Chicago Bears defensive tackles took a beating last year, literally. Two DTs landed on IR, another quit before the season started and another suffered through a painful turf toe injury for most of the campaign. As a result, Corey Wootton was asked to slide inside from defensive end.
This was nothing new for Wootton, who has spent most of his four-year NFL career rotating at positions along the defensive line. Yet Wootton was coming off a breakout 2012 campaign, his first year as a starter, one in which he tallied 7.0 sacks working mainly from the left defensive end spot.
Heading into the 2013 season, Wootton was projected by many to take another step forward, possibly into Pro Bowl territory. The 6-6, 270 pounder flashed serious potential off the edge, yet the move inside derailed a once-promising campaign.
That's not to say Wootton struggled inside, as he was easily the most consistent defensive tackle on the team least year. But the position switch, coupled with a nagging hip injury, didn't allow him to ascend to superstar status.
His rookie contract expires on March 11. We weigh the pros and cons of re-signing Wootton, the most versatile defensive lineman on the team, one who will receive plenty of interest on the open market.
As stated above, Wootton can play any position along the defensive line. He has the power to line up the A gap and hold his ground against the run. He also has the necessary explosion to pressure opposing quarterbacks off the edge.
In 2013, he had just 3.5 sacks but he led all Bears defensive linemen in QB pressures (27, per Pro Football Focus) and tackles for loss (8). He also forced a fumble, recovered two more and had five batted passes.
Wootton isn't yet an elite player but at just 26 years old, he's on the doorstep of being one of the most productive defensive linemen in the league. His size and strength make him a good fit not only at multiple positions, but also multiple schemes. If the Bears want to incorporate 3-4 principles in their 4-3 system going forward, Wootton has the necessary skill set to be a two-gap defensive lineman.
Wootton has dealt with numerous different injuries throughout his pro career, dating back to his time at Northwestern. A potential first-round pick following his junior year, an ACL tear before his senior season dropped Wootton all the way into the fourth round of the 2010 draft.
His first two NFL seasons were marred by injury, never allowing him to settle into a role within Chicago's defensive line rotation. When healthy in 2012, Wootton was very good but even though he didn't miss any games last season, he still dealt with a major hip injury that required surgery immediately following the campaign.
In the future, there's no guarantee Wootton will a) return with the same explosiveness or b) stay off the injury report.
Hold ‘em or Fold ‘em
Beyond injuries, Wootton has very few faults as an NFL football player. He's big and stays low off the ball, which allows him to one-gap penetrate with ease. He's also explosive at the snap and has the strength to out-muscle blockers at the corner. As an all-around defensive lineman, Wootton is as good as they come.
He's definitely an injury risk who could burn the team that signs him this offseason but that's a risk the Bears should take. He is going to have suitors in free agency from both 3-4 and 4-3 NFL teams but GM Phil Emery must make sure Wootton stays in Chicago.
The Bears are in a rebuilding process on defense, purging old and ineffective players and replacing them with talented youngsters. Wootton is still young and was one of the few players on last year's miserable defense that showed up on a consistent basis. He can be the front seven foundation around which the team can build.
The club must clear cap space to afford Wootton but when they do, he should be at the top of their list of priorities. If he walks and signs with another NFC team, or an NFC North team, he'll be the one that got away, a player who will haunt the Bears for years to come.
Sign Wootton and the rest of the defense will fall into place.
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.