The life of a late-round draft prospect in the NFL is, more often than not, a tough one. Seventh-round picks and undrafted free agents face daunting odds and must climb steep slopes to earn playing time, which often includes time on the practice squad.
Such has been the case for Chicago Bears outside linebacker David Bass, who was originally drafted by the Oakland Raiders in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The Raiders released him following training camp and the Bears signed him a few days later on Sept. 1.
Bass was inactive the first four games of 2013 yet played in the final 12, earning his first NFL start in Week 10 against the Detroit Lions. A week later, he intercepted a pass against the Baltimore Ravens and returned it 24 yards for a touchdown.
His rookie season, Bass finished with 23 total tackles, 1.0 sack, 1 PBU, 1 INT and 1 TD.
He was invited back to training camp last year and performed well but Bass was once again passed over heading into the regular season, as he was released during the final waive of cuts. He was re-signed in Week 3 and then was sent down to the practice squad two weeks later.
He was re-signed to the active roster following the bye week and was inserted in the defensive line rotation for the final seven games of the season. It was then that Bass took full advantage of his opportunity.
In Week 12, Bass earned his first sack and forced fumble of the season. He then finished the campaign with a flurry, picking up a sack in each of the final two contests.
Yet despite producing whenever he’s been given significant reps, the 24-year-old was once again an afterthought this off-season.
The team is banking on healthy returns from both Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, gave Pernell McPhee a franchise contract and signed Sam Acho, an experienced 3-4 outside linebacker, in free agency. On top of that, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has moved the league’s current career sack leader, Jared Allen, to OLB.
With all of those big names on the top end of the roster, Bass once again appears to be the odd man out, yet he’s not going down without a fight. During mandatory mini-camp last week, Bass was easily the most impressive edge rusher on the team, routinely beating blockers around the corner and twice intercepting a pass two feet in front of the quarterback.
It was an impressive three-day display, one that demonstrated his explosiveness and athleticism. Overlooked by almost everyone is the fact Bass may be the most athletic outside linebacker on this roster. He’s 6-4, 256-pounds and looked very good in space, both as a pass rusher and in coverage.
“The major difference for me is more responsibility,” Bass told Bear Report. “I get to rush, I get to drop and play the run all from a two-point [stance]. Versus a 4-3 where the majority of the time we’re outside contain. We may have games and stunts where I come inside. We get to open up a little bit more.”
Like most of his teammates, Bass, who has never before played in a 3-4 system, is still very early in the learning process. Yet from what we’ve seen so far, a new scheme may be the key to unlocking his potential.
“He’s just really doing install, breaking down. We’re watching a lot of film back when he was in San Francisco of those guys,” said Bass. “We’re watching other teams across the league that run a 3-4, a similar defense. For a lot of us, this is our first time playing in a 3-4, so he’s just teaching us all of the principles and techniques and things that come along with it as a defense. Then we go out there and practice it and then we watch film and make corrections.”
Fangio’s outside linebackers must be able to get to the quarterback. He’s not a blitz-heavy coordinator and will rely on his edge rushers to collapse the pocket. That’s where Bass, who has had consistent success despite limited opportunities, could play a prominent role, especially if the injuries to Houston or Young linger.
“Whatever position, I’m just trying to maximize that. Learn everything that comes with the position and just try my best,” Bass said. “I’d just be thankful for a position, let’s put it at that way.”
Bass may seem like a long shot now but there’s no way Fangio can deny him a roster spot if he carries over the success of last week into training camp. The new staff has shown a willingness to give youngsters playing time if they deserve it. With a strong camp and preseason, Bass will earn those reps on game days, which is why he’s one of our top breakout candidates for 2015.
“When we get back, we should be able to pick up right where we left off,” he said.
If he does just that, Bass could emerge as a core member of Fangio’s 3-4 defense going forward.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.