By Chris Emma–
(CBS) The Bears have a rich history at linebacker. There have been names like Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher.READ MORE: Chicago Weather: 90s Return Thursday
None of that really matters to Shea McClellin, who should just be pleased to see his name atop the Bears’ first preseason depth chart, released Wednesday afternoon.
McClellin is listed as one of the Bears’ starting Mike linebackers in coordinator Vic Fangio’s new 3-4 defense, slated alongside Christian Jones. In 2012, the Bears picked McClellin, projected as a 3-4 outside linebacker, to play defensive end. Now, in this 3-4 defense, he’s in the middle, a move he initially resisted.
“I love what I’m doing right now,” McClellin said recently. “I think it was good they put me in the middle. It was better that they put me in the middle than outside.”
Transitioning once again — this time to a new coaching staff and unfamiliar schemes — has brought a renewed attitude for McClellin.
“I just had some mental issues,” McClellin said. “I wasn’t playing great — we weren’t playing great either. It was tough.
“This offseason — new transition, new coaches, new staff, everything. You have nothing to lose, might as well go let it loose.”
Last season, McClellin debuted at linebacker, recording 36 tackles in 12 games. It was an adjustment made more difficult by the drama surrounding the 2014 Bears. But this new Bears staff, Fangio included, has McClellin progressing as a middle linebacker.
“I’m glad we did, and I think he’s glad we did now, even though he wanted to play outside first,” Fangio said. “I think he’s found a home there. It’s going to be a growing process — a position that relies a lot on experience, instincts. He’s getting better and better at that.”
Chicago’s preseason opener against Miami on Thursday evening at Soldier Field brings McClellin the first of several important opportunities on the way to earning that starting job. He must look the part in game simulation during these contests.
Past years have seen McClellin impress in practices but struggle in games. This is the start of something new, beginning Thursday.READ MORE: Police: Shots Fired At CPD Officers From Car In West Garfield Park; Officer Fires Back, But No One Hit
“It was an odd first three years,” he said. “Mentally, I wasn’t right. This year will be better.”
What else is there to watch for in Thursday’s contest? Here are three storylines to keep an eye on:
1.) Backup quarterback battle
It’s only natural for Bears fans to put Jay Cutler under the microscope, but the preseason isn’t about the starting quarterback. In fact, he’ll play likely just one series Thursday. The real concern is with Jimmy Clausen and Shane Carden, each of whom have struggled during the early portion of this preseason.
With important reps in this game against Miami, Clausen and Carden must show what they can do. In the case of Carden, the undrafted rookie can gain some ground on David Fales for a potential third-string spot on the Bears’ roster. The time is now for these two to impress, because these opportunities are rare.
2.) Linebacker shuffling
There are many important position competitions to watch, but none carry the intrigue of the outside linebacker battle. The current starters are Jared Allen and Pernell McPhee, with the prized free-agent signing of 2014, Lamarr Houston, taking a second-string role. Sam Acho has also impressed, putting himself in a good position behind McPhee. Meanwhile, Willie Young is a third-team player.
Just because the starters leave Thursday’s game doesn’t mean the interest should decrease when viewing the outside linebackers. The Bears must consider depth and special teams when finalizing their roster at the linebacker positions, meaning this time is crucial.
3.) Safety dance
It should come as no surprise that Antrel Rolle found his way to a starting spot at safety. He’s an established Pro Bowler brought in to Chicago with the hopes of stabilizing the secondary. But next to him lines up second-year player Brock Vereen, playing with the first-team unit.
Vereen is ahead of Ryan Mundy, a starter last season, and rookie Adrian Amos, the Penn State product. It would seem that something has to give, but Vereen has the early edge. Mundy must earn his role.MORE NEWS: Asha Mosi Believes Her Clothing Company, 'Un-Cursed,' Can Be Catalyst For Powerful Change For Black Families -- And She Wants To Take It Beyond Clothes
Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.