Bears hopeful Jonathan Bullard will join rest of the [’16] class

SHARE Bears hopeful Jonathan Bullard will join rest of the [’16] class

Bears rookie defensive end Jonathan Bullard (74, rushing the passer against the Cowboys in Week 3) had one sack and four tackles-for-loss in 2016. (Roger Steinman/AP)

Rookie defensive end Jonathan Bullard looked like a roll of the dice that the Bears crapped out on in the third round of the draft — a player with an explosive “get-off” that couldn’t translate to impact in the NFL.

In 14 games, Bullard made 18 tackles and had four tackles-for-loss — including his only sack against the Colts in Week 5. He was active but did not play against the Lions in /Week 4. He was inactive as a healthy scratch against the 49ers in Week 13.

That’s how it looked this year. Next year could be completely different. The Bears still have high expectations that Bullard will be a playmaker for the Bears. When general manager Ryan Pace was asked about young players who made little impact in 2016 with growth potential, he was most effusive about  the 6-3, 290-pound Bullard.

“Bullard came from a defense [at] Florida that’s a little bit different from what we do here, so there’s a transition going on for him right now,” Pace said. “His best attributes are his get-off and his athleticism and getting up the field — learning how to come off and strike blocks and use your hands and shed. Those are big things he’s working on.”

The Bears still gave Bullard a chance to learn quickly, but fourth-year pro Cornelius Washington proved to be the more dependable and productive player. Bullard played 297 defensive snaps this season (27.6 percent) — third among defensive ends behind Akiem Hicks (86.5 percent) and Washington (33.9 percent).

Though Bullard did not progress as much by playing, the Bears are hopeful he can put himself in better position to produce in 2017 with a strong offseason.

“What I really like about Bullard is you always want players that are very self-aware and they know what they are and what they need to improve upon, and Bullard is one of those guys,” Pace said. “He knows he needs to have a good offseason; he needs to get stronger; he needs to add weight.

“But he has some things that we can’t coach, and that’s quickness, the get-off, the burst. I think he’s an instinctive player, too. There’s a natural feel, across-face a block and get back in position. So I still have high hopes for Bullard. It’s only been one year.”

Pace’s 2016 draft class had three hits in outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, center Cody Whitehair and running back Jordan Howard. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski showed promise as a starter in the final six games. Based on that success, you can’t give up on the rest of the class: Bullard (third round), safety Deon Bush (fourth), cornerback Deiondre Hall (fourth), safety DeAndre Houston-Carson (fourth) and wide receiver Daniel Braverman (seventh).

Bush was the other player Pace mentioned when asked about potential impact players who did not show much as a rookie. After a slow start because of a head/neck injury he suffered in the preseason, Bush ended up starting the final six games, but mostly by default. He rarely looked comfortable and did not show the instincts necessary to excel at safety. His only notable play was a pass breakup in the end zone against the Redskins that could have been intercepted.

“Bush has a lot of range, a lot of athleticism. He needs to make more plays on the ball,” Pace said. “Just getting comfortable back there with your angles, your read and reaction times, your instincts — that’ll come.”

That’s the hope, anyway. Some they take the next step, some don’t. But considering the success of Floyd, Whitehair and Howard, there might be even more to Pace’s 2016 draft class next season.

“A lot of these guys are young players and some of them grow at different levels and I’ve seen that before,” Pace said. “I’ve seen [instances where] hey, I don’t know about this guy Year One and then he makes a major leap.

“It’s a good draft class. Obviously, they all have different attributes. It’s a really tight-knit draft class. They’re always together. I’m excited about it. We won’t know until three years, honestly, but there’s a lot of potential in that draft class.”

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