Chicago Bears rookie defensive end Cornelius Washington has put Shea McClellin on notice, improve your game or he will pass him up on the depth chart. Washington grabbed everyone's attention in the third preseason game in the fourth quarter against the Oakland Raiders and did so in resounding fashion. Racking up two QB pressures a sack and grading out well against the run.
Washington is a sixth round draft choice out of Georgia who is an ideal fit as a 4-3 base defensive end and has gotten better each and every day in practice.
It may be one of the most cliche statements in football, but it's a statement that certainly applies to the Bears' draft class. Each player seems to have gotten better at each and every turn in each preseason game. In the first game it was Kyle Long, Khaseem Greene and Jon Bostic who caught everyone's attention. In the second game it was Jordan Mills' turn and in third game Marquess Wilson took reps with the 1s and caught a 14-yard pass from Cutler.
Then late in the fourth quarter it was Washington's turn to show off his talents. The action started on Washington's first snap where he used excellent hand fighting to gain separation to use his speed to get the edge on a pass rush around the right tackle. In this photo you can see Washington's arms extended into the blocker creating the separation he needs to turn the corner and flush the QB from the pocket. The play nearly resulted in a QB hit and an interception for linebacker Blake Constanzo.
Then on the very next play we see from Washington how strong he is as he sets the edge and walks the offensive tackle nearly four yards into the backfield on the run play. You can clearly see the line of scrimmage marker and where Washington has his blocker in this image.
A little later in the game Washington gets a big pass deflection on a play that again shows off his strength, strength that we have yet to see from Shea McClellin in a Bears uniform. The Raiders make a mistake of trying to pass block Washington one on one with a tight end, and Washington bull rushes the TE deep into the backfield, before gaining separation closing on the QB who tries to throw it over Washington. He leaps into the air and tips the pass up for an incomplete pass.
When Washington notches his sack he does so by utilizing pure speed to the outside. I can't say for certain, but it seems as though Washington has caught on to Raiders QB Matt McGloin's tendency to take a very deep drop every type he gets into a pass set. Knowing this, Washington sets up aligned just slight outside of the OTs shoulder, not too far to give away his intention to take a hard up the field rush. But at the snap of the ball Washington's mind is made up he's going to be the tackle up the field and get to the QBs landmark and drop him for a sack there. Washington does so with ease keeping separation to beat the blocker up the field and notch the sack.
Washington is already equal to McClellin in terms of speed, athleticism and bend off the edge, but now he's showing things that make him superior to McClellin. Washington shows an ability to hand fight to gain separation so he can then more easily turn the corner. He shows functional strength to either bull rush or win the leverage battle in the run game and he uses these in combination to get pressure or disrupt the running lanes.
Granted Washington did this against third and likely fourth string players, but these are still functional abilities being applied by Washington that we have yet to see from McClellin. With the release of Kyle Moore it seems all the more certain that Washington will remain on the 53-man roster. The harder he works and if he continues to make progress it may not be long until he's being counted on to be a game day rotational player.
More than anything Washington's play will make the fourth and final preseason game all the more exciting for the fans to watch. Washington will likely start and get the most game day reps of any DE on the roster. The questions will be can Washington build upon his solid performance that he showed against the Raiders? Will more game reps wear him down or will his conditioning hold up?
One thing is clear, Washington is already growing as a player and has an exceptionally high ceiling. The question is how far will his work ethic and potential take him during the 2013 season?