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On the bubble? Cornelius Washington looking for breakout year

Bears defensive end Cornelius Washington (90) had a sack of Paxton Lynch a tackle-for-loss and a stop for no gain in the Bears' preseason opener against the Broncos on Aug. 11 at Soldier Field. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

Though he’s likely fighting for a roster spot, Bears defensive end Cornelius Washington has big plans for this season. But then, Washington always thinks big.

“Last year I felt like it was going to be my breakout year,” Washington said, “and literally the first play on defense puts that on the back-burner.”

Washington suffered a ruptured quad muscle chasing Aaron Rodgers on his first defensive snap of the 2015 season and was done for the year. Now he’s back, with a greater knowledge of the defensive end position in Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense and eager for the opportunity for that breakout year.

“I don’t want to be tootin’ my own horn. But I expect big things out of me this year, that’s for sure,” Washington said when asked about his upside potential. “This is my fourth year. It’s time. And I’m itchin’. I’ve got it bad to make some plays. And I definitely see it coming.”

That the 6-4, 286-pound Washington is even a candidate for rotation snaps at defensive end is a credit to his perseverance. The 26-year-old from Waynesboro, Ga. was a sixth-round draft pick in 2013 under general manager Phil Emery, playing 4-3 defensive end for Mel Tucker. With the regime change that brought in general manager Ryan Pace, head coach John Fox and Fangio, Washington easily could have been cast aside for their own hand-picked talent. He had 15 NFL games and no starts in two seasons on his NFL resume — with just 87 defensive snaps.

But Washington made the roster last year even though “I had no idea what I was doing” after being moved to defensive end in the 3-4 at the start of training camp in 2015. And despite missing virtually all of last season because of the injury, Washington is making a strong run for the 53-man roster. He had a sack and tackles for no gain and a one-yard loss in the preseason opener against the Broncos on Aug. 11 before suffering what appeared to be a serious leg injury in the second quarter. He left the field on a cart.

But Washington always seems to will himself back in the picture. So it was no surprise that he recovered in time to play against the Chiefs on Thursday and continue his bid for the roster and playing time. Washington’s progress has been noticeable.

“Absolutely,” teammate Willie Young said. “He’s been playing some lights-out ball this year. Super excited to see. This is my first time actually seeing him really go and what he brings to the table is something that’s hard to come by — really hard to come by.”

Washington’s unique athleticism has always made him an intriguing prospect. At 6-4, 265 as a linebacker prospect at the 2013 scouting combine he ran a 4.55 40-yard dash and had a 39-inch vertical leap to go with other impressive measurables. If he can be put in situations to succeed — a reputed Fangio specialty — Washington can be a difficult matchup for an offense.

“I can pick up my speed a whole lot faster than [bigger defensive linemen],” Washington said. I’m probably a little quicker than they are. They have aspects of their game that make them who they are; and I have mind that me me who I am. So we just got to get it all to mesh together. I’ve got some quick-twitch. Not saying they don’t have it, but I have it. And I can use it.”

Obviously, Washington’s ever-brimming confidence is higher than ever. “Just because of my knowledge of what I’m doing,” Washington said. “Last year I didn’t really know what I was doing — when they threw me in to play defensive end it was right at the start of [training] camp. I literally had no idea what I was doing. Didn’t know any of the block recognition; how to see things; how to know what was coming. And now I do.

“That [allows me] to play and so far this preseason, when I played, that’s what y’all have seen. Y’all have seen me just go out there and play. It’s not a whole lot of thinking involved, because I already know what’s going on.”

Washington isn’t going to sweat the roster cut-down to 53 next week. “Every year since I’ve been here, I’ve been one of the “on-the-bubble” guys and I’ve always found a way to stick around, so …”

Washington doesn’t consider himself an “on-the-bubble” guy anymore.

“Not at all,” he said. “Maybe my first year. But since then, it’s just go out there and do what you can do, put the good stuff on film and everything else will work itself out. That’s how it’s gone so far.”