2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame Watch – The Top 50 Active Resumes

Surefire first-ballot players:

  1. QB Peyton Manning
  2. QB Tom Brady

These two stand far and away on top of the pack.

Borderline first-ballot players:

  1. TE Tony Gonzalez
  2. S Ed Reed
  3. CB Champ Bailey
  4. QB Drew Brees
  5. DT Kevin Williams

Tony Gonzalez, who just completed his last season, is by most standards, the greatest tight end of all time. Will that be enough to get him into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot?

The problem is not merely that no tight end has done so before, the problem is that pretty much every tight end had to wait multiple years to get in. Shannon Sharpe was snubbed twice before finally being inducted. John Mackey placed about three spots ahead of Gonzalez when the NFL Network did their “Top 100 Greatest Players” some years ago, after Sharpe’s first snub but before he got in, but didn’t get into the Hall of Fame until twenty years after he retired, when his eligibility was close to up. Gonzalez has likely passed Mackey in the intervening time, and I doubt Gonzalez will have to wait any later than the second ballot, but will the voters be willing to take that big a leap?

On the other hand, Sharpe’s first snub attracted considerable outrage in several corners, suggesting there’s considerable support for the notion of voting a tight-end in first ballot, support that would be even stronger for Gonzalez. For the Hall of Fame voters to continue their past position on tight ends ignores the nature of the position in today’s NFL, where it has basically become a variant of the wide receiver position (see: the ongoing controversy over what position Jimmy Graham would be franchised under). If any tight end merited the honor represented by first-ballot Hall of Fame status, it would likely be Gonzalez. I would be very surprised, maybe even shocked, if Gonzalez didn’t go in first ballot. But I can’t say it’ll happen with absolute certainty. We’re talking about unprecedented territory here, both with the player and the circumstance we’re ascribing to him.

Surefire Hall of Famers:

  1. TE Antonio Gates
  2. S Troy Polamalu
  3. CB Charles Woodson
  4. TE Jason Witten
  5. DE Julius Peppers
  6. DE Dwight Freeney
  7. LB DeMarcus Ware
  8. RB Adrian Peterson
  9. WR Andre Johnson

I was torn on whether or not to keep Richard Seymour on the list; rumors swirled around him potentially being sought out by teams as late as October, but he’d also indicated he was fine with retiring if he wasn’t picked up at any point in the season. My thinking is that Seymour’s career is almost certainly over, but the main thing that convinced me to remove his name from the list was to remove some awkwardness on the Players to Watch list.

Borderline Hall of Famers:

  1. WR Larry Fitzgerald
  2. WR Steve Smith
  3. WR Wes Welker
  4. DE Jared Allen
  5. WR Calvin Johnson
  6. QB Aaron Rodgers
  7. WR Reggie Wayne
  8. LB Patrick Willis
  9. OT Joe Thomas
  10. RB Jamaal Charles
  11. DE Haloti Ngata
  12. DE John Abraham
  13. CB Darrelle Revis
  14. RB LeSean McCoy
  15. QB Eli Manning
  16. QB Michael Vick
  17. P Shane Lechler
  18. WR Brandon Marshall
  19. RB Arian Foster
  20. QB Ben Roethlisberger
  21. QB Philip Rivers
  22. FB Vonta Leach
  23. KR Devin Hester
  24. K Adam Vinatieri
  25. RB Maurice Jones-Drew

You may be wondering why Calvin Johnson and Aaron Rodgers aren’t on the surefire list, when you probably see them as first-ballot guys. This is what’s so interesting about looking at players’ resumes if they retired right now. Johnson could threaten several of Jerry Rice’s records, but he’s only made the Pro Bowl (without getting in as an alternate) four of his seven years in the league – pretty good, and his less-good years can be chalked up to playing for bad Lions teams (much as with Fitzgerald and the Cardinals), but he might need one more good year to make the leap (certainly the surefire list could use him). Rodgers is especially interesting, and a possible cautionary tale for Johnson, as he had shockingly elevated himself in just a few years into one of the best QBs in the league and a surefire first-ballot HOFer if he kept it up… but one wonders if he’s starting to get overshadowed. He had a Pro-Bowl-caliber year in 2012, but a far cry from his masterful 2011, and missed a good chunk of 2013. Both could still end up being remembered as flashes-in-the-pan who were, for a brief time, two of the best at their positions in the entire league, Johnson inspiring people to mention his name in the same sentence with Rice, Rodgers a figure on par with Brady and Manning who picked up a ring along the way, and two of the great what-could-have-been stories. Would that be enough to get them into the Hall of Fame? Maybe… but it’d be a pretty long wait.

Even more interesting would be Vinatieri: very few non-quarterbacks have been propelled into the Hall of Fame on the strength of their Super Bowls… but Vinatieri could be one of them, despite being a kicker, a position with only one other representative in the Hall at all. And while every quarterback with multiple Super Bowl wins is in the Hall of Fame except Jim Plunkett, they all have substantially better resumes than Roethlisberger (who has only two Pro Bowl selections), which is why he’s so low.

Need work:

  • RB Chris Johnson
  • RB Marshawn Lynch
  • DT Justin Smith
  • S Adrian Wilson
  • OT Jahri Evans
  • LB Lance Briggs
  • CB Nnamdi Asomugha

When I put Maurice Jones-Drew on the “borderline” side of the list I agonized endlessly over what side of the line he fell on. Chris Johnson was on the “players to watch” list with an exclamation mark next to his name last year and I believe the year before as well. Now that it was time for him to graduate off that list, I realized he had the same or better resume than Jones-Drew. (Keeping Jones-Drew off the Players to Watch list may have played a part in my motivation.) But when I started this I swore that I would never bump anyone down a category once they made it to a given category (except for “needs work” players falling out of the top 50) or to move anyone up a category unless they actively improved their standing, and neither happened. On the other hand, I’m no longer sure how much Ray Rice ever deserved his exclamation mark last year…

Players to watch for the future (exclamation marks indicate players with resumes already strong enough to be among the top 50):

  • LB Clay Matthews (5th year)
  • DE Cameron Wake (5th year)
  • DT Ndamukong Suh (4th year)
  • C Maurkice Pouncey (4th year)
  • TE Jimmy Graham (4th year)
  • LB Navarro Bowman (4th year)
  • S Earl Thomas (4th year)!
  • QB Cam Newton (3rd year)
  • LB Von Miller (3rd year)
  • WR A.J. Green (3rd year)
  • DE J.J. Watt (3rd year)
  • LB Aldon Smith (3rd year)
  • CB Patrick Peterson (3rd year)!
  • CB Richard Sherman (3rd year)
  • QB Andrew Luck (2nd year)
  • QB Russell Wilson (2nd year)
  • WR Josh Gordon (2nd year)
  • LB Luke Kuechly (2nd year)
  • RB Eddie Lacy (Rookie)
  • WR Keenan Allen (Rookie)

No rookies wowed everyone the way they have the past few years, with the possible exception of Eddie Lacy.

Players to watch for the Class of 2018:

  • LB Ray Lewis
  • WR Randy Moss
  • DT Richard Seymour
  • LB Brian Urlacher
  • CB Ronde Barber
  • G Steve Hutchison

This is a loaded class even if Seymour’s career isn’t over. Lewis is a surefire first-ballot guy, and as explained last year that’ll provide cover for the voters to hold Urlacher back a year when he doesn’t really have a first-ballot resume anyway; Moss has a chance to join him, depending on how the voters feel about his extracurricular activities and the state of the WR backlog, but Seymour does not. Barber and Hutchison were the two names at the very back of the surefire list last year, so they may have lengthy waits.