1. Charles Tillman
Would Peanut Tillman be a two-time Pro Bowler and considered the greatest cornerback in Bears history if not for Smith? My bet is no. Tillman is not — nor has he ever been — one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league. He’s done a good job throughout the years with big, physical receivers, but he’s been torched by the smaller, quicker ones. Tillman’s Pro Bowl accolades and his place in Bears history are a direct result of Smith’s scheme and philosophy. From Day 1, Smith had preached to his team the importance of takeaways. The first defender to the ball carrier was to wrap him up, the second, third, and fourth guys were to go for the strip. Tillman took that philosophy to a whole other level and became the “King of the Ball Punch” by forcing 39 fumbles throughout his career. Tillman also holds the Bears record for most defensive touchdowns, a benefit from playing on a defense focused on scoring off takeaways.
2. Lance Briggs
I have no doubts that Briggs would have been a solid player, probably a multiple Pro Bowl performer, even if he had not played for Smith throughout his career. But there is no doubt that Briggs’ statistics and acclaim would not be as high today without having played in Smith’s Cover 2 defense. The scheme is designed to funnel all the action toward Briggs’ side of the field which allows him to be in on most plays. It’s the same system that made Derrick Brooks such a phenomenal player in Tampa Bay. It’s also the same system that allowed Jamar Williams to record 19 tackles in a single game while filling in for an injured Briggs in 2009.
3. Devin Hester
You could make an argument that it is actually Dave Toub who is most responsible for Hester’s success in the NFL, but Toub’s special teams fall under Smith’s umbrella of responsibility. Plus, Smith took on a mentor-type role for Hester and helped guide him through rough waters throughout his career. This helps explain why Hester took the news of Smith’s firing pretty hard and said he was contemplating retirement. If not for Smith creating the opportunity for Toub and the Bears special teams to take shape in 2006 and 2007, Hester most certainly would not have been the record-breaking return man he has become, and he definitely would not be considered a potential Hall of Fame candidate that many think he’ll be when his career is over.
4. Brian Urlacher
Urlacher, like Briggs, would have gone on to have a successful career if not working under Smith for the past nine years, but his career was probably amplified by the scheme in which he played. Urlacher was a pretty good player under Dick Jauron, but his career took off when Smith took the reigns of the team. After an injury-shortened 2004 — Smith’s first year on the job — Urlacher was voted as the NFL’s most overrated player. The following season, aided by Smith’s defense, Urlacher went on to become NFL Defensive Player of the Year — just as Smith was being named NFL Coach of the Year. Smith and Urlacher turned out to be a wonderful professional marriage because Smith’s defense required an athletic middle linebacker who could cover the deep middle of the field. Urlacher played that role better than any in the league thanks to his athleticism and it led to many takeaways and game-changing plays.
5. Henry Melton
How does a player go from a converted college running back taken in the fourth round of the draft, to being on IR his rookie season, to defensive end at the start of his career, and finally to a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in his fourth year? By playing in Lovie Smith’s defense, that’s how. Smith’s scheme calls for a strong pass rush from the front four, specifically from the three-technique defensive tackle who can penetrate the gap quickly and pressure the quarterback up the middle. Had Melton remained a defensive end — as he probably would have on some other team — it would not be likely he would have flashed enough potential as an edge rusher to compete with some of the better players in the league.
6. Tim Jennings
Jennings was not the most productive player for the Indianapolis Colts at the beginning of his career, nor did he make much of an impact when he came to the Bears. At 5-8, he’s incredibly short and doesn’t match up well with tall receivers — or even average-sized ones. Jennings is not a good cover cornerback and would be extremely vulnerable in man coverage. Prior to this season, Smith challenged Jennings to be more of a playmaker and record more takeaways. Thanks to Smith’s challenge — as well as Smith’s defensive scheme — Jennings worked hard in the offseason and went on to lead the NFL with 9 interceptions this year. He subsequently led all NFC cornerbacks in fan voting on his way to a Pro Bowl selection.
7. Israel Idonije
Some can make the case that when the Bears flip-flopped Idonije between defensive tackle and defensive end for the first few years of his time with the team, it actually stunted his growth and development as a player. I would argue the opposite. I think Idonije’s versatility and ability to play well at multiple weight levels served Smith’s system and thus benefited Idonije by giving him more playing time than he might have found elsewhere. Idonije was never a spectacular defensive player, but he was a dynamic special teamer and a solid contributor along the defensive line.