The Bears have fielded solid or all-time great defenses in three different eras since 1977, but surprisingly the list of the greatest cornerbacks is quite short. Again this shocks me when I look at it, but it would be a difficult argument to add anyone to this list, in my opinion.
(Please note in these articles, the “interesting mention” players are not considered top at the position, just an interesting side note to the discussion).
Interesting mention: Following the too-early demise of Donnell Woolford and the failure of first round pick Walt Harris to become an elite player, the Bears had to try to buy their cornerbacks with disasterous results. The first signing to replace Woolford was former Redskin first-rounder Tom Carter. I have read that Washington coach Norv Turner was only too happy to see former colleague Dave Wannstedt sign the bust to a blockbuster deal prior to the 1997 season. Carter would finally be released by Bears personnel boss Mark Hatley in the third year of that five year agreement. My most notable memory of Carter? Of him falling down while covering Randall Hill of the Saints, allowing an 89-yard touchdown reception from the “great” Heath Schuler in the 1997 loss. Then prior to the 2000 season, Hatley broke the bank, signing Bills corner Thomas Smith to a $22 million contract. The knock on Smith was that he couldn’t intercept the ball: he had 6 in seven seasons in Buffalo. Apparently he couldn’t cover either; new Bears GM Jerry Angelo released him before he played a down of his second season on the five-year deal. Finally, who could forget Lemuel “Lemon Head” Stinson. 1990 was Stinson’s first season as a starter opposite Woolford, the young star in the making. That year he made predictions that he would lead the league in interceptions and that he would pick off two versus Andre Rison of the Falcons. He indeed took two away in that game, and was among the NFL leaders in picks with 6 in the tenth game of that season. Then he tore up his knee at Denver, and was never the same in his two remaining years in Chicago.
Candidates: Allan Ellis (1973-1980); Leslie Frazier (1981-1985); Charles Tillman (2003-present); Donnell Woolford (1989-1996)
This position is very hard to evaluate statistically given that I do not have access to tackles. These picks are going to be based on interceptions, Pro Bowl appearances, and my personal observations. Perhaps my gut feeling will be controversial, but I can only share my opinions.
Frazier comes in at fourth. As solid a cornerback as he was in his short career, that is exactly what places him at the bottom of this list. Picked up as a free agent by the Bears in 1981, it was thought that the team’s best cornerback was just hitting his prime in 1985. That season Frazier made six interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. But as we all remember, Frazier was inserted to take a reverse handoff on an ill-fated trick kickoff return play, and injured his knee horribly. He never played football again, but in 2011 (if there is a season) he will be the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
Allan Ellis is our pick for third best Bears cornerback since 1977. Ellis was a fifth-round pick of the Bears in the 1973 draft, during a very dark time in Bears history. He became an every-game starter the following season, and was known as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks by 1977, when he intercepted 6 passes and made his first Pro Bowl. Prior to the 1978 season, Ellis injured his knee and leg bone in a freak collision in practice and would miss the entire season as well as part of the 1979 campaign. He came back to start all 16 games in 1980, but intercepted only one pass.
Donnell Woolford is our pick at second best. He was the 11th player selected overall in the 1989 draft, the second corner taken after Deion Sanders. Pressed to start right away, Woolford was generally solid until head coach Mike Ditka proclaimed the rookie “couldn’t corner anyone” late in the season. Unshaken, Woolford rebounded to become one of the league’s top cover corners from 1990-1994. He made his first and only Pro Bowl appearance following the 1993 season. Then in 1995, nagging injuries started to take their toll, and the team’s top defender was sidelined through a stretch of games that saw the Bears’ 6-2 start erode into a 9-7 finish. Following a 1996 season when he rebounded, Woolford was replaced by Tom Carter. He would play one more unremarkable season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The selection may be controversial due to his lack of flashy stats, but we think current player Charles Tillman is the best Chicago Bears cornerback since 1977. His stats might not be great among the NFL elite, but he still has intercepted 27 passes in his eight seasons. He is routinely mentioned as a guy deserving of Pro Bowl accolades on a yearly basis, but has always been nudged out by a player with better numbers. While he has been frequently affected by nagging injuries, since 2005 Tillman has missed only six games. He has averaged almost three forced fumbles per season through his career, usually in key situations it seems. Hopefully Tillman isn’t on the down side of his career despite all the injuries and games played. In 2010, Tillman actually nabbed more interceptions (5) than he had since the 2005-2006 seasons. He remains signed through 2012.