When Jonathan Bullard was drafted in the third round of this year’s NFL Draft, many proclaimed that the former Florida Gator might just be the steal of the entire class, giving the Bears a possible plug-and-play starter as a rookie.
Now, it seems as the question is only “when,” not “if,” that prediction comes true.
Given Bullard’s strong performance throughout camp and consistent flashes this preseason, the sentiment that the rookie defensive lineman will supplant veteran Mitch Unrein and crack the starting lineup at defensive end has only grown stronger as the weeks go by.
Why? Because of plays like this:
Forget for a moment that this play, as well as his tackle for loss last week, came against backup offensive linemen rather than starters—that said, he actually has earned playing time with the 1s already this preseason and likely will again for Saturday’s regular season tune-up vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.
Bullard’s first step is so ridiculous that even if he’s not the most physically imposing man up front—checking in at about 6’3”, 290 pounds—he can still be a handful just on explosion and athleticism alone.
The true keys for him will be: 1. Making sure that experienced quarterbacks (e.g. Aaron Rodgers) aren’t making him jump into the neutral zone, as Bullard has an uncanny knack for timing the cadence and snap; and 2. Locating the ball while penetrating the backfield and getting off blocks once he does.
But so far, John Fox appears to be pleased with the young defensive lineman’s potential. Here’s what Fox said about Bullard to the Sun-Times:
“He continues to improve and learn our defense. He’s got the skill set. Now it’s just getting more comfortable with all the parts of his job.”
One thing the coaches can’t teach at this point, though, is Bullard’s potential as a consistently disruptive force that can add a new threat to Chicago’s revamped defense.
When looking at how he paved the way for Leonard Floyd to get a 1-on-1 matchup on their shared sack, just imagine how devastating a combo of Bullard/Willie Young or Bullard/Pernell McPhee could be on pass rushing downs.
Jonathan Bullard is going to make a lot of GMs regret letting him fall to the third round. #Bears
— Chris Emma (@CEmma670) August 8, 2016
Jonathan Bullard exploded off the line and ripped down Jacquizz Rodgers right off the snap. The Bears rookie continues to impress.
— Chris Emma (@CEmma670) August 8, 2016
Given how disproportionately the burden will lie on the front seven to carry the defense, given that the secondary still isn’t making plays on the football, one could argue that the Bears need Bullard to start right now.
After all, if you’ve been watching the first few preseason games, it’s been pretty difficult for anyone to find Unrein out there. He’s getting blocked and staying blocked in the run game and has not been near the quarterback in pass rushing situations. He might be a nice rotation player, but given what he’s shown so far, Bullard is just flat out better than the veteran Unrein is.
Part of what’s been keeping Bullard off the starting unit might be his development in Vic Fangio’s two-gap scheme typically played on base downs, something both he and Fox noted, via the Sun-Times, that he “isn’t used to doing” and needs to become more technically sound at. If you follow Bucky Brooks at all, he said something similar in his NFL.com preseason week 2 grades, giving Bullard an overall grade of “B” for his effort against the Patriots while praising his upside.
On the other hand, third down defense, which Fox noted was more like what Bullard did at Florida, has been an easier transition. In fact, it was on third down that Bullard got his sack with Floyd.
Honestly though, while Unrein might be more experienced in the type of scheme the coaches want to play, he hasn’t been good enough to effectively execute his responsibilities. More than a few good run plays for the opposition this preseason have gone right at the left end spot where Unrein was supposed to be.
Bullard has shown that, despite still having things to learn, he is the better player and perhaps already the better short-term option at defensive end for the simple fact that putting him in the game means the Bears’ defense not only looks like it actually has 11 players on it but is likely more formidable.
Forget Fox’s unchanging depth charts and love for sticking with veteran players. We all see it. You know the coaching staff and Bears’ brass sees it. Now, it’s just a matter of them feeling comfortable enough to take the training wheels off and let Bullard blast his way into the backfield every play.
It’s only a matter of time now.