Last year James Anderson was the Bears starter at strong-side OLB. The Bears signed Anderson to a 1-year free agent contract before the 2013 season after he was waived by the Panthers due to his salary cap number ($4M). Anderson had a decent start to the season for the Bears (0.0 PFF grade through first 8 games), but really struggled in the 2nd half of the year (-14.1) and the Bears decided not to re-sign him.
Second-year OLB Khaseem Greene is better suited to back up Lance Briggs on the weak side, but he is in the mix for the starting SLB position this year. Former 1st round pick Shea McClellin is being moved to SLB which is where he played in college although in a 3-4 alignment. Undrafted free agent Christian Jones is a long shot for the position but has the talent to at least be in the mix. Here is a breakdown of the three candidates:
Based on his play last year Greene shouldn’t be in the starter conversation, but as a 4th round pick he wasn’t expected to play last season and clearly wasn’t ready for NFL minutes yet. Most rookies take a year or two to adjust to the speed of the NFL and Greene should be a better player this year after spending the offseason getting stronger. He’s only four years removed from playing safety at Rutgers before moving to weak side OLB as a junior. His strengths are in coverage and using his speed to run down ball carriers from the weak side. His weakness is taking on blockers which is exactly what the Bears would be asking him to do on the strong-side this year. Greene wasn’t strong enough to play weak-side OLB last year so he will have to get considerably stronger to handle the SLB spot. If he ends up starting at SLB this season, it’s because McClellin failed and Jones isn’t ready. Coming out of college NFL.com called Greene a prototype WLB and compared his skill set to Lavonte David. The Bears need to use Greene where he belongs as Briggs backup / eventual replacement and not put him on the strong-side where he will continue to struggle and potentially lose confidence in his ability.
He can’t be any worse at OLB than he was at DE right? McClellin was playing out of position last year, but was drafted in the first round because of his production as a 3-4 OLB. Emery thought McClellin could add some weight and still have the same burst off the edge at the DE position. He was wrong, but I give Emery credit for recognizing his mistake and trying to salvage some value from his initial 1st round pick with the Bears.
It’s hard to remember it after how bad McClellin has been his first two years, but he was a beast in college and a guy multiple teams (NE, GB, PIT) were angling to draft in the first round. Emery’s DE experiment didn’t work out but it’s too soon to label McClellin a bust, it’s not unusual for a player to take a couple of years to adapt to the NFL game. This is probably McClellin’s last shot with the Bears but he is playing a position closer to the one he excelled at in college, he has lost 15-20 pounds to get back to his college playing weight and got his 40-time back to where it was at the 2011 combine (4.63). McClellin is the Bears best bet at SLB and if he can be close to the player he was in college the Bears could have a keeper at the position.
Neither Greene nor McClellin have much actual experience playing SLB in a 4-3, which may open the door for Jones to claim the position. Jones started 10 games last season at SLB for the Seminoles which makes him the most experienced 4-3 SLB on the Bears roster. Based on the fact that he wasn’t drafted, Jones would seem to be a long shot to start but NFL.com had him graded as a 2nd rounder, CBS had him in the 2nd-3rd, and I had Jones pegged as a mid-3rd rounder. Jones dropped out of the draft due to a failed drug test at the combine and some confusion over what his best position was since he played all three LB positions in college and lined up often as a DE. If Jones was drafted in the 2nd-3rd round as his talent dictates, it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to consider him as a starter this year. Failed drug test or not, Jones has the talent to be a starter in the NFL. He was moved all over the field at Florida St which should be seen as a testament to his versatility instead of a knock as some GMs clearly took it. Jones can rush the passer, has great timing on blitzes, is fast enough (4.68) to cover RBs and TEs, and has the size and strength to take on blockers though that’s probably his biggest weakness right now. Jones has ideal SLB size (6’3, 240) and a better skill-set for the position than either Greene or McClellin, but the challenge of picking up a new defensive scheme may be enough to keep Jones on the bench early in the year. If Jones ends up as the starter in the second half of this season, just remember that you heard it here first.
Projected Winner: Shea McClellin
As bad as McClellin has been as a DE, he is only two years removed from being a 1st round pick who multiple draft sites compared to Clay Matthews. McClellin is back to his college weight and speed and playing for his future in the league. He has the most NFL experience of the three and was a force at OLB in college, while Greene is smaller than ideal for the position and Jones is a rookie. Ideally McClellin will win the job, Jones will see some snaps as his backup and Greene will backup Lance Briggs as he was drafted to do. If Shea can’t handle the position, I could see the Bears signing a veteran salary cap casualty to handle the position until Jones is ready to take over.