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Shea McClellin (left) and Corey Wootton (right) working together.
There are four primary candidates for the starting defensive end position across from Julius Peppers.
The front-runner right now is Corey Wootton, who had seven sacks in 2012 for the Bears.
Former first-round pick Shea McClellin is also in the running. The Boise State product only tallied 2.5 sacks last season, but his production was limited by injuries.
Another contender for the position is Cornelius Washington, a high-upside player who was nabbed by Chicago in the sixth round of the 2013 draft.
Earlier this offseason, Chicago also added Kyle Moore, who started for the Buffalo Bills seven times last season.
This position battle will be intriguing, but the losers will still have an opportunity to contribute. Expect new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to keep the approach the Bears have been using and utilize a rotation along the defensive line.
Still, the starter will earn bragging rights and play a more prominent role on the defense.
The dark-horse candidate is Washington, who impressed at the NFL combine but “didn’t have great numbers” in college, according to Mel Kiper, Jr. (via the Chicago Sun-Times).
Washington didn’t have many sacks in college, but the Georgia defensive end was still effective at generating pressure. With some coaching, the strength and athleticism that got him in the backfield will translate into sacks at the NFL level.
The sixth-round pick has a long way to go, though, so a more realistic expectation is for him to play as an occasional pass-rusher on third downs.
Moore is the oldest competitor for left end, but he only has three career sacks in four NFL seasons.
Granted, all of those sacks came in 2012, but the former Bill’s strongest campaign also had some glaring weaknesses. Moore was bad against the run last year, posting a negative 6.7 rating in run defense on Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In fact, Moore was so bad against the run in Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins that he lost his starting job for the last game of the season. The new Bear showed the ability to get to the quarterback (23 QB hurries, according to Pro Football Focus), but he won’t start in Chicago until he improves other parts of his game.
That leaves McClellin and Wootton.
Wootton is the larger player at 6’6” and 270 pounds, while McClellin measures in at 6’3”. Shea makes up for his size with his work ethic and great motor on the field. The effort McClellin gives could impress the new coaching staff and push him past Wootton on the depth chart. Only injuries kept the rookie from performing.
On the other hand, it seems Wootton finally put things together in 2012 after two inconsistent seasons. He struggled with injuries early in his career but stayed healthy last year. The late-season starter produced seven sacks over the course of the year, good for third best on the team.
In the event that both stay healthy, the starter will be McClellin.
That’s right, the first-round pick in 2012 will usurp the starting spot from Wootton if neither gets hurt. The Chicago Tribune reported the number of snaps each played last year: 54.5 percent for Wootton and 34.7 percent for McClellin.
If you project their numbers as starters for an entire season, both would be great options. But McClellin outperformed Wootton with less snaps, hurrying the quarterback 22 times compared to Wootton’s 18 (via Pro Football Focus).
On top of that, Wootton was bad against the run when he became a starter. He was rated as a minus-one or worse in run defense by Pro Football Focus in three out of seven games as a starter.
McClellin’s motor will enable him to hunt down ball-carriers. At Boise Stat,e he had 26 tackles for loss as a junior and senior (via www.sports-reference.com).
Chicago just needs McClellin to stay healthy in order to live up to his first-round expectations.