Predicting the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class
by Scott Kacsmar
I went to the same middle school as Taylor, but that was a few years after he was there. During that time in the late '90s, I wore numerous NFL jerseys of players from different teams to school, including an Erik Kramer Bears jersey that my friends and I believed could have stood for Cosmo Kramer. Seinfeld was much bigger than the Bears' passing game, and that's probably still true today. But one of my favorite jerseys was Terrell Davis with the new-look style Denver used in 1997. It just so happens that the first article I wrote for Football Outsiders, nearly four years ago, was about Davis' Hall of Fame case. I also had a Kurt Warner jersey when the Rams had their new design for the Greatest Show on Turf era. I wrote about his Hall of Fame case three years ago and am glad to see him going in this weekend.
My jersey days were over by the time Tomlinson broke out. I can say that he is the first Hall of Famer to begin his career (2001) at a time when I was watching the NFL on a weekly basis instead of just catching Steelers games, random Monday night and playoff games, and the Super Bowl. In fact, Tomlinson is the first member of Canton who was drafted in the 21st century, so he'll always have that distinction.
We'll enjoy the ceremony this weekend, but we're already trying to figure out who will follow this class next year.
The First-Ballot Nominees
No class since 1970 has had more than three first-ballot selections, and that streak is all but guaranteed to continue next year. First-time eligible players are those who last played in the 2012 NFL season. The following list includes the most notable names, many of which you will see on the preliminary list of 100-plus names that comes out soon. The players in bold are deemed most likely to be a semifinalist in the future, if not make it all the way to Canton.
- Ronde Barber (CB)
- Matt Birk (C)
- Keith Brooking (LB)
- Plaxico Burress (WR)
- Nate Clements (CB)
- Leonard Davis (OL)
- Donald Driver (WR)
- Casey Hampton (NT)
- Jason Hanson (K)
- Steve Hutchinson (G)
- Ray Lewis (LB)
- Randy Moss (WR)
- Jeff Saturday (C)
- Richard Seymour (DE)
- Takeo Spikes (LB)
- Brian Urlacher (LB)
- Kyle Vanden Bosch (DE)
- Adrian Wilson (S)
- Antoine Winfield (CB)
This is a strong group this year. There are definitely several "Hall of Very Good" players here, including Donald Driver, Casey Hampton, Matt Birk, Jeff Saturday, and Adrian Wilson. Someone like Saturday could be a senior nominee one day or a semifinalist even sooner if the voters want to honor a center from this era. For reference, Kevin Mawae and Olin Kreutz were the two centers on the 2000s All-Decade Team.
I believe this group will produce six Hall of Famers, but it could be a good number of years before all six are inducted. We'll look at each of them from lowest to highest priority.
Richard Seymour: Have You Forgotten?
When the Patriots won three Super Bowls in 2001-2004, there were several standout defensive performers, and they turned in a lot of memorable plays in big moments that helped New England achieve so much success. Richard Seymour never really had a signature play in the way that Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Willie McGinest, and Mike Vrabel did. However, he was arguably the most valuable New England defender for Bill Belichick in that time, and his versatility along the defensive line was the reason for that.
Seymour had a modest 57.5 sacks in his career, but he could play inside or on the edge while remaining strong against the run. He made three straight All-Pro teams from 2003 to 2005 and had seven career Pro Bowl nods. After he was traded to Oakland in 2009, Seymour continued to be a Pro Bowl performer for a team with little to rave about, and thus fell abruptly out of the national spotlight. Whether that trade prevented New England from more playoff success from 2009 to 2012 is debatable, but Seymour was named to the 2000s All-Decade Team at defensive tackle along with Warren Sapp.
Ronde Barber: There's Room for One Barber Twin
After playing in one game as a rookie in 1997, Barber made 240 consecutive appearances from 1998 to 2012. He was a starting cornerback on one of the era's best defenses in Tampa Bay. Barber was an All-Pro in 2001 when he intercepted an NFL-high 10 passes. In 2002, he was part of one of the best single-season defenses on record. In the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia, Barber provided the signature play with a 92-yard pick-six late in the fourth quarter. He returned eight interceptions for touchdowns in the regular season in his career, and joins Charles Woodson as the only members of the 40-interception/20-sack club.
In the once famed "Tampa 2" defense, Barber wasn't going to shadow a team's No. 1 receiver all over the field in man coverage, but he played his role well and was a willing tackler. For a while it looked like twin brother Tiki, a running back for the Giants, was more likely to make the Hall of Fame one day, but Tiki retired after the 2006 season. Ronde kept going and only made the move to safety in his final season at age 37.
Barber's prime came in an era that was after Deion Sanders/Rod Woodson and before Darrelle Revis/Richard Sherman, and he'll likely never get that level of respect as a cover corner. But he is a safe bet for Canton even if it's going to take some time as a few more respected defensive backs become eligible in the next couple of years.
Steve Hutchinson: The Poison Pill
Hutchinson was drafted 17th overall by Seattle in 2001. He played left guard and made his first of five All-Pro teams in 2003, the same year Seattle started a string of playoff appearances. That was a really good offense with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, running back Shaun Alexander, and Hutchinson paired next to Hall of Fame left tackle Walter Jones. The Seahawks reached Super Bowl XL in 2005, but we know how that one played out.
In the 2006 offseason, NFL fans were introduced to the "poison pill" tactic in contract negotiations. The Seahawks made Hutchinson their transition player, but not their franchise player. He signed an offer sheet worth $49 million from the Vikings. Seattle had the right to match, but the poison pill was a clause that required Hutchinson to be the highest-paid lineman on the team. If he wasn't, then Seattle would have needed to guarantee his entire salary, which was not feasible under the salary cap. Since Jones was the highest-paid lineman in Seattle, the Seahawks failed to match and the Vikings had a new left guard. Seattle pulled a similar trick years later for payback in getting wide receiver Nate Burleson from the Vikings, but that just forced the NFL to ban such hijinks.
So Hutchinson was in Minnesota for the rise of Adrian Peterson and the last stand by Brett Favre in 2009, when he almost played in another Super Bowl. But he ended his next two seasons on injured reserve and had a forgetful year in 2012 with the Titans before retiring. Hutchinson and Alan Faneca were the guards on the 2000s All-Decade Team. Both will get into Canton, though neither is going to make voters rush to make it happen. They may even steal votes from each other, unless voters stick to their "seniority" method and try to push Faneca through first.
Brian Urlacher: The Other Middle Linebacker
By all accounts, Brian Urlacher is a slam dunk for Canton. Timing and circumstance are likely to make him wait at least a year, which may be fitting for his career. Discussion of the caliber of player Urlacher was often evolves into comparisons to the players he wasn't. It's not like Urlacher chose to be drafted by the Bears, but they made the right choice, picking Urlacher ninth overall in a first round that also featured Julian Peterson and Keith Bulluck.
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However, anyone playing middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears is going to be held to the standards of Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary, and maybe even Bill George for astute students of the game. Urlacher, who played safety in college, actually made far more splash plays than Singletary did in his career, and was probably the better athlete in his ability to drop back into coverage and defend the pass. But Singletary was like another coach on the field and was known for his intensity. He was an integral part of the famed 1985 Super Bowl team's 46 defense. Singletary was also far more decorated in his career with seven first-team All-Pros compared to four for Urlacher, and two Defensive Player of the Year awards compared to one for Urlacher. That award for Urlacher came in a 2005 season where he was great at leading his defense, but also infamously "posterized" on a crushing run by Jerome Bettis. You might not think one play like that matters for a linebacker, but the time Bo Jackson ran over Brian Bosworth is still a part of those players' career stories.
Perhaps Urlacher would have had more individual honors if he didn't play in the same era as Baltimore's Ray Lewis, the player he now has to compete with for a first-ballot selection. It's not like Urlacher planned his retirement to coincide with Lewis', but again, these are just the cards he has been dealt. From 2001 to 2006, Lewis, Urlacher, and Miami's Zach Thomas often competed for the two spots on the first-team All-Pro honors. One could point out that when Urlacher was first-team All-Pro in 2002 and 2005, Lewis only played in 11 of 32 possible games due to injuries.
Urlacher did help lead the Bears to a Super Bowl in 2006, but didn't have the ending he desired. Other promising seasons for Chicago were often short-circuited by quarterback play, but the defense was the main reason those teams were even competitive. Urlacher was the prototypical Tampa 2 linebacker in his era, and Lovie Smith's defenses were often among the best at forcing takeaways. Urlacher finished with 22 interceptions and 41.5 sacks in 182 games. He is with Lewis on the first team for the 2000s All-Decade Team, but will voters put him on the same stage as Lewis next year?
Urlacher may always pale in comparison to Lewis, Butkus, and Singletary, but that doesn't mean he still won't be joining them eternally in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.
Randy Moss: The Freak
I wrote a special article on the case for Randy Moss yesterday, so please read that if you haven't. Moss is an obvious first-ballot Hall of Famer at a position where players have been forced to wait for induction unless they are named Jerry Rice. When I polled fans on Twitter the other night about the best wide receiver not named Rice, Moss shockingly pulled in almost three-quarters of the vote.
Who is the greatest WR not named Jerry Rice?
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) August 2, 2017
Moss would be my answer as well, but I expected more fanfare for other players, including Terrell Owens. There is no denying that the two are going to be discussed heavily this year and could take votes away from each other. Owens may even have an edge if only because this is going to be his third ballot and he was a finalist the last two years. The voters tend to lean on seniority here, or a "first in, first out" queuing system.
Marvin Harrison went in last year on his third ballot. Harrison, Moss, and Owens were the dominant trio of wide receivers in their era. I gathered our advanced metrics on each of them to see what impact they had on their team's passing efficiency.
To help understand the tables, which are a tad different than what was shown in the Moss article, here is an explanation of each column. "Team Pass DYAR" is the sum of each receiver's quarterbacks' DYAR with sacks and aborted snaps excluded. "Moss DYAR" is the passing DYAR earned only on targets to Moss. The "Randy Ratio" is the percentage of the team's passing DYAR that Moss accounted for that season. "Passes" is how many targets Moss had, which includes defensive pass interference penalties. "Moss DVOA" is the passing DVOA of quarterbacks on throws to Moss. "Team Pass DVOA+" is the offense's passing DVOA with sacks and aborted snaps excluded. "Team Pass DVOA-" is the offense's passing DVOA on throws to all other players, with sacks and aborted snaps excluded. "DIFF" is the difference between those two DVOA columns, or how much the receiver raised or decreased his team's passing DVOA for the season. This way volume and efficiency are being accounted for. That "DIFF" column is then summed for the player's career. For the 2010 data, we only used the weeks in which Moss was a member of his three teams.
|Randy Moss: Team Passing DYAR and DVOA Breakdown|
|Moss DYAR||Randy Ratio||Passes||Moss DVOA||Team
All three of these receivers can say that they played multiple years with another great wideout and a great quarterback. Moss had Cris Carter early in his career in Minnesota, and then played with Wes Welker and Tom Brady in New England. There were four seasons (2002, 2006, 2010, and 2012) where Moss' targets dragged his team's passing DVOA down, but I think we explained those well yesterday between the doomed Randy Ratio, the awfulness of the 2006 Raiders, and his oddly swift decline at the end.
|Marvin Harrison: Team Passing DYAR and DVOA Breakdown|
|Marvin Ratio||Passes||Harrison DVOA||Team
Harrison of course had the luxury of catching most of his passes from Peyton Manning in his prime. The two didn't start out on fire in 1998, but that was more about Manning's rookie mistakes. Harrison's targets also brought the Colts' passing DVOA down in 2008, his final season when he was not much of a threat anymore. Manning's seasons were so strong in 2004 and 2005 when Reggie Wayne really emerged that Harrison's targets still actually brought the overall season numbers down a hair.
|Terrell Owens: Team Passing DYAR and DVOA Breakdown|
|Owens DYAR||Terrell Ratio||Passes||Owens DVOA||Team
Owens came into the league spoiled by getting to play with Steve Young and Jerry Rice, but by the time he emerged as his own dominant threat, he was playing with Jeff Garcia, J.J. Stokes, and Tai Streets. He also had Todd Pinkston as his best wideout teammate with the Eagles in that great 2004 debut. Dallas offered a better supporting cast in Tony Romo, Terry Glenn, and Jason Witten, but Owens never had a negative impact season until his final three in the league when age caught up to him.
None of this was meant to start an argument over which of these Hall of Fame receivers was better, but the results do provide some interesting context about their careers. For starters, they all accounted for 30 to 33 percent of their quarterback's passing DYAR over their careers. Moss helped produce the most DYAR (7,473) and he had the highest weighted passing DVOA on his targets at 52.5%. Owens was the lowest at 45.3%, though he had the least efficient quarterback play of the three, as his passers only had 22.7% DVOA when not targeting him. Harrison, as you would expect with Manning, had the best quarterback play at 38.1% DVOA without him.
Over the course of his career, Owens added 75.7 percentage points to his team's passing DVOA, higher than Moss (64.0 percent) and Harrison (47.0 percent). Throw in the highest DYAR share (33.8 percent) for Owens and he has a solid case for being the most value-added receiver of the three. That is a bit funny given that he probably has the worst reputation as a teammate among the trio.
They were all great in their own ways.
Ray Lewis: The Lock
This group is guaranteed to get at least one first-ballot player, and if you are a betting person, then Ray Lewis is the safest bet. His first-ballot induction has felt inevitable for years after he served as the leader of Baltimore's defense for the team's first 17 years of existence. Lewis was a 13-time Pro Bowler, seven-time first-team All-Pro, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, two-time Super Bowl winner, and a Super Bowl MVP.
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In short, Lewis is the most decorated defensive player to enter the NFL in the DVOA era (since 1986). That alone should tell you he's a first-ballot lock.
Lewis helped several defensive coordinators move on to head coaching jobs, as the Baltimore defense remained unusually consistent during his tenure. From 1999 through 2011, the Ravens ranked in the top six in defensive DVOA each year, a mind-blowing feat. The next closest things we have seen to that are the 1987-1996 Eagles, who ranked in the top eight for 10 years, and the 1997-2005 Buccaneers, who ranked in the top eight for eight years. Lewis played with some great defenders, of course, but he was the constant during that run of success.
Some fans will be anxious to see what impassioned speech Lewis gives next year in his gold jacket. Others, including myself, expect to see a grandstander at work while we ponder which color Lewis would be wearing had a certain white suit ever been found. While people will continue to point to character concerns for Owens and Moss, just remember that neither of those players was ever charged with double murder like Lewis was in 2000. Those charges were eventually dropped, but Lewis settled with the families of the two men who were stabbed to death in a case that still has no justice and a thick layer of shadiness to it. Lewis should feel fortunate that Hall of Fame bylaws prohibit voters from considering off-field actions. I do not have a vote, but I will respect the same rules and not hold Atlanta against Lewis' candidacy. As a human being, I'm not going to deny that it is always going to be a part of his legacy.
Even as a fan of Lewis' chief rival in Pittsburgh, I can appreciate his consistency and excellence on the field. As a historian of the game, I don't understate his importance in NFL history. I just know I'll never view Lewis to be as important as he views himself.
Senior Nominees and Contributors
The 2018 class will feature two senior nominees and one contributor. Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was a contributor candidate last year, but did not get enough support in the end for induction. He is a possibility again, but I like the idea of giving Broncos owner Pat Bowlen the nod while he can still enjoy it as he battles Alzheimer's, a cruel disease. Many fans seem to groan at the thought of an owner going in (see Jerry Jones this year), but it's not like we are suggesting inducting a guy who moved a team out of a city. It is also true that Denver has the NFL's highest winning percentage (.612) since Bowlen took over the team in 1984. The Broncos have been to seven Super Bowls in that time, winning three of them.
As one of my annual requests, I want to see the contributor category include coaches so that someone like Don Coryell can get a fairer shake at getting inducted. If the well is already so dry with candidates like Tagliabue and Bowlen, then something needs to change here. A category that separates non-players from players sounds very logical to me.
For the two senior nominees, Jerry Kramer and Ken Anderson have been my go-to responses in past years. Dallas linebacker Chuck Howley is also a good choice at 81 years old. Let these guys enjoy the honor they are deserving of while they are still with us. Howley was a five-time first-team All-Pro and has the interesting distinction of being the only player to win a Super Bowl MVP in a losing effort.
Tracking the Recent Nominees
A reminder of how the selection process works. A player becomes eligible five years after his last playing season. Nominees are first listed on a preliminary list that usually has at least 100 names. Since 2004, that list has been whittled down to 25 modern-era semifinalists, or sometimes 26 or 27 given ties. Since 2007, 15 finalists are chosen to go along with the senior/contributor nominees. This is the group that gets voted on just before the Super Bowl in February. Voting results are available for the reduction vote that gets down to 10 nominees, then finally the last cut down to the five candidates who will ultimately be voted on for induction.
Studying the process for recent semifinalist players should help with predicting this year's class. Here are the paths of the 23 players who have been semifinalists since 2004 and are still eligible. "N/A" is for years we lack data, and "UNL" means the player was not on the preliminary list that year.
Isaac Bruce got the nod over teammate Torry Holt as a first-time finalist last year, though both have been eligible since 2015. This could just be a matter of seniority by era, as Bruce entered the league in 1994 compared to 1999 for Holt. Bruce had more longevity and a memorable game-winning touchdown in a Super Bowl, but Holt certainly had a stronger, more sustained peak. Neither should really be in the same tier as Moss or Owens, but I think they will all get in eventually.
Chris Hinton was a semifinalist for the first time last year, but expect to see him get pushed out for the six first-ballot candidates discussed earlier. Hinton was the offensive lineman who went to play for the Colts after being part of a trade from Denver for John Elway in the 1983 draft.
Since Terrell Davis is finally in, my next "awesome peak" target might be Green Bay wide receiver Sterling Sharpe. When you look at the table above, isn't it a bit odd that he has never been a semifinalist? Sharpe has been eligible since 2000, meaning he'll be on his 19th year of eligibility. About the last thing we need is another wideout to enter the fray, but Sharpe was a special talent who led the league in receptions three times, in touchdown catches twice, and in receiving yards once. He was doing that in an era that featured Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Cris Carter, and Tim Brown, to name a few standouts. He was on their level, but his neck unfortunately wasn't. A neck injury ended Sharpe's career after 1994.
2018 Hall of Fame Predictions
In my fifth year of making Hall of Fame predictions, I hit my usual mark of 80.0 percent on the 15 finalists, but only got Tomlinson and Warner correct out of the five modern-era inductees. It seemed like a good year to get Joe Jacoby and Don Coryell in, but they were among the first five finalists eliminated, along with Owens, Faneca, and Isaac Bruce. The push for Andersen, a kicker, surprised me, because he had been among the first cuts from 2014 to 2016. If Adam Vinatieri, who turns 45 in December, can hang on for two more seasons, he'll likely break Andersen's all-time scoring record of 2,544 points.
Here are my projections for the 15 modern-era finalists in 2018.
- Ronde Barber (CB)
- Tony Boselli (OT)
- Don Coryell (Coach)
- Brian Dawkins (S)
- Alan Faneca (G)
- Steve Hutchinson (G)
- Joe Jacoby (OT)
- Edgerrin James (RB)
- Ty Law (CB)
- Ray Lewis (LB)
- John Lynch (S)
- Kevin Mawae (C)
- Randy Moss (WR)
- Terrell Owens (WR)
- Brian Urlacher (LB)
Seymour was the only first-ballot player I left out here. He might be a little too bland for voters right away, and we do have a strong group of five others to make room for. It was surprising to see Tony Boselli make it to the top 10 last year since he was a semifinalist for just the second time.
Without further ado, my predictions for the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame class:
Yes, I am reaching with Moss and Owens together, but the thought of them sharing the stage with Lewis is a personality overload that is too tempting to pass up. Kevin Mawae is a good calming force here, and John Lynch has been really close in recent years. I think the visibility gained from Lynch taking the general manager job with the 49ers might be the last boost he needs. The problem is he is competing directly with Brian Dawkins, who was also a final cut last year. Ed Reed will be eligible for 2019, and Troy Polamalu comes in 2020, so it is important to get a safety in now before that logjam starts.
If any position is as messed up as wide receiver when it comes to the Hall of Fame, it is safety.