Bears need McClellin to become force as 3rd defensive end
Bears need McClellin to become force as 3rd defensive end
Peppers remains dominant and Idonije steady but for defense to shine, rookie must come through
By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune reporter
July 19, 2012
Ninth in a 14-part series leading up to the start of Bears training camp.
Whatever happened with Mark Anderson remains one of the great mysteries of the Lovie Smith era.
Asked about it in January, Anderson wasn't able to shed any light. But the 29-year-old defensive end has 14 sacks in his last 27 regular-season games since leaving the Bears. He had 91/2 in his final 50 games with the Bears, a stretch from the beginning of the 2007 season through the first four games in 2010.
Anderson stopped producing for the Bears and they finally cut him. He landed with the Texans for part of a season and then produced 10 sacks for the Patriots last year. That production helped him earn a $19.5 million, four-year contract with the Bills where he could line up opposite splash addition Mario Williams, one of the top prizes of free agency. Anderson's contract includes $8 million guaranteed and another $8 million in incentives that could push the total value above $27 million.
The Bears would have paid that happily to secure a legitimate pass-rushing threat opposite Julius Peppers — and they tried to do just that. They opened free agency in pursuit of Jeremy Mincey and were close to landing him before he returned to the Jaguars on a similar $20 million, four-year contract with $9 million in guarantees and another $7.2 million available in incentives that could make it a $27 million contract.
Now, the club will turn to first-round draft pick Shea McClellin in hopes he can be a factor as a rookie and add a missing dimension to the defense. The Bears chose McClellin with the 19th overall pick out of Boise State. One source maintains the team was hoping to land Bruce Irvin, the West Virginia product the Seahawks selection 16th overall. Smith personally had scouted Irvin, an undersized pass rusher who some considered a reach at any point in the first round.
While some have suggested McClellin one day could replace Brian Urlacher at middle linebacker, the Bears have no plans for him there. They selected him because they have a true need at defensive end. The last time the Bears had a rookie first-round pick make an impact was Tommie Harris in 2004.
Smith isn't shy when it comes to playing first-year players but the Bears simply haven't performed well in the top of the draft. The first pick of general manager Phil Emery's tenure will have pressure on him to produce. It's not like he has to replace Israel Idonije, who returned in free agency on a $2.5 million, one-year contract, as a starter. But the Bears need McClellin to shine in pass-rushing situations, precisely what Anderson did as a rookie fifth-round pick in 2006.
A peek ahead: Peppers remains one of the dominant players in the NFL. He is a force on every down and some believe he was better in 2011 than he was in his first season as a Bear. Peppers had 11 sacks and Bears coaches credited him with 55 quarterback pressures. He added three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries so it's easy to see why he was selected to his seventh Pro Bowl.
Opposite Peppers, Idonije remained reliable. He has started 31 consecutive games at left end and is a dependable two-way player. There isn't a lot of flash to Idonije's game, and he lacks the first-step quickness that Smith likes to have in his pass rushers, but he's still getting the job done.
Idonije has 13 sacks over the last two seasons and he was credited with 37 quarterback pressures a year ago.
The great struggle has been finding a third end to play in the rotation with the starters. The Bears have just two sacks from a third end since Anderson departed.
The hope was Corey Wootton would fit the role nicely but he has had difficulty staying healthy. This is a big year for the fourth-round pick from 2010 with McClellin now on the scene. Wootton had a strong camp last summer before a preseason knee injury derailed him. He was optimistic about his future during the offseason program and said he felt more explosive than he has in some time.
Chauncey Davis was added in midseason and got some playing opportunities.
But the Bears now are counting heavily on McClellin to take advantage of the situation. Peppers remains a dominant force at 32 and he has 100 career sacks. But offenses can scheme to neutralize him with help from backs and tight ends. If the Bears can force opponents to be more honest by delivering consistent pressure from both sides, it's going to make the defense much stronger.
Ideally, if McClellin could be on the field for 50 percent of the snaps, Peppers and Idonije could have playing time figures around 75 percent. They have been in the 80s recently but a little more time on the sideline would keep them fresher, especially in the fourth quarter and late in the season.
Glass half-full: If the Bears are in contention, Peppers should be in the running for defensive player of the year honors. His production — and the attention offenses pay to him — make him the biggest threat on a weekly basis.
With some luck, McClellin will pan out and fit nicely into a situational role while advancing as he needs to if he's to become a starter in the near future. A big season for the ends could mean more than 25 sacks.
Glass half-empty: No one expects Peppers' play to slip but if the Bears cannot solve the riddle that has been their third defensive end, it's going to expose the secondary from time to time and prevent them from having an elite defense no matter how well the other positions perform.
Bottom line: Peppers easily remains one of the two or three most important players on the Bears roster but you can't overstate the importance of McClellin to the defense this season.
Emery is counting on him in more ways than one because he was hired to turn around what had become a spotty effort in the draft. Fair or not, Emery's drafting will be judged for some time based largely on how McClellin performs.