With the switch to a 3-4 base defense in 2015 under new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, many of the Bears pass rushers will be moving to linebacker.
One of those players is Cornelius Washington, who is the most versatile of the current defensive end group. The 25-year-old has played linebacker in the past in high school and college in Georgia.
Entering his third NFL season, the 6-foot-4, 265 pound Washington is excited about the new coaching staff and the chance to play as a linebacker in the 3-4 scheme.
Recovering from a left knee injury that he suffered in the Week 17 finale against Minnesota, Washington's focus is on getting back to work and carving out a role.
"The focus always is to train to better my craft and make sure I'm in shape and ready," Washington said. "With the defensive switch, another focus is learning the defense and the scheme. I want the coaches to have no doubt in my ability, no doubt in my knowledge and no doubt that I'm going to produce."
His last day of rehab on his left knee was Feb. 24 and his doctor gave him full clearance the very next day.
"We wanted to take it slow as there was no rush to get back right away," he said. "We had time let it heal at its own pace and properly."
After playing in two games, earning 10 defensive snaps in 2013, Washington played 13 games playing on 75 defensive snaps and 139 special teams snaps last season.
He recorded his first career sack in a Week 12 victory over Lovie Smith and the Bucs
"Relief to be honest with you," he said about what went through his head when he got his first career sack. "After your first one you realize you're now a part of something. It was big, but the most important thing about that game was that we won."
With injuries along the line, Washington played a season-high 26 snaps in a Week 10 meeting with the Packers and served as the third end appearing on 22 snaps in Week 17.
Washington has played alongside some talented defensive ends including Julius Peppers in 2013 and Jared Allen in 2014. He admits that the two veterans preached to him about work ethic, being the best at your craft and just learning how to approach the game.
"With Peppers the most value was in my personal life. How to be a pro's pro and a true professional," he said. "He taught me how to be at peace, treat people with kindness and to do the right things. With Allen he's a technician. A lot of things he taught me has to do with football and technique."
In year two, Washington earned a big role on special teams under coordinator Joe DeCamillis. He will now play for new special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers and he understands the importance of playing hard on the third phase.
"Special teams is what gave me a chance to get on the field," he said. "The coaching staff saw what I could do and gave me that opportunity. Playing special teams allows the coaches to trust you and adds value to team. It really opened doors for me."
Washington totaled 76 tackles, 63 quarterback pressures, 10.5 sacks, 17 tackles-for-loss in his four years at the University of Georgia. He played 20 of his 51 collegiate games at linebacker (12 at weakside and eight at strongside).
He admits that coming into the league as a sixth-round pick used to make him upset. "Once you get in the league, you don't have time to look back. If you get drafted in the first or the sixth round you have to prove you are a player no matter what."
"I'm here. Everything I do from this point is my responsibility," he continued. "The only thing that matters from here on is my performance. I want the Bears organization to feel good that they made the right decision in selecting me. At the same time, I always have a chip on my shoulder, but it's not resentment. I have a chip on my shoulder to be great."
Coming from a hot climate in Georgia for his entire life, Washington says that coming to Chicago was an adjustment, but he got used to it.
"A couple games last year in Chicago, got down below zero," he said. "Once you get on the field and start playing it doesn't matter what the weather is. All my focus is on the game."
The Bears have had so many great players take the field donning the orange and blue. Washington takes that into consideration each and every day he steps onto to the grass.
"It's surreal walking through Halas Hall and seeing all the great players, people, and tradition of the Bears franchise," he said. "The coaches really stressed us getting to know the history of this franchise. Surrounded by all this greatness makes you want to be great yourself and to live up to that Chicago Bear standard."
According to Statistic.com, the average career length of an NFL player is 3.3 years. Washington understands that the biggest thing in this league is production.
"That's what matters the most. Production," he said. "It's a show me league. You have to show that you can play and you can produce."
When he hits the field he says that earning trust from his coaches and his teammates is what always goes through his mind. He simply wants to make the most of his opportunity.
Many players have a specialized playlist which helps them get mentally ready for a game, Washington's is filled with some music that I'm sure many players don't have on their iPods.
"Before the game, I try to stay even keel. Sometimes it's the blues. Sometimes it's gospel," he said. "I try to stay as calm as possible right before it's go time, then I find the most "crunk" song."
At 6-4, Washington would be a big outside linebacker, but his versatility gives him the chance to be a regular contributor in 2015 in Fangio's defense. Under contract through the 2016 season, Washington says a lot of his inspiration comes from his kids and family.
"At the end of the day, you have to motivate yourself to become the best person you can be," he said. "But that inspiration and motivation starts with my family."
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