It was a make-or-break season for Chicago Bears defensive end Corey Wootton last year. Ineffective as a rookie in 2010, Wootton was expected to take a step forward in 2011, yet injuries derailed the campaign. As he entered Bourbonnais last year, it was unclear whether or not Wootton would be a member of the final 53-man roster. Most assumed that, if another injury were to occur in training camp, his career in Chicago would have been over.
Fortunately for both Wootton and the Bears, he stayed off the injury report in 2012 and had easily the best season of his three-year career. He racked up 7.0 sacks, third most on the team, and forced two fumbles. He also defended one pass and returned a blocked punt for his first career touchdown. Wootton was so good last year that he was inserted as the starter over veteran Israel Idonije in Week 11.
As a result of his breakout campaign last season, a lot is expected of Wootton this year heading into training camp. His performance this season will be crucial in a number of ways and could be the key to Chicago's defensive success, both now and in the future.
As most are aware, the Bears are very thin at defensive tackle. Outside of starters Henry Melton and Stephen Paea, there is very little experience or production. High hopes surround recently signed Sedrick Ellis, yet it's unclear whether he'll return to the form he showed earlier in his career. Nate Collins could develop into a weapon but he's far from a sure thing.
This has forced defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to get creative with his pass-rush sets this offseason. Part of that has been to rotate Wootton inside to defensive tackle. This means Wootton will not only be responsible for setting the edge as a defensive end, he'll also be asked to apply pressure in the quarterback's face as a defensive tackle. In that way, he'll have dual responsibilities this season.
"I'm just trying to use my length and size inside," Wootton told Bear Report during OTAs. "We're just trying to move people around and try and get the four best pass rushers out there at one point in time."
Long-term, Wootton has even more value. Julius Peppers is due more than $17 million next season. Despite his dependable production year in and year out, the Bears may not be able to afford Peppers in 2014, when he turns 33 years old. By cutting Peppers, the club would save nearly $11 million in cap space next year.
That would put even more emphasis on Wootton to be the club's No. 1 edge rusher of the future. If he can grow into that role, and if Shea McClellin develops into a starter, then the Bears won't be forced to use future high draft picks to find edge pressure.
Additionally, the contracts of all but four defensive starters this season (Chris Conte, Stephen Paea, Lance Briggs and Peppers) are up following the 2013 campaign. Depending on which direction the coaching staff decides to go, there could be wholesale changes on the defensive side of the ball next season.
Wootton is one of those whose contract is up but if he proves himself this year, he could be in line for a nice payday. With that, he'll be expected to be one of the leaders of the defense going forward. So there's a lot of pressure on Wootton to raise his game this season and be a force along the defensive line.
Wootton took a big step last year and got better as the season progressed, so there's no reason to believe he can't improve further in 2013. Building on his 7.0 sacks from 2012 would put him in the double-digit sack range, which could give him Pro Bowl consideration. Along with his stout play against the run, Wootton could end up being the MVP of the defense this year. He has that much potential.
His biggest key will be to stay healthy. Another injury would put the Bears in a tough spot and force McClellin into the starting role, a position for which he still may not be ready. It would also keep Peppers on the field more than he should, considering the significant mileage already on his tires.
So by all accounts, Wootton could be the crux to defensive success for the Bears, not only this season, but for the foreseeable future.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.