Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard were in the same Florida recruiting class, starred for three seasons and were supposed to go pro together.
“But,” Bullard said, “he had a little bit better year than me.”
Fowler left after his junior season and was drafted third overall by the Jaguars in 2015 — but tore his left ACL three hours into his first minicamp practice. Bullard stayed for his senior year and was selected by the Bears in the third round.
They wound up making the NFL debuts the same year, after all. Fowler posted his first two sacks earlier this month against the Colts; a week later, against the same team, Bullard got his first.
“I know he’s a dominant player, so I know he’s gonna have flashes of it,” Bullard said of the defensive end. “When he gets 100 percent confident back in his leg, I’m sure he’ll continue to show why he was a top-five draft pick.”
Bullard, too, should start showing the flashes that made GM Ryan Pace so high on him. He didn’t play against the Lions because of a toe injury that also limited him to 24 percent of the Bears’ snaps Sunday.
“I wish I was playing more than I’ve been playing, but I’m not down on myself,” Bullard said. “It’s a process. I’ll get there and get more plays when they think I deserve it.”
Bears rookie defenders have been stunted since the first day of training camp, when first-round pick Leonard Floyd left with an illness. On Day 3, fourth-rounder Nick Kwiatkoski felt a pop in his hamstring that kept him out a month.
It continued into the regular season: Floyd injured his calf in Week 4 and was inactive against the Colts. The three fourth-rounders — safety Deon Bush, cornerback Deiondre Hall and Kwiatkoski— have been inactive seven times, combined.
Amazingly, only one of the six rookie defenders has played every game: special teamer DeAndre Houston-Carson.
In a season that seems already lost — only eight teams since 1990 have started 1-4 and made the playoffs — the Bears must find out what they have, long-term, in their rookie class. Thus far, they’re not healthy enough to show the team, in practice or games.
“You’d like to think that the more practice and the more you do it, the better you get,” coach John Fox said. “So obviously practice opportunities are critical, but there’s nothing like game experiences.”
Sitting in on meetings is not the same.
“Ultimately the only way you learn is doing it on the practice field and doing it in the games,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said.
The Jaguars are. Rookie defensive end Yannick Ngakoue has three sacks, and Fowler two.
Bullard imagines a scenario where he and Floyd — who is questionable after missing Friday’s practice with the same calf injury — do the same. He thinks back to the second preseason game, when they ran a stunt together that fooled the Patriots.
“When me and him get all the way in and we get all the way comfortable and do things,” Bullard said, “we’re going to help out.”
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