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Unsung Graham among 10 Bears with Pro Bowl-worthy resumes

CHICAGO IL - AUGUST 13:  Dom DeCicco #58 Chicago Bears awaits start play against Buffalo Bills during preseasgame Soldier

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 13: Dom DeCicco #58 of the Chicago Bears awaits the start of play against the Buffalo Bills during a preseason game at Soldier Field on August 13, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Bills 10-3. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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Updated: December 17, 2011 8:40AM



Corey Graham’s interception in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Lions was relatively inconsequential at the end of a blowout victory, but it was huge for Graham. He could use the pub.

Though he’s the ace on one of the most high-profile special- teams units in the NFL, Graham still struggles to escape the massive shadow of Devin Hester. Graham made a momentum-turning play against the Eagles on Nov. 7, when he not only initiated the tackle on DeSean Jackson on an Adam Podlesh punt late in the first half, but forced a fumble that Sam Hurd recovered.

The Bears were on tilt after the Eagles turned Matt Forte’s fumble into a game-tying touchdown, then forced the Bears to punt. But after the turnover, Marion Barber scored to give the Bears a 17-10 halftime lead.

‘‘That was huge,’’ Bears special- teams coordinator Dave Toub said. ‘‘Corey Graham is playing at a Pro Bowl level. He’s near the top [of] the whole league in tackles right now. He’s [one of our leaders] in tackles, playing the gunner position. It’s hard for those guys to get recognition sometimes.’’

Ain’t that the truth. The official play-by-play credited Zack Bowman — the second man in — with the forced fumble. And the Bears’ statistics didn’t even give Graham the tackle.

That’s no way to make the Pro Bowl. But after Graham was snubbed despite 25 tackles on one of the NFL’s best special-teams units last year, Toub is determined to get him there this season.

‘‘That’s been bothering me,’’ Toub said. ‘‘Last year, he was by far, in my opinion, the best special- teams player in the NFC. This year, he’s playing at that same level, if not [higher].’’

Graham has 12 special-teams tackles this season. But there aren’t many numbers to quantify his contribution.

‘‘All I can tell you is what he means to us in the [meeting] room and on the practice field,’’ Toub said. ‘‘He lifts everybody up and coaches them. He’s a leader for us.’’

With the Bears on a four-game winning streak, they have a chance to create a wave that can carry not only Graham but several teammates into the Pro Bowl. Here’s a look at their top 10 candidates with seven games to play:

1. Hester, KR: Lions Hall of Famer Jack Christiansen has the highest season punt-return average of 21.5 yards on 16 returns. Hester is averaging 20.8 on his last 41.

2. Forte, RB: Could be the Bears’ first skill-position offensive player in the Pro Bowl since Marty Booker (2002) and the first running back since Neal Anderson (1991).

3. Brian Urlacher, LB: With 3 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries — one for a touchdown — 5 tackles for loss and 4 pass breakups (all in the last 3 games), he’s well on his way to his eighth Pro Bowl.

4. Julius Peppers, DE: Last year, he was the first DE to be named All-Pro without double-digit sacks (8). He has 6 in 2011 — 4 in his last 4 games.

5. Lance Briggs, LB: Six-time Pro Bowler is on pace for a team-leading 148 tackles — his highest total since 2006.

6. Graham, ST: Leader of the Bears’ special-teams unit that ranks first in the NFL in punt coverage, first in punt returns and 11th in kickoff coverage.

7. Charles Tillman, CB: Picks get corners to the Pro Bowl, but he’s playing as well as ever at 30. On a pace for career highs in tackles (108) and pass breakups (20).

8. Robbie Gould, PK — He has made 20 of 22 field goals, including 3-for-3 from 50 yards or longer.

9. Tim Jennings, CB — An undersized but physical corner in the mold of Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield, Jennings has been overlooked all season.

10. Patrick Mannelly, LS — Hard to believe he has been the league’s top long snapper for years and never has been picked to the Pro Bowl.



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