Who will be the next Bears player elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
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CANTON, Ohio — Whether -Brian Urlacher made a prediction or practiced wishful thinking won’t be clear for years. On Saturday night, the Bears’ latest Pro Football Hall of Famer said fellow linebacker Lance Briggs will join him someday.
“He elevated not only my game but the entire defense — his enthusiasm was contagious,” Urlacher said in his induction speech before addressing his friend. “We’ll be back here in a couple years for your induction, ‘Big Time.’ ”
As former Bears headed home from the franchise’s most successful weekend in years, attention turned to a popular parlor game: Now that Urlacher is in, who will be the team’s 29th Hall of Famer?
Ask Urlacher, and he lists four players: Briggs, cornerback Charles Tillman, center Olin Kreutz and defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers is a lock to make the Hall, but it likely won’t be as a Bear. He spent his first eight years with the Panthers and is in the second year of his second tour with them. He wore a Panthers polo shirt to the enshrinement ceremony.
Present the same question to chairman George McCaskey, and he expands the candidate list. In addition to Briggs and return man extraordinaire Devin Hester, he listed Jim Covert, the Bears’ two-time All-Pro tackle from 1983 to ’91; Jay Hilgenberg, the team’s seven-time Pro Bowl center from 1981 to ’91; Rick Casares, a five-time Pro Bowl fullback from 1955 to ’64; Steve -McMichael, the Bears’ star defensive tackle and outsized personality from 1981 to ’93; and Harlon Hill, the Bears’ second-leading all-time receiver who played from 1954 to ’61.
There are different paths for modern players and senior players. Modern players aren’t eligible until they’ve spent five consecutive seasons without appearing on a -regular-season or postseason -roster.
Anyone can nominate a Hall of Fame candidate. The modern player list is whittled to 25 — plus ties — by the Hall’s 48-person -selection committee in November. The committee condenses the list to 15 modern semifinalists in January. The day before the Super Bowl, it can vote for up to five inductees, with each needing 80 percent of the vote to win.
The senior semifinalists — those who have been inactive for 25-plus years — are picked by a special nine-person committee before they’re put up for a vote by the full selection committee the day before the Super Bowl. In alternating years, the committee can elect either one or two seniors, with the same 80 percent vote needed for inclusion.
Urlacher and former Bears coach Lovie Smith are admittedly biased about Briggs, who won’t be eligible for enshrinement until 2020. Briggs went to seven Pro Bowls — only one fewer than Urlacher — during a Bears career that ran from 2003 to ’14. Like Urlacher, he played in one Super Bowl and lost.
“I pride myself on knowing a little bit about linebacker play,” Smith said. “Lance was an excellent linebacker.”
Urlacher said that Briggs might have been overlooked as a player. He was asked whether his fellow linebacker was considered, in some respect, the Scottie Pippen to Urlacher’s Michael Jordan.
“Unfairly, yeah, maybe,” Urlacher, who did not participate in the Hall of Fame -Enshrinees’ Roundtable on Sunday, said Friday. “But I feel like I got that, too, playing next to him sometimes. Lance is a bad dude. He made so many plays that he shouldn’t have made, that guys who — if they were out of position or not — weren’t supposed to make the plays that he made. He did things that normal guys wouldn’t do.
“He might not have had many picks and stuff like that, but the guy was always around the football. He was one of the best tacklers I’ve ever played with, if not the best. His instincts are unmatched by -anybody.”
Hester, who won’t be eligible until 2021, hasn’t been shy about his desire to join the game’s greats. When he retired, he said he hoped to see his coaches, teammates and fans soon in Canton.
His 14 punt-return touchdowns are the most in NFL history — all but one was -accomplished with the Bears from 2006 to ’13. No one alive boasts more than his 20 non-offensive touchdowns — on punts, kickoffs and even a missed field goal.
“Arguably one of the greatest return men to ever play the game,” Tillman said. “Hopefully, it’s Devin.”
Similarly, Tillman, who made only two Pro Bowls with the Bears from 2003 to ’14, could argue that he changed the game with his trademark “Peanut Punch.” Tillman said he doesn’t lobby for himself.
“We’ll see,” Tillman said.
The Bears already have more Hall of Famers than any other franchise — one out of every 11 enshrinees. McCaskey said they need more.
“We’ve got a little backlog of Bears that deserve to go into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “Hopefully, the selectors will do the right thing.”