With the injuries to Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger, and with Eli Manning being benched for someone that was considered a massive reach when the Giants took him sixth overall and pretty much everyone being fine with it even before Daniel Jones’ star-making performance in his first start, many have spent this past week wondering whether we’re seeing a changing of the guard in the NFL.
As in culture more generally, the 2010s have felt more like a weird extension of the 2000s than a decade in their own right, certainly at the quarterback position. Many of the biggest names at quarterback played large chunks of the previous decade. Of the six quarterbacks with five or more Pro Bowl selections, only two, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson, entered the league after the 2004 draft that boasted Roethlisberger, Manning, and Philip Rivers. Tom Brady has been so timeless he’s likely going to become the first quarterback to be on two different All-Decade teams – and not only that, make the first team on both. Part of this has been the result of the reduction in practices after the 2011 CBA, and part of it is simply because quarterback is a position where it’s easier for a player to stay in the game for a decade or more, but it definitely feels like the game has been in stasis for the past decade.
Besides marking the 100th season of the NFL, 2019 marks the end of the decade of the 2010s, and with it will come the selection of the All-Decade Team of the 2010s. Selection to the All-Decade Team can mean more than bragging rights; the selection committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame also selects the members of the All-Decade Team, and Hall voters seem to tend to favor All-Decade players when possible. Below I’ve attempted to figure out what players are likely to make the All-Decade team and what it could mean for their Hall of Fame chances (or at least provide a starting point for the latter), based primarily on first-team All-Pro selections and Pro Bowl selections from 2010-2019 only, which along with the All-Decade teams (and to a much lesser extent excellence in Super Bowls) seem to be the currency by which Hall of Fame players are assessed, especially when comparing players from different eras where statistical comparisons can be misleading. Pro Bowl selections refer to initial selections only, not later selections to replace players that did not play in the actual game due to injury, Super Bowl participation, or otherwise being unable or unwilling to play for any other reason. All-Pro selections are also divided in the tables below between selections by the AP, which are the most widely reported All-Pro teams and the ones you’ll see in the Pro Football Reference pages linked, and total years selected All-Pro by the AP, Pro Football Writers Association, and Sporting News, all of which name their own All-Pro teams that may have at least limited currency with Hall voters. I’ve also listed points racked up in NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players” lists (where being ranked #1 is worth 100 points and #100 is worth 1) determined by polls of fellow players, but this is only used to help break ties for comparison purposes, in conjunction with statistical comparisons for positions where that applies. Even so, I reserve the right to be way off on any of these by not incorporating whatever other factors the voters might look at.
In terms of how many players are selected at each position, I’ve mostly gone off of the structure of the last All-Decade team, checked by looking at the most recent set of All-Pro teams. The 2000s All-Decade team, for example, named two running backs, a fullback, two wide receivers, a tight end, and two players each at tackle and guard without separating into specific positions on each of the first and second teams. This mirrors what the 2010 AP All-Pro team did, but the 2018 All-Pro team replaced one of the running back spots with a flex selection (possibly partly inspired by fantasy football), with the first-team flex pick also getting a second-team selection at their main position, did not name a fullback, and named individual All-Pro players at each of the five offensive line spots. The PFWA and Sporting News still name their All-Pro teams the same way they did at the start of the decade (both of them already went without a fullback); the PFWA named only one running back but that may have been because they had a tie for the second wide receiver. On defense the All-Decade team was selected consistent with the 4-3 defense while the 2010 AP All-Pro team named two players at each of both the two defensive line and two linebacker spots; the 2018 team lumped all linebackers together and named three on each team, but named two each of “edge rushers” and “interior linemen” and had a fifth spot for defensive backs the others didn’t that did not appear on the second team at their normal position. The Hall’s treatment of the defense matches that that the PFWA had that year, so I’m assuming the All-Decade Team will have the same structure as last decade, but without a fullback and leaving open the possibility of a flex position being introduced in place of one of the running back spots. On special teams I’m not looking at kick and punt returners because Pro Football Reference doesn’t break them out and this is running late enough already; I was originally hoping to get this out before the Week 3 games.
The thin black line separates first-team and second-team selections; the thick one separates All-Decade selections from non-selections. Names in bold are considered at least probable to make the All-Decade team; anyone else could make it or not depending on how they or others do in the current season. Names in italics are retired.
I discussed Tom Brady in the opening section, but in my last Top 50 Active Resumes post, I mentioned offhand that with the quality of Aaron Rodgers’ career to that point, I was assuming he would make the All-Decade Team. Since then Rodgers has had disappointing, injury-riddled seasons, while Drew Brees has proven almost as adept at evading Father Time as Brady, including coming within one blown pass-interference call from making a second Super Bowl last season (sorry, Saints fans). I still give Rodgers the edge because of his MVP and All-Pro seasons, not to mention that his Super Bowl win technically falls within this decade while Brees’ doesn’t, but if Brees has a strong enough season he could at least make it an argument. Obviously Brees being injured and missing a big chunk of the season makes Rodgers breathe a bit easier, but I’m not ruling out Brees being strong enough upon his return, compared to what the Saints were without him (even with the Saints beating the Seahawks this weekend), to put his importance in stark relief. Philip Rivers is probably too far behind Rodgers to catch him, and certainly few would consider him among the sport’s elite, but a strong enough year from him could at least raise the argument that he’s been more consistent.
The good news is that missing the All-Decade Team shouldn’t prevent Rodgers from entering the Hall on the first ballot as I thought in 2016 – Jim Kelly had one fewer Pro Bowl, one fewer All-Pro selection, and never won a Super Bowl, and still went in first-ballot – but that’s not the sort of comparison I would have expected to be making back then. The more concerning comparison is Bob Griese, who won two Super Bowls (including with the undefeated ’72 Dolphins), had the same number of Pro Bowls and All-Pro selections and coupled it with two AFL All-Star selections, and still had to wait multiple years for induction. To be clear, Rodgers is a surefire Hall of Famer and will probably go in first-ballot, but if he doesn’t make All-Decade and doesn’t add to his resume he’d be advised to avoid retiring the same year as Brady or Brees.
In that same post I also considered Adrian Peterson likely to make the All-Decade team, but while when he was good he was very, very good, and certainly winning MVP in 2012 has to have some currency, the dawn of the 2010s also marked the point where he stopped making Pro Bowls consistently, and LeSean McCoy has quietly had longer, more sustained excellence. Certainly looking at the stats would seem to tell a different story than the postseason honors: Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley have a shot to catch him in Pro Bowls and pass him in All-Pro selections, but Peterson has more than 3000 more rushing yards and at least 20 more rushing touchdowns than either of them. I’m still confident he’ll make the team, but if one of the running back spots is replaced with a flex selection, that might end up being his best hope.
Bell and Gurley would probably lock up their spots in a two-back class with strong enough seasons, and they’d have pretty strong cases even if one of those spots is replaced with a flex selection. Ezekiel Elliott and Doug Martin, on the other hand, only have a chance of getting into a two-back class and might need to do better than Bell and Gurley to achieve that much. I had Jamaal Charles and Arian Foster listed as borderline Hall of Famers back in 2016, albeit on the high end, and their resumes never changed since then; All-Decade selections for either would probably clinch tickets to Canton for either of them. That also implies Bell and Gurley aren’t far away from punching their own tickets to Canton at some point with more strong, Pro Bowl-caliber seasons. As for McCoy, his resume is pretty much identical to Jerome Bettis, the strongest post-merger running-back resume not to go into the Hall on the first ballot, so All-Decade selection could be the cherry on top that puts him into the surefire first-ballot category.
Antonio Brown’s legal troubles could put All-Decade Team voters in a precarious position. No receiver has been so consistently on top of the game as Brown, but to put him on the All-Decade Team could be seen as condoning whatever conduct he may or may not have engaged in, at a time when the headlines surrounding him will still be in very recent memory. Not helping matters is that there’s already going to be some hard decisions facing the voters once you get past Calvin Johnson and (probably) Julio Jones. Larry Fitzgerald has the most receiving yards of anyone other than Brown and Jones despite spending most of the decade with a parade of has-beens and never-weres at quarterback of the Cardinals, and A.J. Green trails only Brown among active players for most catching touchdowns this decade, but they combine for one first-team All-Pro selection and that was last decade. I don’t have them listed, but Tyreek Hill and DeAndre Hopkins would have pretty strong cases of their own with strong enough seasons; I just don’t think that would be quite enough to pass Fitzgerald and Green, though I almost listed Brandon Marshall who has fewer All-Pro selections and the same number of Pro Bowls as Hill and Hopkins could have. (Matthew Slater’s Pro Bowls and All-Pro selection came as a special-teams specialist, and he’d likely be on the first team if the All-Decade Team added that category – the AP joined the PFWA as the only organizations to identify All-Pro special teams specialists during this decade, and the PFWA named Slater as their special-teams pick three more times before then.)
Gronk’s dominance has been such that only four other players have been named AP first-team All-Pro at tight end this decade, and more than at most other positions, that may not tell the whole story as to who was second-best at the position. Of the three that are still active, Travis Kelce has managed to score multiple AP All-Pro selections, while Jimmy Graham has the most receiving yards and touchdowns, which may suggest he spent more of his career in Gronk’s shadow. Greg Olsen has more yards and touchdowns than Kelce, so a strong enough season could put him in the running to make the same argument (and he was named second-team All-Pro in one of Gronk’s seasons on the first team), but I don’t know that he could muscle his way past the people already listed (especially since Kelce and Graham were also named to the second team behind Gronk once each).
Joe Thomas has been constantly lavished with postseason honors throughout his career, but as you can see with the large number of times the PFWA and Sporting News disagreed with the AP, the offensive line is a place where there tends to be more disagreement over who’s best, and where luck could play a decent role in who gets picked. Tyron Smith, Jason Peters, and Trent Williams seem to have the strongest cases, but despite their poor performances on the players’ list Joe Staley and Andrew Whitworth shouldn’t be counted out. For Smith and Williams All-Decade selection could be the difference when it comes to getting in the Hall; for Peters, who added three more Pro Bowls last decade, it could make him more likely to get in first-ballot.
Here a lot of the major honors, especially first-team All-Pro selections, have gone to three players, with Logan Mankins and David DeCastro being the standouts below them; DeCastro has an additional AP All-Pro selection but one fewer Pro Bowl and noticeably less respect from the players, and Mankins also picked up a number of second-team All-Pro selections in the earlier part of the decade. Even with an All-Decade selection Marshal Yanda might want to add another All-Pro season to feel completely safe getting into Canton (Steve Wisniewski was named All-Decade, has the same number of All-Pro selections and one more Pro Bowl, and isn’t in the Hall, though Wisniewski was second-team All-Decade and Yanda getting on the first team might send a message as to where he stands relative to his peers); on the other hand, every post-merger guard with three first-team All-Pro picks and five Pro Bowls is either in the Hall or likely to be, so Zack Martin and Jahri Evans might actually be a little safer.
As elsewhere, the first team is strong, the second team is a bit chaotic. Ryan Kalil has the most respect from the players and the AP but Alex Mack has the most Pro Bowls and leads in Pro Football Reference’s Approximate Value metric. Travis Frederick and Jason Kelce probably need All-Pro caliber seasons to break into the team. No post-merger center has made the Hall with fewer than three AP All-Pro selections, while everyone with at least three is in, so All-Decade selection might not mean much for any of these players.
I don’t think Khalil Mack is terribly likely to fall out of the All-Decade Team, but if things come down to a statistical comparison he doesn’t hold up very well, partly because for all that he’s had very strong seasons he still hasn’t had that many of them. For the decade he’s 20th among defensive ends in sacks, 12th in tackles for loss, and 26th in quarterback hits. Everyone else I have listed beats him in all three categories. That’s not even getting into his best season coming last year when the Bears moved him to linebacker; if only his honors at D-end are considered, he’s probably still on the team but he’s that much more vulnerable. The stats are better for Cameron Wake, who has the most sacks of any D-end this decade (only J.J. Watt is close) and is second to Watt in quarterback hits. Note that while I have Mack listed here at his old position, I only have Houston listed here because it’s his current position, as he built his resume at linebacker but would be on the outside looking in there; Calais Campbell or Cameron Jordan might be a safer bet for the last D-end spot.
This position seems pretty firm on both the first and second teams. Kyle Williams is the only player not listed with five or more Pro Bowls and he’s retired. Haloti Ngata is the only player below that point with multiple AP All-Pro selections and he’s retired. Even with an All-Pro caliber season Fletcher Cox would be hard-pressed to measure up to Gerald McCoy for the last spot.
Currently the entire second team consists of retired players, yet you’d be hard-pressed to find any linebackers who are really doing well enough to unseat any of them; the strongest active linebacker right now that isn’t currently on the first team, judging based on last year’s honors, might be Khalil Mack, who I don’t have listed because he built most of his resume at defensive end. Would just two years at linebacker really be enough to muscle his way onto the All-Decade Team that way?
If no one else breaks onto the team, DeMarcus Ware could end up being a fascinating case, sneaking onto the second team of two All-Decade teams, when if the timing of decades had worked out differently, he could have made first team on one. His streak of seven consecutive Pro Bowls is almost evenly divided between two decades.
When it comes to getting in the Hall, the elephant in the room is Zach Thomas, who has five first-team AP All-Pro selections, seven Pro Bowls, and an All-Decade team selection, yet has never advanced past the semifinalist stage in five years on the ballot. That’s the most All-Pro selections or Pro Bowls of any post-merger linebacker not in the Hall. That underscores the challenge I identified in my 2016 post on Patrick Willis, who retired with essentially the same resume; of the players listed only Ware beats Thomas on either measure.
When you have three players with three first-team AP All-Pro selections each and no one else with more than one, and four spots to fill, the job is pretty simple. Only two active players with only one All-Pro selection have three or more Pro Bowls, and both have at least four, so the race for the last spot is also pretty simple. Among post-merger players, Lemar Parrish has the most Pro Bowls of eligible non-Hall of Famers at 8 (with only one All-Pro selection), while three All-Pro selections is the most not to make the Hall, with Joey Browner having the most Pro Bowls of that group at six; neither made an All-Decade team. That suggests Patrick Peterson and Darrelle Revis (who stands at 4/7 for his career) should be safe to get into Canton, while Richard Sherman would be well-served to add more quality seasons to his resume.
Troy Polamalu is the secondary equivalent of Ware, though his case is a bit different, and in some ways more interesting. Polamalu pretty firmly established his Hall of Fame credentials last decade, and played only five years this decade on the down slope of his career (his strong performances on the NFL Network lists are almost surely a result of earned respect over his entire career more than actual performance), yet had enough seasons just strong enough in that time that if the rest of the safety class is weak enough, he could yet sneak onto a second All-Decade team. Besides having more Pro Bowls than Landon Collins, Harrison Smith was just named second-team All-Pro and was named to the first team more recently, so he could have the best shot at unseating Polamalu. There’s a fairly firm divide between safeties with seven Pro Bowls (all of which have at least been recent finalists since the merger) and those that don’t; LeRoy Butler’s four All-Pro teams with as many Pro Bowls and an All-Decade team selection could be especially concerning for Earl Thomas and the Erics, even if I would consider them to have superior resumes.
I’m leaving out the Top 100 points for special teams positions because to my knowledge, the only special teams player to make the Top 100 was one year when Adam Vinatieri just barely cracked the list. Although there aren’t any kickers that have completely dominated the decade, my hunch is that Matt Prater is the only one that can unseat Stephen Gostkowski; David Akers, Greg Zuerlein, and (although his performance this year seems to have doomed his chances) Vinatieri are only listed in case the voters decide two All-Pro seasons trump one All-Pro season in three Pro Bowl seasons. Not listed is Matt Bryant, who does well statistically (second-most points scored to Gostkowski, second-highest field goal percentage with at least 100 attempts behind Justin Tucker) but only has one Pro Bowl and no first-team All-Pro selections.
If any special teams player makes the Hall of Fame on the basis of their performance this decade, my inclination is it might be Johnny Hekker; in just eight seasons he has four seasons where he was both selected to the Pro Bowl and named first-team All-Pro, when no one else has more than two in either category. That, coupled with the tendency for the Pro Bowl not to select backups at special teams positions, makes picking a second punter especially difficult, especially since the only other punter with multiple All-Pro selections, Andy Lee, has only one Pro Bowl trip.