Picking Chicago Bears' Best Player at Each Position from Lovie Smith Era
The Lovie Smith era is officially over in Chicago. As the 2013 NFL draft approaches, Marc Trestman, Inc. will conduct its first-ever draft and will begin to build around Smith's already established roster.
But as we must into this new era, it's important to not forget the last one. Smith was an incredible defensive coach who valued versatility and hard work. When analyzing his defensive rosters, this is obvious.
In this list, some choices were no-brainers, while others not so much. Smith's defensive backfields and linebacker corps were easily the strongest units, while the offensive line and receiving corps were not so dominant.
Smith coached the Bears for nine seasons and developed plenty of good players. Here are a few of them.
All statistics obtained from Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
Quarterback: Jay Cutler
In a classic lesser-of-all-evils decision, Jay Cutler wins this nomination. His only real competition was Rex Grossman, and we all know how that turned out.
The Bears sold the farm for Cutler in a blockbuster trade in 2009. They received Cutler and a fifth-round draft pick. The Broncos received quarterback Kyle Orton, the Bears' first- and third-round selections in 2009 and the Bears' first-round pick in 2010.
It's fair to say Cutler has not lived up to expectations, but his talent level is through the roof. This season, with a solid offensive line and a good receiving corps, Cutler may have a career year.
Running Back: Matt Forte
Matt Forte is one of the Bears' best draft selections over the past decade.
He and Jay Cutler work perfectly together, because Jay likes to dump the ball off rather frequently to the running back. Forte is one of, if not the best, receiving backs in the NFL today.
Drafted in 2009 as Cedric Benson's replacement, Forte hit the ground running. He is a very shifty back with great hands and has reached 1,000 yards three of his five seasons, never finishing below 929 yards.
His competition for this nomination was Thomas Jones.
Jones propelled the Bears to Super Bowl XLI with four postseason touchdowns that year. He also assisted in protecting then-quarterback Rex Grossman in the pocket by blocking on passing downs. The knock on him, though, was the fact that he only played three seasons in the Orange and Blue. For some reason, the Bears replaced him with Cedric Benson. Oops.
Fullback: Jason McKie
Through all the turmoil in the Bears' backfield, Jason McKie was the consistency.
He served as the bulldozer for Thomas Jones, Cedric Benson and Matt Forte, as well as a safety outlet in the passing game for Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler.
In 2010, McKie was released because Mike Martz, the newly assigned offensive coordinator that year, didn't use fullbacks.
McKie played for Lovie Smith for six seasons and a total of seven for the Bears.
Tight End: Desmond Clark
When Lovie Smith originally arrived in Chicago, Desmond Clark was entering his second season as a Bear, and for the first few years in offensive coordinator Ron Turner's offense, he was underutilized. The quarterbacks for the Bears in 2004 were Chad Hutchinson and Craig Krenzel. Needless to say, Clark wasn't targeted much.
Once a more reliable quarterback took over, Clark blossomed into a solid receiver and run-blocker. His overall skill set is what distinguishes him from another solid Bear tight end, Greg Olsen, in this list.
Olsen was the Bears' first-round draft pick in 2008, and while he was an outstanding receiver, his blocking was a definite liability.
Clark has since retired from the game and is currently a co-host of the Dez Clark and Alex Brown Show. Brown is a former defensive end for the Bears and teammate of Clark.
Wide Receiver 1: Brandon Marshall
In just one season with the Bears, Brandon Marshall re-wrote the team's record books (see photo caption).
Marshall's camaraderie with Jay Cutler is outstanding, as they connected for 118 completions in 2012. To put his value in perspective, consider Matt Forte was second on the team with 44 receptions, and the second wide receiver was Earl Bennett with 29.
While that might not be the best formula to win football games, it does show Marshall's talent level and value to the Bears.
In addition to his on-field production, Marshall must be given credit for straightening his life out off the field. Phil Emery, the Bears' general manager and the one responsible for bringing Marshall to Chicago, believed Marshall could change. That he did. While it has been only one season, to his credit, Marshall did not get into any trouble off the field.
Wide Receiver 2: Bernard Berrian
This was a difficult choice, as Devin Hester and Muhsin Muhammad were also considered. In the end, Bernard Berrian's big-play ability and outstanding season in 2007 were the difference.
Rex Grossman and Berrian were locked in early on in the 2007 season, as Berrian served as a great deep threat for the hefty-armed Grossman. 2007 was not a winning season for the team, but Berrian sure played well.
The wide receiver position was relatively thin under Lovie Smith. In fact, Marshall is the only wide receiver to go to the Pro Bowl under the coach.
Hester is not on this list because, while he is a Hall of Fame kick and punt returner, he is a mediocre wide receiver at best.
Muhammad and Berrian played together and were a good tandem for Grossman and Kyle Orton, but Muhammad misses out on this list because he only played for three years. Berrian played five with similar contributions.
Left Tackle: John Tait
John Tait was widely regarded as the best left tackle in the 1999 NFL draft. The rookie from Brigham Young was drafted 14th overall, playing five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs before signing a 5-year, $34 million contract with the Bears.
He was solid, but never lived up to his large contract. Tait was fairly injury-prone and eventually was forced to retire due to his weak ankles.
Over his five years in Chicago, he played in 73 games and performed admirably, protecting the turnstile that was the Bears' quarterback situation.
Left Guard: Ruben Brown
Ruben Brown was a nine-time Pro Bowler, but went to Hawaii only once representing the Bears.
In 2004, the Bears signed Brown, by then an aged veteran, to a three-year contract. He played sparingly due to injuries, and his only full season with the Bears was in 2007.
However, Brown's impact on the Bears was more than just on the field. In addition to a stellar performance on the field when healthy, he won numerous awards off it, including the Ed Block Courage Award.
Center: Olin Kreutz
Olin Kreutz was easily the most valuable offensive lineman on the Bears team during Lovie Smith's reign.
He went to six Pro Bowls and was regarded as one of the best centers in the NFL for many years.
A fairly undersized center (6'2'', 290 lbs), Kreutz was a technician, reading opposing defenses like a book. It's no surprise that when Kreutz was not re-signed for the 2011 season, waves of disdain rippled throughout the locker room. Kreutz was a locker-room leader as well as a leader on the field.
Right Guard: Roberto Garza
For the past two seasons, Roberto Garza played center. Before that, though, he was a talented guard in Ron Turner and Mike Martz's offense.
Garza has been a staple on the Bears' offensive line since he joined the team in 2004. In that time span, he has missed a grand total of two games.
Considering his versatility and longevity, Roberto Garza is one of the more valuable assets on the Bears and will continue to be for at least one more season.
Right Tackle: Fred Miller
Fred Miller's journey through the NFL was interesting to say the least.
He was drafted by the Rams in 1996 and played left tackle on their 2000 Super Bowl team. In Super Bowl XXXIV, he was pitted against Jevon Kearse, who was a rookie that season and the Titans' best pass-rusher. Tait held his own and did not give up a sack as the Rams went on to win.
That was his final game as a Ram.
Then, he signed with the team that the Rams beat, the Titans, in 2001. He played five seasons for Tennessee, starting every one.
By 2005, Miller had lost a step, but like Ruben Brown, the Bears were hoping to get a few more good years from him, and indeed, they did.
Miller played three full seasons with the Bears before a half-season in 2008, which preceded his release that offseason.
Miller was a fiery character, as he once got into an altercation with Olin Kreutz which resulted in a $50,000 fine from the team.
Defensive End 1: Adewale Ogunleye
Adewale Ogunleye was acquired by the Bears in 2004 in a trade with the Miami Dolphins. In return, the Dolphins received aging wide receiver Marty Booker and a draft pick.
Ogunleye played in 12 games in his inaugural season in Chicago, registering five sacks. However, that was his lowest total as a Bear, and the next year, in 2005, he came back and doubled that total to 10.
Ogunleye fit Lovie Smith's defense well because he was an effective pass-rusher, but never overran any play. He was usually in good position to defend the run because of this.
Ogunleye played six solid years for Lovie Smith and the Bears.
Defensive Tackle 1: Tommie Harris
The first draft pick for Lovie Smith as head coach was not a surprise. Defensive tackle, in Smith's Cover 2 defense, is an important spot. Harris was a superb pass-rusher, as he always seemed to anticipate the snap counts. Many a time, Tommie Harris was in the guard and/or center's face before the quarterback had the ball.
Harris blew up in his second season, registering five sacks in the first four games. However, his season was cut short by hamstring and knee injuries, two maladies that would hinder him for the remainder of his career.
Although the Bears made it to the Super Bowl in 2006, they greatly missed Harris' surge in the middle of their defensive line.
His 2007 season was strong, as he registered eight sacks. After that, he signed a $40 million contract, making him the highest-paid defensive tackle in the game at the time.
Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. Frustrated by injuries and personal performance, Harris was eventually demoted from the roster. He was released at the end of the year in 2011.
Defensive Tackle 2: Israel Idonije
Israel Idonije is another Chicago lineman who exemplified diversity. At one point or another, he lined up in all four defensive line positions and was a superb run-plugger for years.
He signed on to the practice squad in 2003 and made the roster the following year. Idonije was known as a player who would do it all. Due to his height (6'7"), he was an outstanding field-goal blocker and even a gunner on punts.
In 2010, he nabbed seven sacks for the Bears playing primarily defensive end opposite Julius Peppers. In 2012, he posted 7.5 sacks.
Defensive End 2: Julius Peppers
One of the best names in football is also one of the best defensive lineman.
In 2012, Peppers signed a gigantic six-year contract worth $91.5 million, with $42 million guaranteed. In his first season with the Bears, his impact was immediate. He accumulated eight sacks, but was a force and demanded multiple double-teams from opposing offensive lineman.
Easily one of the most dominant players to suit up under Lovie Smith, he was also one of the most successful. Thriving in Smith's Cover 2 defense, he was unleashed to put pressure on the quarterback. Due to his perfect fit in the system, he averaged just over 10 sacks per season.
Outside Linebacker 1: Lance Briggs
The Chicaco Bears linebackers are the pride and joy of the organization—and for good reason. Their linebackers are some of the greatest to ever play the game. Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher, Bill George and Lance Briggs are just a few of the Hall of Fame or potential Hall of Famers to put on the GSH.
Briggs has played in every season of Lovie Smith's tenure, and paired with Urlacher, formed one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Surprisingly, he has amassed 100 tackles or more only twice, but is a valued commodity in the Bears' organization.
Middle Linebacker: Brian Urlacher
Brian Urlacher is one of the greatest linebackers of all time. Of course he is on this list.
I don't need to get into statistics to justify Urlacher's inclusion on this list. It's more simple than that. He is literally the only choice.
No other player played middle linebacker (except when Urlacher was injured) for the Chicago Bears in the 2000s. And no other should have.
Yes, his production did dip a bit following his injury, but it's a testament to Urlacher's talent and character that, despite his decline, Bears fans want him back on the team.
Outside Linebacker No. 1: Hunter Hillenmeyer
Chicago's third linebacker, Hunter Hillenmeyer always played in the shadow of Urlacher and Briggs. And, quite frankly, it's right where he belonged.
Hillenmeyer wasn't an every-down player, but he was the mold of consistency and longevity. He occasionally filled in for Urlacher when he was injured, and in 2011, played the entire season at middle linebacker, registering 90 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Hillenmeyer doesn't come close to the all-time greats at linebacker for the Bears, but he was a fan favorite during his time in Chicago and played well for Lovie Smith.
Cornerback 1: Charles Tillman
Another easy choice, Charles Tillman was, and still is, a monster ball hawk who forces turnovers like it's his job.
Wait, maybe it is.
Lovie Smith's defense emphasized turnovers via both fumbles and interceptions. With a lackluster offense for so many years, it was imperative for the defense to force turnovers. Tillman and crew did just that.
In 2012, "Peanut" forced an NFL record-tying 10 fumbles and is 10 away from breaking the all-time NFL record of 47 by Jason Taylor.
Tillman fit Smith's defense like a glove.
Cornerback 2: Nathan Vasher
This was one of the more difficult choices on this list. It really came down to Nathan Vasher and Tim Jennings. I decided to go with the former.
Vasher was drafted by the Bears in 2002 out of Texas. In his rookie year, he was a starter by Week 4 and became the Bears' No. 1 cornerback later that year when Tillman went down with an injury. He ended the season with five interceptions. However, he was just gearing up for 2005.
Vasher intercepted eight passes in 2005, as he and Tillman formed one of the best cornerback duos in the NFL that year. He also returned a missed Joe Nedney field goal 108 yards for a touchdown, which was, at the time, the longest recorded play in NFL history.
What set Vasher apart from Jennings was their length of service (six years vs. three) and his returning ability on both interceptions and that amazing missed field-goal return.
Safety 1: Mike Brown
When he was on the field, Mike Brown was as good as anyone. However, that was the problem.
Three times in Brown's career, he missed most, if not all, of the season. In 2004, he played in two games, and in 2007, only one. When he was on the field, he was a team leader and a vocal member of the secondary. He has been credited with helping fellow safeties Chris Harris and Danieal Manning make the transition from cornerback to safety.
Last year, Brown was named the 49th greatest Bear of all time by ESPN Chicago. Considering the players who have passed through Halas Hall, that's a prestigious honor.
Safety 2: Danieal Manning
As many others on this list, Danieal Manning is versatile, something Lovie Smith coveted from his defensive players. Manning was drafted in the 2006 draft as a safety from Abeline Christian, a Division II school. He was the first player from a non-BCS school selected that year.
He played a limited role for the Bears until 2008, when he took over primary nickelback and kick-returning responsibilities. He excelled in both, including returning a kickoff 72 yards for the first kickoff return for a touchdown since 1972.
He led the league in kickoff-return average that year while starting at safety and playing nickelback on passing downs. He was named to the All-Pro team for kickoff returning in 2008 as well.