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updated: 8/4/2012 5:32 PM

Bears' Wootton at cusp of make-or-break season

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  • Northwestern alum Corey Wootton, who has 1 career sack in two seasons with the Bears, could play a major role in the defensive end rotation in 2012.

    Northwestern alum Corey Wootton, who has 1 career sack in two seasons with the Bears, could play a major role in the defensive end rotation in 2012.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer


BOURBONNAIS -- There's a good chance that this is a make-or-break season for defensive end Corey Wootton, the 2010 fourth-round pick out of Northwestern.

The 6-foot-6, 270-pound Wootton has looked good early in camp, which he's done in the past. But his only sack in two previous seasons was the one that KO'ed Brett Favre late in the 2010 season, essentially ending his career.

"He's having a good camp," said Bears coach Lovie Smith. "And Corey has had good camps in the past. Injuries (knee and hand in 2011) have hurt him a little bit in the past, but he came back in great shape."

If he stays healthy, Wootton could play a major role in the DE rotation. If he shows the pass-rush ability he did while getting 19 career sacks at Northwestern, he's a lock on a team desperate to get to the quarterback more than it did last season.

"He has prototype size for the position," Smith said. "He can play the run, and he's also a good pass rusher. You can't have too many defensive ends that can rush the passer and be able to play the run, so we're pleased with where he is."

Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli says Wootton has to continue to build on what he's accomplished during the first part of camp.

"He's a big, physical, talented guy," Marinelli said. "He's smart, and he's got good movement. His problem is that he's gotten nicked up here and there and it's slowed him down. Right now I like what I'm seeing. Now he's just got to pound away every day.

"He's playing strong right now. He's a good athlete. It's his time. He's just got to stay up and stay in the hunt."

Change isn't good:

With 56 lineup changes at the two safety positions since 2004, nothing would please Lovie Smith more than some continuity in the team's last line of defense.

Chris Conte appears a lock at free safety and Major Wright is getting another chance to lock down the strong safety spot, but veteran Craig Steltz showed late last season that he could handle the job when he filled in for the final four games.

"You want consistency as much as anything," Smith said. "You want a play maker. Chris Conte has a chance to be a very good football player. He has everything you're looking for: range, he can cover a wide receiver, he can hit. Major Wright is making progress. Craig Steltz is just a steady player for us.

"You want to lock in and see consistency from the safeties, and I think we're going to get there."

The Bears also used a third-round pick this year on 6-foot-3, 217-pound Brandon Hardin, who is making the conversion from cornerback to free safety.

Super expectations:

When wide receiver Brandon Marshall addressed the 27,352 at the Bears' Family Fest night Saturday, he didn't exactly promise a world championship -- but he did use the words "Super" and "Bowl" together.

Lovie Smith is fine with that.

"It would be hard to tell guys, 'Hey, let's try to win eight games,'" Smith said. "Let's try to win the division, (and) we have this ultimate goal. That's what everybody in the locker room is trying to do. I think all 32 teams would say that. I have no problem with that at all."

Wounded knee:

Brian Urlacher did not practice at all Wednesday and then was very limited Thursday and Friday.

"Brian's knee is still a little bit sore," Lovie Smith said after Friday night's practice at Soldier Field. "But (he) should be good to go (this) week."

Following Saturday's day off, the Bears will be back at Olivet Nazarene University for afternoon practices today through Tuesday before Thursday night's preseason opener against the Broncos and Peyton Manning at Soldier Field.

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