When the 2016 NFL Draft had finished and all of the Chicago Bears picks were in place, most believed DL Jonathan Bullard was the steal of GM Ryan Pace's draft class.
The third rounder out of Florida was a pass-rush specialist for the Gators, working mainly from the 3-technique position. As a senior, Bullard finished with 18.0 tackles for loss, which was second only to former Bears DE Alex Brown in school history.
Bullard also had 6.5 sacks in 2015. As such, he was forecasted as the next Tommie Harris or Henry Melton in Chicago, an interior pass rusher who can consistently collapse the pocket in the face of opposing quarterbacks.
Yet Bullard struggled his first year in the NFL, against both the pass and run. According to Pro Football Focus, Bullard finished with the worst pass-rush grade of any Bears interior lineman, even worse than Mitch Unrein, who has one career sack in five NFL seasons.
Bullard played 14 games as a rookie, finishing with 18 tackles and 1.0 sack. In 162 pass-rush snaps, he had just 1.0 total QB pressure, per Football Outsiders. By comparison, Cornelius Washington had 9.0 QB pressures this season.
Things hit bottom for Bullard in Week 13, when he was a healthy scratch against the San Francisco 49ers.
"I think there's a variety of ways to motivate young people," head coach John Fox said following the 49ers contest. "He's a player that we do like, that we're trying to bring the best out of him, like we do all our players. He gets to practice all week just like the other players, then how they perform in practice sometimes is reflective on what kind of opportunities they get in the game, so they have to earn it."
For Bullard, the transition from college to the NFL was difficult, as he went from a 4-3 penetrating scheme at Florida to a 3-4 read-and-react scheme in Chicago.
"It's different. When you're a 4-3 team, a penetrating 3-technique, or even if you're a shaded nose, it's just different," Fox said. "And this league's bigger, faster, stronger, so the competition's different, kind of like NCAA basketball to the NBA. So, people just get bigger. He's adjusting, I think he's doing a good job, it's not like it's been all bad."
The problem with Bullard is that the area in which we was bad, pass rush, was supposed to be his specialty. Throughout the season, Bullard could not penetrate into opposing backfields and was consistently swallowed by opposing offensive linemen.
"He’s gotta improve his pass rush and not get stuck on the block so much, get converted from run to pass quicker," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "Just play a little bit more decisive and physical and sudden with his hands and movements."
On his collegiate tape, Bullard's ability to fire through gaps was extremely impressive. He shot off the ball and, when he timed the snap count correctly, was often in the backfield before the opposing QB could set his feet.
We rarely saw that out of Bullard his rookie year, which makes him the biggest disappointment from a fairly strong 2016 Bears draft class.
Going forward, the Bears have identified areas of weakness in Bullard's game, which they've asked him to work on this upcoming off-season.
"Bullard came from a defense from Florida that’s a little bit different from what we do here, so there’s a transition going on for him right now," GM Ryan Pace said last week. "His best attributes are his get-off and his athleticism and getting up the field. Learning how to come off and strike blocks and use your hands and shed, those are things he’s working on.
"What I really like about Bullard is you always want players that are very self-aware and they know what they are and what they need to improve upon, and Bullard is one of those guys. He knows he needs to have a good offseason, he needs to get stronger, he needs to add weight. But he has some things that we can’t coach, and that’s the quickness, the get-off, the burst. I think he’s an instinctive player, too. You’ll see, there’s a natural feel, across face a block and get back in position, so I still have high hopes for Bullard. It’s only been one year. He’s a young player."
Bullard is only 23, so there's plenty of time for him to improve. And Pace is correct, the kid has the right attitude. I've spent time with Bullard. He does have good self awareness and understands what steps he needs to take to get better.
That type of self-recognition is a good foundation for a developing player.
"I think Jon's got a lot of room to grow, and I think he can do it," Fangio said in December. "He's got to get stronger, he's got to learn to play in the NFL trenches a little bit more and better. I think his future can still be bright, but his off-season is going to be critical for him."
The Bears have clearly laid out the plan for Bullard the next few months: get bigger and stronger.
Bullard didn't suddenly lose his explosiveness. It's still there, he just cant' fight off blocks. If he can add weight and muscle, and combine that with his burst, Bullard still has the potential to be a very disruptive player in Chicago's defense but he's clearly not there yet.null