Young NFL Players Most Likely to Emulate 2012 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class
On Saturday night at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Ohio, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted its newest class, the Class of 2012. The class consists of six players who were determined by Hall of Fame voters to be the most worthy candidates: Jack Butler, Dermontti Dawson, Chris Doleman, Cortez Kennedy, Curtis Martin and Willie Roaf.
While this is certainly one of the weaker Hall of Fame classes to ever be inducted, these players have all been deemed worthy of the game’s greatest honor, and will forever be remembered by the football fans who watched them play.
On Sunday, attention will turn to the current players of the National Football League, as the preseason will open with the Hall of Fame Game. That game, to be played between the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals, features two likely future Hall of Fame enshrinees in Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, but which other NFL players are likely to follow most directly in the footsteps of this year’s Hall of Fame class?
While it is a serious stretch to project that any of these players will have a bust in Canton, this is a projection of six young NFL players and prospects whose games resemble those of the players who earned their place in football history Saturday night.
Dermontti Dawson: Pittsburgh Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a legend in 1989 when Hall of Fame center Mike Webster signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Fortunately, another Hall of Fame replacement was already on the roster. Dermontti Dawson went on to start at center for the Steelers for 12 seasons, which included six consecutive first-team All-Pro selections.
Webster was the greatest center of the late 1970s and early 1980s, while Dawson was the best center of the 1990s. The Steelers did not have a great center during the 2000s, but with Maurkice Pouncey they may end up with the best center of the 2010s.
Pouncey has only been in the NFL for two seasons, but he is already established as arguably the league’s best center. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons, and was a first-team All-Pro selection last year.
Pouncey is a dominant presence in the middle of the Steelers’ offensive line, and if he keeps up his level of play throughout the decade, he may one day join Webster and Dawson in the Hall of Fame.
Chris Doleman: San Francisco 49ers OLB Aldon Smith
Chris Doleman was known for being an NFL sack specialist. He finished his career with 150.5 career sacks, which still ranks fourth all-time, and was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and a two-time All-Pro first team member.
Doleman played the majority of his career with the Minnesota Vikings but did spend three of his most productive seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, over which he had 38 sacks. A current pass-rusher on the 49ers, Aldon Smith, proved as a rookie that he could be one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers for many years to come.
The 49ers used a 4-3 base defense when Doleman played for them, but as they now use a 3-4 defense, Smith lines up as an outside linebacker. Whenever Smith is on the field, however, he can make a big difference, especially in putting pressure on the quarterback. As a rookie, Smith had 14 sacks, which was tied for the fifth-most in the NFL last season.
Doleman was always a much better pass-rusher than he was a run-stopper, and through one season that looks to be the case as well for Smith. That said, if Smith continues to sack the quarterback as frequently as he did in his rookie season, he may one day join Doleman in Canton.
Cortez Kennedy: Detroit Lions DT Ndamukong Suh
Few defensive tackles have been able to dominate with the combination of athletic ability and brute force that Cortez Kennedy had during his 11 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. Kennedy, the No. 3 overall pick in the 1990 NFL draft, was selected to eight Pro Bowls, was a three-time first team All-Pro and was the 1992 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
The most direct comparison to Kennedy in the National Football League is Detroit Lions' defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft. Like Kennedy, Suh has an incredible combination of size, strength, athleticism and ability to penetrate the interior line. If he can keep his head on straight, he has the talent to join Kennedy in Canton someday.
Suh had an incredible rookie season, in which he had 10 sacks and was named to the All-Pro first team. Last season, however, Suh became known best for his dirty play, including an incident that earned him a two-game suspension for stomping on Packers guard Evan Dietrich-Smith.
If Suh can learn to play the game right way, he can be even better than Kennedy was.
Curtis Martin: Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice
Curtis Martin was one of the most consistent NFL running backs of all-time, starting his career with 10 consecutive seasons of rushing for more than 1,000 yards. Martin only missed eight games over the course of his 11-year career, and his consistent running and durability resulted in him gaining a total of 14,101 rushing yards, which is fourth all-time.
It is unlikely that any running back in today’s NFL will be able to run with that amount of consistency for that many years, but the most likely player to emulate Martin is Ray Rice.
Like Martin, Rice is a very consistent back, who has run for more than 1,200 yards in each of his last three seasons. Also like Martin, Rice has a good combination of power and speed, and is a very durable back who has not missed a game in the past three years.
Rice has a long way to go if he is to be a Hall of Fame running back, but if he can continue what he is doing for another six to eight years (which is a long, long time for a running back), he has a shot at Canton.
Willie Roaf: Miami Dolphins OT Jake Long
Willie Roaf was one of the NFL’s best and most consistent offensive tackles over his 13-year career. Roaf spent 12 of those seasons as a left tackle, and made it to the Pro Bowl in 11 of those seasons, with three first team All-Pro selections.
Joe Thomas is currently the NFL’s best left tackle, but considering he has already been a three-time All-Pro, he is likely to surpass Roaf’s many achievements, and is more worthy of comparison to an upcoming Hall of Famer, Jonathan Ogden.
Jake Long is the NFL’s next-best left tackle, and like Roaf, he is off to a very good start to his career. Long has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons, and has also been a first team All-Pro. If Long continues to play at the high level that he has for his first four seasons for many more years, he has a chance to join Roaf as a Hall of Fame offensive tackle.
Jack Butler: North Carolina State CB David Amerson
Few players have ever been as good at intercepting passes as former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Jack Butler. Butler, who played nine seasons before suffering a career-ending leg injury, had 52 interceptions in 103 career games. No player in NFL history has more interceptions in fewer career games.
Amerson could still be two years away from joining the National Football League, but as a sophomore at North Carolina State, Butler showed similar abilities. Amerson led the NCAA last season with 13 interceptions, one off the all-time single-season record set by Washington’s Al Worley in 1968.
While Amerson’s interception total alone is not an indicator of future NFL success (Worley never played in the NFL), he has the overall game to be a star NFL cornerback. He has great size and speed, is not only a playmaker but also consistent in pass coverage, plays with physicality, has great hips and tackles well.
If Amerson declares early for the 2013 NFL draft, he will likely follow in the footsteps of LSU cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson of the past two years and be selected in the top six picks. He also has a chance to be an elite playmaker at the position, a Butler-esque interceptor.
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Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.