NU's Fitzgerald praises Wootton

CHICAGO -- Seemingly every conversation concerning Corey Wootton invariably turns to the topic of health.

But it's fitting, given everything Wootton has endured. Picked by the Bears in the fourth round of the NFL draft, Wootton tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his right knee during the 2008 Alamo Bowl against Missouri. Those injuries -- not to mention a high ankle sprain suffered at Purdue on October 3 -- contributed to a nosedive in Wootton's production at Northwestern -- his sack totals dropped from 10 to six -- his senior year.

"If you look at the tape from 2009, and if you look at the tape from 2008, there's a difference in the athleticism,"said Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel.

But don't rely on just numbers to tell Wootton's story.

"I got asked by a few people after the season, by scouts and folks, 'How tough is Corey?'" Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald told ESPNChicago.com on Monday. "I said, 'Let me give you the empirical that I have. No. 1, the poor young man had a devastating injury and was unable to train his legs to prepare for his senior year. But in no way, shape or form would he ever use that as an excuse not to help our team and find a way to get on the field.'

"He's a tough guy. He's a smart, tough guy. He's got so much going for him it's unbelievable. What the Bears received in that pick is a guy who's going to have a chip on his shoulder to prove everybody [wrong] who said he had a bad senior year. I'd ask anybody who wrote those things about him if they ever came off an ACL and tried to play defensive line in the Big Ten."

Without question, the Bears still need help at defensive end. Despite the organization breaking the bank to sign prized free agent Julius Peppers, veterans Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye moved on, leaving Mark Anderson and Israel Idonije as the only two other experienced ends on the roster.

So in steps Wootton, who if healthy, might step in and contribute immediately.

"At 6-6 and about 280 pounds, he's just a really long athlete," Fitzgerald said. "By the time he gets to camp, what's going to stand out to everybody is the motor he plays with.

"He was the example we were showing to recruits; if you want to become an All-Big Ten lineman this is how you do it. Not only his get-off; his hands; he played with good fundamentals and technique, but the icing on the cake for Corey was his innate, God-given relentlessness to the football. He just works his tail off to get there; just really impressive to watch."

Wootton's characteristics didn't make a mark on just the Bears. A high-level talent evaluator with another NFC team said Chicago made a shrewd move in acquiring Wootton, who also blocked four kicks, intercepted four passes and deflected another eight over his career with the Wildcats.

"The only thing with Wootton was that knee injury," the evaluator said. "He was a hell of a football player his junior year. He got a little heavier this past year, but he was a good pick. Wootton's gonna end up being a pretty [darn] good pick for him."

The NFC talent evaluator said Wootton best fits in a 4-3 scheme. Fitzgerald agreed.

"He can do all the things you ask him to do," Fitzgerald said. "He can play on the tight end. He can play on the open end. He can drop into coverage, which gives you some flexibility from a pressure standpoint.

"He can get up the field and create pocket presence from the edge. We put him over the nose [tackle] against Missouri when we knew they were popping their guards and got him one-on-one on the center. We used him in some areas in short yardage and goal line. He could start at tight end probably for a lot of guys in the NFL. He always wanted me to throw him the ball, but we never got around to it. We threw him one fake at Duke two years ago and he cramped up going up for the ball."

While it's fair to voice concern over Wootton's knee, he joins the Bears with high marks in the character department. A co-captain at Northwestern as a senior, Wootton serves as the "poster child" for the Bears organization, according to Fitzgerald.

"You're talking about a grounded, very humble person," Fitzgerald said. "Corey was a leader, but he's not a guy who pounds his chest. [He doesn't say] 'I'm the biggest, I'm the baddest. Look at me.' It's the other way around. He wanted to be the example and help guys. Last spring, when he was injured, he was coaching up all our young guys.

"When Corey has an entire offseason to train his legs and he gets back to where he was in 2008, you're going to see a guy -- when he picks them up and puts them down -- he covers so much ground because of how tall he is. He can just flat-out run. Hopefully, he just continues to get healthy and get that mojo back. When he does, the Bears will have gotten a steal."

At least that's the situation both Wootton and Fitzgerald envision. Wootton flashed glimpses of that potential over the last five games of last season by contributing at least one tackle behind the line of scrimmage in each of the last five games, in addition to a sack in four of those five outings.

"I still have room to improve in my explosiveness, which I definitely will have back by the time training camp comes," Wootton said. "I feel like this is a great fit for me; a 4-3 team with a great defensive line coach. I can't even express how excited I am."

Jeff Dickerson and Michael C. Wright cover the Bears for ESPNChicago.com.