10 NFL Veterans Who Have More to Prove to Get into Hall of Fame

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2021

10 NFL Veterans Who Have More to Prove to Get into Hall of Fame

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    For most NFL players, winning Super Bowls is more important than any individual accolade. The one possible exception is a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

    Only the best of the best ever to play the game end up enshrined in Canton, and while some Hall of Famers might trade in their bust for a Lombardi Trophy, most would not. Dan Marino, arguably the best quarterback to never win a Super Bowl, is among the latter group.

    Drew Brees, who retired this offseason, is likely to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Julio Jones and Aaron Donald probably will be as well. However, some of the game's biggest stars aren't there quite yet.

    Here, we'll examine 10 current players who are on the cusp of being Hall of Fame-worthy but still have more left to prove. These are repeat Pro Bowlers and All-Pros, statistical league leaders and/or have the longevity and consistency needed to be considered among the best in NFL history.

    We'll examine their resumes, their outlooks for the 2021 season and what they still need to accomplish to lock up spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Players are listed in alphabetical order.

A.J. Green, WR, Arizona Cardinals

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Early in his career, A.J. Green appeared to be on a collision course with Canton. The No. 4 overall pick in 2011 made the Pro Bowl in each of his first seven NFL seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.

    Unfortunately, injuries limited Green to only nine games between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and he was a shell of his former self in 2020. He played in all 16 games but finished with a career-low 523 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

    During Green's time with Cincinnati, playoff wins also eluded him. But with 9,430 career receiving yards and 65 receiving touchdowns on his resume, the Hall of Fame is still a realistic possibility for him.

    To make it to Canton, Green will need to revitalize his career, beginning this season with the Arizona Cardinals. Notching a playoff win or two would help his case, as would getting back to the Pro Bowl.

    Luckily, Green is in a fantastic situation. Quarterback Kyler Murray is an emerging star, and the presence of DeAndre Hopkins should provide the 32-year-old with plenty of one-on-one coverage opportunities.

    Green stands a good chance of surpassing the coveted 10,000-yard career mark in 2021, which fewer than 50 NFL players have reached. That wouldn't guarantee him entry into the Hall of Fame, but it could set him back on the right path.

    Should Green, who will turn 33 later this month, earn a few more Pro Bowl nods and finish in the top 20 in career receiving yards—Julio Jones is currently 20th with 12,896—he will have a great shot at earning a bust.

Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry is 27 years old and has been in the NFL for only five seasons. However, he's already one of the best pure runners ever to play.

    In his five seasons, Henry has racked up 5,860 rushing yards and 55 rushing touchdowns. He's won back-to-back league rushing titles and topped the fabled 2,000-yard rushing mark in 2020.

    Only four players have rushed for more yards in a season than Henry did last year, and two of them—Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders—are already in the Hall of Fame. Adrian Peterson, who ran for 2,097 yards in 2012, will likely join them five years from his retirement date.

    Henry possesses a rare blend of power and breakaway speed. He has produced runs of 74 or more yards in each of the past four seasons, including a record-tying 99-yard touchdown run in 2018. He's also one of the toughest runners in the NFL to bring down.

    "Henry has 2,758 yards after contact since the start of the 2019 season, almost 1,000 more than any other back in that span," Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus wrote in July.

    A two-time Pro Bowler, one-time first-team All-Pro and the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Henry can rush his way into Canton simply by staying on the field. He is 4,140 yards away from cracking the 10,00-yard mark, a feat which only 31 NFL backs have accomplished.

    Henry would need to average just over 1,000 yards for four more seasons to reach the 10,000-yard mark, and he should gain far more than 1,000 this season alone. Even after trading for Julio Jones, it's highly unlikely that Tennessee will stop making Henry the centerpiece of its offense in 2021.

DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Arizona Cardinals

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    A.J. Green isn't the only Arizona Cardinals receiver with a shot at reaching Canton. Fellow wideout DeAndre Hopkins is on that path as well.

    Hopkins, who just turned 29 earlier this month, is already 49th on the all-time receiving list. He has 10,009 career receiving yards, 60 touchdown receptions, five Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro appearances on his resume. Despite having a rotating cast of quarterbacks early in his career, he has failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark in only two of his eight pro campaigns.

    Hopkins has shown no signs of slowing down, either.

    In his first season with Kyler Murray, he caught 115 passes for 1,407 yards and six touchdowns. There's little reason to think that Hopkins won't be just as productive with Murray and the Cardinals in 2021. In fact, the addition of Green might help him be even better by taking away at least some of the defensive attention.

    Still, Hopkins can't be considered a Hall of Famer yet.

    Much like Green, a lack of postseason success (only two wins) dilutes his resume. Career receiving yards won't make him a lock, either, as the rise of passing offenses and the expansion to a 17-game season will water down the importance of the 10,000-yard mark. Players like Brandon Marshall, Chad Johnson and Derrick Mason have all topped that threshold and aren't widely considered Hall of Famers.

    Hopkins will either need to go on a deep playoff run or continue playing at a high level for at least a few more seasons to reach Canton. The second goal may be a formality, though.

Justin Houston, Edge, Free Agent

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    Justin Houston is a potential Hall of Famer, but he remains without a team for now. Like Adrian Peterson—who is a virtual lock for the Hall—Houston remains unsigned with the preseason quickly approaching.

    Age has likely worked against Houston, who turned 32 in January. Although he isn't the same game-wrecker that he was when he led the league in sacks in 2014, he amassed eight sacks and 25 quarterback pressures with the Indianapolis Colts last season.

    "I want to be known as one of the best to ever play the game, so that’s my motivation for my success," Houston said after that 2014 season, per Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star.

    Houston has produced only one double-digit-sack season since 2014, but his consistency has helped vault him into a tie for 37th on the all-time sacks list (97.5). If he can continue averaging eight sacks per season for the next three years, he'll be right outside the top 20.

    With four Pro Bowls, one first-team All-Pro appearance and 451 career tackles already on his resume, a top-20 finish might be enough for Houston to cement a Hall of Fame resume. Landing with a contender and winning a ring would almost guarantee his spot in Canton.

    The first step for Houston is finding a home for the 2021 season.

Chandler Jones, Edge, Arizona Cardinals

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Arizona Cardinals edge-rusher Chandler Jones is only a half-sack behind Justin Houston on the all-time sacks list. Despite missing the bulk of the 2020 season with a biceps injury, he already has 97 sacks, 432 combined tackles and 27 forced fumbles on his career resume.

    Jones is also a three-time Pro Bowler and a two-time first-team All-Pro. He led the NFL in sacks in 2017 and won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots in 2014.

    Although Jones is one of only two players featured here with a ring, he wouldn't be a Hall of Fame lock if he retired today. Pure edge-rushers with fewer than 100 career sacks often don't get in—Howie Long is the notable exception—and that's likely to become even more true in the 17-game era.

    Jones will have to prove that he's back to his pre-injury form and then continue playing at a high level for at least a few more seasons. Finishing in the top 20 in sacks with a Super Bowl win on his resume might do the trick, and winning a second Super Bowl would likely do the same.

    Fortunately, Jones only turned 31 in February and should have a few more solid seasons ahead of him. As long as he's back to 100 percent, he should continue his bolstering his Hall of Fame case in 2021.

Khalil Mack, Edge, Chicago Bears

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Khalil Mack is only a year younger than Chandler Jones, and he has 26.5 fewer sacks on his career resume. However, the Chicago Bears pass-rusher may have a similar chance of reaching Canton.

    While Mack's resume is shorter than those of Jones and Justin Houston, he has been consistently great during his seven pro seasons. The Buffalo product didn't make the Pro Bowl as a rookie, but he has made the Pro Bowl every year since. He also has three first-team All-Pro appearances and was named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.

    As is often the case, sacks don't tell the whole story of Mack's dominance. While he has not produced double-digit sacks in either of the last two seasons, he has racked up 76 quarterback pressures, 19 tackles for loss and eight forced fumbles during that span.

    Still, Mack must continue being a perennial Pro Bowler to reach the Hall of Fame. Players have gotten in with short but spectacular careers—Calvin Johnson is a recent example—but voters will want to see more out of a pass-rusher in the pass-first NFL era.

    Even with his current resume, Mack will probably have to top 100 career sacks to sniff Canton. Playoff success would also help, as Mack has never won a playoff game, although he has had little control over that.

    The good news is that Mack will have a great opportunity to add to his resume in 2021. The Bears are likely to upgrade the quarterback position with Andy Dalton and/or Justin Fields. A more consistent offense should lead to more pass-rushing opportunities for Mack and perhaps that elusive playoff win.

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the only player featured here with fewer than five pro seasons under his belt. With all due respect to young stars like Alvin Kamara, T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett, four seasons is not enough time to guarantee entry into the Hall of Fame.

    Mahomes has been a full-time starter for only three seasons, but what he accomplished in that span is remarkable. He's been to the AFC title game three times, played in two Super Bowls, has one Lombardi Trophy and has been both regular-season and Super Bowl MVP.

    In his three years as a starter, Mahomes has also made the Pro Bowl every year and was a first-team All-Pro in 2018. He already has 14,152 passing yards and 114 passing touchdowns—with just 24 interceptions—on his resume, too.

    Mahomes wouldn't necessarily be a Hall of Famer if he retired tomorrow, though. He has the individual accolades and team playoff success needed to get in, but he doesn't have the longevity or the numbers yet.

    As a starter, Mahomes has averaged 4,263 yards and 38 touchdowns per season. Should he play six more years at that rate, he would be at 39,730 passing yards and 342 passing touchdowns. That would place him in the top 30 on the all-time passing list and in the top 12 for passing touchdowns.

    Those numbers along with a Super Bowl win and an NFL MVP would likely make Mahomes a surefire Hall of Famer at 31 years old. His career figures to continue long after that, too.

    At this point for Mahomes, it's all about staying healthy and continuing to add to his statistical resume.

Cam Newton, QB, New England Patriots

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Injuries have derailed what once appeared to be a surefire Hall of Fame career for quarterback Cam Newton.

    Newton was hampered by a shoulder injury in 2018 and missed 14 games in 2019 with a foot injury. The Carolina Panthers dumped him the following offseason, and he spent 2020 with the New England Patriots.

    Unfortunately, Newton struggled with his passing consistency in 2020 (eight touchdowns, 10 interceptions and an 82.9 passer rating) and may be on the verge of losing his starting job. New England re-signed Newton in the offseason but then drafted Alabama quarterback Mac Jones in the first round.

    If Newton can resurrect his career in New England or elsewhere—a la Kurt Warner—he could still make the Hall of Fame.

    Newton has never won a Super Bowl, but he has appeared in one. He's also a three-time Pro Bowler, a one-time first-team All-Pro and has 31,698 passing yards and 190 passing touchdowns on his resume. Perhaps more impressively, he has 5,398 career rushing yards and 70 rushing touchdowns, too.

    Currently, Newton is 32nd on the all-time rushing touchdowns list. He's first among quarterbacks by a wide margin—Steve Young is second on the list with 43—and has set the bar for modern dual-threat signal-callers.

    The 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year and 2015 league MVP has already accomplished enough to command the attention of Hall of Fame voters. A second stint as a high-level starter should put him into Canton.

    Fortunately, Newton is only 32 years old and has time to put his career back on a Hall of Fame path.

Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    Now that Philip Rivers has retired, debates are likely to rage over whether the 17-year veteran—who never missed a start due to injury—deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. From a purely statistical standpoint, Rivers' 63,440 passing yards, fifth-most in NFL history, might be enough.

    Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is likely to be in a similar situation a few years from now unless he finally wins a Super Bowl. He hasn't quite gotten to Rivers' level statistically, but with 55,767 passing yards, he's already ninth on the all-time list.

    Like Cam Newton, Ryan has a Super Bowl appearance and a league MVP on his resume. He was also named Offensive Rookie of the Year back in 2008. He led the league in completion percentage (68.6) in 2012, touchdown percentage (7.1) in 2016 and completions (408, 407) in both 2019 and 2020.

    In 2021, Ryan will get the chance to prove that he isn't simply a product of playing with Julio Jones at receiver. With Jones now in Tennessee, Ryan will be Hall of Fame-worthy within a few seasons if he can continue producing at a high level. 

    Ryan has averaged 4,290 passing yards per year as a pro. If he maintains that rate, he would be in the top five in all-time passing yards within two years. Only Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning would have more career passing yards than Ryan at that point.

    Ryan's career could easily last longer than two more years, too. He turned 36 in May, and 40 is no longer a cutoff point for NFL quarterbacks.

    For Ryan, the trick will be staying healthy—he's missed only three games as a pro—and continue racking up the numbers. Getting that elusive Super Bowl win would also punch his ticket to Canton.

Matthew Stafford, QB, Los Angeles Rams

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Matthew Stafford has neither the raw statistics nor the individual accolades of Matt Ryan. He's a one-time Pro Bowler who has never notched a playoff win. However, he's also been stuck on terrible Detroit Lions teams.

    Despite regularly having a lackluster supporting cast, Stafford ranks 16h on the all-time passing yards list with 45,109. He has 282 passing touchdowns and has topped the 4,000-yard mark eight different times.

    The 33-year-old is now getting a fresh start with the Los Angeles Rams. Stafford has the best roster of his career and may finally have a legitimate shot at winning a Super Bowl or at least NFL MVP in 2021.

    "He's going to be in the MVP race because they're going to put up huge numbers with [Sean] McVay's offense," NFL Network's Peter Schrager said on Good Morning Football (h/t John Maakaron of All Lions). "He's got all those great receivers, that great offensive line, one of the best defenses in the league."

    One Super Bowl ring should be enough to get Stafford into the Hall of Fame at this point, and a few more Pro Bowl appearances and some playoff wins might do the same. Those could come in Los Angeles, but Stafford might still have been on a Hall of Fame track in Detroit.

    At his current clip of 3,759 passing yards per season, Stafford would surpass Philip Rivers on the all-time list within five seasons. Stafford would be 38 at that point and could conceivably play into his 40s.

    If Stafford can stay healthy, continue racking up statistics and finally achieve some postseason success, he might wind up in Canton.


    Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.


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