Since 1977, the Chicago Bears have had either feast or famine at the defensive end position. The early 1980′s produced two Hall of Fame players in Richard Dent and Dan Hampton (who switched back and forth between tackle and end). But at times the team struggled to find a pass rush or a single decent end, as we will see.
(Please note in these articles, the “interesting mention” players are not considered top at the position, just an interesting side note to the discussion. We are also not considering Hall of Fame players, as they are obviously the best to play the position in the history of the league. We realize it might be interesting to include Dent and Hampton to compare their merits, but since the rest of the series excludes Hall of Famers, we’re doing that here as well.)
Interesting mention: In 1979 the Bears drafted not one, but two defensive ends in the first round. The previous two seasons the position had been manned by Mike Hartenstine and Tommy Hart, and GM Jim Finks obviously thought the position needed an overhaul. With the fourth overall pick the Bears drafted a legend in Hampton, and ninth overall took Al Harris. Harris would start his career as a DE, move to LB, then back to DE. In the eighth round of the 1983 draft they landed a hidden gem in Dent, who will not be considered here because he’s a Hall of Famer. At the end of Dent and Hampton’s careers, Chicago first selected Trace Armstrong, who was a heck of a player. But Dave Wannstedt’s goal of replacing the legend’s production with the combination of Alonzo Spellman (drafted by Ditka) and John Thierry was a joke. When those two didn’t work out, the Bears embarked upon a six-year stretch of playing a linebacker at RDE on passing downs (Bryan Cox, then Roosevelt Colvin). Cox was a bust, Colvin was a hit until he was lost to free agency. More failed experiments at the position occurred until the 2004 trade for Adewale Ogunleye, who was a solid player until a monster in Julius Peppers was acquired prior to the 2010 season.
Candidates: Trace Armstrong (1989-1994); Alex Brown (2002-2009); Phillip Daniels (2000-2003); Al Harris (1979-1984; 1986-1988); Mike Hartenstine (1975-1986); Adewale Ogunleye (2004-2009); Julius Peppers (2010-present)
How would one approach this particular ranking? This could be analyzed several different ways. Hartenstine was a longtime Bear, eleven years played. But his sacks per game ratio is pretty low. Then you have Julius Peppers, a potential Hall of Famer, who has only played one season for the team as of this writing. The way we have approached this is based on career statistics, considering games started and number of sacks.
First up is the aforementioned Harris, the 1979 first-rounder with Hampton. Granted, Harris moved to outside linebacker in 1984 and had his best success there. But we’ll add him here since he started and finished his career as a defensive end. Harris, of course, is best remembered for being one of two holdout players that missed playing for the Super Bowl 20 champions. But it should be remembered also for his sake that he kept rookie phenom Wilber Marshall out of the lineup in ’84, when he had his best season. Harris started 67 games for the Bears at both DE and LB and finished with 18.5 sacks in his Bears career.
Next is Phillip Daniels, who played for the Bears from 2000-2003. Daniels was the first player targeted and signed by Mark Hatley in his overnight spending spree in 2000 that also included cornerback Thomas Smith and safety Shaun Wooden. Daniels never quite lived up to the five-year, $22 million contract he was awarded. After he registered nine sacks for the Seattle Seahawks in 1999, Daniels was the most sought-after pass rusher in his free agent class. Problem was, he never became the pass rusher and was always more solid against the run. Which does not earn ends the type of contract Daniels received from the Bears. But he did become a decent piece to a solid defense in the Bear’s 2001 playoff run. He started 59 games for the Bears over his four seasons and registered 23 sacks.
Our fifth-ranked end is longtime strong man Mike Hartenstine. He was selected as the second-round pick after Walter Payton in the 1975 draft. Not a very flashy player, but extremely dependable. Hartenstine started mainly at left defensive end from his rookie season until Hampton was moved to end to accommodate rookie William Perry at tackle in 1985. He started 125 games in his Bears career, finishing with 24 sacks.
Alex Brown is next up. Brown was selected by the Bears in the fourth round of the 2002 draft from Florida. Prior to the draft, experts thought that he had first-round talent, but a fourth-round work ethic, having been known for taking plays off. Usually the guys one years about taking plays off turn out to be bad guys, out of the league within a year or two. But from the very beginning with Chicago, Brown was a hard worker, hustler, and overachiever. Before the slightly more talented (in our opinion) Adewale Ogunleye came along, Brown was the best defensive end to play or the Bears since the late 1980′s. But following the 2009 season, the organization felt he truly was not much more than an overachiever, and released him. The popular Bear started 107 games in eight years for the team and sacked opposing quarterbacks 43.5 times. In 2010 he started 16 games for the New Orleans Saints but only registered two sacks.
Third is our ranking was a player the Bears acquired via a significant trade, in an era lacking many significant trades compared to the past. During the 2004 offseason, Adewale Ogunleye was a holdout in Miami following a 15-sack season across from perennial all-pro Jason Taylor. Unbelievably for Bears fans, GM Jerry Angelo worked a deal to steal Ogunleye away from Miami boss Wannstedt for a third-round pick and receiver Marty Booker. Ogunleye was injured for much of the 2004 campaign, but became the type of pass-rushing threat the Bears had lacked since Dent, Hampton and Armstrong more than 15 years previous. Ogunleye played out the lucrative six-year contract he was given by the Bears, but seemed to be out of gas his final season. He finished his Bears career with 42 sacks in 87 starts. He did not play for another team in 2010.
Interestingly, the second-ranked defensive end on our list has the exact stats as Ogunleye and also had a Miami connection. Trace Armstrong also started exactly 87 games with Chicago and tallied 42 sacks. Armstrong was selected in the first round of the 1989 draft. He was named to the all-rookie team and by his second season was regarded as one of the top young ends in the league. Armstrong was a consummate professional in the league, and in 1993 he notched 11.5 sacks across from Dent, who registered 12.5 and made the Pro Bowl. But in 1994 his sack total slipped to 7.5 as Wannstedt worked his rookie first-rounder (Thierry) into the rotation. After that year it was clear that the coach wanted “his guys” on the field, and this didn’t include Armstrong. So prior to the 1995 draft, Wannstedt shipped Armstrong to the Miami Dolphins for second and third-round draft picks. The picks? Punter Todd Sauerbrun and guard Evan Pilgrim, who played scant downs in his three-year career for the Bears. Thierry? 28 games started, 12.5 sacks. Armstrong? Went on to play 9 more seasons after his six with the Bears, including a Pro Bowl appearance with 16.5 sacks in 2000. Finished his overall career with 129 starts and 106 sacks. Pretty impressive.
It may be controversial for some to see us name Julius Peppers as the best Chicago Bears defensive end other than Dent and Hampton since 1977, because he has one year with the team and 8 sacks. But in our opinion, Peppers’ physical skills that focused opposing offenses on him so much to cause a complete rebound for the Bears defense are what makes him the most scary DE for opposing teams the Bears have fielded, other than Dent and Hampton. Peppers has started 136 games and registered 89 sacks in his career.