It was a moment most Chicago Bears fans won't soon forget.
In Week 15 of last season, the Minnesota Vikings lined up on 3rd down and 4 at the Chicago 48-yard line. QB Brett Favre set up in shotgun with a running back to either side. Three receivers spread the field.
The Bears countered with a nickel package. Corey Wootton, lined up in a rush stance across from Minnesota left tackle Bryant McKinnie. At the snap, both backs released from the backfield, leaving McKinnie on an island. Wootton exploded off the line, hesitated for a second, then dropped his inside shoulder and bullied his way past McKinnie. He grabbed hold of Favre, spun him around and threw him violently to the turf.
The veteran laid face down on the turf for almost a minute, possibly wondering if he'd just taken his final NFL hit. As it turns out, Wootton had effectively finished Favre's Hall-of-Fame career. It was the only sack of his rookie season, but it was a memorable one to say the least.
DE Corey Wootton
Wootton didn't accomplish much else during the season. He finished with only five tackles to go along with his lone sack and spent most of his freshman year on special teams. Coaches have sung his praises this offseason though and it's expected the former-Northwestern product will see a significant increase in snaps in 2011.
The 6-6, 270-pounder won't become a starter next year unless an injury befalls Julius Peppers or Israel Idonije, but that doesn't preclude him from having an impact. As a Wildcat, Wootton was a force off the edge, particularly in passing situations. He often overpowered the big ugly in front of him and showed great speed in chasing down quarterbacks and ball carriers. His first step is explosive and he demonstrated solid awareness against the run.
Wotton does not have a bag of tricks to pull from when getting after the passer. He relied mostly on a rip move that, due to his size and speed, was very effective. Yet in the NFL, he'll need to develop into more of an all-around player that can create havoc in the backfield using multiple moves. One-trick ponies are easily dealt with at the next level.
Unfortunately, the lockout will continue to stunt his development the longer it lasts. Second-year players like Wootton, as well as rookies, are the ones most hurt by the work stoppage. Time spent in mini-camps and organized team activities isn't as beneficial for veterans as it is for younger guys trying to learn the system and impress the coaches. Right now, Wootton could be honing his craft under the guidance of a professional staff, something every NFL player needs early in his career. Yet like everyone else, he is forced to wait it out, wasting valuable learning time in the process.
"It is very frustrating," Wootton said on Comcast SportsNet's ‘Chicago Tribune Live.' "Especially someone like myself that is really early on in their career and just wants to establish themself and just get better. This is kind of preventing itself from that. I've been trying to do everything that I can, just working out and doing position drills with several guys at Northwestern that are getting ready for free agency to come about. Just trying to stay busy."
Still, it's highly likely the Bears will call on him to be the third defensive end once the season begins. For a team that utilizes an extensive defensive line rotation, that means plenty of opportunities for Wootton to make plays. He'll most likely be used on passing downs initially. He played mainly on the left side in college but will be asked to perform on both sides for Chicago, and will be the first replacement if either starter misses time to injury.
The longer the lockout lasts, the more teams will put a premium on players familiar with their given system. While Wootton isn't getting valuable practice reps, the fact he's comfortable with Chicago's Cover 2 puts him in good position for a large chunk of playing time.
The former fourth-rounder will have the best opportunity of his young career to prove his worth. Both Idonije and Peppers have considerable mileage on their tires. The organization knows this and would like to develop a player who can be the starter of the future. If Wootton can build on what he began in 2010, next season could be the one that solidifies him as a fixture on the defense for years to come.
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