Corey Wootton had what appeared to be a breakout season in 2012. He won finally won a starting job, edging ahead of Israel Idonije midway through the year, and burst into NFL consciousness with seven sacks.
Given the premium placed on pass-rushing defensive ends, Wootton could not have picked a better time to take his play to next level.
Then came the injuries to tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins, and Wootton found himself moving inside, not on a temporary basis in nickel situations, but now virtually full-time, as it was for the New Orleans game.
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“I thought he did well,” said defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. “I liked him in there. He was able to get his pads down, use his hands and get off the ball, had good anchor and played with good energy and that’s what you’re looking for in there.”
Translation: Wootton is now a defensive tackle.
Ironically, what would seem initially as a setback to his contract year may be precisely the opposite.
There is precedent. Former Bear Alex Brown, a speed edge rusher out of Florida, was drafted in 2002 into what was then a two-gap Bears system under Greg Blache. Brown needed to add bulk and went from his customary 250 pounds to nearly 290.
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More important, as Brown said later, he learned how to play physical and hold the point against the run. When the Bears switched to a one-gap scheme under Lovie Smith, Brown lost the weight but not the skill set that made him an all-around end. The money followed.
Wootton is playing at about 280 pounds and at 6-6, is not the prototypical defensive tackle. However, Wootton is likely adding to his marketability with every successful snap at tackle, whether for 4-3 teams or 3-4’s. Houston Texans All-Pro J.J. Watt, a force against run and pass, also is 6-6, playing at 290.
"It's just a different ballgame inside," Wootton said. "You get a lot more double teams. Guys are shorter and stouter, real good run blockers. Contact happens faster than outside, so it's definitely an adjustment. It's pad level and getting off the ball. You can't take a long step like I did at end.
"The biggest thing is that you've got to take a shorter six-inch step and really get your feet in the ground because if you take too long of a step they're really going to be able to get you off balance," he said. "It's definitely an adjustment in there, but I got the hang of it during the game.”
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Part of Wootton’s value now will be his versatility, something that wasn’t there last season when he was solely an end.
“He’s got good football awareness and instincts,” said Tucker. “He can bend. He’s strong. He’s got anchor. He’s got length. That’s a guy that can do both. He can pick up the scheme at both positions. He can play on the left. He can play on the right; inside, outside. Those are the traits that you’re looking for in a guy that can play multiple positions.”
And one willing and with the ability to adapt.
"I would have thought maybe occasionally on third down from time-to-time, but I never thought full-time three-technique," Wootton said. "But injuries happen and I just had to step up where they needed me."