The NFL's 53 Most Likely Future Hall of Fame Players
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We are getting closer to the 2012 Hall of Fame weekend, with the ceremony for new enshrinees on August 4.
In the NFL’s dead zone of early July, there is no better time to look at the active players that will one day enter Canton, establishing themselves as one of the best to ever play the game.
Looking at my research, in the 1960s when the AFL started and we had two leagues, an average of 61.9 active players eventually made it to the Hall of Fame.
After the merger in 1970, that average was 61.2 for the 1970s. It still may increase, as old players and senior candidates continue to be inducted.
Difficult to say whether or not the standards for enshrinement have increased, but chances are at least 50 active players (and perhaps up to 75) will one day be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Who is most likely to be there?
We will take a position-by-position look at those 53 players. Many were no-brainers, but some required a bold prediction at this stage of their careers.
If you think your guy was snubbed, then that’s too bad. In choosing 53 players, some worthy players will be left out.
Note: Only players on a 2012 NFL roster were considered. Recently retired players like LaDainian Tomlinson, Hines Ward, Brian Dawkins, Olin Kreutz and Jason Taylor were not considered.
You know which two have been long-time locks for the Hall of Fame.
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This one became a lock around the 2004 season when Manning won a consecutive MVP award and rewrote several passing records. Since then, he has collected a record four MVP awards and is widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
2. Tom Brady
For the last decade “Manning vs. Brady” has dominated the quarterback discussion in the NFL. After winning three Super Bowls in his first four years as a starter, Brady later started to pile on the stats, records and two MVP awards. He has been a first-ballot lock since his 2007 season.
3. Drew Brees
Brees has to be a lock after his 2011 season, where he set numerous passing records, including the most passing yards in a season (5,476), highest completion percentage (71.23 percent) and 13 games with at least 300 yards passing. He also has his ring and Super Bowl MVP. Now he just needs a big, new contract.
Last year I wrote how Roethlisberger was well on his way to Canton. Even if 2011 was in his bottom three seasons, he still helped his cause with 4,077 yards in another playoff season.
As long as he stays healthy (and lives a happily married life off the field), Roethlisberger will finish with big-time career numbers to go along with all the success (wins and Super Bowls).
After four seasons as a starter, Rodgers is well on his way already. He has the ring and Super Bowl MVP, he has the big numbers and last season he turned in one of the best quarterback seasons ever to win his first MVP award.
Basically, he is four strong years away from matching or possibly exceeding the incredible run Steve Young had in San Francisco from 1991 to 1998, which is why Young is in Canton.
6. Eli Manning
This was not a name I would have expected to put here before last season, but Manning had a career year in 2011 as he carried a subpar team to the playoffs, and then played the best football of his career in the postseason to win another Super Bowl.
All the eligible quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl wins are in except Jim Plunkett, but Eli is well ahead of him already. He never misses a start, so he is in good shape to finish with well over 50,000 yards and 300 touchdown passes. He may even break the record for fourth-quarter comebacks some day.
Manning does not have the same type of efficiency numbers as the other five quarterbacks, but he has a chance to get better in that department. This will only be his ninth season.
Remember, it was not until his 11th season when John Elway finally cracked the top 10 in passer rating for a season.
That was quite a draft class of quarterbacks in 2004, with the first three taken each having good resumes for Canton.
Rivers seemed like an easy choice after five seasons of really strong play from 2006 to 2010. But last year Rivers, who was shaky at times in 2010, found himself in a funk unlike any in his career. He threw 20 interceptions, and the Chargers missed the playoffs for the second straight year.
He should bounce back, as he is too talented to fall apart now.
Think of Rivers as the new Dan Fouts, Warren Moon, or Sonny Jurgensen type of Hall of Fame quarterback. His goals are probably higher, such as bringing San Diego their first Super Bowl, and time is on his side.
A return to form in 2012 is the first step back to Rivers’ path to Canton.
Basically, this picture I used last season sums up the group. There are six guys with a ring, and Rivers angrily awaiting his chance.
This is also an interesting group, as the league has never had so many elite quarterbacks still near the prime of their career and with at least one Super Bowl ring in their possession.
Is it reasonable that a quarter of the league could have a Hall of Fame quarterback?
Of course. Quarterback is the most important position, and that has never been truer than in this current era.
Not to mention it has happened before. When Troy Aikman entered the league in 1989, we had seven future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the league (the rest were Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly and Steve Young).
Add in Favre (drafted in 1991), and up until the 1994 season, we had eight active Hall of Fame quarterbacks. So a number like seven-to-nine is no big deal.
The more emphasis put on the position, the more first-round picks used on quarterbacks, and this number may be even higher.
Running Backs (1)
Peterson must overcome much adversity to return to path to Canton.
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While it has not been a good week for Peterson, he is still clearly the head of the class of today’s running backs. Coming off an arrest and season-ending knee injury, Peterson (27 years old) has a lot of adversity to overcome this season.
To this point, Peterson has rushed for 6,752 yards and 64 touchdowns in 73 games. His average of 92.5 rushing yards per game ranks fourth all time. Through five seasons, his numbers stack up incredibly well to those of Barry Sanders.
Peterson’s first five seasons: 73 games, 1,406 carries for 6,752 yards, 4.80 YPC, 64 rushing touchdowns.
Sanders’ first five seasons: 73 games, 1,432 carries for 6,789 yards, 4.74 YPC, 55 rushing touchdowns.
Sanders also had 29 more receptions for 190 more yards and two more receiving touchdowns than Peterson.
Sanders also injured his knee in 1993 but returned to rush for 1,883 yards in 1994.
It remains to be seen how Peterson recovers from his torn ACL/MCL, not to mention what is going on in his personal life right now.
But if it all goes according to plan, Peterson will return as Minnesota’s workhorse for several more years and will have held that distinction as being the best running back in the game for an extended period of time.
Besides, we are going to need at least one back from this era in Canton.
Could it be that we only have one future Hall of Fame running back in the league? That says a lot about where the position has headed in recent years as teams look to develop their tight end and secondary receivers in the passing game.
The days of the workhorse back may be over, which may have to make voters reconsider the standards for a Hall of Fame running back in this era.
Only Maurice Jones-Drew (343) and Michael Turner (301) exceeded 300 carries in 2011.
I originally had Jones-Drew on the list, but I do not feel he will finish his career as well as he started it. That is even with a limited number of carries his first three seasons as he split time with Fred Taylor. If he doubled his six-season production, he would have 13,708 rushing yards and 124 rushing touchdowns.
Those sound like Hall of Fame numbers, though he has a long way to go to get there. Playing in such a bad passing offense actually helps his yardage (how many people realize he won the 2011 rushing title?), but he will be almost forgotten if Jacksonville does not improve their quarterback play and get back to the playoffs.
Steven Jackson and Frank Gore run it really well in the NFC West, but they do not have the All-Pros and big touchdown numbers.
Chris Johnson was an elite back but really fell off the map last season after his long holdout. If he can recover to his past form, he may have a chance some day.
Honestly, the best bet for a Hall of Fame running back recently retired, and that was LaDainian Tomlinson. Perhaps Jerome Bettis will be the next one inducted into Canton (after Curtis Martin officially enters in August), but you can bet Tomlinson will be a first-ballot choice.
All the other active backs first have to reach the tier of players like Edgerrin James, Shaun Alexander, Tiki Barber, Corey Dillon, Ricky Watters, Eddie George, Jamal Lewis, Fred Taylor, Warrick Dunn and Priest Holmes.
Glory at the running back position fades fast. Just ask Clinton Portis or Ahman Green.
None of the last 12 players mentioned are likely going to the Hall of Fame either.
Wide Receivers (9)
Larry Fitzgerald nearing lock-status.
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1. Randy Moss
While the wide receiver logjam is a disaster for Hall of Fame voters, Moss should present a no-brainer case one day as a first-ballot choice.
Yes, he has had some issues with effort in the past. But no one in his era was a more dangerous threat down the field than Moss. He has 153 receiving touchdowns, which alone should get him selected. Moss had a record 23 touchdown catches in 2007.
Moss’ 14,858 receiving yards rank fifth all time, and if he’s as good as advertised in San Francisco this year (and beyond?), then he should have little problem retiring in second place to Jerry Rice.
With such great hands and route-running, Fitzgerald just produces year after year, no matter who Arizona puts at quarterback. He has gone over 1,400 yards receiving in four different seasons and already has 9,615 yards. He has been selected to five straight Pro Bowls.
He’ll be 29 at the end of August, but there’s little in the way to prevent Fitzgerald from breaking 15,000 yards and 100 touchdowns before he retires. He has as good a chance as any wide receiver to become the second ever with 1,200 receptions.
3. Reggie Wayne
This one is probably a much safer pick if Peyton Manning never goes through the neck operations, but Wayne has been consistently great for a long time in Indianapolis.
He had a streak of seven consecutive seasons with over 1,000 receiving yards barely snapped last year with a bad quarterback situation (960 yards). Andrew Luck should find Wayne a reliable target the next few years.
Wayne has 862 receptions (T-15th) for 11,708 yards (22nd), and 73 touchdowns (T-30th). He has also been very prolific in the postseason with 83 receptions, 1,128 yards, and nine touchdowns.
Hitting certain milestones (1,000 receptions, 13,000 yards, 90 touchdowns) would definitely help Wayne’s case, as would succeeding with Luck at quarterback to prove that it was more than just Manning.
Something to consider: Peyton Manning statistically had a higher completion percentage (64.8 percent), yards per attempt (8.77) and nearly identical passer rating (98.4 vs. 98.8) when targeting Reggie Wayne than he did Marvin Harrison.
4. Andre Johnson
Johnson really started to shine when the Houston Texans brought Matt Schaub in at quarterback in 2007. However, the two have struggled to stay on the field together. Johnson missed nine games last season because of hamstring injuries.
Johnson has surprisingly never had more than nine touchdown receptions in a season, but he brings in the yardage, producing 9,656 receiving yards in his career. He won back-to-back receiving titles with 1,575 yards in 2008, followed by 1,569 yards in 2009.
His average of 79.1 receiving yards per game is the highest in NFL history.
Like a lot of these receivers, Johnson is a few productive seasons away from some major milestones, and he does have the benefit of having been considered an elite receiver for several years.
5. Calvin Johnson
Is this the league’s new replacement for an athletic freak like Randy Moss? Johnson might be the closest thing to him.
After Detroit finally got one right in the draft in 2007, Johnson has been a dominant force. He had 1,681 yards to lead the league last season and caught 16 touchdowns.
Pair him with Matthew Stafford at quarterback for years to come, and Johnson could be a first-ballot choice some day. He is already at 49 receiving touchdowns after five seasons. There may be no better wide receiver in the red zone.
Moss and Johnson are the only active players with at least three seasons of 12 or more touchdown catches.
6. Steve Smith
Smith is an interesting case. His 2005 season is one of the greatest in NFL history. He led the league with 103 receptions, 1,563 yards, and 12 touchdowns.
His breakout season in 2003 ended with Carolina nearly winning the Super Bowl. A Week 1 injury ended his 2004 season, unfortunately.
Smith came up with 1,421 yards in 2008 but struggled with bad quarterback play the next two years. Last season he returned to form with 1,394 yards.
At age 33, Smith should still have a couple of good years left in him. He could put himself in that mix of receivers who have around 1,000 receptions, 13,000 yards and 80 touchdowns.
Smith has five Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro selections. In addition to receiving, Smith has six career return touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns.
Despite being a small receiver, he does a great job of getting open down the field for big plays and is one of the best yards-after-catch (YAC) guys in the game.
7. Greg Jennings
Being a favorite target of Aaron Rodgers in that Green Bay offense really helps Jennings’ chances of one day being in the Hall of Fame.
He is a great receiver himself, as he caught 12 touchdowns in 2007 when Brett Favre was still there. Taking the torch from Donald Driver, Jennings has been the most consistent receiver in Green Bay.
Jennings has 6,171 yards and 49 touchdowns in 88 games. He averages 15.9 yards per reception. Double these numbers (he’ll turn 29 in September), and you can see him in the Canton parking lot at least.
Super Bowl rings of course help receivers, and Jennings has one of those already.
8. Roddy White
Is this starting to scrape the barrel? White’s been very good for the last five seasons now; going over 1,150 yards in each season, and he has 45 career touchdowns.
White has back-to-back seasons with at least 100 receptions and led the league in 2010 with 115 receptions.
He has a good quarterback in place with Matt Ryan, and White even managed to have his breakout year in 2007, one year before Ryan arrived.
Drops may be a problem at times, and he does get a lot of targets. Julio Jones is also expected to eat into his production, but through seven seasons, White is in good company with his 530 receptions and 7,374 yards.
9. Marques Colston
Colston is a great “stealth” Hall of Fame player.
You may not notice him year-to-year, but he consistently produces at a high level. As the 252nd pick in the 2006 draft, it’s almost a miracle he has been this good.
Being paired up with Drew Brees in Sean Payton’s offense in New Orleans is of course a blessing, but no receiver has done a better job in this offense than Colston.
He has gone over 1,000 yards in all but one season, and that was when he missed five games in 2008 (had 760 yards). He has 449 receptions for 6,240 yards and 48 touchdowns in 86 games.
Hidden stat: Colston catches 65.0 percent of his career targets, which is the third highest of any wide receiver in the last two decades (min. 400 receptions).
Problem stat: Never made a Pro Bowl. The Pro Bowl has largely become an even bigger joke than usual in recent years, but it will be problematic for many voters if Colston continues to be left out.
Still, it sounds all too logical for the best receiver on one of the best offenses in NFL history to end up in the Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, wide receiver might be the most illogical voted on position each year.
It is probably the hardest position to judge. Voters obviously are struggling with it, as they still have not selected Cris Carter, Tim Brown or Andre Reed into the Hall of Fame. What will happen with Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt in a few years?
I am probably crazy for picking nine wide receivers—and believe me, there were several other tempting names—when we have a total of just 21 modern era wideouts in Canton now.
Wide receivers are so hard to judge because of how dependent they are on their surroundings. You have to consider who was the quarterback, how often the team threw, how often they threw in the red zone, who the other receivers were that he played with and what kind of catches was he making (slot guy or not?).
Hopefully advanced stats and good research will help ease this wide receiver problem, because as you can see, only more attractive resumes are on the way.
Tight Ends (4)
Tony Gonzalez expects 2012 to be the final season of his Hall of Fame career.
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1. Tony Gonzalez
He is the all-time leading tight end in receptions (1,149), yards (13,338) and touchdowns (95). He has 12 Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pro selections.
He is Tony Gonzalez, and some may say he is the best tight end in NFL history. Easy first-ballot choice.
2. Antonio Gates
An assortment of injuries, mainly with the foot, has slowed Gates down a lot in recent years. Still, he should be in the Hall of Fame even if he decided to retire today.
Gates burst onto the scene with 13 touchdowns in 2004, which set a then-record for touchdowns by a tight end. He has been to eight straight Pro Bowls, though some may have been based on reputation more than anything.
He has 76 touchdown catches, which includes a streak of eight seasons with at least seven touchdowns. Gates may end up breaking Gonzalez’s touchdown record before he’s done.
Gates is 32.
3. Jason Witten
If an active player was going to break Gonzalez’s record for receptions, you would pick Jason Witten. He has 696 receptions and is 30 years old this year.
With seven Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro selections, Witten has been a favorite target of Dallas quarterbacks. However, in the red zone he has not been as dominant as the other tight ends, and he has 41 touchdowns.
That number is a bit low, but Witten has a better reputation than Gonzalez and Gates when it comes to blocking and being an all-around tight end.
Far from done, Witten should have no problem crossing the 10,000-yard mark in his career.
4. Rob Gronkowski
After just two seasons, why not?
Gronkowski just had the best receiving season ever for a tight end in 2011. He had 1,327 yards and 17 touchdown catches. This was after a 10-touchdown season as a rookie.
His catch radius is unbelievable, which allows for him to be one of the most feared receivers in all of football in the red zone. He also will run you over, and it could take several guys—especially if they are Redskins—to bring him down.
Look for big numbers to continue for Gronkowski, given that he's paired with Tom Brady in New England. He is only one big season away from cracking the top 25 in touchdowns by a tight end.
That’s in three seasons.
Though the league seems filled with more talented tight ends than at any point in NFL history, only these four were an easy choice for future Hall of Fame players.
Historically, tight ends do not have long primes, though Gonzalez, Gates and Witten are proving otherwise.
There are only eight tight ends in the Hall of Fame, so adding four more from this era is a big number when you think about it.
However, the position is gaining steam in importance, and you saw it on display last season with the best offenses using Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Jimmy Graham and Jermichael Finley to great effect.
Perhaps Graham belongs on the list too, but his two seasons collectively are not as impressive as Gronkowski’s in New England.
Heath Miller has been a great player for Pittsburgh, but he has been too underutilized to be considered as a serious Hall of Fame player.
Mike Singletary lit a fire under Vernon Davis in 2009, but the first half of his career was very disappointing. It will take several more seasons like the last three for Davis to get into the conversation.
Offensive Line (8)
You probably couldn't pick him out of a lineup, but Joe Thomas has been elite.
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1. Joe Thomas
As the No. 3 pick in the 2007 draft, Thomas has been the best player on a bad Cleveland offense. He is five-for-five in making the Pro Bowl and has been voted first-team All-Pro the last three years. The last player to accomplish that, far as I can tell, was Lou Creekmur in the 1950s.
Richmond Webb had a similar start to his career in Miami, though even after seven Pro Bowls and 183 starts, he has received almost no Hall of Fame buzz.
What can help Thomas out would be rookies like Brandon Weeden and Trent Richardson creating a potent offense in Cleveland that gets the Browns back to the playoffs. Then Thomas will get more attention for his effort.
2. Jake Long
Well, they are almost interchangeable. Long was the No. 1 pick of the 2008 draft and also plays for a lousy offense in Miami. He has made all four Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro in 2010.
3. Steve Hutchinson
It's hard to believe Hutchinson spent one more season in Minnesota than he did in Seattle, but that is the case. Now he is with Tennessee and will turn 35 this season.
From 2003 to 2009, Hutchinson made seven straight Pro Bowls and was selected as first-team All-Pro guard five times. That dominant stretch, blocking for Shaun Alexander and Adrian Peterson, should resonate well with voters.
4. Jeff Saturday
One could also look at Matt Birk here for a center, but Saturday has the advantage of having played in a great offense for a long time with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. He will be in Green Bay this year with Rodgers.
After 188 starts, five Pro Bowls, two first-team All-Pro selections, two Super Bowls and a ring in Indianapolis, Saturday will definitely get some consideration.
5. Jahri Evans
The Saints paid Evans, but not Carl Nicks. That might tell you something about who is better. Evans may be another player helped into the Hall of Fame by the way Drew Brees plays quarterback, but that is all right.
A steal in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, Evans has made the last three Pro Bowls and first-team All-Pro rosters. He is widely considered one of the best guards in the game and was the highest rated offensive linemen in the NFL’s Top 100 Players of 2012.
Evans has a Super Bowl ring and has started all 96 games in his career for one of the most productive offenses in NFL history.
6. Logan Mankins
Somehow Mankins managed to make the Pro Bowl and get the first-team All-Pro for guard in 2010. It’s not as if he did not play well or up to his usual standard, but it is the fact that he only played in nine games because of a long holdout.
He has been part of a good left side of the line that has produced three of the highest scoring seasons in NFL history.
There will be some push to acknowledge this era of New England’s prolific offense, and Mankins stands a better chance than the recently retired tackle Matt Light.
7. Nick Mangold
He has made the last four Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro in 2009 and 2010.
Mangold could have a clear path the next few years for more of those accolades in the AFC. It helps to play for the big-market, big-mouthed Jets.
8. Brian Waters
Another left guard, Waters’ six Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro selections gets him in the conversation. He played for some very good offenses in Kansas City and had a Pro Bowl season at right guard for the Patriots in 2011.
There are not many guards in Canton, so Waters, being arguably out of the top three guards of his era, may have a tough wait.
This is a hard group. If zero of these players were in Canton in the year 2030, it would honestly not surprise me.
There are 37 modern era offensive linemen in the Hall of Fame, and only 15 of them started their career since the 1970 merger. That includes two of this year’s inductees in Willie Roaf and Dermontti Dawson.
Since offensive linemen do not have real stats, a lot of them build a reputation based solely on draft position. If Maurkice Pouncey was not a first-round center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, there is no way he would have made two Pro Bowls so far.
With a good reputation, you get the Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections, and that is largely what this comes down to.
I will not pretend Thomas and Long are not worthy of their draft status or accolades, but I know enough about offensive linemen to know that they would not be where they are right now if they were picked in the third round. That’s just how it is, unfortunately.
A site that does game charting of every play like Pro Football Focus could come in handy for future evaluation, but with data only going back to 2008, most of these players have an incomplete career there.
Hopefully we will have a better gauge of individual linemen in the future, because right now it is a whole lot of guesswork and hyperbole.
Defensive End (4)
Same division. Same class of future Hall of Fame defensive end.
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1. Jared Allen
Allen first shined in Kansas City, but he has exploded since joining Minnesota in 2008. He has 105 career sacks, has led the league twice in sacks (22.0 last year) and is only 30 years old.
Allen has four Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro selections. He has also managed five interceptions, a pick six, 27 forced fumbles and a record-tying four safeties.
2. Julius Peppers
If an athletic freak played defensive end, they would look like Julius Peppers.
Six Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pro selections, 100 sacks, eight interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) and 37 forced fumbles. Peppers can do it all, and that is why Chicago put up the big bucks in 2010 for him.
3. Dwight Freeney
Famous for his spin move, Freeney is a pass-rushing phenom who has been the face of the Indianapolis defense almost since he was drafted in 2002.
He may not be as athletic or all-around solid as Peppers, who was drafted nine spots ahead of him, but Freeney is one of the best pass rushers of his era. He has seven Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro selections.
Freeney has 102.5 career sacks and is still only 32 years old. He has forced a whopping 42 fumbles, as he is one of the best ever at stripping the ball when he gets a sack.
4. Justin Smith
Remember when Justin Smith was the guy who “can’t get any respect” in this league? That has all changed, as he has been rewarded for his career-long effort with three straight Pro Bowls and his first selection to an All-Pro team in 2011.
It is much harder for a 3-4 defensive end to stand out, but Smith has managed 72.5 sacks in his career. Under Jim Harbaugh’s exceptional defense, he will have a chance to get up over 100 along with more All-Pro selections before he retires.
There are 31 modern era defensive linemen (that includes interior linemen) in the Hall of Fame. Not a big number, but it is a position acknowledged as one of the utmost importance.
Pass-rushers are paid a real premium in today’s game, and these players are among the best of the best in that department.
You are going to have to put up a huge number of sacks to be considered. Someone like John Abraham has had a very good career, but he’s never been viewed as the very best of the defensive ends in this league.
After the standard was reset by Reggie White and Bruce Smith, you really have to make a name for yourself with a standout move or iconic moment. Michael Strahan might not have been considered for Canton if he had not gotten a ring in Super Bowl XLII’s shocking upset over undefeated New England.
Another Giant, Jason Pierre-Paul, is getting all the buzz now after 16.5 sacks in 2011 for the Super Bowl champions. He may get there some day, but he’s not a safer bet than these four players.
Defensive Tackle (4)
Richard Seymour has big expectations for Oakland.
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1. Richard Seymour
Those three Super Bowl rings won in New England will most certainly help his cause. Seymour was arguably the best player on those defenses, which had a lot of good players.
Versatile enough to play all along the defensive line, Seymour has seven Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pro selections and 54.5 sacks.
He was stunningly traded to Oakland in 2009, but he quickly became a cornerstone player for their defense. After making the last two Pro Bowls, Seymour is clearly not going out with a whimper in Oakland and plans to build up his resume with more great seasons.
2. Kevin Williams
The “StarCaps” case involving Kevin Williams has taken away from the fact that he has been one of the best interior linemen in the league for a long time now.
With 54.5 sacks playing on the inside, the impressive number for Williams is five, which is how many times he has been a first-team All-Pro. Even Joe Greene can only match that number.
That is also a better resume than Cortez Kennedy, who is going in this year. Though unlike Williams, Kennedy did win a Defensive Player of the Year award in 1992. Still, Williams is going on 32 and has more time to play.
Every defensive tackle with at least four first-team All-Pro selections is in the Hall of Fame, except for Warren Sapp, who only becomes eligible this year.
3. Haloti Ngata
The Baltimore Ravens have several great players on defense, and Ngata has been one of them since his rookie season in 2006.
After making the last three Pro Bowls and last two first-team All-Pro selections, Ngata looks to be the long-term force in Baltimore’s defense after Ray Lewis and Ed Reed retire.
Add in Terrell Suggs, and it is easy to see the Ravens having their own little wing in Canton for this defense.
4. Ndamukong Suh
A reach after two seasons, but in what appears to be a new era of Lions’ football, Suh is the best defender they have. His rookie season, when he won Defensive Rookie of the Year, was one of the best in recent years for his position, and he helped the Lions finally return to the playoffs last season.
Suh can turn down some of the violence that hurts his team on the field, but no one is going to deny the difficulty he presents for the opposing offense.
This is a pure gut pick.
Like the guards and centers they face, the interior linemen have a difficult job of standing out, because a big part of their job is to be a space-eater while others make the plays behind them.
There is just not a lot of fast, rapid movement or skill involved here. It’s about brute force strength.
Casey Hampton has had a great career for the Steelers, but in the past they replaced him with Chris Hoke and did not skip a beat.
It is really hard for a defensive tackle to stand out among his peers, which is why the list of these big men is very small.
Baltimore's defense is elite for a few obvious reasons.
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1. Ray Lewis
Out of all the defensive players in the league, none are a bigger first-ballot lock for the Hall of Fame than Ray Lewis.
One of the original Ravens, drafted in 1996, Lewis has done it all for the team. 13 Pro Bowls, seven first-team All-Pro selections, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and a Super Bowl MVP.
Nothing else needs to be said.
2. DeMarcus Ware
Ware has been one of the elite pass-rushers in the league. He has 99.5 sacks and has led the league twice in sacks. He has also forced 27 fumbles.
With six Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro selections, Ware is well on his way as he turns 30 at the end of this month.
3. Brian Urlacher
As the leader of Chicago’s defense for the last 12 seasons, Urlacher has made eight Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro selections. He has 41.5 sacks, 21 interceptions, and nine forced fumbles.
He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000, and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.
Urlacher may have played in the shadow of Lewis, but he was the other great middle linebacker of the 2000s.
4. Patrick Willis
Already making a claim as the best middle linebacker in the league, Willis is five-for-five in Pro Bowls, and has made four first-team All-Pro selections. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007.
With such a productive start, being the centerpiece of what looks like a legit defense for years to come, you can see why Willis has future Hall of Fame written all over him.
Just avoid the big injuries.
5. Terrell Suggs
Since being drafted No. 10 in 2003, Suggs has avoided the injury bug quite well, only missing three games in his career.
But an offseason tearing of his Achilles’ tendon puts his 2012 in doubt. This after a 2011 in which he won the Defensive Player of the Year award as Baltimore came up a play short of the Super Bowl.
With Ed Reed in the secondary and Lewis calling out the signals, Suggs has been the premiere pass-rusher in Baltimore’s vaunted defense. He has 82.5 sacks, seven interceptions and 25 forced fumbles.
Suggs has been to five Pro Bowls and made his first All-Pro team in 2011. Like several of the other linebackers, he was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2003.
If he has to wait until 2013 to return, Suggs will turn 31 during that season, so he still has time to add on to his resume. But by then, what will Baltimore’s defense look like?
6. Lance Briggs
Briggs may have a tough time making it as people try to justify if he and Urlacher were each Hall of Fame worthy together.
He has made seven straight Pro Bowls, but was only an All-Pro in 2005. He does not take on the responsibility of a pass rusher, and has 10.5 career sacks (13 interceptions).
Some of the individual accolades may be there for Briggs, who has led some very strong defenses, but he may be lacking the flash for the Hall of Fame.
It’s not like playing with Urlacher should disqualify him. See Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson, or Jack Ham and Jack Lambert, or Willie Lanier and Bobby Bell.
Briggs will be an interesting one to watch.
7. Clay Matthews
He has had a very good three-year start, with 29.5 sacks, three Pro Bowls, a first-team All-Pro in 2010, and a Super Bowl ring.
Playing for a popular team always helps, as does the long hair and marketable image.
For a team that is expected to win a lot of games in the coming years, Matthews is going to have a lot of big stages to shine on and establish himself as one of the best linebackers in the league.
8. LaMarr Woodley
You may have expected to see teammate James Harrison here instead, but Harrison got a late start to his career.
Woodley has age on his side, as he will only turn 28 in November. A strong pass-rusher himself, he has 48 sacks and 11 more in the postseason. Six of those sacks came during the Steelers’ run to Super Bowl XLIII.
Woodley has scored three touchdowns in his career.
There are a shockingly low number of linebackers in the Hall of Fame. Just 23 have made it.
This is a pretty strong future group here, and even before they make it, you have the late Junior Seau, Derrick Brooks and Zach Thomas to first consider.
Out of the 14 eligible linebackers with at least four first-team All-Pro selections, 12 of them are in the Hall of Fame. Only Larry Grantham and Chuck Howley have been left out.
This bodes well for Lewis, Urlacher, Ware, and Willis.
While not true for all types of linebackers, sacks are a very important stat for many. The players on this list are in good company. Keep in mind sacks have only been official since 1982.
Clay Matthews is the youngest player on the list, but when you look at the most sacks in a linebacker’s first three seasons, Ware (33.5), Suggs (30.5), Matthews (29.5), and Woodley (29) all rank in the top nine.
Hardly any of the players on that list have made the Hall of Fame (just two of the top 37 with at least 17 sacks), but that comes back to the putrid number of just 23 linebackers in Canton.
With every team using three or four of them as starters, you would expect a better total.
Troy Polamalu running to find out why there aren't more safeties in Canton.
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He’s got the fame part nailed with the hair and unexpected personality.
He has two Super Bowl rings, a Defensive Player of the Year award, seven Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro selections.
He has 29 interceptions, nine sacks, eight forced fumbles and four touchdowns.
He has a great highlight reel.
Polamalu’s a unique talent and likely a first-ballot choice at a position that gets no love in Canton.
2. Ed Reed
Fitting that one year earlier in the AFC North, the Ravens used a first-round pick on Miami’s Ed Reed.
Between Reed and Polamalu, the division has featured the best safety play in the league for several years now. While Polamalu is more of an all-around player, Reed is the most dangerous safety when it comes to protecting against the deep pass.
Reed has 57 interceptions and has taken six back to the end zone. He was Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 when he had 358 return yards on nine interceptions.
Reed has led the league in interceptions three times. He also has eight interceptions in the playoffs.
He could retire today and would still deserve a first-ballot selection to the Hall of Fame.
If you thought linebackers were underrepresented in the Hall of Fame, then look at the defensive backs. Just 23 are in, and we know every team starts a minimum of four defensive backs.
That’s just not right.
Safety especially has been tough, as only seven pure safeties are in Canton. Polamalu and Reed should join them, as they have set the standard for this century’s caliber of safety play.
If you had anyone else in mind, like an Adrian Wilson, then you can just forget it.
Brian Dawkins should make it in before these two are ready, but you never know with safeties and the Hall of Fame.
Before "Revis Island", there was "The Champ."
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1. Champ Bailey
Eleven Pro Bowls in 13 seasons sounds pretty elite. In fact, no other cornerback in NFL history has made 11 Pro Bowls.
Once considered the best cornerback in the NFL, Bailey keeps chugging along at age 34. With 50 interceptions and a long career of elite play, he is a no-brainer for a first-ballot choice.
2. Darrelle Revis
Perhaps taking the torch from Bailey, for the last three seasons Revis has been universally regarded as the best cornerback in the league.
He has gone to the last four Pro Bowls and has been first-team All-Pro the last three seasons.
This is Revis’ time to shine and build up enough Hall of Fame credibility well before he turns 30.
3. Charles Woodson
When you look at his full football career, Woodson is one of the most decorated players in the history of the game.
At Michigan, he won a national championship and the Heisman Trophy.
He was the No. 4 pick in 1998 by Oakland, and won Defensive Rookie of the Year, while also making the first of eight Pro Bowls. He has been a first-team All-Pro three times.
With Green Bay, he was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 and won his first Super Bowl the following season.
Woodson has 54 interceptions (11 returned for touchdowns), 15.5 sacks and 28 forced fumbles, and he has led the league in interceptions twice.
It would only be fitting that this unique career ends in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
4. Asante Samuel
After earning two Super Bowl rings to start his career, Samuel blossomed into an elite cornerback in 2006 when he led the league with 10 interceptions. He also had a great postseason with two pick sixes, but the Patriots blew an 18-point lead in the AFC Championship.
Samuel may have already etched himself into Canton in 2007 if he could have come down with Eli Manning’s interception to clinch the perfect season and a third ring, but it was too difficult of a catch. Watch it again. Samuel has full extension with his arms and is off the ground. Nothing easy about that.
In his postseason career, Samuel has seven interceptions and a record four returned for touchdowns.
Still just 31 years old, but on his third team now, Samuel has 45 interceptions and is considered one of the best cover corners in the game. He has four Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro in 2007.
With his rings, interceptions and big playoff games, Samuel should be in line for the Hall of Fame some day.
5. Ronde Barber
The Elijah Wood to Tiki’s Macaulay Culkin (fully aware they were cousins and not brothers in that excessively dark trash), the good Barber is still hanging in there at age 37.
He is moving to free safety this season but only after 15 years at cornerback for Tampa Bay.
Barber was part of many great defenses in Tampa Bay earlier in his career and was a key starter on the 2002 team who won the Super Bowl with a legendary defense.
He has the ring, five Pro Bowls, three first-team All-Pro selections, 43 interceptions (seven returned for touchdowns), 27 sacks and 14 forced fumbles.
Barber’s 13 non-offensive touchdowns tie him for the fourth most in NFL history.
His brother likely would have made it to the Hall of Fame if he stayed around a few more years, but now it is Ronde in better position.
Want a good stat? Of the 23 defensive backs in the Hall of Fame, all 23 had at least 40 career interceptions.
Again, only 16 players that have played cornerback are in the Hall of Fame. It’s a tough group to crack, though we have some good ones here.
Nnamdi Asomugha was not included, as he is a player I do not think history will shine well on. He was there in Oakland for all the bad years after the Super Bowl loss, and he never made a Pro Bowl until his sixth season.
He does not get a lot of interceptions, and the “they never throw at him” defense will not take him that far. See the above stat (Asomugha has 14 interceptions).
He’ll also be remembered as struggling after getting a huge contract with the Eagles, though he has time starting now to turn that around.
With the increased importance of strong cornerback play, it’s about time to start opening the doors to Canton for more of these players.
Special Teams (1)
The class of 53: full circle.
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1. Adam Vinatieri
Well, the only pure placekicker in the Hall of Fame is Jan Stenerud. Vinatieri has him beat, though people would probably say that about many kickers.
So why Vinatieri, who ranks 13th in field goal percentage and eighth in made field goals, and no one else?
The answer is simple: No kicker has ever had a bigger impact on his team winning multiple championships.
Quick. Without looking it up, try naming the kickers for the 1960s Packers, 1970s Steelers, 1980s 49ers and 1990s Cowboys.
Bet you didn’t get them all. You might not have gotten one. Because those dynasties did not rely on the kicker that often. Certainly not in a lot of big spots.
But Vinatieri was crucial to the Patriots’ success and then won a fourth Super Bowl with the Colts in 2006.
Out of 46 Super Bowl champions, only two ever needed their kicker to make a do-or-die field goal in the playoffs. Bill Belichick will like that fact, as he has two rings because of it.
First, in 1990, the New York Giants, with Belichick as defensive coordinator, needed a 42-yard field goal from Matt Bahr or else it was certain defeat at San Francisco in the NFC Championship. One week later Bahr had the 21-yard game-winning field goal against Buffalo in Super Bowl XXV.
Just a little over a decade later, it was Belichick the head coach that needed Vinatieri to make a ridiculous 45-yard field goal in the snow, or else it was one-and-done failure at home to the Raiders. He made it and kicked the game-winner in overtime. Two weeks later he drilled a 48-yard kick down the middle to win Super Bowl XXXVI.
That’s another reason to like Vinatieri’s clutch kicks. They often go right down the middle; making it look easy.
It is a complete mystery as to how the voters will look at Vinatieri, but if any kicker deserves this, it would be him.
Other kickers? Forget about them. A lot of the guys with the highest percentages are among the top chokers in the game. Here’s looking at you, Nate Kaeding.
Interesting kicker fact: Only four kickers who rank in the top 14 in field goal percentage have won a Super Bowl. They are Garrett Hartley, Matt Stover, Adam Vinatieri, and John Carney.
Notice anything odd about that group? They were the four kickers for the teams in Super Bowl XLIV. Stover and Vinatieri were on the Colts, while Hartley and Carney were on the Saints.
Punters? Not worth the space.
Return specialists? Devin Hester and Joshua Cribbs are great, but let’s face it; they are not going to vote in a part-time player any time soon. Ask Steve Tasker about that.
If Cribbs and Hester were even just average as starting wide receivers, they would probably get in when factoring in their return abilities. But that’s not the case.
Vinatieri, you are a special teams fan’s only hope.
To bring our 53-man Hall of Fame class full circle, the last time Peyton Manning played a NFL game, he set up Vinatieri for a go-ahead field goal with 0:53 left against the Jets in the playoffs. The kick was right down the middle, of course.
Typical Hall of Famers.