By Bryan Dietzler
The Chicago Bears have been an NFL team since 1920. They were one of the leagues first franchises and are, perhaps, the most well known in league history. Chicago has won multiple championships, they have sent many players to the Pro Bowl and have the most players in the Hall of Fame o any NFL team. They are a near model franchise although they haven’t been winning a lot of games these last few years.
Winning games can be helped by key players that a team brings in through the draft. They can develop thee players and hopefully they will impact sooner than later. The Bears have had several strong draft picks in their long history, that have helped them win games. Some are well known while others are not household names.
The NFL Draft first came into existence in 1936. It was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (the site of this year’s draft) and was put in place to help even the playing field for all NFL teams.
The Bears have had numerous number one draft picks over the course of their long history but only just a few have really stood out. There are those we know very well like Walter Payton, Mike Ditka and Gayle Sayers. Then there are those first rounders that are not so well known like Joe Gray, Stan Wallace and Lionel Antione.
Of the multitude of first round picks the Bears have had, many are guys that we have already forgotten. But there are a few that stand out as being some of the best players in Chicago Bears and NFL history.
Let’s look at a few of the most well-known first round picks in the history of the Bears. Are there any that you feel should be recognized that are not on this list? Who is the best first round pick in Bears’ history?
If you want to start off with a list of the best first rounders in Bears history, perhaps you should start from the very beginning. The very first draft pick in the history of the franchise, offensive tackle Joe Stydahar (West Virginia) ended up becoming a Hall of Fame member. In fact, three of their first six draft picks were inducted into the Hall of Fame. They include offensive lineman/linebacker Clyde “Bulldog” Turner and quarterback Sid Luckman (along with Stydahar). Needless to say, the Bears started off their efforts in the NFL draft right.
Their success in the draft early on helped make them one of the better teams in the NFL. The Bears, led by owner George Halas, had figured out how to draft the right players and make the team a winner. Halas was one of the greatest football minds of his time.
Chicago had some well-known draft picks in the early and mid-40’s including Michigan’s Tom Harmon, quarterback Johnny Lujack from Notre Dame, and eventual Hall of Fame quarterback Bobby Layne from Texas. These names will ring bells with anyone who is a fan of Bear’s history.
We will now move to the 1950’s where the Bears had some interesting first round draft picks. In 1952, they added Miami tight end Jim Dooley with the eighth pick overall. Dooley ended up being the coach of the Chicago Bears for a while. Chicago made three interesting picks in 1953, 54 and 55. They selected three straight running backs (halfbacks) in a row. Billy Anderson out of Compton Junior College, Stan Wallace out of Illinois and Ron Drzewiecki from Marquette came in order in the middle of the decade. The Bears were seemingly perpetually unsettled at the running back position.
In 1958, the Bears selected West Virginia linebacker/guard Chuck Howley. Howley is much more famous for his career with the Dallas Cowboys than with his time in Chicago. Howley retired two years after being drafted but made a comeback and starred with Dallas. He earned numerous honors including being named MVP of Super Bowl V.
One of the most popular players to ever don a Bears’ uniform was drafted with the fifth pick in the first round in 1961. That player was Pittsburgh tight end Mike Ditka. Ditka has done a host of things with the Bears. He was a star player, a former Super Bowl winning head coach and a Hall of Famer. He is loved by Bears fans all over the world and is an icon in Chicago and sports history.
A year after Iron Mike was drafted, the Bears selected halfback Ronnie Bull out of Baylor. Bull was and still is a popular player in Chicago Bears lore. He is even a member of the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame.
Just three years later, the Bears took one of the most fearsome defenders in team history. Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus was selected with the third overall pick and he wreaked havoc in the NFL for years. He is a Hall of Famer and one of the most memorable players in NFL history.
But the Bears struck gold for the second year in a row after they got Butkus. They grabbed the “Kansas Comet” Gayle Sayers and he was a success. Sayers, a running back, had a Hall of Fame career with Chicago although it was cut short by injuries. He was the second greatest running back in Bears history many say and many will agree with that.
For the first time in the draft’s history, the Bears did not have a pick in the 1970 draft. That would be the first of six total times the Bears wouldn’t have a first round draft pick. The last time they didn’t have one was in 2010 when they gave up that pick to acquire quarterback Jay Cutler from Denver.
Using their first-round pick in 1973, the added defensive tackle Wally Chambers out of Eastern Kentucky. The twelfth overall pick was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year for the Bears. He ended his career in Tampa Bay.
The 1975 NFL Draft saw Chicago select their best player ever with the number four overall pick. That player was Walter Payton. Payton was anything and everything to the Bears for years. He held the NFL rushing record for a while, helped take the team to it’s first (and only) Super Bowl championship and is a Hall of Fame player. The late Chicago sports icon is perhaps the most loved sports figure in Chicago history and is one of the best NFL players ever.
The 1979 NFL Draft brought another Hall of Fame player to Chicago and another guy who would help them win a Super Bowl. With the fourth overall pick that year, they took Arkansas defensive tackle Dan Hampton. Hampton, like so many other Bears’ Hall of Famers, is a Chicago icon and one of the most memorable players in Chicago sports history. “Danimal”, as he was called, spent most of his time in opponent’s backfields and was virtually unstoppable.
Incidentally, Hampton was the last first round pick by the Bears to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
The Bears’ first round picks after 1979 had some impacts but none have been considered Hall of Fame worthy, at least not yet. One that might have a shot at getting in is 1983 first rounder Jim Covert. Covert, an offensive lineman out of Pittsburg had a steady career with the Bears and was one of the best offensive linemen in their history. He has been touted as being a Hall of Fame player and could earn a gold jacket someday.
The year before Covert was drafted, the Bears selected Brigham Young quarterback Jim McMahon. The flashy star helped lead the Bears to a Super Bowl victory and became one of the most talked about players in Chicago during his time there. Although he spent a lot of time on the trainer’s table he was effective and had he been able to stay healthy, he might have been able to lead Chicago to additional Super Bowl victories.
No story about Chicago Bears first round picks would be complete without talking about their number one pick in 1985, Clemson defensive tackle William Perry. The “Refrigerator” was a “huge” icon for fans across the country during the Bears’ Super Bowl season. Although he was an unpopular pick with defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, Ditka loved the rookie and helped make him a star both on and off the field. Perry was a big part of a very memorable season for the Bears.
Although his career wasn’t spectacular, 1987 first round pick Jim Harbaugh, a quarterback out of Michigan, is notable for becoming a head coach in the NFL and in college. Some consider him a part of the Mike Ditka “coaching tree”. He is worth mentioning. 1990 first rounder safety Mark Carrier had a stellar rookie season leading the league in interceptions with 10 and was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
In 2000, the Bears selected someone who should be their next Hall of Fame player (providing Covert doesn’t get before him). New Mexico linebacker Brian Urlacher was a force for the Bears for years. A true leader, Urlacher was a dependable defender who made a lot of spectacular plays for the Bears. He was one of the best in a long and storied tradition of great linebackers in Chicago.
Chicago selected Oklahoma defensive tackle Tommie Harris in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft and he was impressive although only for a short period. His career was cut short by chronic injury issues.
The Bears may have found another future Hall of Famer when they drafted Oregon offensive lineman Kyle Long. He has been a consistent Pro Bowl player and could be the best player the Bears currently have. His future is bright if he can stay healthy.
2016 first round pick Leonard Floyd, a linebacker out of Georgia, is the latest in a long line of first rounders. His future is uncertain but hopefully he will be able to make a name for himself. Fans hope that he will have a positive impact like so many of those first rounders before him.
In the future, we will look the worst first round draft picks the Bears have had. Who do you feel is the Bears’ best first rounder ever?