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Bears rookie DE Jonathan Bullard showing plenty of potential

Bears rookie defensive Jonathan Bullard. (AP)

Defensive end Jonathan Bullard was in the backfield before New England Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett received the shotgun snap.

Bullard’s first step was that fast. Patriots guard Jon Halapio, a teammate of Bullard’s in college at Florida, was literally left spinning.

A gaping hole was created by Bullard’s burst, which gave rookie outside linebacker Leonard Floyd a free run at Brissett after his stunt inside.

Bullard and Floyd both wound up sharing a sack after the third-and-six play.

It may have come against the Patriots’ reserves, but it was another sign of the young players’ development, particularly Bullard’s. The third-round pick has been everything the Bears brass thought he would be – a quick-twitch pass rusher with an explosive first step – but he’s already rising up the depth chart.

With two preseason games on film, Bullard not has only passed older defensive linemen, including 2014 second-round pick Ego Ferguson, but he’s starting to generate conversation about whether he can be a starter in his rookie season. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio already considers Bullard a valuable rotational player.

“He continues to improve and learn our defense,” coach John Fox said. “He’s got the skill set. Now it’s just getting more comfortable with all the parts of his job.”

It includes handling two gaps and double teams in the Bears’ base 3-4 defense. Bullard said his coveted speed isn’t major advantage with those assignments, however.

“It’s definitely something I’m having to develop,” said Bullard, who was excused from practice on Sunday for personal reasons. “It’s something I’m not used to doing. I’m probably the smallest [defensive] lineman we have.

“It’s just one of things where I have to man up, anchor down [and] hold the point [of attack]. Our linebackers do a good job of coming downhill. They play off of you really fast. It’s something I’m definitely capable of. I’ve done it a few times. There are good times, and sometimes I have some bad ones. It’s really just about the technique now and me learning.”

Being sound technically is essential because the Bears aren’t asking Bullard, who is officially listed 6-3 and 290 pounds, to add weight and mass to handle the fierce workload. The team wants him to remain fast and explosive, so he’ll physically be different than Akiem Hicks (6-5, 336 pounds) and Eddie Goldman (6-4, 320).

“He’s learning,” Fox said of Bullard handling two gaps. “He hasn’t done a lot of it. He didn’t do that in college a bunch. It’s a necessity on base downs with us, but on the third-down stuff, it’s a little bit more what he’s done in college. He’s a little better prepared for that. But that’s new for him.”

During the joint practices with the Patriots, Bullard said he closely watched veteran lineman Terrance Knighton, a 6-5, 355-pound brute who previously played for Fox with the Denver Broncos.

“I got to talk Knighton about some of things that I’ve watched on film that he does that I like,” Bullard said. “So it was good for me. It was good to be able to see guys like that who have been successful and watch my guys compete against their guys and just pick up different things.”

Bullard is proving to be a quick study. In two preseason games, he has four tackles — one for loss — a half-sack and a quarterback hit.

“I’m definitely not satisfied,” Bullard said. “I’m not making some of the plays that I would usually make. But it’s a learning process. I’m trying to learn a new technique right now and slow down a little bit, watch and work on my feet as I go. But I’m not disappointed in myself at all.”