LAKE FOREST – Many observers scratched their heads this spring when the Bears selected Boise State defensive end Shea McClellin in the first round of the NFL draft.
Eight months later, it’s still tough to pinpoint what the Bears have in McClellin.
An up-and-down rookie season for McClellin has mirrored the inconsistency of the Bears, who started 7-1 but have lost five of the past six games. And, like the Bears, McClellin is hoping a strong finish will help him erase recent frustrations.
“There’s definitely some time left,” McClellin said Friday at Halas Hall.
Some, yes, but not much.
The Bears likely need back-to-back wins to salvage a wild-card playoff berth, and they will take anything they can get from their 23-year-old pass rusher. McClellin missed last week’s game against the Green Bay Packers because of a sprained knee but expects to return Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
Elsewhere on the Bears’ defensive line, news was not as good. Fourth-year defensive tackle Henry Melton was listed as doubtful to play in Sunday’s game because of a collarbone injury, spoiling his midweek optimism that he would be able to return.
Melton’s absence will increase pressure on McClellin and the rest of the Bears’ defensive line to harass Cardinals rookie quarterback Ryan Lindley. McClellin knows Lindley from their college days in the Mountain West Conference, where McClellin intercepted Lindley last season to help Boise State beat San Diego State, 52-35.
Such highlights have been sparse for McClellin at the next level.
He tallied 2½ sacks in his first six games but has not added to that total. In 12 games as a reserve, he has recorded six tackles, including two for losses.
“It has definitely been a learning experience,” McClellin said. “My goal was to get better each week, and for the most part I think I did that.”
But McClellin’s progress has been interrupted by setbacks. He suffered a concussion Nov. 11 against Houston and missed the Bears’ next game against San Francisco. He sprained his knee Dec. 9 against Minnesota and missed the Bears’ next game against Green Bay.
“For a rookie, it’s no fun,” McClellin said. “Because you get an injury and that can hurt your development a little bit.”
Teammates have encouraged McClellin to stay positive throughout the season.
Stephen Paea was a rookie defensive lineman a year ago as the Bears’ 2011 second-round draft pick. He said he was impressed by the physical speed and mental sharpness of McClellin, who has learned by experience as all rookies must.
“You’ve just got to experience it,” Paea said. “You can’t tell anybody, ‘This is what you’re going to expect.’ You can only warn them, but when they come in, you’ve got to go through Step 1 to Step 10 or whatever.
“With the rookie wall and things like that, I think he’s experienced that already. For him to finish strong this season would help us get to the playoffs.”
Some first-round picks quickly fall into boom-or-bust status, but McClellin has been neither since the Bears selected him at No. 19 overall.
He has outperformed San Diego Chargers pass rusher Melvin Ingram, who was selected at No. 18. Yet his 2½ sacks are fewer than other first-round pass rushers such as Seattle’s Bruce Irvin (8 sacks), the New York Jets’ Quinton Coples (4 sacks), New England’s Chandler Jones (6 sacks) and Houston’s Whitney Mercilus (6 sacks).
McClellin’s coaches have reiterated their belief in the 6-foot-3, 260-pound defender.
“He works,” Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “That’s the big thing.
“And he’s got speed. So that’ll just keep coming for him. Just keep working.”
Bears bits: As expected, the Bears ruled out Brian Urlacher for the third consecutive game because of a hamstring injury. … Gabe Carimi likely will start at right tackle in place of Jonathan Scott, who was listed as questionable because of a hamstring injury. … Tim Jennings (shoulder) and Earl Bennett (concussion) were listed as questionable but are expected to play Sunday, Bears coach Lovie Smith said.