LAKE FOREST – After enduring several injury-riddled seasons, Bears defensive end Corey Wootton finally is happy with his place in the NFL.
“As far as healthwise, yes,” Wootton said.
A healthy body is the foundation. Now, Wootton wants to build a productive career.
The Bears (8-4) will need to revive their pass rush in order to spark a slumping defense, and Wootton figures to play a key role in that mission. He leapfrogged veteran teammate Israel Idonije to earn a starting spot three weeks ago, but since then the Bears have lost two of three games against young quarterbacks.
Like many of his teammates, Wootton has struggled during the skid.
In 104 snaps against San Francisco, Minnesota and Seattle, Wootton has produced little. He split a sack with Idonije for a 7-yard loss in the first half against the 49ers, but he has not registered a sack or a quarterback pressure in the past 10 quarters.
The drought has bothered Wootton, 25, who has faced an abundance of one-on-one blocking while opponents have focused extra attention on Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers. Wootton earned a promotion after registering 3 ½ sacks by the season’s midpoint, and he expected to carry that success into the starting lineup.
“The past couple of weeks haven’t been up to what my standard has been,” Wootton said. “I’m looking to improve that.”
So, too, are Wootton’s coaches.
Bears coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli long have admired Wootton’s impressive size (6-foot-6, 270 pounds) and determined work ethic. Wootton embraced a prominent role on special teams in each of his first three seasons, and he returned a blocked punt for a touchdown in Week 9 at Tennessee.
However, Smith would like to see more from Wootton as a pass rusher.
“He made a lot of progress in training camp – really liked him,” Smith said. “An injury knocked him back a little bit. He got another opportunity.
“He has played OK. We still need Corey along with others to really elevate their game a little bit more, and he’s capable of doing that.”
Wootton has bounced back from much bigger hurdles in his career.
Some draft experts pegged Wootton as a possible first-round pick at Northwestern, but his stock quickly dropped after he tore his right ACL during the 2008 Alamo Bowl. He returned to the field the following season as a senior, but he lacked much of the explosiveness that had set him apart earlier with the Wildcats.
Wootton slipped to the fourth round of the 2009 NFL draft before the Bears selected him at No. 109 overall. He battled injuries and inconsistency in each of the next two seasons, appearing in 13 games while sitting out 19.
Despite a series of setbacks, Wootton said, he never doubted his future in the NFL.
“It was just a matter of getting myself healthy,” Wootton said. “I knew I could. It was just a matter of focusing and putting in the time to get my leg stronger.”
“The biggest thing is staying in a positive mindset. I looked at it as small setbacks, but in the scheme of things, I look at it as a mile race and not a 40-yard dash.”
The latest step in Wootton’s journey has led to the starting lineup.
He is grateful for the opportunity. He knows that retaining the role will be up to him.
“I definitely want to keep that,” Wootton said. “It’s been a goal of mine starting from the preseason, and I worked my way into that.
“I want to keep getting better every week.”
Bears bits: Injured cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) was ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Vikings. Eighth-year veteran Kelvin Hayden will start in place of Jennings, while D.J. Moore is expected to play nickelback. … Running back Michael Bush (ribs), defensive tackle Stephen Paea (foot) and guard Chris Spencer (knee) were listed as questionable. … Wide receivers Alshon Jeffery (knee) and Devin Hester (concussion) were listed as probable, and both are expected to play.