bears need him to be good before worrying about great; solid before anybody dares to consider spectacular.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh