With the retirement of Ray Lewis (and the near retirement of Charles Woodson), the subject of which active players deserve to be in the Hall of Fame arises once again.
Nearly every team has a player destined for Canton.
There are some criteria for my list here. Of course, by active, I mean not retired. So Ronde Barber, who I believe should have a very good case for Canton, is not on this list. Ditto Ray Lewis, Steve Hutchinson and a few others.
Any player in the first two or three years of play isn't eligible. I know people think Andrew Luck/Robert Griffin III/Russell Wilson/Colin Kaepernick are the greatest thing since individually wrapped cupcakes, but after one or two years, we have no real idea.
Also, players who are still just four or five years in don't make the cut, though they get on the "just missed" list in some cases. Same with guys who have just had one or two dominant seasons—no matter how dominant. They may get there, but one moment does not a career make.
Of course, there are a few players so good in the beginning of their currently short careers that I snuck them on anyway.
Here are the guys I feel have to be in the Hall of Fame come the end of their careers (with a note at the end of the guys who just missed).
The resume really speaks for itself.
Tom Brady has five Super Bowl appearances, three of which were wins and two of which resulted in Super Bowl MVP awards. Brady also has two NFL MVP awards, eight Pro Bowl appearances, two AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year awards, three AFC Offensive Player of the Year awards and is the New England Patriots' all-time leader in passing touchdowns and passing yards.
People talk about how he must be slowing down, but in the last four seasons, he has topped 4,000 yards three times (missing the fourth by 100 yards), passed for over 30 touchdowns three times (missing the fourth by two touchdowns) and has not missed a game.
Overall, he has thrown for nearly three times as many touchdowns as interceptions and elevated a list of receivers a mile long who have generally failed with other quarterbacks.
If Brady suddenly retired, it's hard to imagine him not being a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The only guy who could be as much of a lock to head to Canton directly from his last NFL snap is Peyton Manning.
Manning is also second all-time in game-winning drives.
Manning has been to the Pro Bowl 12 times, won the NFL MVP four times, won a Super Bowl in which he was named the MVP, was the AFC Player of the Year six times and has been a first- or second-team All-Pro nine times.
Manning was also the fastest quarterback to reach 400 passing touchdowns, 4,000 completions and 50,000 yards.
He just finished a season in which he returned from multiple neck surgeries to win the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year award. During the season he posted his second-highest career totals in yards and touchdowns while leading the Denver Broncos to the divisional round of the playoffs.
Like Tom Brady, Manning has shown excellent leadership and ability to win games, and while he lacks Brady's multiple Super Bowls, he has proven more than once he can win important games.
This one is bound to start a few debates.
While Aaron Rodgers lacks some of the resume Brady and Manning have in terms of career records, he's also played for a lot less time.
Rodgers is fifth on the list of career passing yards per game, has been to the Pro Bowl three times, won a Super Bowl in which he was named MVP, won the 2011 NFL MVP, holds the record for passer rating in a single season and currently sits second on the list of career completion percentage.
Rodgers has been a consummate professional on and off the field, at times sparking with his fellow players on field but always finding a way to get them to produce without destroying team chemistry.
Rodgers is still young, and some will say he has more to prove before being placed on this list.
However, I would say that Rodgers has already proven his worth, both to Green Bay and the NFL at large. Arguably the best young quarterback playing today, he's a shoo-in to be in Canton when all is said and done.
What Adrian Peterson did in 2012 is insane. It's without precedent and something absolutely nobody (aside from Peterson) saw coming.
It also overshadows the story of how good this guy has been so far in his career.
Peterson has only failed to top 1,000 yards once in his career—the year in which he busted multiple knee ligaments, missed four games and still only fell short of 1,000 yards by 30 yards.
Some of the Viking teams Peterson has been on have been ugly, and save for a two-year stint with Brett Favre, the bulk of the workload has been on Peterson's shoulders. In 2008, his second season, Peterson was most of the reason the team won the division. He was the entire offense.
Much the same thing happened in 2012, without the division title. With Christian Ponder struggling in the middle of the season and Percy Harvin hurt, Peterson once again carried the team into the playoffs.
While the team lost in the Wild Card Round, Peterson walked away with a well-earned NFL MVP.
Peterson is still young, and some might say he hasn't proved himself enough yet. After all, he's really not high on most of the all-time lists, save for career rushing yards per game, where he ranks third behind Jim Brown and Barry Sanders.
Speaking of Sanders, Peterson's first six years actually are better than Sanders' first six were. Peterson has more yards and touchdowns than Sanders did in his initial six years.
Of course, the Lions were much worse than the Vikings have been. Still, Peterson has already made an argument to be placed among the best.
Peterson has consistently been a force to be reckoned with under difficult circumstances. There's no reason to expect that to end, save years from now with a bust in Canton.
After all, what Brees had done in San Diego versus what he eventually did in New Orleans with the Saints are night and day.
Then again, Brees is a future Hall of Famer, and Rivers is struggling to regain the form that had him among the best in the league just a few short years ago.
Brees is fifth on the list for passes completed all-time, eight in all-time passing yards, sixth in touchdowns and seventh in passer rating. He led the Saints to a Super Bowl in 2009, winning the game MVP as well. He's been to the Pro Bowl seven times, won AP Offensive Player of the Year twice, was the fastest quarterback to ever reach 40,000 yards and holds the record for most consecutive games with a touchdown at 54.
Brees broke Dan Marino's record for most passing yards in one season (5,476) during the 2011 season. He also set a new Saints franchise record during the same season for passing touchdowns in a season with 46.
Brees transformed the Saints from also-ran to powerhouse. It doesn't matter what receivers he has; Brees will turn them into deadly weapons on any play.The Saints offense is able to put up ridiculous numbers because of Brees, and that has allowed them to overcome some shaky defenses.
Speaking of offense—since Brees arrived in the Big Easy, he has never thrown for fewer than 4,000 yards and has topped 5,000 yards three times. Of course, that is in part because he has been called upon to attempt more than 600 passes five times in that span.
Despite only having the one Super Bowl, Brees' numbers and overall skill make him a very secure choice for Canton when he is done playing.
You may see the name on the list and think, "Hang on, isn't this guy getting a new hip or something?"
You'd be right, because Ed Reed is hurt (torn labrum, not a broken hip, according to Pro Football Talk), but don't get caught up in how the man's career is ending.
Remember how everything came together before now.
Reed, a nine-time Pro Bowler who has won a Defensive Player of the Year award, led the NFL in interceptions in 2004, 2008 and 2010, is on top of the list for career interception return yards, is second all-time in interceptions returned for a touchdown and was the first person to ever return an interception, blocked punt, punt and fumble for a touchdown.
You can easily argue—and get no debate from me—that Reed is the best safety to ever play the game. Reed has always been able to out-think and outmaneuver quarterbacks and offensive coordinators alike. He's the most productive ball-hawking safety we've ever seen and prepares for each game like his life depends on it.
His focus and relentlessness don't only count for his preparation or even his interceptions. Reed is relentless in all aspects of his game, running down a ball-carrier with as much ferocity as he goes after a pick.
Often imitated, never duplicated, Ed Reed is the standard safeties should—and do—hold themselves to.
A defensive back—especially a corner—doesn't last 14 seasons in the NFL if he isn't good.
Bailey was so good, teams basically stopped throwing at him for a long portion of the middle of his career.
All that stuff about Darrelle Revis taking away half the field? Bailey did it long before Revis had his island, and in 2009, Bailey didn't allow a touchdown in 80 passes thrown his way.
Bailey has been to the Pro Bowl a dozen times, setting a record for his position. The next closest and former record holder for that stat?
That would be Hall of Famer Mike Haynes.
Bailey is definitely on the downside of his career, but his impact on the game is undeniable. He was a shutdown corner before it was hip to be one, and a tremendous tackler as well.
When he hangs his cleats up, they should be hung in the Hall of Fame.
Like Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson has lost a step (maybe three or four) but was dominant for a long time before then.
There is nothing Woodson couldn't do. He could blanket a receiver in man or zone, and he was a tremendous tackler and a big hitter. He shut his side of the field down and made quarterbacks think twice about tossing the ball in his direction.
Yes, he's slowed down and is now a safety (without a team at press time), but as a corner he was an eight-time Pro Bowler, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1998, led the league in interceptions for 2009 and 2011 and nabbed 55 career interceptions.
His 17 sacks are also very impressive for a cornerback.
Woodson was a huge reason why the Oakland Raiders were a Tuck Rule away from the Super Bowl and why the Green Bay Packers won theirs.
While Woodson has gotten older, it is only recently that his play has slipped. He was a Pro Bowler four times after he hit 30; in fact, 38 of his 55 interceptions came after that birthday.
Woodson might have to wait to enter Canton because of a glut of talented defensive backs (such as the last two, Ed Reed and Champ Bailey) who will probably retire around the same time.
He should get in all the same, even if he has to wait a bit.
It looks like Tony Gonzalez is wrapping up his career—about five years after people expected it.
Yes, we all thought Gonzalez going to Atlanta would just drag out the end of his career, but he actually flourished with the Falcons, even if his best seasons were behind him.
Gonzalez has been a Pro Bowler 13 times, was the first tight end in history to have 1,000 receptions, has more yards than any tight end in the history of the NFL—and is seventh on the list of all receivers for that stat as well.
While the new two-tight end sets and spread offenses might give younger players a chance to beat his records, Gonzalez was the prototype for the super-productive athletic tight ends of today.
It's impossible to imagine that he won't be in the Hall of Fame, if not on the first ballot, shortly thereafter.
The last four years have made it really hard to remember how good Randy Moss is and how unique he was when he hit the league.
Moss exploded onto the scene his rookie season with 69 catches for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns. Rookie wide receivers don't do that often and never did it back in 1998.
What was perhaps more impressive was that Moss didn't regress the next year. Teams tried to adjust to him but couldn't. Moss topped 1,000 yards in six out of the first seven seasons he played and scored double-digit touchdowns in six seasons as well.
After that, Moss imploded a bit, moving to Oakland for a brief and tumultuous tenure, only to then be reborn in New England with Tom Brady.
If anything really hurts Moss' bid for the hall, it's that blip. Most people have felt that the only thing holding Moss back from being truly transcendent is Moss himself, and it certainly didn't disprove the point when he effectively shut down in Oakland because he was unhappy.
The last three seasons have been a blur of confusion. Moss was with three teams (for which he played terribly) in 2010, didn't even play in 2011 and then had a minimal impact with the 49ers in 2012.
Will that leave a sour taste in the mouths of voters?
Right now he's a free agent, and it's unclear whether he wants to play anymore. We may soon see how the disastrous last few years affected his legacy.
Julius Peppers is an interesting case study.
On the one hand, he has eight Pro Bowls to his credit, five first- or second-team All-Pro nods, the 2004 NFC Defensive Player of the Year award and the 2002 Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
He is also tied for the 10th-most forced fumbles, second-most interceptions by a defensive lineman, fifth-most double-digit sack seasons (eight) and 18th-most sacks with 111.5, according to stats recorded on Peppers' Wikipedia page.
After leaving the Carolina Panthers, many thought he would struggle to remain as dominant as he had been, but his tenure with the Chicago Bears has been just as productive. He has had double-digit sacks two of his three years, along with eight forced fumbles and six fumble recoveries.
His tackles have gone down, but whereas he was one of only a few great players in the Panthers defense, he is surrounded by incredibly talented players in Chicago, which could be part of the problem. In a league that loves names and big plays, Peppers doesn't get as many (and isn't as flashy) as some of the young guns in the league.
He might get overlooked, not because of the people he is retiring with, but because of the guys around him in Chicago.
As far as I am concerned, though, he should be in.
The problem with Manning can be consistency—both in a game and over the course of a season.
Manning has shown that he can win when it counts, though, and he has a few more years to make his stats more impressive. He may not be on the top of many all-time lists yet, but he has the potential.
In the end, it's his clutch play in big games and moments that will carry him into the Hall.
Like Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger's numbers aren't fantastic, but he's been to the Super Bowl once more than Manning and won his first one in his second year. He also is the guy with most wins as a rookie.
It took him the second-fewest attempts to reach 25,000 yards passing, and he has become the Steelers' all-time leader in passing yards.
Roethlisberger has overcome a shaky offensive line and inconsistent run game, as well as several changes at the wide receiver position, yet still finds a way to keep his team in the hunt every year.
The off-field stuff (the rape allegations, the motorcycle crash) distract from a very good quarterback who can put the team on his back and win games.
One more Super Bowl and a little better touchdown-to-interception ratio could make this a no-brainer. As it stands, he has plenty of time to continue to make his case, and I really have no doubt that at the end, he will have Hall of Fame-worthy credentials.
Jared Allen might have lost the mullet, but 2012 proved he hadn't lost his edge.
Sure, his sack total dropped from the ridiculous 22 he had in 2011 (as did his overall stats), but since he virtually carried the Vikings defense at points last season, he more than made up for it in ways that don't show up in the stats.
Allen has been a vocal leader in the lockerroom since he arrived in Kansas City back in 2004. He's one of the few defensive ends with 100-plus sacks (117 as of the end of 2012), has over 500 tackles to his credit and won NFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2011.
His 22 sacks in 2011, by the way, also made him the Minnesota Vikings' single-season sack leader.
Allen isn't likely a first-ballot guy, and a Super Bowl or another monster season would really cement this, but in my mind, he has been a rare talent on the defensive line and is more than worthy of a Hall of Fame induction.
Did that just blow your mind?
This might be a tad risky—there is only one pure kicker and no pure punter in the Hall of Fame, so it's not like voters are lining up for adding them.
Still, you cannot deny Adam Vinatieri, even if he's sliding a bit in his old age.
Nobody has made more clutch plays than Vinatieri, including a great come-from-behind tackle of Herschel Walker to prevent a kick-return touchdown.
His kicks won the Patriots their very first Super Bowl in 2002 after he tied and won a blizzard-assaulted game against the Raiders earlier in those playoffs (the infamous Tuck Rule game).
He kicked a Super Bowl-winning field goal again in 2004 (overcoming blocked and missed field goals earlier in the game), and by the time he left the Pats, he had scored 18 game-winning field goals with fewer than 60 seconds remaining.
He went on to play very well for the Indianapolis Colts as well, including another Super Bowl win, though he didn't kick the winning point.
There is very little room in Canton for kickers—but Vinatieri is a guy who deserves the honor.
I almost didn't put Patrick Willis on this list because he's only been in the league six years.
Then I realized he's also been a Pro Bowler six times and a first-team All-Pro five times.
Of course, the problem is (and the push-back I am bound to receive) is that while he's had a great start to his career, some his numbers aren't close to Hall of Fame worthy.
Still, he's a tackle machine who has been a Pro Bowler every single year he's been in the league with no sign of slacking off.
Willis will be in the Hall of Fame one day; you can bank on it.
There isn't a lot of love for the big guys in the dirt, and I don't know that there are a ton of guys playing now who are Hall of Fame caliber.
Joe Thomas heads the list of those guys, though.
Thomas is the best pass-blocker in the NFL. Yes, he allowed a whopping three sacks in 2012 (subscription required)—oh hold on, that's not a lot.
Thomas has also been to the Pro Bowl every year he's been in the league and been a first- or second-team All-Pro five out of six years.
His run-blocking isn't perfect, but you won't find a better left tackle in the league—you haven't in some time and you won't for a long time to come.
It's amazing how much it seems London Fletcher flies under the radar for both fans and media not wearing a 'Skins jersey.
For an aging inside linebacker, Fletcher has seen very little drop off over the course of his 15-year career.
2012 perhaps showed us he was nearing the end—it was the first sub-80 solo tackle season since 1999—but he earned his fourth straight Pro Bowl nod. He has a Super Bowl ring from his time as a St. Louis Ram but very little else in terms of league-wide accolades.
That said, Fletcher's consistency and ability to play at a high level at all times should be something voters see and appreciate.
On top of that, he's never missed a game. He's consistent, productive and dependable. Maybe it's not sexy enough for some, but it's a Hall-of-Fame career as far as I can see.
Brian Urlacher may no longer be a Chicago Bear—it seems both the Vikings and Broncos might be interested, according to NBC Chicago — we've probably not seen the last of him.
Either way, this eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro has been a force on the field since he won Rookie of the Year honors back in 2000. He also won the Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 and holds the Bears record for career tackles and tackles in a single season.
While Urlacher has never been a sack or turnover machine, his presence in the middle of the field has been huge for the Bears.
It's not all about stats when you think about Urlacher. It's about what he does to help adjust the defense, to read the offense and to disguise what his own guys are doing. He anticipates the play, adjusts his team accordingly and then makes sure everyone goes where they need to go.
That is a skill not every player has. It's a skill the Bears may miss a bunch (as they did when he was hurt in 2012).
It's a skill that makes him unique and a worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Like London Fletcher, Jason Witten could get overlooked because while he's very good, he's also very quiet compared to the Rob Gronkowskis of the world.
But we have Tony Gonzalez on this list, and if you look at the numbers Witten has, they're pretty comparable.
- 16 years
- 77 catches/year
- 891 yards/year
- 103 TD (6.4/year)
- 10 years
- 81 catches/year
- 895 yards/year
- 44 TD (4.3/year)
Witten is on pace to catch Gonzalez in catches and yards.
Coming of age in the time of Gonzalez (as well as the oft-injured Antonio Gates) might make it harder for Witten to get noticed by the voters, but it shouldn't.
Quite often in his career, Witten was Tony Romo's only weapon. Witten's athleticism and overall ability to do anything a tight end needs to—catch, block, score—are still rare even in this age of tight ends.
Calvin Johnson is a huge talent. He's a rare athlete who has managed to gain 1,000 yards in four out of six seasons despite lacking any real credible threat to pull the defense off him.
Like a few of the other players on this list, he hasn't played long enough to be granted access to Canton, but his ability, skill and consistency make him a guy who it would be hard to imagine not having in the Hall.
You can't stop him, you can barely contain him—and the voters shouldn't do either when he retires a long way down the road.
A seven-time Pro Bowler with a Super Bowl ring and 107.5 sacks (21st all time) will make Dwight Freeney a very attractive addition to the Hall of Fame.
Honestly, there were times when he was just about it for the Colts defense.
Freeney has had a rough couple of years, but ultimately he has produced enough in his career to warrant the honor. The pass-rusher will have a much bigger role with the San Diego Chargers than he would have had in Indianapolis this year. He might have a few more seasons left to solidify his legacy.
If you like Calvin Johnson, you should love Larry Fitzgerald.
I'm not saying he's better than Megatron, because he isn't, athletically speaking.
But not since Barry Sanders has one man done so much with so little.
Since 2009, Fitzgerald hasn't had a quarterback worth a damn. Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Kevin Kolb and Ryan Lindley? Please.
Yet, with the exception of 2012, Fitzgerald continues to create seasons where he's catching 80 to 90 balls for over 1,000 yards with nobody to draw the secondary off him.
He's even scoring touchdowns.
Fitzgerald has been in quarterback hell since Kurt Warner's retirement and probably will be again this year.
But he'll continue to put up numbers and almost single-handedly move the offense forward.
He may be better known for his hair care commercials than his play these days, but Troy Polamalu should be remembered as a rare safety who could change the course of a game. While not as flashy as Ed Reed, Polamalu is a big hitter whose many skills helped swing games for the Steelers.
And when he was hurt, his skill was very badly missed.
Often one of his 30 interceptions would happen at a critical time, resulting in a clutch play to get his defense off the field.
He's won two Super Bowls, was AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, has been to seven Pro Bowls and selected first-team All-Pro four times.
Polamalu has had a tremendous impact on the game and how it is played. Offenses had to take extra care to avoid giving him the chance to wreck their day.
I like to think that when I biff, I own up.
And as the comments have pointed out, not having DeMarcus Ware on this list—when guys like Freeney and Allen are here—is a miss.
Part of my original issue was that he could retire in the midst of some other players who have as good—in some ways better—credentials. He faces some very stiff competition in Jared Allen, John Abraham and Julius Peppers, all of whom currently have more sacks and all of whom have played at a very high level for a long time.
The sack leaderboard among active players could change this year, but even if it doesn't, just because there are a glut of players at the same position retiring (conceivably) at the same time doesn't mean he would never be in the Hall of Fame. It might keep him out on the first ballot, but he shouldn't be kept out for long.
Especially when you look at his career thus far.
Ware has seven Pro Bowl selections to go with four first-team All-Pro nods. Twice he was the leader in sacks in the NFL (2008 and 2010), though in neither case did it get him a Defensive Player of the Year nod—something he has never received.
While he trails Abraham, Allen and Peppers in sacks, his 111 sacks (which places him 19th on the all-time list) are impressive and he has only had a single-digit sack season once in his career. He's done that while not missing one game in his career, even though he has most definitely been banged up many times.
At the end of the day, numbers aside, he has been one of the—if not the—most dominant pass-rushers of his era. When we talk Hall of Fame, it's not necessarily a player versus the Hall—it's how a player sizes up during his time.
Ware has been unstoppable, despite being surrounded at times by guys who don't require much attention.
I'd also like to point out that, upon reflection, I am actually most impressed by the number of assists he has made. We focus on solo tackles sometimes as an end-all, be-all (and he has plenty of those), but if you add in all those assists—120 to date—you have to realize that is an extraordinary amount of time attacking a ball-carrier.
All told, Ware has helped knock a ball-carrier to the ground 537 times. That's a huge amount of time and tells you that Ware is always aware of where the ball is.
So there you go folks. Ware is on the list—where he should have been in the first place.
The following players are just off the list. Some because I want to see how they bounce back from injury or a down year, some because of lack of experience, and some because, while they have skill, they're stuck in a bad situation that might hurt their Hall chances.
As a Jets fan, I love Revis, even if he's playing elsewhere. There are two hesitations I have about him. First, how does he come back from his knee injury? While he had a pair of exceptional seasons, he's still a young player who hasn't cemented his place in history yet.
We've seen corners fall off a cliff (Nnamdi Asomugha, anyone?), so if he can't be who he was, I don't know if the Hall awaits him. Secondly, and this is a pet peeve of mine, but he has always been an inconsistent tackler. A guy with who's played for six (really five and three games) years, I'd like for him to have a complete game, and Revis is not as willing in delivering a hit or wrapping up a ball-carrier as I would like.
Owens has the skill and the numbers. However, I can't help but wonder if his off-the-field nonsense will keep him out of the Hall of Fame. It shouldn't, but we've seen stuff like that hurt guys before. So he's not a lock.
Like Larry Fitzgerald, he has been stuck in nowheresville, and yet he produces 1,000-yard seasons. However, for a running back, the 1,000-yard mark isn't all that impressive and some of his early injuries might hurt him. A big season with the Falcons could help his case, but I think in the end he will be viewed as a good but not special player.
Welker might be seen as a compiler who was made more than he really was by Tom Brady. Of course, going from Brady to Peyton Manning isn't a downgrade, but he needs to stand out from among the group of talented receivers already in Denver.
Gates is a tremendously gifted athlete who cannot stay on the field anymore. His early career numbers might get him in, but I think that voters will see the slow collapse of the last three years and wonder "what if?" The struggles of the offense aren't helping, but he's not transcending them either—something that would have helped him out.
I like Mangold a lot, but centers don't always get Hall love and Mangold has had some up-and-down seasons. That's partially because of the supporting cast, but it's also on him.
Smith has had a great couple of years with the arrival of Cam Newton, but it's really hard to stand out and find your way into the Hall as a wide receiver unless you are very special (like Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson). Given the lack of talent surrounding him in his career, his numbers are impressive. However, in a world where Cris Carter was waiting for years to get in, Steve Smith may never see the inside of the building.
Johnson has great numbers (most of the time), but like Smith, he isn't a guy who stands out as much as those of us who play fantasy football feel he does. Last season he bounced back from an injury-plagued patch, so perhaps another season or two might change my mind. But again, it's tough and crowded to get into the Hall as a receiver, and I'm not sure if Johnson stands out enough.
Who'd I miss? I know you think I missed someone. Let me know down in the comments.
Andrew Garda is the former NFC North Lead Writer and a current NFL analyst and video personality for Bleacher Report. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at Footballguys and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.