Canton Conundrum: Best Special Teams Players Not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
We conclude the position-by-position look at the best eligible players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame by looking at the top special teams players who have not yet earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
While special teams has long been considered an important element of winning football, special teams players have never really received much recognition or respect.
It doesn’t take long to call roll for the special teams players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There is only one player in the Hall of Fame, kicker Jan Stenerud, who never played on either offense or defense.
There are several players, including Yale Lary, Paul Hornung, George Blanda, Lou Groza, Gale Sayers, Mel Renfro, and Sammy Baugh, who contributed to their team either as a placekicker, punter or returner. However, in each case they also played either offense or defense at a level that warrants their Hall of Fame selection.
Now I am not suggesting that there are a plethora of kickers, punters, return specialists, or kamikaze tacklers who should be in the Hall of Fame. However, given the emphasis placed on special teams and how much they can contribute to the success, or failure, of a team, I do think there are some specialists who have stood out over their careers and deserve consideration.
In determining this list I considered any player who spent significant time as a punter, placekicker, return man or even as a regular participant as a tackler and blocker on special teams as being eligible.
While I primarily looked at their prowess as a specialist, I did give some "extra credit" if a player also regularly contributed to his team on either offense or defense.
I considered season and career statistics, All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition and performance in "clutch" moments when the game was on the line.
So, here is my list of the top 10 eligible linebackers not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I look forward to your comments, discussion, and disagreements.
The series will conclude with two lists that will be released this weekend that highlight the top 10 players (regardless of position) deemed to be worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame as well as a list of 10 Hall of Famers that perhaps should not have been enshrined.
Best of the Rest
To help frame the conversation and provide an understanding of which special teams players received significant consideration for this list of the top 10 eligible special team players not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, here are the players who earned spots 11 to 25 on my list.
Unlike most other positions, there are only a handful of special teams players in NFL history who have been worthy of even a casual mention for the Hall of Fame. So, there were not a lot of worthy candidates who did not make the top 25.
Only players who are currently eligible for the Hall of Fame were considered.
11. Speedy Duncan
12. Ron Smith
13. Terry Metcalf
14. Mark Mosley
15. Jim Turner
16. Rick Upchurch
17. Tommy Davis
18. Buddy Young
19. Desmond Howard
20. Jim Bakken
21. Eric Metcalf
22. Pete Stoyanovich
23. Lynn Chandois
24. Eddie Murray
25. Pat Leahy
10. Dave Meggett—New York Giants/New England Patriots/New York Jets—1989-1998
A 5'7" sparkplug, Dave Meggett was a dangerous return man and also capable of making a big play as part of the offense.
Meggett made an immediate splash for the Giants in 1989 as he led the league in punt return yards while also contributing as a kickoff returner and receiver out of the backfield. He totaled 1,807 all-purpose yards and was selected to the Pro Bowl.
The following season, Meggett helped the Giants to victory in Super Bowl XXV.
In six seasons with the Giants, Meggett ranked among the league leaders in punt return average and all-purpose yards.
After moving to the Patriots in 1995, Meggett became even more valuable to the success of his team than he had been in New York.
Meggett established a career-high with 1,931 all-purpose yards in 1995. The following season he was named to the Pro Bowl after averaging 11.3 yards per punt return and 23 yards per kickoff return.
After three seasons in New England, Meggett completed his career with a year as a member of the New York Jets.
In 10 seasons, Meggett accumulated 13,996 all-purpose yards. He ranks second in NFL history with 3,708 punt return yards and his seven touchdowns on punt returns ranks sixth in NFL history.
He also averaged 22.1 yards per kickoff return, caught 336 passes and rushed for 1,684 yards in his career.
9. Norm Johnson—Seattle Seahawks/Atlanta Falcons/Pittsburgh Steelers/Philadelphia Eagles—1982-1999
Norm Johnson was such a consistent kicker during his 18-year NFL career that he was known as “Mr. Automatic.”
He spent his first nine seasons in Seattle and connected on 69.7 percent of his field goal attempts and 98.5 percent of his extra points. In 1984 he scored 110 points and was named to the Pro Bowl and first team All-Pro.
After leaving Seattle, he spent four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and was even better as he converted 86.6 percent of his field goals and missed only one extra point. He scored 112 points in 1993 and made the Pro Bowl.
In 1995 he moved to Pittsburgh and that season established career-highs with 34 field goals and 141 points.
He eclipsed the 100 points scored mark nine times in his career and ranks eighth all-time with 1,736 points. He ranks 47th in NFL history with a conversion rate of 76.7 percent on field goal attempts.
8. Mel J. Gray—New Orleans Saints/Detroit Lions/ Houston Oilers/Philadelphia Eagles—1986-1997
Capable of breaking free for a touchdown every time he touched the ball, Mel Gray was the top return in football for a decade.
After starting his pro career in the USFL, he joined the New Orleans Saints in 1986 and made an immediate impact. He ranked second in the NFL with a 27.9 yard per return average and had a 101-yard return for a touchdown.
In 1987 he led the NFL with an average of 14.7 yards per punt return.
After moving to Detroit, he earned first team All-Pro honors and was named to the Pro Bowl in 1990.
In 1991, Gray accomplished the rare double of leading the NFL in kickoff return average and punt return average in the same season to earn All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors for the second time. He also earned Pro Bowl honors in 1992.
In 1994 Gray scored three touchdowns on kickoff returns, including a 102-yard return. He led the NFL with an average of 28.4 yards per kickoff return and was named All-Pro for the third time and was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl.
His 10,250 yards returning kickoffs ranks third in NFL history and he averaged 24.3 yards per return. He also averaged 10.9 yards per punt return and ranks 14th in NFL history with 2,753 yards returning punts.
Gray ranks third in NFL history with a combined total of 13,003 yards returning kicks and punts.
7. Gino Cappelletti—New England Patriots—1960-1970
In many ways, Gino Cappelletti epitomized the early years of the American Football League. While the NFL was becoming more specialized and tougher to break into, the AFL provided former college stars with a new place to play and its “wild west” mentality allowed players to contribute in a wide variety of ways.
A college quarterback at the University of Minnesota, Cappelletti played two years in the Canadian Football League, but had not played professionally since 1957 when the AFL started in 1960.
Cappelletti signed with the Boston Patriots and immediately began to show his versatility.
Though he wouldn’t play quarterback for the Patriots, Cappelletti did just about everything else during his 11 years with the team.
He immediately assumed duties as the starting kicker and in 1960 also was a starting defensive back. He had four interceptions, including three swipes of passes by Tom Flores of the Oakland Raiders.
The following season he moved to offense and quickly became a favorite target of quarterback Babe Parilli. He led the team with 45 receptions for 768 yards and eight touchdowns in 1961.
Cappelletti led the AFL with 147 points scored in 1961, something he would accomplish five times in a six year stretch as he scored at least 113 points for six straight years. He was made the first of five Pro Bowl appearances in 1961.
In 1964, Cappelletti was named the AFL Player of the Year as he scored an AFL record 155 points and also caught a career-high 49 passes for 865 yards and seven touchdowns.
Cappelletti was the consistent star for the Patriots as he was one of only three players to play in every game in the 10-year history of the AFL.
He led the Patriots in receiving four times and scoring for 10 straight seasons. His 155 points scored during the 1964 season still rank as the 10th highest single-season point total in NFL/AFL history.
Over his 11-year career, Cappelletti caught 292 passes for 4,589 yards and 42 touchdowns. He scored 1,130 points to rank as the all-time points leader for the AFL.
6. Reggie Roby—Miami/Washington/Tampa Bay/Houston/San Francisco—1983-1998
With his distinct two-step and high arching kicking style, Reggie Roby developed into one of the most successful punters in NFL history.
He joined the Miami Dolphins in 1983 and the following season earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors while finishing second in the NFL with an average of 44.7 yards per punt.
In 1991, he led the NFL with a career-best average of 45.7 yards per punt.
He joined the Washington Redskins in 1993 and the following season earned Pro Bowl honors for the third time and All-Pro recognition for the second time in his career as he averaged 44.4 yards per kick.
Roby averaged at least 43 yards per punt in nine seasons and finished with a career average of 43.3 yards per punt. He ranked 17th in NFL history at the time of his retirement and still ranks 34th in league history.
5. Billy White Shoes Johnson—Houston Oilers/Atlanta Falcons/Washington Redskins—1974-1988
Few players have electrified the game more than Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. Though only 5'9" and 170 pounds, Johnson could change the complexion of a game in just seconds.
He was known across the NFL for his exciting end zone performances following a touchdown and got to show off his skills often as he returned eight punts and kicks for touchdowns and overall scored 35 touchdowns during his career.
As a rookie in 1974 he led the NFL in combined yards returning kicks and punts. He was fifth in the NFL with a 27.1-yard average per kick return and ranked seventh in punt returns at 13.6 yards per return.
The following season he led the NFL with an average of 15.3 yards per punt return and scored three touchdowns to earn Pro Bowl honors for the first time.
He also led the NFL in punt return average in 1977 and was named first team All-Pro as well as earning Pro Bowl selection.
After being hampered by injuries in 1978 and 1979 and then being used exclusively as a receiver in 1980, Johnson left the Houston Oilers and spent a year in the Canadian Football League before returning to the NFL in 1982 with the Atlanta Falcons.
Johnson was used extensively as a receiver for the Falcons, but also continued to dazzle with his punt returns. He averaged better than 10 yards per return four times in six seasons with the Falcons.
For his career, Johnson ranks sixth in NFL history with 3,317 yards returning punts and his 11.8 average per return is 13th best all-time. He still ranks in the top 100 in NFL history with 10,785 all-purpose yards.
He also caught 337 passes for 4,211 yards and 25 scores.
4. Nick Lowery—New England Patriots/Kansas City Chiefs/New York Jets—1978-1996
No kicker of his era was more accurate kicking the ball than Nick Lowery.
During his 18-year career, Lowery converted 80 percent of his field goal attempts and 98.9 percent of his extra points.
Replacing future Hall of Famer Jan Stenerud as the kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs, Lowery was even better than Stenerud with his accuracy and long-range kicking.
Lowery scored more than 100 points 11 times. He led the NFL with 139 points in 1990.
He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and twice earned first team All-Pro.
After 14 seasons in Kansas City, Lowery finished his career with three years with the New York Jets.
He completed his career with 1,711 points, which ranked second in NFL history at the time of his retirement and still is ninth all-time.
3. Steve Tasker—Houston Oilers/Buffalo Bills—1985-1997
Steve Tasker is generally recognized as the best punt and kick coverage man in NFL history.
In his role as a gunner, Tasker was known for his ferocious hits and for making first contact with the return man.
A seven-time Pro Bowl selection, Tasker was the first player to be elevated to superstar status almost exclusively due to his role covering kicks and punts.
He occasionally returned kicks (44 returns, 20.7 ypr) and punts (32 returns, 10.5 ypr), but did most of his damage covering kicks. He is credited with seven forced fumbles and six recoveries in his career.
It is hard to make a solid argument for someone entering the Hall of Fame who had no true position, but Tasker was such a disruptive force covering kicks that his induction may be justified.
He forever changed the way that coverage players are judged and valued.
2. Ray Guy—Oakland Raiders—1973-1986
No player is more synonymous with the punting position than Ray Guy.
He is credited with leading the NFL into an era where the value of punters was more readily noticed and hang-time and field position were tracked and recognized by television announcers.
The 6'3" 195 pound guy burst onto the scene in 1973 as the Oakland Raiders made the unprecedented move of using their first round selection on a punter from Southern Mississippi.
Guy did not disappoint as he averaged 45.3 yards per punt and forever elevating the status of punters.
At the 1976 Pro Bowl he became the first punter to hit the video screen at the Louisiana Superdome, prompting them to raise the screen from 90 to 200 feet above the field.
He led the NFL in punting average three times and averaged 43 or more yards per punt in five different seasons. For his career, Guy averaged 42.4 yards per punt, which ranked 24th all-time at the time of his retirement and is currently tied for 62nd.
Guy was a member of three Super Bowl teams with the Raiders. He was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and a three-time first team All-Pro. In 1994 he was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team.
There is no question that guy had a tremendous impact on the game and is a worthy candidate for the Hall of Fame. He has been a finalist for the Hall seven times, but has yet to earn installment.
However, while I entered development of this list expecting him to be the clear No. 1 special teams player not in the Hall of Fame, after reviewing the career records, it was evident that while Guy changed the game, he wasn’t significantly better over his entire career than other punters and therefore not quite as deserving of the number one ranking.
1. Brian Mitchell—Washington Redskins/Philadelphia Eagles/ New York Giants—1990-2003
He may not have possessed the flash of other top kick and punt return men, but in NFL history no one has been better at returning the ball than Brian Mitchell.
During his 14-year career, he consistently was among the league leaders in both kickoff and punt return averages. He led the NFL in punt return average in 1994 and ranked in the top 10 in the league seven times. He was among the league leaders in kickoff return average four times and total kickoff return yards eight times.
Also used as a running back and receiver, Mitchell led the NFL in all-purpose yards four times.
He ranks as the NFL’s all-time leader in punt return yards (4,999), kick return yards (14,014) and total yards returning punts and kickoffs (19,013). His nine punt return touchdowns are the second most of all-time and his four kickoff returns for scores rank 14th all-time.
Mitchell rushed for 1,967 yards in his career (5.1 yards per carry) and caught 255 passes for 2,336 yards. He ranks second in NFL history with 23,316 all-purpose yards.