Will Devin Hester Make the 2023 Hall of Fame Class?
NFL Conference Championship - Stop me if you have heard this before, but Chicago Bears all-time great kick returner Devin Hester will probably be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2023.
"Joe Thomas, Darrelle Revis, and Devin Hester are pretty much locks," said one Hall of Fame selector; let's call them Voter A. "Then again, I would have told you Hester was a lock last year, so what do I know?"
"The guy who is most intriguing in terms of 'when is it going to happen?' or 'will it happen?' is Devin Hester," according to Voter B.
Voter C acknowledges that Hester has gotten a lot of support from former opponents and coaches. But still: "I am torn on Hester. I know that by body of work, he's the best return guy of all time. If we left Deion Sanders or Steve Smith as returners for their whole careers, they would have been as good or better. But they were starters, and Hester was never good enough to be a starter. So I'm supposed to reward a guy for not being good enough to play a more important role?"
Voter D is not torn at all. "Hester is one of those guys who virtually everyone you talk to says: 'He should be a Hall of Famer.' … He's a two-time all decade player and he was given a spot on the NFL's 100-year anniversary team. If that doesn't say Hall of Fame, I'm not sure what does."
Hester made the cutdown from 15 to 10 finalists during last year's selection meeting, and the selectors I spoke to thought he would make the final five. It did not happen.
"He had two things that worked against him last year—he is a unique candidate as a return man, and he was a first-time eligible candidate," Voter D explained. "He's not first-time eligible anymore."
As Voter C's comments indicate, there's still skepticism among the selection committee. I remain a serious skeptic about Hester's worthiness, for what that's worth (nothing). But there do not appear to be any anti-Hester hardliners. And a player who reaches the 15-to-10 preliminary cut-down vote as a finalist in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility is inevitably getting in. It's only a matter of time.
So if not this year, then next. But probably this year.
Joe Thomas and Darrelle Revis: the Locks
The Hall of Fame selection committee virtually "met" and voted on January 17. So the 2023 class has already been selected, but voters are sworn to secrecy until inductees can be informed in person and the class is announced on the Saturday before the Super Bowl.
My conversations with selectors took place BEFORE the meeting and vote, so no one violated any bylaws. That said, identities are kept anonymous, especially because Voter A might tell me what Coach X said about Candidate Y, and Coach X might get mad at Voter A, who in turn would get mad at me, if his off-the-record feelings about Candidate Y suddenly appeared at Football Outsiders.
Joe Thomas and Darrelle Revis appear to be consensus locks for this year's class, which should not be surprising. What skepticism exists for Revis appears to take the form of I think he's great but I am not sure the other selectors agree, which generally means everyone was just waiting for a reassuring presentation.
After Thomas and Revis, things get messy.
There are no "gotta do it now" candidates who have been waiting in finalist purgatory for seven-PLUS years, which has been the case in the past. Torry Holt, Zach Thomas, and Reggie Wayne are on their fourth finalist ballots: an above-average amount of time in the waiting room, but not an uncommon amount. There are, however, logjams at two positions, and no selector is sure how they will be resolved.
Torry Holt, Andre Johnson, and Reggie Wayne
"The receivers? That's just a f*cking headache and a half. If we don't move these guys along we are going to end up with five receivers in the final 15."
Voters seem to broadly feel the way many readers and fans probably feel: Andre Johnson was better than Wayne and Holt, but not by such a margin that shunting him ahead of two longtime finalists would be appropriate.
"Just watching Andre Johnson play: the skill, the speed, his dominance with very average quarterbacks. For about a 10-year period he was without question the most important player on the Texans."
Johnson was indeed the prototype. But should Holt and Wayne be penalized for producing similar numbers despite being less imposing? "Don't the smaller guys have to work harder to have their success?" Voter B asked, rhetorically.
Holt and Wayne played for better franchises and quarterbacks, but they also have greater postseason accomplishments as a result. Do they really deserve to be leapfrogged after slowly (particularly in Holt's case, working his way up to nominee to semifinalist to finalist across nearly a decade) working their way up the ballot?
"This is going to be a difficult knot to untie," said Voter D. "It would probably take some kind of agreement by the majority—'Hey, let's get this guy in and we'll worry about the others in the next two years.'"
Such agreements are generally unspoken. Presenters or those advocating a favorite candidate are sure to remind the committee that their guy is in his 10th year of eligibility or a fourth-time finalist or such, but congressional vote-trading—help me get Holt in this year and I promise to vote Wayne next year– is rare to nonexistent. Which is a shame, because it would solve a lot of problems.
As Voter C noted earlier, the receiver logjam will only get worse if not sorted out soon. Larry Fitzgerald arrives in a few years, and he will leapfrog over any clogs. But the semifinalist pool is currently full of players who have support of committee members.
"Steve Smith is so pissed right now."
"I'd vote for Hines Ward before I would ever vote for Torry Holt or Reggie Wayne. It's not that I don't think they belong. I just think other guys like Ward belong more than they do."
Jared Allen, Dwight Freeney, and DeMarcus Ware
"Here we are creating another pass-rushing logjam."
Jared Allen is a third-time finalist. Ware is on his second ballot. Freeney his first. Unfortunately, one voter believes that Freeney has the most support among former players and coaches, followed by Ware and then Allen. And committee members appear to prefer Ware. Confused yet?
Voter C paraphrased for me an endorsement Freeney received from a former standout offensive tackle. "Freeney's like a starting pitcher with three pitches. He had a really good speed-to-power combo, plus the spin. But the power came from a 5-foot-11 man with the lower body of a 300-pound man. So when he hit you with power, it was not 'little guy' power or leverage power. Trying to get under him was an impossible equation. And the inside spin was a wrecker."
"Ware is the best one. And I think both of those other guys are deserving. The numbers may scream Jared Allen, but you have to make hard choices."
"You can make a case that maybe DeMarcus Ware or Dwight Freeney were a notch above Jared Allen. But Jared Allen was damn good. So does Allen get the nod if one of those guys gets in, because he's been waiting the longest?"
"They are all going to get in, it's just a matter of when and in what order. Allen was in line first, so to me he should go in first because the three of them are so difficult to separate."
It's worth noting that Ware made the cut from 15 to 10 in last year's vote, but Allen did not. In a three-way vote, it's possible that Freeney could take support away from Ware, causing a triple knockout. Just in time for Julius Peppers to arrive next year to make the edge rusher logjam as knotted as the one at wide receiver. And so it goes.
Zach Thomas and Patrick Willis
There appears to be a little lingering resentment among selectors about the results of the 2022 vote: the late Sam Mills, in his final years of eligibility, slipped past Zach Thomas. Without quoting anyone even anonymously, some voters regarded the Mills selection as a pity vote, or at least some voters think other voters regarded it that way.
I was pro-Mills—his contributions to the USFL and NFL made his case unique—but also saw no reason why they could not have both gotten in last year; Bryant Young and his fervent supporters among former opponents and coaches could have waited.
Anyway, it feels like I have been writing about Thomas for 20 years. He has ringing endorsements from some extremely high-profile opponents, some stray detractors among old-school blood-'n'-guts coaches, and general support from the committee.
"He's a deserving guy. He has the pelts on the wall."
Patrick Willis, on his second finalist ballot, is the only other linebacker among the final 15.
"Willis is what a middle linebacker is supposed to look like. He's supposed to be ferocious and say things like 'Flap those chicken wings!' Zach Thomas was not that guy. But Thomas played 15 years at an incredibly high level, and he may have been the smartest defensive player in the history of the league. So Willis just doesn't work in this group."
All in all, it sounds like selectors are weary of debating Thomas, which is likely to push him into Canton.
Willie Anderson, Darren Woodson, and the rest
"I think Willie [Anderson] is one of those guys who is making slow, steady progress."
"I think Anderson has a very good case," said Voter A, noting that some influential offensive line coaches and a few former opponents endorse Anderson. "He's more respected by his peers than by the media."
Selectors appear to agree that Anderson is gaining traction on the committee, but Thomas will upstage him this year unless a Bryant Young-level groundswell of endorsements arrive. Anderson will probably have to wait until there are no other offensive linemen on the ballot, or until he reaches the Zach Thomas stage where the committee just feels compelled to stop arguing his case.
Darren Woodson is in his 15th year of eligibility and was a semifinalist seven times. This is his first year as a finalist. Years of Hall of Fame monitoring have taught me, and voters agreed with my theory, that "older" candidates who reach the finalist stage with four or five years to spare generally get enshrined, while those who pop onto the ballot in their 19th or 20th years (Everson Walls a few years ago, for example) get remanded to the seniors committee.
Woodson has lots of player/coach support, but he will face some skepticism from voters who have inducted every safety who wasn't nailed down over the last decade.
"I'm not saying he doesn't belong," said Voter A. "But we have made SUCH a correction at the safety position, after not selecting a safety for so many years. We've really addressed that position. If Woodson screamed selection over someone else, I would listen."
Albert Lewis is in his final year of eligibility. Per my theory, the selectors will pass him on to the seniors, albeit with more momentum than he had before finally becoming a finalist.
"You can argue Lewis is a top three punt-/kick-blocker of all time. He also was a vastly underrated cover corner. I will be shocked if I don't at least vote him 15-to-10. Unfortunately, he got people behind his case late."
As for Ronde Barber, his name never comes up unbidden when I speak to voters. But of course I only speak to a small percentage of the voters.
Final Pro Football Hall of Fame Thoughts
One selector pointed out that no one on the committee knows how many votes each candidate received on the semifinalist ballot. It's possible that the 15th of the finalists only received, say, eight votes to move on to the final 15, while the top candidates got 25 votes each (from 49 selectors) and the top semifinalists who did not make the cut got seven.
The public does not need to know such data—no reason to embarrass an all-time great who only got a handful of votes—but selectors themselves could use the data to break logjams or gauge the real support behind last-chance candidates like Lewis.
As is the case in so many elements of the Hall of Fame voting process, the procedure itself just makes matters more muddled and confusing.
Walkthrough's Bold Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023 Prediction
- Don Coryell (coaches/contributors)
- Devin Hester
- Torry Holt
- Chuck Howley (seniors)
- Joe Klecko (seniors)
- Darrelle Revis
- Ken Riley (seniors)
- Joe Thomas
- Zach Thomas