Predicting the 2017 Hall of Fame Class
by Scott Kacsmar
Parts of this class go back to some of my earlier days of watching the NFL. I have been looking forward to the speeches from Harrison and Favre for a while. Fittingly, the quiet Harrison will open Saturday night's ceremony, hoping to finish in record time before some attendees even find their seats. We rarely get to see a superstar of Favre's caliber get inducted, so of course he is going to close the night, which means either a last-minute victory or soul-crushing defeat. I vividly remember watching Greene's flowing locks when he was with the Steelers in the '90s. I also remember taunting him from the stands -- I had great seats after winning a pair of tickets in a grocery store raffle -- about his WCW wrestling career during a 1998 preseason game when he was with Carolina.
In my fourth year of making Hall of Fame predictions, I was finally able to correctly pick all five of the modern-era inductees. There was also a substantial amount of consideration for Stabler as a senior nominee following his death, which happened just a few weeks after Stanfel passed at age 87 last June. It is sad that a player sometimes has to pass away before he is recognized with this prestigious honor.
We'll enjoy the ceremony this weekend, but we're already trying to figure out who will follow this class next year.
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 have then been 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 brings the group down to 10 nominees, and then finally the last cut down to the five candidates who will ultimately be inducted.
When looking at the last 36 modern-era players inducted, 18 of them were chosen on their first or second ballot. Kevin Greene's 12-year wait is the second longest among recent inductees behind only Russ Grimm (14 years of eligibility). Most players inch their way forward in the process before getting inducted, but sometimes a step gets skipped. Tim Brown never survived the first cut of finalists in his first five years, but last year he was selected over Marvin Harrison, who made the top 10 on his first two ballots.
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.
Terrell Owens should produce more heated debate this year, but it is worth noting he did not make the cut to the top 10 last year. After two straight top-10 finishes, I feel as confident about Kurt Warner getting in as much as anyone not named LaDainian Tomlinson. In a good year for highlighting Broncos, John Lynch has made a steady rise, and Terrell Davis continues to get closer. Joe Jacoby, a famed member of The Hogs, is starting to run out of chances as a modern-era nominee, but there was a good push on his 18th ballot to get him all the way to the top 10 after never having been a finalist. Given what else is out there to vote for, this may be the year to push Jacoby out of the room and into the Hall of Fame.
The First-Ballot Nominees
No class since 1970 has had more than three first-ballot selections, and we should only see one such player next year. First-time eligible players last played in the 2011 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 most likely to at least be a semifinalist in the future, if not make it all the way to Canton.
- Mark Brunell (QB)
- Brian Dawkins (S)
- Kris Dielman (G)
- James Farrior (LB)
- Chad Johnson (WR)
- Thomas Jones (RB)
- Olin Kreutz (C)
- Matt Light (OT)
- Derrick Mason (WR)
- Donovan McNabb (QB)
- Joey Porter (LB)
- Jason Taylor (DE)
- LaDainian Tomlinson (RB)
- Hines Ward (WR)
- Ricky Williams (RB)
LaDainian Tomlinson: The Lock
Is the one first-ballot lock not obvious here? It has to be LaDainian Tomlinson, who was great enough to take a nickname (L.T.) from a legend (Lawrence Taylor) and make it his own. Tomlinson made San Diego relevant again. He was more than just the fifth-leading rusher (13,684 yards) in NFL history. We'll remember the visor, the high-scoring days in the powder-blue jerseys, the seven touchdown passes he threw, the four 200-yard rushing games, the 18-game touchdown streak (2004-05), the 100-catch season (2003), the single-season record 31 touchdowns in 2006's MVP campaign, and the only back-to-back rushing championships (2006-07) of this century.
Tomlinson rose to prominence in an era that became a golden one for passers. He was a throwback, one of the last of the dying breed of the do-everything, workhorse back. (Adrian Peterson may be the last, unless Todd Gurley is.) The career numbers are undoubtedly there: fifth in yards from scrimmage (18,456) and third in total touchdowns (162). Those rankings will not change for quite some time. Tomlinson also sustained excellence over a long period of time, had a high peak (five top-five finishes in rushing DYAR) and was named a first-team All-Pro three times. Tomlinson is the only player in NFL history with eight consecutive seasons with over 1,500 yards from scrimmage, and he did it in his first eight seasons. Tomlinson is the only player with at least 10 touchdowns in each of his first nine seasons, and only Jerry Rice (10, 1986-1995) had a longer streak of double-digit scoring seasons.
Yes, we'll also remember some of the disappointments in the playoffs, where Tomlinson's teams went 5-5 and he averaged 3.57 yards per carry with one 100-yard rushing game. Out of the top 30 players in Pro-Football-Reference's career weighted approximate value, only Tomlinson and former San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts did not play in a Super Bowl. It's still hard to believe the 1994 Chargers, with Stan Humphries and Natrone Means in the backfield, are the only San Diego team to reach a Super Bowl.
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) June 8, 2016
For some, what Tomlinson did in the biggest game of his career (2007 AFC Championship Game in New England) will be too hard to overlook. While quarterback Philip Rivers gutted it out on a torn ACL, a sprained MCL limited Tomlinson to two carries for 5 yards. He spent most of the afternoon sitting on the bench, his face concealed by the visor and his body engulfed by a large coat as San Diego fell 21-12 in a winnable game.
But anyone holding a lack of postseason success against Tomlinson for the Hall of Fame doesn't understand this game. It wasn't L.T. when Nate Kaeding missed a game-winning field goal in overtime against the 2004 Jets, and it wasn't L.T. who fumbled Tom Brady's interception in 2006, in what was Tomlinson's best playoff game. This is also not that uncommon, as Barry Sanders had poor playoff success with Detroit, and O.J. Simpson rushed for 49 yards in his lone playoff game. The Vikings are 1-4 in the playoffs with Adrian Peterson, who has averaged 3.55 yards per carry and has more memorable fumbles than impactful touchdowns. Not everyone can be Terrell Davis. Even Jim Brown (3.65 yards per carry and a 1-3 record) and Walter Payton (two scores in nine games; 3.51 yards per carry) were usually not effective in the playoffs despite each winning championships.
Similar things can be said of Marshall Faulk, who never rushed for 1,400 yards in a season, yet these backs really have not seen their legacy take a hit from their postseason struggles. Maybe some use that to knock down a player like Tomlinson on the list of greatest running backs ever, but that's not a reason to keep him out of the Hall next year. When it comes to that list of all-time running backs, most people start with some order of Jim Brown, Walter Payton, and Barry Sanders. Emmitt Smith's durability deserves respect, and Eric Dickerson was probably the best right out of the gate. But once you get past those five, Tomlinson is right there with the likes of Faulk and Simpson. It does not seem credible to keep him out of the top 10, and when you're talking about a top-10 player of all time at a position Canton loves, you are without question talking about a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The Defense Rests
The probability is high for Jason Taylor and Brian Dawkins to make the Hall of Fame, but it's also likely that it will take a few years to happen. I have some bias since I attended the same elementary school (Barrett) as Jason Taylor, but it's not biased to expect him to go in soon. Taylor ranks sixth in sacks (139.5), was a three-time first-team All-Pro selection, made the 2000s All-Decade team, and was the 2006 Defensive Player of the Year. Though it's not a well-tracked stat, Taylor's 40 forced fumbles from 2001 to 2011 are a very high amount. He played on a lot of Miami teams that disappointed in the end, but those were defensive-led teams and Taylor was the best player.
Dawkins was a major factor on those Philadelphia teams that kept coming up short in the NFC under Andy Reid. His biggest hurdle is the fact that he was strictly a safety, because the Hall of Fame has only selected seven pure safeties in its history. With Ed Reed (2019) and Troy Polamalu (2020) coming up for eligibility, Dawkins may get pushed aside for several years, but the nine-time Pro Bowler should eventually get there. Believe it or not, Reggie White (1985-1992) is the last Hall of Famer to play multiple seasons for the Eagles. Dawkins and a short stint from Terrell Owens may go down as the only Hall of Famers from the Reid era, but don't expect the quarterback to ever get in.
Donovan McNabb: Hard Pass
Donovan McNabb's Hall of Fame case really fell apart after he was traded from Philadelphia to Washington in 2010. He could have solidified it with a strong performance away from the Eagles, but McNabb struggled in Washington, once getting benched for Rex Grossman in a two-minute situation due to "cardiovascular endurance." There was some evidence throughout his career that McNabb couldn't come through in such situations with the game on the line. Some of it was captured on video, and some of it, like his alleged puking in Super Bowl XXXIX, was not true. But there was a definite sluggishness to that Super Bowl performance, for which teammate Terrell Owens famously called McNabb out years ago.
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In his final playing season, McNabb was benched for Christian Ponder in Minnesota before eventually calling it a career. Despite playing in a West Coast offense that favored screens and short passes, McNabb had just one season ranked in the top 10 in completion percentage. His low interception totals were more of a product of the way he scrambled, his high sack percentage, and his Earthworm Jim-killing ground balls that no human could catch. McNabb had multiple turnovers in all seven of his playoff losses with the Eagles.
Randall Cunningham has yet to crack the top 25 semifinalists in 10 ballots, so why would McNabb fare any better in the process? He was less of a rushing threat than Cunningham, and his peak passing season (2004) was not as good as Cunningham's peak (1998). The latter also nearly resulted in a Super Bowl appearance, but we know Gary Anderson missed that big field goal. McNabb's lone Super Bowl season came in what was one of the weakest seasons (2004) on record for the NFC as two 8-8 teams made the playoffs. Atlanta was the No. 2 seed and only ranked 17th in DVOA that year.
McNabb was a pretty good quarterback for about a decade (2000-2009), but he never did enough to lock up a spot in the Hall of Fame. We're still going to remember the shortcomings of his career, and some of the goofiness like not knowing an NFL game could end in a tie. It would be very surprising to see McNabb as a semifinalist, which is uncharted territory for quarterbacks you expect to see in his tier (Cunningham, Boomer Esiason, Phil Simms, Joe Theismann, and Steve McNair). Good, but rarely great.
Hines Ward: Here We Go Again, Pittsburgh
The latest entries to the wide receiver logjam have a strong AFC North (or AFC Central) flavor. Derrick Mason was a dependable receiver, but he'll never garner any serious consideration for Canton. Chad Johnson, or Ochocinco, was once such a star in this league that he made himself a future Hall of Fame jacket.
Sorry, Chad, but between Carson Palmer's declining play in Cincinnati and your inability to grasp New England's offense, your case closed. Johnson may have been Ryan Tannehill's leading receiver for the 2012 Dolphins, but an August arrest for domestic violence that played out on Hard Knocks officially ended his time in the NFL. Johnson was legitimately great from 2002-07, but this would be like asking to induct Andre Rison. It is not going to happen.
Hines Ward is going to spark a ton of Hall of Fame discussion, and I would not be surprised if we are still talking about him eight years down the road from now a la the cases of Art Monk and Andre Reed. Ward got the discussion started himself this year when he questioned the Hall of Fame's criteria. "I don't know because I don't know what the criteria is," Ward told the Tribune-Review. "Is it stats? My stats are OK. Is it MVPs? I got a Super Bowl MVP. I got two Super Bowl rings. I really don't know the criteria. I don't know what is really expected to get in."
Ward is not alone in that sentiment, and Pittsburgh wide receivers have had an especially strange history with the Hall of Fame. John Stallworth needed 10 ballots and eight times as a finalist before he got in, which came a year after Lynn Swann got in on his 14th attempt as a finalist -- still a record to this day. The troubling part: Ward smashed their records and was considered the best receiver in team history when he retired after 2011. However, in the time leading up to Ward's eligibility, Antonio Brown has gone on an incredible run that could make Ward second rate in Pittsburgh's annals.
No, it's not really fair to use what Brown is doing in a later era against Ward, but there are other issues. Namely, the careers of Steve Smith, Reggie Wayne, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Torry Holt, Anquan Boldin, Brandon Marshall, Calvin Johnson ,and so on. Where does Ward distinguish himself from his peers? Like it or not, but the two rings, Super Bowl MVP, prolific playoff stats, and the (unquantifiable) reputation as "the best blocking wide receiver in the NFL" all certainly help.
Ward has remained in the media spotlight, even though his halftime analysis scenes for NBC rarely exceed 20 seconds of airtime. We do not have to get deep into Ward this year, because trust me, this one won't go away any time soon. He is not a priority for voters over Terrell Owens yet, and he won't be one over Randy Moss next year, but he is definitely on par with Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. Do not be surprised when Ward is a semifinalist on his first try.
(Ed. Note: Derrick Mason is the most underrated player of the 90s and if I ever make it onto the Hall of Fame committee, he's someone I certainly would fight for. -- Aaron Schatz)
Senior Nominees and Contributors
The 2017 class reverts to choosing two contributors and one senior nominee. By now, you should know my stance on the senior nominees: Jerry Kramer or Ken Anderson would be more than appropriate. As for the contributors, there is only a five-year period (ending with the 2019 class) where there could be two in a given year, but it seems like Ron Wolf and Bill Polian were pushed in last year without giving much thought to what really makes a general manager Hall of Fame worthy. That could set a bad precedent for future cases, but at this point, I'm not sure why coaches (and famed coordinators a la Buddy Ryan and Wade Phillips) are not just moved to the contributor category to allow for more player selections and an improved contributor category.
Wouldn't it be great and logical if coach Don Coryell only had to compete with former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue or George Young (five-time NFL Executive of the Year), instead of trying to earn a spot against Alan Faneca and John Lynch? Even when it strictly goes to one contributor per year in 2020, the well is going to dry up rather quickly after eight selections from 2015-19. In a decade we'll be debating official Ed Hochuli for Canton, and that's not even a joke.
2017 Hall of Fame Predictions
Each year I have gotten 12 or 13 of the 15 finalists correct, and that probably will happen again as I try to gauge how the room feels about the newly eligible players. Last year, Jimmy Johnson took a step back from finalist to semifinalist, and I was too strong on Kevin Mawae and Ty Law, who were passed over for longer-waiting veterans such as Joe Jacoby and Steve Atwater, both first-time finalists in 2016.
Here are my projections for the 15 modern-era finalists in 2017.
- Morten Andersen (K)
- Steve Atwater (S)
- Don Coryell (Coach)
- Terrell Davis (RB)
- Brian Dawkins (S)
- Alan Faneca (G)
- Joe Jacoby (OT)
- Edgerrin James (RB)
- Jimmy Johnson (Coach)
- John Lynch (S)
- Kevin Mawae (C)
- Terrell Owens (WR)
- Jason Taylor (DE)
- LaDainian Tomlinson (RB)
- Kurt Warner (QB)
Last year's final cuts included Don Coryell, Terrell Davis, Joe Jacoby, John Lynch and Kurt Warner. With Tomlinson as my only first-ballot choice, I see this as a good year to catch up on some old omissions before we get into some strong first-ballot classes in the next few years.
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Without further ado, my predictions for the 2017 Pro Football Hall of Fame class:
- Don Coryell (Coach)
- Joe Jacoby (OT)
- John Lynch (S)
- LaDainian Tomlinson (RB)
- Kurt Warner (QB)
As much as I wanted to put Davis in, I can't see a class with two running backs, an offensive-minded coach and no defenders holding up. While fans of Brian Dawkins will scoff at Lynch going in first, it's all about who has been waiting longer in this case.
That's not my logic. That's just my prediction of how the voting process will play out.