Chicago Bears: Top 10 Players
An NFL record of 33 Pro Football Hall of Famers have played for the Chicago Bears. The Bears, as a franchise, have won eight National Football League (NFL) Championships and one Super Bowl. Ranking the Chicago Bears' greatest players requires a comprehensive look at the history of this storied franchise because it has been around since the league's conception in 1920. These rankings take into account their skill and ability level relative to their era, statistical performance, impact on the franchise, and the team’s success during their careers. Narrowing this list down to 10 was quite the task, so keep reading after for some very impressive honorable mentions.
10. Dan Hampton
The Chicago Bears took Dan Hampton as the fourth overall pick in the 1979 draft. Hampton’s career spanned 11 years (1979-1990)—all with the Bears. During his career, Hampton was named to 6 All-Pro teams, four First-Team and two Second-Team, to go along with four Pro-Bowl selections. Over the course of his 11-year career, the Bears defense ranked first in the fewest rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total yards, and total points allowed. They also ranked first in sacks over the same time period (1979-1990). Hampton recorded 57 sacks during his career, which ranks him 3rd all-time in franchise history, behind teammates Steve McMichael and Richard Dent. Hampton was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002.
Hampton was known as a very versatile player. He was able to provide a rush off the edge as a defensive end or push up the middle as a defensive tackle. Throughout his career, Hampton was named to First-Team All-Pro at both defensive end and defensive tackle. This versatility played a crucial role in Chicago’s “46 Defense,” which dominated the league in historic fashion. The “46 Defense” was created by Buddy Ryan, the Bears’ defensive coordinator at the time. This defense was an aggressive approach built to put all the pressure on the offense and Hampton’s ability to play anywhere on the defensive line was essential to the scheme.
Constantly changing roles may have had a negative impact on Hampton’s statistical production, but his impact goes far beyond sacks and tackles. His ability to play different positions allowed fellow defensive linemen Steve McMichael, Richard Dent, and William Perry to flourish. Hampton’s impact cannot be described with simple statistics or quantitative measures. Legendary head coach Mike Ditka explained Hampton’s impact: “A lot of times in football, it’s not so much the stat, but how you play the game. If that’s the measuring stick, then Dan Hampton played the game as well as anybody.”
Hampton can still be heard on the Chicago airways where he hosts a daily sports-talk radio show.
Above is a great Dan Hampton video—a quick watch that is definitely worth the two minutes.
9. Brian Urlacher
Brian Urlacher was the 9th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. He was an All-American at New Mexico State as a safety and would go one to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. Urlacher switched to linebacker in the NFL and would anchor the Bears’ defense for the next 13 years. In that time, he was named First-Team All-Pro four times, Second-Team All-Pro once, and selected to eight Pro-Bowls. Urlacher was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 and led the Bears to the Super Bowl in 2006. In his third season, Urlacher set the franchise record for single-season tackles at 153. This would put him on pace to set the franchise career tackle record with 1,353. It is important to note that many believe Mike Singletary recorded over 1,400 tackles, but tackles weren’t consistently recorded until 2001. Urlacher was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018, which was the very first year he was eligible for the honor.
Urlacher led the Bears’ defense for years—their dominance revitalized the “Monsters of the Midway.” They ran a defense known as the “Tampa Two.” The defense revolves around two safeties each playing deep halves of the field, hence the “two.” Head Coach Lovie Smith mastered this defense during his time as a linebacker coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hence “Tampa.” This defensive strategy had been done before but rose in popularity when Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl in 2003. This defense has two main focuses. First, with two safeties deep, offenses have a difficult time completing long pass plays because there is always a safety over the top. Second, it allows underneath plays (cornerbacks and outside linebackers) to play aggressive because they know they have help behind them. However, this defense leaves a huge gap in the middle of the field. This is why Urlacher played such a crucial role in the defense. The middle linebacker needs to cover the “hole” in the deep middle of the field, but most linebackers don’t have the coverage ability needed for this role. This role fit Urlacher perfectly because he was an All-American safety in college. This allowed for the Bears to implement the “Tampa Two” and utilize their dominant defense to make a Super Bowl appearance.
8. Richard Dent
Richard Dent was drafted in the 8th round of the 1983 NFL Draft. Dent played for multiple teams during his career, but spent his first ten with the Bears. Dent was the MVP of the Bears’ only Super Bowl win in 1985 and holds several franchise records. Dent’s game was simple, he was big, strong and very fast. He consistently beat offensive linemen with his speed, which resulted in a staggering number of sacks. Dent piled up impressive statistical production with the Bears.
Richard Dent's Best Statistical Performances:
- 124.5 sacks, first in franchise history
- 17.5 sacks in 1984, a single-season franchise record
- 4.5 sacks in 1984 and 1987, tied for the single-game record (both against the Oakland Raiders)
- 3.5 sacks, single-game postseason record
- 17 sacks, led NFL in 1985
Dent would leave Chicago, but his career would not last much longer. He won a Super Bowl in 1994 with the San Francisco 49ers and retired a few years later. He finished with 137.5 sacks for his career, which places him 9th all-time.
Check out Dent's MVP worthy performance in the video above.
7. Bronko Nagurski
Bronko Nagurski began his career as a running back with the Bears in 1930. Nagurski played for eight years, was named First-Team All-Pro in four of those and Second-Team All-Pro three times. During that time, he led the Bears to two NFL Championships. Nagurski was a power runner, weighing in at 216 pounds he was the same size as most linemen during that time. Nagurski is also known as a World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion.
Nagurski’s historical impact on the Bears continued past his initial retirement. In 1943, many NFL players went off to serve in World War II, which left the Bears with a depleted roster as they prepared for another championship season. Nagurski came back, six years after retiring, to play defensive tackle for the Bears. He led them to a third NFL championship and scored on a 3-yard touchdown run.
Nagurski dominated the NFL during his career and it shows through his 4.4 yards per carry. He was a member of the inaugural Pro Football Hall of Fame class in 1963. He played his entire career with the Bears and the jersey No. 3 was retired to honor him.
6. Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers played seven seasons in the NFL, all for the Bears. Sayers was one of the most dominant players the league had ever seen was known to be a threat on both offense and special teams. He was best known for his ability to make big plays. Sayers constantly broke seemingly-normal plays for long yardage and was very dangerous as a return man. Sayers once remarked, “Just give me 18 inches of daylight. That’s all I need.”
In seven seasons, Sayers made First-Team All-Pro five times in his career. He won Rookie of the Year in 1965 and then led the NFL in rushing in just his second year (1966). Sayers continued to dominate until he injured his knee in 1968. He tore several ligaments in an era where injuries of this magnitude usually meant retirement. Sayers came back in 1969, led the NFL in rushing yards again, and won Comeback Player of the Year. A successful recovery from torn knee ligaments was very irregular at the time. Medicine, especially sports medicine, was much less effective in the 1960s. In 1970 and 1971, Sayers was plagued with various knee injuries eventually leading to his retirement in 1971.
Sayers held countless franchise records at the time of his retirement, most revolving around rushing and special team returns. Most of these records were replaced by two other legendary players, Walter Payton and Devin Hester. He does still hold several single-game and single-season franchise records.
Gale Sayers' Franchise Records:
- 22 touchdowns, a single-season record
- 2,440 net yards, a single-season record
- 6 touchdowns, single-game record
- 36 points, single-game record
- 339 net yards, single-game record
Sayers also made strides towards the integration of Pro Football. It is widely known and recorded that Gale Sayers and fellow running back Brian Piccolo were the first two interracial roommates in the NFL. The movie Brian’s Song follows their friendship and Piccolo’s battle with cancer.
5. Mike Singletary
The Bears drafted Mike Singletary in the 2nd round of the 1981 NFL draft, he would go on to play all 12 seasons of his legendary career with the Bears. Singletary was the centerpiece of the Bears menacing “46 Defense.” In 1985, Singletary won Defensive Player of the Year while leading the Bears to their first Super Bowl win. Singletary won the award again in 1988. In his 12-year career, Singletary made ten Pro-Bowls, was named First-Team All-Pro eight times and Second-Team All-Pro one time. The three-time National Football Conference (NFC) player of the year only missed two games his entire career. Singletary’s tackles statistics vary depending on the source, but many have him with 1,488 career tackles. That ranks him 1st all-time in franchise history.
Singletary was given the nickname “Samurai Mike” because of his focus on the field. These characteristics fit the “46 Defense” scheme perfectly. The defense relied on pressure from their four defensive linemen and two additional defenders. The two additional defenders would be either linebackers or safeties, walking down to the line of scrimmage. The offense would need to dedicate at least six, sometimes seven or eight, blockers to stop the six defenders. This strategy not only created pressure consistently, but allowed Singletary to play without dealing with any blockers. This is what allowed Singletary to fly to the ball and make plays. This style of play was important to Singletary’s success, and eventually led to his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction in 1998.
4. Mike Ditka
Mike Ditka, commonly known as “Da Coach,” played a huge role for the Bears’ organization. Ditka was drafted 5th overall by Chicago in the 1961 NFL Draft, went on to win Rookie of the Year, and then set the franchise record with 12 touchdown receptions as a rookie. Ditka made the Pro Bowl in his first five seasons with Chicago and was First-Team All-Pro in four of them. Ditka was named Second-Team All-Pro in his last two seasons with the Bears. Ditka also holds the team record for touchdown receptions in a game with four.
Ditka’s legacy as a player has not been forgotten. In 1988, Ditka was the first-ever tight end to enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ditka would go on to play for various other teams and return to the NFL as a coach. Ditka’s mentality left a mark on the franchise from his time as both a player and a coach. His impact can best be described with a quote from “Da Coach” himself: “You’re never a loser until you quit trying.”
3. Sid Luckman
Sid Luckman was drafted with the second overall pick in the 1939 NFL draft, traded to the Chicago Bears. He would go on to become one of the first great NFL quarterbacks. At that time, the NFL consisted of ground-and-pound, heavy run offenses. Luckman changed that and redefined the position of quarterback. He dominated the NFL during the 1940s and led the Bears to four NFL Championships. Luckman led the league in passing yards, touchdowns, and ratings three separate times. He took home the MVP award after the 1943 season.
Luckman enlisted in the U.S. Merchant Marines shortly after the 1943 season. He was not able to practice with the team but could play on game days. In 1946, he returned to the Bears full-time and led them to their 4th NFL Championship.
Luckman was the first great passer the NFL ever saw. He re-wrote the record books, though not many still stand. Luckman still holds the record for single-game touchdown passes with seven (tied) and has the second-highest yards per attempt with 8.4. He accomplished all this without the fancy route trees or film resources available now. Luckman truly revolutionized the game of football.
2. Dick Butkus
Dick Butkus was drafted 3rd overall in the 1965 NFL draft. Butkus would play all nine seasons of his legendary career with the Bears. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in every season except for the year he retired. Along the way, he was named First-Team All-Pro six times and Second-Team All-Pro twice. Butkus also was honored as Defensive Player of the Year twice. He also was placed on the All-Decade team for both the 60s and 70s, had his jersey no. 51 retired by the Bears and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
His effect on both the Bears franchise and the NFL cannot be described with just statistics. Butkus is widely regarded as the gold standard for middle linebackers. Between his speed, strength, and veracity, Butkus built a reputation as one of the best to ever play. Deacon Jones, fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer, described Butkus as a “well-conditioned animal, and every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.” He set the standard for toughness on the field. In September of 1970, Butkus appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the caption, “The Most Feared Man in the Game.” Butkus’ mentality and style of play can be seen in more modern players such as Ray Lewis and former Chicago Bear Mike Singletary.
1. Walter Payton
Sweetness. Walter Payton’s legendary career leaves him with a reputation as the greatest Chicago Bear and one of the greatest to ever play professional football. Walter Payton played 13 years in the NFL and ran for over 1,000 yards in 10 of those seasons. Over that 13-year career, Payton was selected to nine Pro Bowls and was named First-Team All-Pro seven times along the way. At the time of his retirement in 1987, Payton held NFL records for rush yards and touchdowns. Both records have since been broken, but Payton still holds virtually every running back-related record for the Bears franchise. In 1979, Payton led the league in both rushing yards and touchdowns on his way to being named Most Valuable Player that year. In 1985, the Bears’ defense dominated and Payton ran for over 1,500 on his way to a Super Bowl Victory. Payton currently ranks 2nd all-time in rushing yards and 4th all-time in passing yards.
The Bears drafted Payton 4th overall in the 1975 NFL draft out of Jackson State, a small college in Mississippi. Payton was known as the “Sugarman” at Jackson State. This college moniker would eventually transform into his iconic nickname, "Sweetness." Jackson State is also where Payton picked up the motto, “Never Die Easy.” This three-word phrase summarizes Payton’s play style. Payton never ran out of bounds—he always said he wanted to “punish” defenders before he went down. On top of his physicality, Walter Payton had one of the best stiff arms football has ever seen. Payton would toss defenders aside, often taking three defenders to tackle him. Even with this physical mentality, Payton missed only one game throughout his entire 13-year career. This, along with many of his other achievements can be attributed to Payton’s insane work ethic. Payton always said that conditioning was the most important part of his training. His most notable drills relied on sprinting up and down hills, Payton often trained until he could barely walk. This work ethic is where Payton attributes most of his success in both football and life. Walter Payton passed away on November 1, 1999, at the young age of 45, due to a rare liver disease. Payton spent his final weeks working with an author on his autobiography, Never Die Easy.
Payton's work ethic was legendary and he describes it in the interview below.
Here are a couple of players I just couldn't leave off the list. There are so many Chicago greats, so leave a comment with your favorite in the section down below!
Howard “Red” Grange joined the Bears in 1925, shortly after the league was formed. Grange was a part of two NFL championships with Chicago, but his most important achievements took place off the field. Grange was a college football phenom; the three-time All-American was known all over the country. Bears owner George Halas signed Grange and they toured the country raising interest in the NFL. Grange’s popularity helped the NFL gain traction and attract fans.
Clyde “Bulldog” Turner would join the Bears as a 21-year-old rookie in 1940, and would play into the early 1950s. Turner was a center and linebacker, he dominated both sides of the ball for the Bears for 13 years. Tuner won four NFL championships and was named First-Team All-Pro eight times.
Devin Hester’s career with the Chicago Bears was electrifying. After years of disappointment, the 2006 Chicago Bears made it to the Super Bowl, and Hester played a huge role in that. Hester owns almost every special teams record not owned by Gale Sayers, and is widely regarded as the best return specialist to ever play.
Devin Hester NFL Records:
- Most Special Teams Touchdowns: 20 (14 punts, 5 kickoffs, and 1 missed field goal)
- Career Punt Return Touchdowns: 14
- Single Season Punter Return Touchdowns: 4 (2007)
- Single Game Return Touchdowns: 2 (tied with multiple other players)