This is the second part of an in-depth series that will examine the status of the top Chicago Bears free agents. The defense will be the focus in this second part.
The Bears have 26 free agents, including 22 unrestricted free agents this off-season.
Last week, we took a look at swing tackle Eben Britton's future in Chicago. Today, we examine the status of defensive end Corey Wootton moving forward.
Who: Defensive end Corey Wootton, 26-year-old from Northwestern
2013 contract: four-year deal worth $3.14 million, earned $1.32 this season.
The fourth-round selection by the Bears in 2010 has certainly made an impact in his time donning the orange and blue. After appearing in only 13 games recording one sack through two seasons, Wootton stepped his game up when his number was called over the past two.
Wooton's first career sack came against the Minnesota Vikings in the snow in 2010, in a game that clinched the NFC North title for the Bears and knocked quarterback Brett Favre out of the game and eventually out of the NFL.
Two years later, Wootton appeared in all 16 games for the first time in his career, making seven starts and recording seven sacks along with two forced fumbles.
In 2013, he battled Shea McCellin for the left defensive end position opposite Julius Peppers all throughout training camp. He was expected to split time with McClellin, while earning snaps at defensive tackle.
Wootton was set to take on the role that Israel Idonije handled for many years along the defensive line. But those plans fell out of the question with the numerous injuries that piled up (Henry Melton, Nate Collins).
He was asked to do more than ever this past season with the holes at defensive tackle. He started 15 games making three and a half sacks, playing left defensive end, defensive tackle and nose tackle.
Despite the lack of production in terms of sacks, Wootton turned out to be the most consistent linemen on the banged up unit. He was thrown into a crazy situation, while playing a position that he didn't truly know.
The 26-year-old battled through a knee problem during college, playing three full seasons, racking up 15 career sacks. Wootton battled through injuries during his first two seasons in Chicago, but has developed into a real contributor on defense.
“The big thing is working on my hands and pad level every day,” he said prior to the 2013-14 season. “It’s a big thing for me, especially because I’m a tall guy. I’m just working on it every day and trying to be the best I can.”
With the Bears looking to improve on the defensive side of the ball, it makes little sense to let Wootton walk in free agency. Especially now that general manager Phil Emery has announced that former first-round pick McClellin will be moved to strongside linebacker.
Wootton, a big 6'6" pass rusher is one of the more underrated ends in this year's free agent class. The only problem with Wootton right now is the fact that he had arthroscopic hip surgery earlier this month and is expected to need four to six months to fully recover.
He's ranked as the 12th best defensive end available this off-season by Rotoworld.
Martellus Bennett's brother Michael, who will be playing in Super Bowl 48 on Sunday is an intriguing option for the Bears this off-season. It's expected that Martellus will be making a strong push to recruit his brother to Chicago.
Why will he be back?
With the decision to move the athletic McClellin to strongside linebacker next season, the defensive end position has a big opening. To let a hard worker like Wootton go would be stupid. Peppers likely won't be back with his large cap number ($18.2 million). Wootton would be able to provide a steady presence on the left side of the line at his natural defensive end position if re-signed. He will likely be affordable in the range of $3-4 million per year. We all saw what he is capable of playing full time at defensive end in 2012, where he added seven sacks in seven starts. Paul Pasqualoni is the new defensive line coach and if he was smart he'll watch the tape of Wootton and push for the Bears to bring him back.
Why won't he be back?
The Bears are trying to rebuild their defense. The defensive line struggled mightily a year ago as well as the young linebackers and the shaky secondary. With all that being said, the Bears will be adding true athletes via free agency and the draft on defense. Wootton might get lost in the shuffle of things if the Bears make a few splashes especially at defensive end. Expect the Bears to push hard for some of the top ends available in free agency. Martellus Bennett's brother Michael like mentioned above would be a great fit for Mel Tucker's defense. Wootton has all the tools to be successful at the end position, but it's just a matter of salary cap space and if the Bears truly trust his health and skills moving forward.
Up Next: Defensive tackle Nate Collins
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