The generalized reason as to why the Chicago Bears sit here with the No. 3 overall pick in futility is poor drafting and development over decades upon decades. But with the start of the 2017 NFL Draft on the horizon, hope springs eternal that maybe, just maybe, this team will finally start spinning it’s wheels in the right direction - beginning on Thursday night.
Historically and oddly enough, outside of the last three years of general manager Ryan Pace’s tenure, the Bears haven’t picked in the top-10 of the draft since 2005. Overall, they’ve picked in the top-10 just three times outside of the Pace era in the 21st century. Typically, of late, they’ve hovered closer in the mid-to-late teens rather than have shots at some of premium talents in draft classes.
When you dig deeper, the last time the Bears picked as high as No. 3 overall, was when they selected offensive tackle Lionel Antoine in 1972 with the third pick. Suffice to say, as sustained mediocrity meets the pavement, the opportunity to max out on such high selections doesn’t come around often.
However, while it should be needless to say, just because you’re picking so high, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a home run of a player either. And on the rare occasions the Bears have had these chances, they have hit the jackpot, while also going completely bankrupt adding to a long line of draft embarrassments.
On that note, with the Bears and Pace looking to add to their illustrious history in either vain of drafting success, let’s first take a look at the best top-five selections has Chicago has made in it’s history.
Hint: The cream of the Bears’ crop might make you a bit nostalgic.
The best top-five Bears picks
- No. 4 overall - Walter Payton, RB, Jackson State (1975) *Hall of Fame
This one was easy wasn’t it?
Payton is the reason so many fans still cling to the ideal of what the Bears are today, or even follow the team. Before the Dallas Cowboys’ Emmit Smith eventually eclipsed him, he retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards. The nine-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro still stands in second place today. His lone championship in 1985 stood as a holy grail for his reward of sticking through an awful Chicago team in the 1970’s while dominating.
Some also consider him to be the best and most magnetic tailback of all-time. (Yes, not only those in Chicago).
The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award is presented every year to an NFL player for his volunteer and charity work. It’s an honor to one of the game’s greats, on and off the field.
No one brought the grace, power, determination, and overall charisma that Payton did to the Bears. No one became as much of a symbol or icon or face of the franchise that Payton did. Perhaps, no one will ever have the same impact that Payton did on the game or the league for the Bears.
2. No. 3 overall - Dick Butkus, LB, Illinois (1965) *Hall of Fame
There are two things the Bears organization has historically always found a way to get right among their many past failures: Locking down star running backs and linebackers.
Starting this list without a lead of the two people most think of when they think “Bears” in Payton and Butkus would’ve been a bit blasphemous given their status as icons, what they did for the game, and how they still live on in Chicago football memory. That’s a status that definitely wouldn’t change even if the Bears were current dynastic championship contenders.
For Butkus, he wasn’t in the mold of today’s athletic freaks that could roam the middle of the field and simultaneously play in the box. He was a throwback who you saw as the most successful traditional sideline-to-sideline linebacker football has ever seen. Butkus was an eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro, and that still doesn’t feel like it demonstrates the fear or intimidation he induced in opponents while manning the Bears’ middle.
Let Butkus tell you what the game of football and the Bears meant to him.
“When I played pro football, I never set out to hurt anyone deliberately. Unless it was, you know, important, like a league game or something.”
3. No. 4 overall - Dan Hampton, DT, Arkansas (1979) *Hall of Fame
You may now know Hampton more as an ‘85 Bear that makes “relative” waves around the local sports media scene on-air glossing about his former team (mostly in anger of late), but in the 1980’s he was an unstoppable interior pass rushing monster.
The “Danimal” as he was appropriately nicknamed for his fierce demeanor, made four Pro Bowls, was a four-time first-team All-Pro, and even won a Defensive Player of the Year award in 1982. If not for tremendous versatility as both an end and a tackle, Hampton would have likely added even more to his lengthy resume of accomplishments. He was one of the cornerstones of the great 46 Bears defense of the 1980’s that fed off of other Hall of Fame talent around him like Richard Dent and Mike Singletary.
And even despite a cumulative 10 knee surgeries during his 12-year career, Hampton only missed 23 games. Old school medicine didn’t let him down or rather, an old-school toughness.
Fun fact: For a time, Hampton was even Chicago’s second-highest paid player after Walter Payton, when he signed a contract extension in 1983. The Bears knew how special and important he was to their success, and were going to appropriately compensate him.
4. No. 2 overall - Sid Luckman, QB, Colombia (1939) *Hall of Fame
It’s hard to say this qualifies as much of top-five pick in modern terms. That’s because in 1939, the NFL had just 10 teams and two divisions compared to it’s current 32 teams and eight divisions. But the three-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro in Luckman does fit the criteria and still stands as the Bears’ most accomplished quarterback 68 years after his career came to a close.
It took until the late Jay Cutler Bears era for Luckman to finally recede any statistical marks he had with the Bears from total yards to touchdown passes. In his day, 14,686 yards with 137 touchdowns thrown, was what today’s elite passers would bring to the table for comparison’s sake. Chicago legitimately had one of the league’s best quarterbacks under center and it translated to four championships during his 11-year career.
It’s a shame these games weren’t widely televised or in color when you note the Bears’ overall history at quarterback. Just don’t discount the first man to run George Halas’ “T-Formation” to perfection because of his athleticism, and help craft part of Chicago’s mythical and traditional franchise legend.
5. No. 4 overall - Gale Sayers, RB, Kansas (1965) *Hall of Fame
“Give me 18 inches of daylight, that’s all I need.”
Sayers’ famous quote of his transcendent ability in the open field to make a cut and play out of thin air is the best example of what it no doubt felt like to defend him. The “Kansas Comet” blazing by you as your game plan is ripped to shreds in frustration. Just ask the 1965 San Francisco 49ers, whom Sayers scored six touchdowns on in his rookie season.
It’s hard to believe that San Francisco saw anything but a blur.
Sayers may have been the most naturally talented running back of all-time, and if not for rampant knee injuries that shortened his career significantly, he might have ended up as the consensus best ever. For the Bears, he was a light among one of the franchise’s darkest eras.
And still, the Hall of Famer in Sayers was so good in such short time as a four-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro in only seven seasons - he made the Hall of Fame when it was his time to be called.
That’s how good he was. That’s how he redefined the running back position.
His impact and the fear he struck in opposing defenses was clearly not lost on anyone. How the Bears managed to get two talents such as Butkus and Sayers back-to-back will never make any logical sense, but no one with the team complained.
As Sayers now battles dementia, his rise and subsequent too-quick fall with the Bears won’t soon be forgotten.
It’s only a matter of time before we find out if Pace and the modern Bears can add a similarly great player to be added into this conversation. If this regime has any hope of longevity, whoever is picked on Thursday night would be best served as becoming special in adding to this positive history.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.