MINNEAPOLIS -- For the Minnesota Vikings to add Corey Wootton to their group of defensive ends, giving him a one-year, $1.5 million deal that could reach $2 million with incentives, they had to do some projection -- beyond the hip issues that plagued Wootton for much of the last two seasons -- to what the 26-year-old has shown in flashes when he's healthy.
It showed up in Wootton's first two sacks of the 2012 season, when he surged off his left end spot for the Chicago Bears, beating Indianapolis Colts right tackle Jeff Linkenbach and Jacksonville Jaguars right tackle Cameron Bradfield to the outside. Against Linkenbach, Wootton got the outside edge, swam back inside with his long right arm and popped the ball out of Andrew Luck's hand. Against Bradfield, Wootton simply got to the outside, almost beating the snap by a half-second, turned the corner and put his arm in Blaine Gabbert's chest to force a fumble.
Those plays displayed Wootton's best traits -- his wingspan and his sudden first step -- but the second of those two had been missing for most of 2013, thanks to an issue in his hip labrum that had first cropped up in 2012 and worsened last season. Wootton posted 7 1/2 sacks in 2012 and thought the issue had resolved itself when he had time to rest before the year. But when he "tweaked" it again in training camp, he knew he'd been in for a long year.
Wootton finally decided to have surgery in January, after registering just 3 1/2 sacks in 2013 and said he feels "night-and-day better." He hasn't had any of the pain he'd been warned he might experience after surgery, and he expects he'll be able to do some running and cutting by the end of May, with an eye toward being a full participant in Vikings training camp by the end of July.
"I played the  season through it," Wootton said. "At the end of it, I said, 'I'm tired of putting this off.' It's been one of the best decisions I've made. I know a lot of people who hide these things, and all of a sudden, it's, 'Oh, my hip hurts,' and they miss part of the season. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to get my hip right. I can bring a lot to a ballclub."
The decision to have surgery might have dampened Wootton's market heading into free agency, but he'll be added to the Vikings' defensive end rotation, possibly seeing snaps at the left end spot he'd played in Chicago. The 6-foot-6 Wootton gives the Vikings a long, lean defensive end, with a similar build to what Vikings coach Mike Zimmer had in Cincinnati with Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, and while he could shift inside, Wootton said the Vikings told him they'd mostly like to see him at the end position.
However much he plays there, Wootton said he's looking forward to joining a defensive line rotation with Everson Griffen (who was in Wootton's draft class and greeted him during his visit to the Vikings' facility), Brian Robison and Sharrif Floyd. He had also developed a positive impression of Zimmer from the coach's star turn on HBO's 'Hard Knocks' last summer, and said he connected well with the coach during his visit.
"He has a doesn't-take-any-B.S. kind of attitude," Wootton said. "I admire coaches like that. They keep it real with you and try to get the best out of you."
If Wootton's hip is healed, he believes he'll be in a position to give the Vikings his best, in the truest sense of the word, for the first time in two years.
"I think that's what's unique about me, is my get-off, my first step," he said. "I was involved with a couple teams, but I wanted to be in a rotation with young defensive linemen, and that's what Minnesota has. We're looking to put everything together."