It doesn’t matter what defensive end Jaye Howard accomplished before he got to Chicago.
He knows that.
“These guys, they’ve heard of me, probably,” Howard said last week.
“But they haven’t seen me play. So it’s what I do on the field, not what happened in the past.”
If Howard’s past is prologue, he’ll be the most impactful free-agent signing on defense for the Bears. From 2014 to ’15, he started 24 games for the Chiefs, had 6½ sacks and earned a reputation as one of the league’s best run defenders.
Howard, 28, suffered a hip injury last year, though, and was cut by the Chiefs in late April. The Bears signed him to a one-year contract May 4 knowing he still had rehab work to do.
He won’t be on the field during organized team activities, which start Monday, but said his goal is to be healthy for the start of training camp in late July.
Howard, who considers this the only major injury of his career, knows his future performance and health are tied at the hip.
“It’s a humbling experience, and something I’m learning from every day,” he said. “It has motivated me to continue to work hard and show the rest of the league that I’m still a dominant player.”
He considered joining the Bears last year as a free agent, but the sides, he said, weren’t close to a deal.
“I was coming off a hell of a year,” the 6-3, 301-pounder said. “Everybody thought the price would be outrageous.”
One of the most coveted defensive players in the 2016 free-agent class, he eventually signed a two-year contract worth $12 million to stay in Kansas City. The Chiefs put him on injured reserve Dec. 1 after eight games and five starts. He said he wasn’t surprised, citing the business realities of the league.
“It’s funny how that works,” he said. “I wanted to be here last year. A year later, I’m here. The thing is, I’m just trying to stay here.”
Just as appealing as the opportunity to start — the Bears have an opening at end alongside Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman — is the chance to play with the rest of the Bears’ front seven.
Howard credited defensive line coach Jay Rodgers with helping Hicks grow last season. He rattled off the names of Goldman and edge rushers Pernell McPhee, Willie Young and Leonard Floyd with excitement.
“I can definitely see that they’re building something here,” said Howard, whose $775,000 deal has a reported $3.25 million in incentives. “I want to be a part of that defense. They have great edge rushers — and I wanted to play with Akiem Hicks.”
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said Howard is a strong player who “can take on a block and stop it — and get off a block,” and has “some pass-rush wiggle,” too.
“He’s played in the league; he’s had some good days in the league,” Fangio said. “Hopefully, he gets healthy and comes in here with a great mindset. And he can compete and possibly get a starting role in the base [defense] and be a rotational guy in the nickel if he proves worthy enough.”
The Bears need him to. They didn’t draft a defensive lineman, let Cornelius Washington leave for the Lions via free agency and cut Will Sutton and Ego Ferguson.
Besides Howard, the Bears added only one other proven lineman — veteran nose tackle John Jenkins.
“We weren’t able to address that much in the draft,” coach John Fox said. “Obviously, we’re looking for big steps from the guys we have on our team.
“[Howard] is a veteran presence that a year ago was pretty well-compensated. He did have an injury and actually is still coming back from that to some degree. We think he’s going to make us better.”
Among his starting competition, Mitch Unrein is a “lunch-pail kid” and “great technician,” Rodgers said, but his value is in his versatility. Jonathan Bullard, last year’s third-round pick, had the same number of sacks, starts and healthy scratches last year — one.
For Bullard to compete for a starting job, he’ll have to make offseason strides. Fangio and Rodgers think he’ll benefit physically and mentally from a full offseason in an NFL program. He’ll know what to expect and how to prepare himself for it.
Watching film at Halas Hall — he arrived last week after rehabbing in Orlando, Florida — has convinced Howard that he made the right free-agent choice after being lobbied by fellow Florida alum Deonte Thompson, a Bears wide receiver.
“It’s a great group of guys,” he said. “They welcomed me in. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
The Bears’ defense, he said, can set the tone for the rest of the team.
He’s eager to be a part of it.
“I wanted to go somewhere where I had a chance to compete and be on a team that had an established defensive front,” he said. “Chicago fit the mold for me.”
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