The 10 Best Draft Picks in Chicago Bears History
Though players like Payton, Sayers, Butkus and Brian Urlacher are at the top of the list of all-time great Bears, each one was a top-10 draft pick. This list seeks to rank the best picks the Chicago Bears ever made by comparing projected value with value produced.
It is reasonable to debate whether Peyton Manning or Tom Brady is a better quarterback, but there is no question which team got the better value for their draft pick (No. 1 overall vs. No. 199 overall). The latter is the debate at the heart of this list.
Walter Payton will serve as an example for clarity.
Walter Payton was one of the five greatest players of all time. Even if he was taken first overall in 1975, his career still would have exceeded expectations. If the first NFL draft took place in 1936, every first overall pick should be one of the best 76 players of all time. As the fourth overall pick, Payton should be in the top 304 for all-time NFL players. That gives him about a +300 pick value.
The other analyses will not be quite that precise. Players’ production will be compared to general expectations.
In the modern NFL draft, it’s reasonable to expect that first-round and second-round players develop into long-term starters with Pro Bowl potential, third-round and fourth-round players play as solid contributors or back-ups, and fifth-round picks or lower become back-ups and occasional contributors. Expectations are adjusted for older drafts.
By surpassing expectations with career production, these are the 10 best draft picks in Chicago Bears history.
10. Olin Kreutz (Third Round, 1998, C)
Olin Kreutz was the centerpiece of the Chicago Bears’ offensive line for 12 seasons.
The athletic center went to six Pro Bowls while starting 183 games for the Bears. He had his best year in 2006, when the Bears went to the Super Bowl. He was named a First-Team All-Pro for his performance that season.
Kreutz was an intelligent center that held the offensive line together. Sports Illustrated projected him to go in the second round as potentially the best center in the 1998 draft.
Kreutz fell all the way to the third round and was the second center off the board. The Bears could not have been happier to have him. Though he was highly touted coming out of college, he outplayed his actual draft position. Chicago got a steal in the third round.
9. Doug Buffone (Fourth Round, 1966, LB)
ESPN ranked Doug Buffone as the 39th best Chicago Bear of all time.
Buffone played every season for the Bears, and he retired after 186 games. Buffone was an amazing tackler and one of the best linebackers in the history of a team with plenty of great linebackers.
Though defensive sacks were not kept officially as a stat until 1982, Buffone’s website claims that he had 18 sacks in the 1968 season. Buffone’s ability to get to the quarterback made him a terror for opposing offenses.
While being drafted in the fourth round out of 20 total rounds is still fairly high, Buffone was obviously a much better player than his draft position would suggest. He was one of the greatest Bears to ever play, and he certainly would have merited a first-round pick.
8. Devin Hester (Second Round, 2006, KR)
When Devin Hester’s name was called in 2006, some Bears fans scratched their heads. Hester wasn’t an elite cornerback, and drafting a kick returner in the second round seemed to be a stretch.
Hester quickly laid those concerns to rest.
The rookie returned two kicks and three punts for touchdowns in 2006. Hester even took the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI to the house.
Devin Hester is one of the most explosive players in the history of the NFL. Every time he touches the ball, fans wonder if the game will change.
Hester ranks as the all-time leader in punt returns for touchdowns with 12. He has five kick returns for touchdowns to go with them. Hester’s ability to impact the game with limited touches is unparalleled.
Hester will have a bust in Canton one day for his incredible return skills. Getting the best player of all time at a position is quite a deal for the second round.
7. Mike Singletary (Second Round, 1981, LB)
Joe Theismann pointed out in the linked video that Singletary was the mental and vocal leader of the Bears’ defense. Just to be clear: on arguably the best defense of all time (the 1985 Bears), Singletary was the leader. Not bad.
Singletary’s value was not just in his intelligence and leadership. He was a fierce tackler and a consistent performer. His unofficial career tally for tackles is 1,488 (according to the Hall of Fame), an average of 124 tackles per season.
Singletary spent his whole 12-year career with Chicago, and ended up as a 10-time Pro Bowler and Hall of Famer.
Well worth the second-round pick.
6. Mark Bortz (Eighth Round, 1983, G)
The Chicago Bears had a great offensive line in the mid-1980s. In the 1985 Super Bowl season, Bears players combined for 2,761 yards rushing. The year before, Chicago had 2,974 yards on the ground (tied for fourth best all-time, according to NFL.com). Bortz was left guard on both of those lines.
Mark Bortz started 155 games for the Bears from 1983 to 1994. He made two Pro Bowls during that time.
Little was expected from the 6’6” guard, who converted from defensive tackle in college (according to the Chicago Bears official website). Bortz ended up becoming an anchor on the offensive line nonetheless and remained a starter until his retirement in 1994.
5. Lance Briggs (Third Round, 2003, LB)
Outside linebacker Lance Briggs was the thirteenth linebacker selected in the 2003 draft.
Unless they’re an elite talent, linebackers aren’t usually taken in the first round. However, Briggs lasted through a run of linebackers in the second round and was not a lock to become a starter. A third-round linebacker is borderline starter material. Several linebackers drafted ahead of Briggs were giant flops (e.g. Eddie Moore, Terry Pierce, and Alonzo Jackson).
Briggs is a grizzled veteran now with seven Pro Bowls on his resume. He has averaged 15.3 starts per season during his career with the Bears, making him one of the most reliable players in Chicago since the turn of the century.
Briggs has 1,069 career tackles to go with 15 interceptions, 12 sacks, and 20 fumbles either forced or recovered. He doesn’t pack the stat line with sacks like many outside linebackers do these days, but he is disputably the best traditional outside linebacker in the NFL today.
All of that for a third-round pick. With the exception of first-rounder Terrell Suggs, Briggs was easily the best linebacker taken in the draft that year.
4. Doug Plank (Twelfth Round, 1975, S)
Doug Plank is the man the Bears’ vaunted 46 defense is famously named after (to read more, see this New York Times article).
Buddy Ryan created the 46 defense to confuse offensive players. It depended on versatility from his defensive players, which Doug Plank had plenty of.
He also had plenty of hard hits in the NFL (this YouTube video shows a few).
Plank only started six seasons for the Bears, but he laid out offensive players with a vengeance that impressed Buddy Ryan. Plank also amassed 15 interceptions and 14 recovered fumbles during his Bears career.
The scouting process wasn’t nearly as intensive back then, so it was far more common to get good players later in the draft. Still, Plank was an amazing value in the 12th round.
3. Harlon Hill (Fifteenth Round, 1954, WR)
Players slipped through the cracks all the time toward the beginning of the NFL draft’s history. But how did Harlon Hill drop to the 15th round?
Jeff Davis described Harlon Hill as “football’s most dangerous threat” during the 1954 season in his book Papa Bear. Hill posted 1,124 yards with 12 touchdowns that year. He also averaged a ridiculous 25.0 yards per reception in that rookie campaign, which led to the honor of NFL Rookie of the Year.
Hill was incredibly productive his first three years in the league and recorded 32 touchdowns during that span. Injuries later in his career ruined his speed, which was his greatest threat. He played for the Bears until 1961.
Hill’s 4,616 yards receiving still ranks as second-best in Chicago Bears history. That’s a fantastic career for a guy who was drafted so low.
2. Bill George (Second Round, 1951, LB)
Bill George was one of the most influential players in the history of football.
The Bears drafted George in the second round, so expectations were relatively high. Bill George exceeded those expectations by actually creating a position in football.
Defensive lines contained five players at the time, and George dropped back into coverage at the start of plays to better defend the pass (according to the Hall of Fame’s website). The decision made him the first middle linebacker in league history.
Once George began dropping back from the line, he changed the game of football forever. His revolutionary insight created the 4-3 defensive paradigm many teams still follow today.
George was an eight-time First-Team All-Pro. He dealt big hits, made interceptions and recovered fumbles.
The original Monster of the Midway was literally a game-changer, acquired with only a second-round pick.
1. Richard Dent (Eighth Round, 1983, DE)
The greatest value the Bears ever found in the NFL draft was by far Richard Dent.
Dent was drafted in the eighth round, making him the equivalent of an undrafted free agent today. It would be like Dane Sanzenbacher turning into Steve Largent. Incredible.
Richard Dent was one of the most disruptive players in the history of the game. His 137.5 career sacks tie him for seventh all-time.
Dent started consistently for the Bears for 10 seasons. During that span he was named to four Pro Bowls. His best seasons were 1984 and 1985, when he had 34.5 total sacks.
In 1985 Dent was absolutely unstoppable. He had 17 sacks, seven forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered and two interceptions. He went on to become MVP of Super Bowl XX (according to NFL.com), when he had 1.5 sacks and forced two fumbles.
Not only was Dent one of the greatest defensive ends ever to play the game, but he was instrumental in bringing Chicago their only Super Bowl victory.
It would be a colossal understatement to say the Hall of Famer outperformed expectations.
*All statistics provided by www.pro-football-reference.com.