With free agency set to open March 11, we’ll shine the spotlight on the Bears’ free agents and examine each player’s likelihood to return. As Combine week begins, we focus on Corey Wootton.
Check out previous spotlights:
Position: Defensive line
Age (As of Sept. 1, 2014): 27
NFL seasons logged (with Bears): 4 (4)
2013 stats: Played in 16 games with 15 starts. Had 35 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 8 TFLs, 6 QB hits and 5 passes defensed.
Quotable: “Corey is one of the guys that would transcend scheme. I was in a 3-4, a pure, straight 3-4 defense in Kansas City and he could have been the right end. If he put a little weight on, he could be the left end. He played under-tackle for us. Actually Corey was most disruptive as a pass rusher, between the d-end and d-tackle, at d-tackle this year.
“Now, in the past, obviously he had a pretty good year a year ago. He’s a guy that transcends scheme for us. We said bye to each other as he was leaving and he knows that we’re going to work through it and I know he’s going to have options. We’re going to be very thorough, like we are with all our evaluations. I’m sure that we’ll continue to talk to him.” – Phil Emery to reporters on Jan. 2
Fit with the Bears: With questions looming about the type of defense the Bears will most often employ, Wootton’s versatility — combined with his age and skill — sets him up as maybe the best fit to re-sign among their free agents. As Emery stated, Wootton “transcends scheme,” and proved that in a contract year. While Wootton would have put up better numbers as an every-down defensive end — stats that could have allowed him to break the bank this spring — he went inside. Wootton helped the D-line from the three-technique after Henry Melton and Nate Collins tore their ACLs.
If the Bears wanted to use more three-man fronts in 2014, Wootton would play on the end. In a 40-front, Wootton could be the team’s best returning pass-rush threat if he is re-signed and Julius Peppers becomes a cap casualty, or he would be Peppers' complement. If any injuries occur on the interior, Mel Tucker knows Wootton can slide inside.
Wootton is coming off hip surgery in January, but he is young and has only two full NFL seasons under his belt.
Financials: Heading into last season, Wootton was a candidate for the franchise tag if he put together a big year. He would have been right up there with free agents Michael Bennett, Michael Johnson and Greg Hardy, all looking for lucrative contracts. The top defensive ends have average yearly salaries in the $6-13 million-a-year range.
Only 3.5 sacks plus a hip procedure doesn't help Wootton’s cause for that kind of money. His age, potential, versatility and high character do, however, improve his chances for a long-term deal that would likely be below that range.
Best guess: If the Bears do decide to part ways with Peppers, I think it’d be a pretty good bet they find a way to re-sign Wootton with the extra cash instead of bringing in two brand new starters. Until then, it’s still a big question mark as they try to sort out the cap situation with veterans like Charles Tillman, Roberto Garza, D.J. Williams and Henry Melton all viable options to return.
Wootton is the youngest of the bunch and had to have won over the new staff with his play and selflessness last season. With that in mind, he’ll have his suitors, though, and the Bears will have their options in free agency and the draft.