Chicago Bears Countdown to Kickoff: 35 Days with Neal Anderson

Chicago Bears, Neal Anderson
Chicago Bears, Neal Anderson / Peter Brouillet-USA TODAY Sports
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Chicago Bears, Neal Anderson
Chicago Bears, Neal Anderson / Manny Rubio-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Bears add Neal Anderson with final pick in the first round

At the conclusion of his final collegiate season, Anderson declared for the 1986 NFL Draft. After their Super Bowl-winning season the year prior, the Chicago Bears held the 27th and final pick of the first round, which they were able to use to select Anderson. With legendary running back Walter Payton entering his 12th professional season, the Bears and head coach Mike Ditka's plan included having Anderson sit behind Sweetness until the latter retired, and then hand the keys to the running back room over to the productive Florida native.

Mirroring his college career, Anderson spent his first season primarily as a backup and appeared in 14 games. In limited action, the back logged 226 total yards and had an impressive 4.2 yards per attempt average throughout the year. He finished the season as an All-Rookie nomination for his contributions on special teams, but it became evident in even a small sample size that he had the talent to transition to the NFL.

Despite thoughts that Payton would retire before the 1987 season, Sweetness elected to play one more season in Chicago. Correspondingly, to get their first-round pick on the field more, the Bears elected to have Anderson split the backfield with the Super Bowl champion, with the Florida product serving more as a full-back for Payton. Despite being played a little bit out of position, Anderson had a solid second professional season and upped his rushing total to over 500 yards on the year. With three touchdowns on the ground as well, Anderson effectively matched his receiving totals to that on the ground, and he finished the year with over 1,000 total yards and six offensive touchdowns.

Before the 1988 season, Payton officially retired from the NFL, leaving Chicago as the franchise's all-time leading rusher. Subsequently, Anderson was given the reins of the offensive backfield, and while it is impossible to live up to a player like Sweetness's abilities, the former 27th overall pick made a name for himself as a dominant rusher for the Bears.

In his first season as the team's starting running back, Anderson recorded over 1,000 yards on the ground and carried a 4.4 yards per attempt average throughout the year. He finished the year with 12 total touchdowns, including an 80-yard scamper on the ground that finished as the longest rushing play in the NFL for the season. As a reward for his efforts, Anderson was nominated to his first Pro Bowl at the end f the year.

His second season of starting was perhaps even stronger, and Anderson finished the year with over 1,700 total offensive yards and 15 touchdowns across 16 games. Anderson was voted to another Pro Bowl, and across the NFL, the back finished within the top four in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage, and total offensive touchdowns.

The following season, Anderson was forced to miss a game down the stretch due to an injury, but he was able to maintain his reputation as one of the league's best all-purpose backs. In 15 games, his 1,562 total yards and 13 touchdowns were strong enough for a third consecutive Pro Bowl nod as well as his first All-Pro selection. Unfortunately, during the ensuing offseason, Anderson's focus was taken away from the NFL after an unforeseen tragic family incident that the Chicago Bears star had no part in, but nonetheless, it was a topic of conversation up until the start of the season.

Despite distractions up to and throughout his fourth season as a starter, Anderson continued to dominate on the gridiron and made the Pro Bowl for a fourth consecutive season after totaling over 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns in just 13 games.