10 Best Chicago Bears Linebackers of All Time

Eric Dockett

best-chicago-bears-linebackers-all-time
Where does Khalil Mack rank on a list of the greatest Bears linebackers of all time?© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense is one of the toughest jobs in football. It is physically demanding, as those who play the position need the size and strength to take on offensive linemen, as well as the speed to rush the passer and cover backs out of the backfield. Middle linebackers have to be big, strong, fast and tough as nails.

But linebackers who are all brawn and no brains dont make it very far in professional football. The middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense, making calls and adjustments before the snap to get his men in the best positions to stop the offense. He has to be smart and know what the offense will do before they do it. That means hours of study before every game.

With all of that in mind, it is easy to see how great middle linebackers dont come around often. If you are a Bears fan, you are a bit spoiled. The Bears have fielded four of the best middle linebackers in NFL history: Dick Butkus, Bill George, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher. Today, all four men are enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

They each had incredible supporting casts at outside linebacker. In fact, except for the Steelers, it is hard to think of another team that has seen as many outstanding linebackers as the Bears.

What Makes a Linebacker Great?

We already covered how linebackers have to be tough and smart, but that is just the prerequisite for getting a roster spot in the NFL. So, how can we tell the great ones from the good ones? Here are a few criteria I considered for this article:

  • Pro Bowl nominations
  • All-Pro nominations
  • Super Bowl and NFL championships
  • Dominance in the era when they played
  • Overall value to the Bears organization during their playing time

Here are the 10 greatest linebackers in the history of the Bears.

10. Doug Buffone (19661979)

Buffone played through 14 tough seasons in the Windy City, and the Bears only made the playoffs twice during his entire career. He never won a championship, made a Pro Bowl, or earned a spot on an All-Pro roster. However, today he holds a place in the Chicago Bears Ring of Honor. He began his career in the era of Gale Sayers and ended it in the era of Walter Payton.

Buffone picked off 24 passes as a Bear, which ranks him eighth in team history for interceptions.

Jersey Number: 55

Years With Bears: 14

Stats With Bears

  • 186 games
  • 24 interceptions for 211 yards
  • 9 fumbles recovered, 1 touchdown

9. Otis Wilson (19801988)

Wilson played eight seasons in Chicago and started 91 games. He earned a Super Bowl ring following the 1985 season as a starting outside linebacker in the legendary Bear 46 defense developed by Defensive Coordinator Buddy Ryan. Wilson contributed 10.5 sacks that year and made the only Pro Bowl appearance of his career.

He left the Bears in 1989 after missing 1988 with injuries, and after one season with the Raiders (in which he only played a single game), he was out of the NFL. His 36 official career sacks rank him in the 10th spot in Bears history.

Jersey Number: 55

Years With Bears: 8

Accolades With Bears

  • 1x Pro Bowl
  • Super Bowl Champion, 1985

Stats With Bears

  • 90 games
  • 36 sacks
  • 10 interceptions for 115 yards, 2 touchdowns
  • 8 fumbles recovered

8. Wilber Marshall (19841987)

Marshall was one of the best outside linebackers of the 80s and 90s. During his 12-year career he played for Washington, Houston, Arizona and the New York Jets, but he started out with Chicago.

He came into the league in 1984 and saw little action as a rookie. In 1985, he started 15 games as a key part of arguably the greatest defense in NFL history. The Bears only lost one game that season and clobbered the Patriots in Super Bowl XX, 46-10.

As a Bear, Marshall made two Pro Bowls and one All-Pro roster. In 59 games, he recorded 16.5 sacks, nine interceptions, and five fumble recoveries.

Jersey Number: 58

Years With Bears: 4

Accolades With Bears

  • 2x Pro Bowls
  • 1x All-Pro Team

Stats With Bears

  • 59 games
  • 16.5 sacks
  • 9 interceptions for 91 yards and 1 touchdown
  • 5 fumbles recovered, 1 touchdown

7. Khalil Mack (2018Present)

The Raiders drafted Mack with their first-round pick in 2014. By the summer of 2018 he had made his mark as one of the most dangerous edge rushers in the NFL, with three Pro Bowls, two All-Pro nominations, and a Defensive Player of the Year Award to show for it.

Mack held out through training camp and the entire 2018 preseason, and the Raiders traded him to the Bears. So far, it has worked out great for the Bears. Mack has made two more Pro Bowls and one more All-Pro team since his move to Chicago.

If Mack stays in Chicago, I suspect he will climb several spots higher on this list before he is done.

Jersey Number: 52

Years With Bears: 2

Accolades With Bears

  • 2x Pro Bowls
  • 1x All-Pro Team

Stats With Bears

  • 30 games
  • 21 sacks
  • 1 interception for 27 yards and 1 touchdown
  • 3 fumbles recovered

6. Lance Briggs (20032014)

Over 12 seasons, Briggs started 170 games and quietly put together one of the best careers of any linebacker in Bears history. He made seven Pro Bowls and one All-Pro roster while racking up 15 sacks, intercepting 16 passes, and scoring six defensive touchdowns.

Many Bears fans hope to see Briggs take his place alongside Urlacher in Canton someday. Though nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2020, in his first year of eligibility, he didnt make the final cut.

Jersey Number: 55

Years With Bears: 12

Accolades With Bears

  • 7x Pro Bowls
  • 1x All-Pro Teams

Stats With Bears

  • 173 games
  • 15 sacks
  • 16 interceptions for 256 yards and 5 touchdowns
  • 7 fumbles recovered, 1 touchdown

5. Joe Fortunato (19551966)

Fortunato played 12 seasons for the Bears at outside linebacker, 11 of them next to Hall-of-Famer Bill George. He was an athletic, reliable linebacker who rarely missed a game. He made five Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams during his career.

Fortunato and the Bears made it to the NFL Championship game twice. They lost to the Giants in 1956, then beat them in 1963.

Jersey Number: 31

Years With Bears: 12

Accolades With Bears

  • 5x Pro Bowls
  • 3x All-Pro Teams
  • NFL Champion, 1963

Stats With Bears

  • 155 games
  • 16 interceptions for 156 yards and 1 touchdown
  • 22 fumbles recovered, 1 touchdown
best-chicago-bears-linebackers-all-time
Brian Urlacher is the latest Bears linebacker to be immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

4. Brian Urlacher (20002012)

Of the four great Bears middle linebackers, Urlacher was the biggest, strongest and fastest. He ran a 4.59-second forty-yard dash at the NFL Combine in 2000 at a bodyweight of 258 pounds. His speed made him the perfect fit for the Bears modified Tampa 2 scheme, which requires the middle linebacker to help the safeties in pass coverage by dropping back between their zones.

He earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000, and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. He made eight Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams during his career, and he entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the Class of 2018.

Urlacher and the Bears made it to Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season, the franchises first appearance since the legendary 85 Bears. Chicago lost to the Peyton Manning-led Colts on a rain-drenched field at Hard Rock Stadium.

Jersey Number: 54

Years With Bears: 13

Accolades With Bears

  • 8x Pro Bowls
  • 4x All-Pro Teams
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 2018
  • 2000 Defensive Rookie of the Year
  • 2005 Defensive Player of the Year

Stats With Bears

  • 182 games
  • 41.5 sacks
  • 22 interceptions for 324 yards and 2 touchdowns
  • 15 fumbles recovered

3. Bill George (19521965)

George played on the defensive line as a middle guard early in his career. Then, in 1954, he did something that changed football forever. He stood up.

He reasoned he could get back into pass coverage more easily if he didnt have to line up with his hand on the ground and contact the center at the snap. Georges epiphany effectively altered the 5-2 defense popular in the NFL at the time and turned it into the modern 4-3.

He made the Pro Bowl every year from 1954 to 1961 and made seven straight All-Pro rosters from 1955 to 1961. In 1957, he permanently changed position and became the first specialist middle linebacker in the history of the NFL.

In 1956, the Bears made it to the NFL Championship game only to get drubbed by the New York Giants 477. But George got a rematch before the end of his career and defeated the Giants 1410 to win the title.

Jersey Number: 61

Years With Bears: 14

Accolades With Bears

  • 8x Pro Bowls
  • 8x All-Pro Teams
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1974
  • NFL Champion, 1963

Stats With Bears

  • 159 games
  • 18 interceptions for 144 yards
  • 17 fumbles recovered

2. Mike Singletary (19811992)

Singletary was not especially large for a middle linebacker, but he played the position with an intensity few have matched. He was both a cerebral student of the game and one of the NFLs most ferocious hitters. For 12 seasons, Singletary held his post and anyone who crossed his path paid the price.

He made 10 Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams in his Hall of Fame career, and the Associated Press named him Defensive Player of the Year twice. In 1985, as a key part of Buddy Ryans legendary 46 defense, Singletary helped bring home the first and only Lombardi Trophy in Bears history. The 85 Bears are known today as one of the greatest defenses of all time.

One could make a convincing argument that Mike Singletary was the best Bears linebacker in the history of the franchise. However, there is another Monster of the Midway I think was even better.

Jersey Number: 50

Years With Bears: 12

Accolades With Bears

  • 10x Pro Bowls
  • 7x All-Pro Teams
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1998
  • Super Bowl Champion, 1985
  • 1985 Defensive Player of the Year
  • 1988 Defensive Player of the Year

Stats With Bears

  • 179 games
  • 19 sacks
  • 7 interceptions for 44 yards
  • 12 fumbles recovered

1. Dick Butkus (19651973)

Butkus was a one-man wrecking machineone of the most terrifying forces the NFL had ever seen. Though he weighed in at close to 250 pounds and hit like a freight train, he had the speed to range from sideline to sideline, drop back into pass coverage and run down opposing backs. He started 119 games while earning five All-Pro nominations and making eight straight Pro Bowls.

Dick Butkus set the standard at middle linebacker for decades to come, and his blood-and-guts style of play reflected the personality of his team. He was not only the best Bears linebacker of all time, but he just may have been the greatest ever to play the position.

He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the Class of 1979.

Jersey Number: 51

Years With Bears: 9

Accolades With Bears

  • 8x Pro Bowls
  • 5x All-Pro Teams
  • Pro Football Hall of Fame, Class of 1979

Stats With Bears

  • 119 games
  • 22 interceptions for 166 yards

Honorable Mentions

Here are a few Bears that made their mark with the team but missed the top 10.

Clyde Turner (19401952)

Bulldog Turner was an outstanding offensive lineman, but he served as a formidable linebacker on defense. He played in 138 games with the Bears over 13 seasons. Turner made four Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams on the way to four NFL Championships. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1966.

George Connor (19481955)

Connor played defensive tackle early in his career but shifted to linebacker for his last two seasons. He made four Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams during his eight-year career while intercepting seven passes and recovering 10 fumbles. Connor was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1975.

Roquan Smith (2018Present)

Smith was the Bears first-round draft pick back in 2018. Hes played well over his first two seasons but has yet to live up to the lofty expectations the Bears held for him. Much is expected of Smith, and he has a long career ahead of him. During his first two seasons, he started in 26 games, intercepted two passes, and racked up seven sacks.

best-chicago-bears-linebackers-all-time
Roquan Smith has a ton of potential. Will he live up to the hype?© JAMIE GERMANO/ROCHESTER DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE

Who Is the Best Bears Middle Linebacker of All Time?

Dick Butkus is the greatest Bears linebacker of all time. He was the ultimate intimidator who owned the middle of the field. Butkus was big, mean and tough, and he set the standard for the modern middle linebacker.

However, it was difficult to arrange the top four spots for this ranking of the best Bears linebackers. Butkus was feared more than any other Bear in history, but Bill George was a legend in his own right. Mike Singletary was probably the smartest of the bunch, and Brian Urlacher was the most athletic. All are Hall of Famers, and they well deserve it.

Bears Linebackers in the Hall of Fame

Player
Number
Years With Bears
HOF Class

Bill George

61

1952-–965

1974

Brian Urlacher

54

2000–2012

2018

Clyde Turner

66

1940–1952

1966

Dick Butkus

51

1965–1973

1979

George Connor

81, 71

1948–1955

1975

Mike Singletary

50

1981–1992

1998

The Monsters of the Midway

You may have noticed something interesting about the players on this listthey come in pairs. Every great middle linebacker had a great outside linebacker lined up beside him.

  • Bill George had Joe Fortunato. The pair appeared in two Championship games and won one.
  • Dick Butkus had Doug Buffone, who lined up next to him every game for seven consecutive seasons.
  • Mike Singletary had Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson. All three were members of the 85 Bears, a team that not only won Chicagos only Super Bowl but fielded one of the greatest NFL defenses of all time.
  • Brian Urlacher had Lance Briggs. They made it to the Super Bowl after the 2006 season but lost to Peyton Manning and a powerful Colts offense.

What does that mean? I think it means that football is a team game, and no one player does it alone. Would these guys have been great by themselves? Maybe. But there's no doubt that they were better together.

THANKS FOR READING BEAR DIGEST
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