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Bears Sunday Playbook: New position has been good for Shea McClellin

While fans and media use Jay Cutler’s lucrative contract as kindling to warm up general manager Phil Emery’s seat at Halas Hall, Emery’s first first-round pick plays on.

And he’s getting dirty and loving it.

“It’s a lot of dirty work, but you have to [revel] in that and take it as it is,” end-turned-linebacker Shea McClellin said. “For me, just to be out there and just to play football, I don’t care what I’m doing.

‘‘If I have to take on blocks all game and other guys make plays, that’s just the way it is sometimes. I’m willing to sacrifice for other guys, but I enjoy it.”

Everything about the 5-9 Bears will be thoroughly examined, including McClellin’s first run at linebacker.

Emery’s selection of McClellin with the 19th pick in 2012 has been routinely criticized, but he isn’t quite the full-blown bust some like to make him out to be.

Sure, things didn’t exactly pan out for him at defensive end his first two seasons. But the Bears’ staff believes there’s mounting proof that moving him to linebacker has put him on the right path to maximizing that first-round potential.

“We think overall he’s done a solid job really in his first opportunity as a linebacker in this league under some very tough circumstances,” defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “I would say that he, just like the rest of us, is not where we want him to be, but he’s worked to get to where he is, and there’s still tremendous upside for him there, we believe. It was a good decision [to change positions].”

It’s difficult to judge McClellin by his numbers. Hunter Hillenmeyer and Nick Roach never led the Bears in tackles, but they still had value on the strong side, which often involves taking on blocks or doing the “dirty work,” as McClellin described it.

“A lot of the time it is [taking on] a fullback, a tight end — depending on what we’re in or what they’re doing — or maybe it’s a tackle coming back,” McClellin said. “You’re doing your job for another guy. If you’re taking on a block, there’s going to be another guy unblocked. If you’re fitting in right, another guy is going to make the play.”

For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus has graded McClellin positively in six consecutive games and has him down for only one missed tackle this season.

Tucker said keeping McClellin, who missed four games with a broken hand early in the season, in one position has helped his learning curve.

“He’s gotten better and better every game that he’s been back since that [broken hand],” Tucker said. “He’s solid against the run, and he’s athletic. He’s getting better in coverage, as well. He’s done a nice job growing into the role.”

There are aspects to improve. McClellin still has to disengage from blocks faster. More snaps will help his reads and drops in coverage.

But again, the Bears’ staff has seen enough encouraging signs that the position switch was the best move for him.

McClellin’s production might never meet his draft status, but he wouldn’t be the first late-blooming, productive first-rounder, either.

“I definitely feel a lot more comfortable every game,” McClellin said. “I’m happy with where I’m at.”

UNSUNG SPOTLIGHT: Safety Brock Vereen

A few weeks ago on Thanksgiving, rookie safety Brock Vereen was scrutinized for his physical play — or the absence of it, to be more precise.

Vereen didn’t hit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson on a touchdown catch between him and cornerback Kyle Fuller, and it looked bad on film.

The fourth-round pick will have a chance to make up for it Sunday, when he makes his fourth start.

Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said Vereen’s physicality has improved, including his forced fumble last week against the Saints.

“That was a big play in the game, a sudden-change situation,” Tucker said. ‘‘We talk about taking the field and putting the fire out, and we did that. Brock was physical on the play, the ball was out, and we fought to get it back. That was a good step for us.”

COACH’S CORNER: Looking at Bears quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who starts Sunday with Jay Cutler benched, with offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer

‘‘It’s never the right time to change the quarterback. It’s an uncomfortable situation when you’re changing anybody, when you’re changing the left guard, the left tackle, the receivers, when you change anybody on your offense, which we’ve been forced to do on a regular basis this year at other positions. We’re doing everything we can right now to prepare ourselves to win this game.

‘‘I hope we can execute better. We’ve got to execute better around the quarterback at all the positions. If we get that done, we could have a good performance.

‘‘The main things with Jimmy are the things that he’s been working on all along. The best part about him as a backup quarterback is he’s been preparing himself to be a starter this entire season since he’s gotten here because he knew he was one snap away. It’s not like he’s new to the game plans or he doesn’t know what to do or he hasn’t been practicing. He’s been practicing all along. He’s worked at the game plans. He’s studied the protections. He’s studied the routes. From all we know, he understands it very well.

‘‘Everybody has plays they love, and everybody has their favorite shot on the court in basketball, and everybody has their favorite throw in football. So we’re going to game-plan to try to help him be as successful as possible and put him in a position to win the game. There’ll be some [changes] here and there, but it’ll still be the Chicago Bears offense that we’re going to be running.’’