HOUSTON — Shea McClellin had to go away to outrun the label he was tagged with in four seasons with the Bears. The 19th pick of the 2012 draft was first an out-of-position defensive end, then a barely adequate outside linebacker and finally a slightly better inside linebacker.
The Bears didn’t pick up the fifth-year option afforded first-round picks, and he became a free agent.
McClellin was a bust.
“The pressure that comes with being a first-round pick, it’s tough, man,” he said Monday night. “If you don’t live up to that, it’s even tougher.”
In his first year with the Patriots, he’s no longer known as a first-round selection. He’s just another free-agent addition, having signed a three-year, $9.05 million deal last offseason.
“It’s a totally new start, a new beginning,” he said. “And everything you did in the past, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
He went to New England to rediscover the long-lost belief in himself. He was at his lowest point in his third season, when he had one sack in his only year as an outside linebacker. Things just weren’t working.
“I’ve got my confidence back,” said McClellin, who will face the high-flying Falcons on Sunday in Super Bowl LI. “That goes underrated. If a guy doesn’t have confidence, it’s hard for them to play at their best. Ultimately, that’s what got to me in Chicago.
“I don’t want to make excuses — I’m not going to make excuses — but it’s hard when you don’t have full confidence to go out there and play your best.”
There’s poetic justice that, by shuttling McClellin around the field for four years, the Bears prepared him for the Patriots’ defense, which puts a premium on edge-rusher flexibility.
“I am happy for Shea. I like Shea,” Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said last week. “Shea became an inside linebacker for us last year, something he had never done, and it’s helped them there because they like to move their guys around, which is the vision we had for him, too.”
McClellin recognized that fit during free agency, signing with the Patriots — who have a penchant for first-round reclamation projects — after meeting with the Seahawks and Jets.
“I think the Patriots were able to watch all our film, see what I was good at and see what I’m not so good at,” he said, “and do what they’re known for: just putting players in positions to succeed.”
Though his numbers don’t jump off the page — he had 41 tackles and one sack in 14 games and four starts — McClellin earned more trust with time. More than two-thirds of his 308 regular-season snaps came during the last seven games.
“He’s one of those guys — he kinda stands out the way he flies around the field,” Falcons offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder said. “I’m sure they ask him to do a lot with that defense. To be able to make plays and be able to do what task they’re asking you to do, he’s a good player.”
His most memorable play came in Week 13, when he hurdled over the Ravens’ long snapper on “Monday Night Football” to block a field-goal attempt.
“I don’t think we were surprised,” Patriots defensive end Chris Long said. “I think probably everyone in the stadium was. . . .
“Shea is one of the best athletes on the team. He can do just about everything. Some people don’t maybe notice a lot, but he’s a really good pass rusher, he’s good in the run game and he’s great in coverage. He can jump, as you guys saw.”
The Patriots embrace the sum of his skills in a way the Bears never did.
“I had some bad years; as a team, we had some bad years,” McClellin said. “But I think ultimately me moving around at different positions, I think that helped my career more than anything.”
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