One of the great offensive tackles of his generation, Seattle Seahawks legend Walter Jones is set to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Jones, who played all 12 of his NFL seasons in the Pacific Northwest, is one of seven NFL greats receiving their bust in Canton this weekend as a member of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014. He will be joined by Derrick Brooks, Ray Guy, Claude Humphrey, Andre Reed, Michael Strahan and Aeneas Williams.
It came as no surprise that Jones, a nine-time Pro Bowler, was selected for football’s most prestigious club in his first year of eligibility.
Aggressive Draft Strategy Pays Off
The Seattle Seahawks had two targets in the 1997 NFL draft, and they took the risks of trading up for both of them.
First, they traded the No. 11 overall pick, which they had previously acquired from the Chicago Bears for quarterback Rick Mirer, along with the Nos. 41, 70 and 100 overall selections, in exchange for the Atlanta Falcons’ first- and third-round selections. This moved them up to the No. 3 overall slot in the draft, which they used to select Ohio State cornerback Shawn Springs.
Springs had a solid seven-year run in Seattle that included one Pro Bowl berth, but his contributions have become forgettable over time. The Seahawks' second trade up, however, is one Seattle will always be glad it made.
The Seahawks traded their own first-round pick (No. 12 overall) and the third-round pick they acquired from the Falcons (No. 63 overall) to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the draft’s sixth selection. That enabled them to draft Jones.
In modern draft terminology, Jones would have been considered a boom-or-bust prospect.
A junior college transfer, Jones only played one season at Florida State. He was a second-team all-ACC selection that year, but the top-six pick had more to do with his physical potential than anything he had shown on the field.
An analysis of Seattle’s picks following the 1997 draft from Pro Sports Xchange suggested that “Jones was the only player the Seahawks would have traded up to get” after having already moved up for Springs.
As was the case with many teams, Jones grew on the Seahawks. He jumped out at them once they started watching video of his only season at Florida State. He startled them by running 40 yards in 4.67 and 4.71 seconds during his workout in Tallahassee last month. He impressed them during a visit to the team's headquarters the week before the draft.
Just how much do the Seahawks like this guy? Listen to offensive line coach Howard Mudd: "You can make a case that Walter Jones could become close to Orlando Pace. Walter is a very, very athletic player. He's probably the best pure athlete I've seen (among offensive linemen) since the Chris Hinton and Anthony Munoz time.''
Orlando Pace, selected No. 1 overall that year by the St. Louis Rams, might join Jones as a Hall of Fame offensive tackle in the near future. The Ohio State product, whose eligibility for enshrinement begins next year, was a seven-time Pro Bowler.
In hindsight, however, the Rams should have just stayed put with the No. 6 overall pick, which was originally theirs, and selected Jones. A great debate could be had over whether Pace or Jones was the better NFL left tackle, but if the Rams knew what Jones would become, they never would have traded third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks to move up for Pace.
The Rams made that trade with the New York Jets, who then traded down with the Buccaneers before the sixth pick, and with it, one of the greatest offensive linemen who has ever played was ultimately dealt to Seattle.
Jones is the first player from the 1997 draft class to be selected for Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Quick, Clear Rise to Stardom
It was clear right off the bat that Jones was going to be a special player in the NFL.
At least it was clear to Howard Mudd. Earlier this week, Seahawks.com’s Clare Farnsworth recalled an interaction he had with the Seahawks' offensive line coach prior to the first preseason game Jones played in the summer of 1997.
Mudd then proceeded to tell me that Jones not only would play, he was going to start, adding, “And this kid is going to be better than anyone can possibly imagine.” It was only a preseason game, but Jones did line up opposite eventual Hall of Famer Chris Doleman. After Jones was finished with him, it was like, “Did Doleman even play in this game.”
Despite a training camp holdout that led him to miss the team’s first two preseason games, Jones was Seattle’s starting left tackle by Week 1 of his rookie season. He missed four games that year due to injuries, but his performance in 12 games was enough for him to be selected for multiple NFL All-Rookie teams.
Jones continued his ascent up the league’s offensive tackle rankings in his sophomore season. After his third year in 1999, Jones was selected for his first Pro Bowl.
2000s: A Near-Decade of Greatness
As the world survived the dreaded Y2K scare of New Year’s Day 2000, Jones only became stronger with the turn of the century.
Jones was selected for his second Pro Bowl in 2001. Including that year, Jones received a trip to Hawaii for eight consecutive years, all the way through his final playing season in 2008. He earned first-team All-Pro accolades in six of those eight years.
Thanks in no small part to Jones’ regular dominance of defensive ends, Seattle’s offense was ranked among the NFL’s top eight in total offense every year from 2002-2005.
It was especially prolific in 2005. Running back Shaun Alexander was the NFL MVP that year after rushing for 1,880 yards and achieving an NFL-record 28 total touchdowns in the regular season. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck passed for 3,459 yards.
Seattle ranked second in the league in total offense and ended up making a run all the way to Super Bowl XL, where it was defeated by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 21-10, in a game that might have gone the other way if not for officiating gaffes.
Prior to the following season, Sporting News selected Jones as the No. 1 player in the NFL on its ranking of the league’s 101 best players.
Early in the decade, analysts weren’t yet convinced that Seattle had made the right decision in trading up for Jones.
In a 2002 review of the 1997 draft, Slate.com’s Robert Weintraub wrote that Jones and Springs “accept big paychecks to imitate impact players.” In a review that same year by ESPN.com’s Ryan Early (subscription required), Jones’ value was considered to be lower than his draft position, despite being described as “an outstanding left tackle.”
Those mocking reviews of the Seahawks—at a point where Jones had already made two Pro Bowls—look as foolish now as the assessments (mine included) following the 2012 NFL draft that suggested Seattle “reached” in selecting Russell Wilson with a third-round pick.
Jones’ run of dominance came to an end in November 2008, when he suffered a knee injury that required microfracture surgery. He attempted to return for the 2009 season but ended up being placed on injured reserve without playing a single game. In April 2010, he announced his retirement.
Commemoration of a Legend
To those who watched Jones’ career unfold as it happened, it should have been perfectly clear—even to those who don’t usually pay attention to offensive linemen—that he should be remembered as one of the greats of his generation.
The 6’5” behemoth had an exceptional blend of size, power, athleticism and technical skill. He regularly shut down pass-rushers to protect the quarterback, while he excelled at driving defenders off the line and covering ground to capture run blocks.
According to ESPN.com's Terry Blount, who selected Jones as the No. 1 all-time Seahawk earlier this year, Jones allowed just 23 sacks and was flagged for only nine holding penalties over the course of his entire career.
Jones received no shortage of individual accolades throughout his career, but the most prestigious will come Saturday, when he receives his gold jacket and officially earns his place in professional football’s hallowed shrine.
“From Day One, once I got in the league, that was the standard that I set – that I wanted to be a guy that when you talk about offensive linemen I wanted my name to come up,” Jones told Seahawks.com earlier this week.
As Jones becomes immortalized as an all-time great this weekend, he can rest assured that no discussion on the sport’s best blockers can be complete without remembering the Seahawks great.
All statistics courtesy of ProFootballHOF.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.