BOURBONNAIS – Phil Emery was brought in to replace Jerry Angelo in large part because of failed draft choices, particularly early round ones. One week into training camp and a week before the first preseason “exam,” the core players of Emery’s first two Bears drafts have given early cause for lofty expectations.
Of the top three picks of the past two drafts, one has won a starting job, two are currently starting because of injuries and competing to hold those jobs and one is second-string going into the first preseason game but could be the Day One starter.
They form a crucial part of the franchise core and are their own group of “players to watch” for 2013.
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Shea McClellin DE - 2012 No. 1
McClellin had a decidedly pedestrian first year, not bad, just not really good, either. The expectations have soared in this camp, with some justification.
Thursday he executed a high-speed spin move without breaking stride and went cleanly past left tackle Eben Britton for a simulated sack. It is not the first time that McClellin has used the move effectively, an indication of developing pass rush ability that was only fleeting too often last season.
McClellin is the No. 1 left end in the nickel package and now assumes a bigger role in the No. 1 base defense depending on the condition of Corey Wootton’s hip injury.
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“I don’t want to put him in a position where I’m putting out expectations for him than are higher than what he has for himself,” said defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. “That’s not possible. He has high expectations for himself, and that’s not enough.”
Alshon Jeffery WR - 2012 No. 2
Jeffery was emerging last year, winning a starting job by week three before having two separate injury setbacks (knee, hand). He spent the offseason working on speed and conditioning with Brandon Marshall and has locked up the wideout position opposite Marshall.
He spends extra time after practices working one-on-one with Charles Tillman, having the Pro Bowl cornerback help him with his release off the line of scrimmage.
More important, he is establishing a connection with quarterback Jay Cutler.
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“He's got a different edge to him [this year],” Cutler said. “I think he got a little bit stronger in the off-season. He understands football. He's not a rookie anymore. He wants to make plays for us. He knows that he's going to get some opportunities opposite ‘B’ [Marshall] and with Martellus [Bennett] in there. He's going to get some single coverage. I thought he's had a great minicamp and OTA and training camp so far.”
Brandon Hardin S - 2012 No. 3
Hardin is a complete work in progress, being out of football the last two seasons because of injuries, including a neck injury last preseason that ended his playing.
Hardin was a former cornerback at Oregon State and with the lost time and learning a new position, his challenge will be making the roster and proving worth being active on game days this season.
Kyle Long G - 2013 No. 1
The No. 1 job at right guard still belongs to James Brown while Long has rotated in with the No. 1 offense and shown flashes, he also has shown lapses. He can be physically dominant but technique and the interior game at the NFL level are still on his to-do list.
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Significantly, he knows it, the first requirement for rising to that next level.
“When you go against the best guys, you’re kind of forced to rise to the occasion,” Long said. “And if you don’t, which happens sometimes, you take your lumps and move on and you have to forget about it.
“I remember when I was a pitcher [drafted out of high school by the White Sox]. I used to have to develop short-term amnesia. You give up a home run, you get the next guy up. That’s kind of what taking these snaps and reps are like with the first team.”
Long, 315 pounds, provided an unlikely highlight Thursday, chasing Hardin, 217 pounds, 90 yards after the latter had scooped up an Armando Allen fumble and headed the other way.
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“I just kind of put my head down and started running,” Long said. “I saw which direction he was going and I tried to get a good angle on it. Just trying to save a touchdown. You don’t want turnovers to turn into touchdowns. That’s something that they preach here. We’re going to show some speed here.”
Jonathan Bostic LB - 2013 No. 2
With D.J. Williams “week to week,” per coach Marc Trestman, with a calf injury, Bostic is the presumptive starter at middle linebacker next Friday against the Carolina Panthers.
Bostic took over relaying the signals to the defensive huddle with Lance Briggs given the day off. It marked the first time a rookie MLB has called signals since Brian Urlacher inherited the position when Barry Minter was injured early in the 2000 season – 13 years ago.
“He did well,” said defensive end Julius Peppers. “We’re going to need him. We hope Lance doesn’t go down but he could. All of us could go down.
“So whenever somebody goes down, the next player has to be up. So we’ve got to get him ready because we might need him one of these games.”
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If Bostic acquits himself well in preseason and performs close to Williams’ level, best guess is that never relinquishes the job to Williams. He is a No. 2 draft choice with demonstrable upside.
As Steve McMichael once said about speed receiver Willie Gault, “If he’s even, he’s leavin’.” If Williams and Bostic are even, Bostic is leavin’.
Khaseem Greene LB - 2013 No. 4
The Bears didn’t have a third-round pick and chose Greene, a converted safety and Big East defensive player of the year at weakside linebacker, with their fourth-round pick.
Briggs’ day off gave Greene more opportunities but his future is post-Briggs.
“Mentally I feel real good,” Greene said. “Lance is in front of me, who knows everything, and he’s pushing me to be my best.”