by Scott Kacsmar
In last year's predictions, I thought it was far-fetched that the Hall of Fame would actually induct Owens and Moss together, but I wanted to see them share the stage with Lewis. While all three are getting in this weekend, Owens has infamously decided to be the first living person to decline attending the ceremony. Owens' reasons for this span from what he claimed were lies told by the media to being butt-hurt over having to wait three ballots. While Owens deserved to go in earlier, the fact is that most wide receivers have to wait, and it is disappointing that he won't attend. On the plus side, Lewis also "loves me some me," so his speech will likely run so long that maybe the broadcast won't need Owens after all.
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 in 2019 will have last played in the 2013 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.
- Nnamdi Asomugha (CB)
- Champ Bailey (CB)
- Dallas Clark (TE)
- London Fletcher (LB)
- Tony Gonzalez (TE)
- Jordan Gross (OT)
- Andre Gurode (C/G)
- Willis McGahee (RB)
- Ed Reed (S)
- Asante Samuel (CB)
- Chris Snee (G)
- Jonathan Vilma (LB)
- Brian Waters (G)
This group might be a little leaner than recent years, but I think there are three first-ballot locks. We'll highlight each of them before going over the best of the rest.
Tony Gonzalez: The FIRST First-Ballot Tight End
This may come as a surprise, but no tight end has ever been a first- or second-ballot Hall of Famer. Only eight are in Canton period. Kellen Winslow had to wait three years, as did Shannon Sharpe in more recent times.
|Pro Football Hall of Fame: Tight Ends|
I do not think we are going out on a limb to say that the player with the second-most catches in NFL history (1,325) is going to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Gonzalez rewrote the record books for tight ends with a stellar career that spanned 17 seasons from Kansas City to Atlanta after he was a first-round pick in 1997. By his third season Gonzalez was a first-team All-Pro, something he earned six times (another tight end record). His 14 Pro Bowls are tied with Merlin Olsen, Bruce Matthews, and Peyton Manning for the most in NFL history. He is the only tight end with more than 15,000 receiving yards (15,127), and he was the first tight end to catch 100 touchdowns, finishing with 111. He was the first tight end to record four 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
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Gonzalez has a case for being the greatest tight end in NFL history, but that seems to be far from a consensus opinion. It could be argued that Gonzalez achieved a lot of those "firsts" largely because he was born at the right time. To amass such gaudy stats, a player really had to enter the league after 1988 so that he could have an uninterrupted run of 16-game seasons. It also helped to enter after that offensive lull period in the early 1990s, which Gonzalez did as a 1997 draft pick. Gonzalez was the first great tight end prospect to enter a league that was ready for pass-first offenses.
Detractors will say that Gonzalez was not as useful in the red zone as Antonio Gates, the only tight end to surpass him in touchdowns with 114, or Rob Gronkowski. (Counterpoint: Gonzalez's quarterbacks were never as consistent as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Philip Rivers.) Some will say he wasn't as well-rounded as Jason Witten, who finished with 1,152 catches and blocked a lot. (Counterpoint: Gonzalez was on Kansas City teams that ran the ball extremely well with Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson.)
Some of those may be good arguments to explore, and we haven't even addressed past legends such as Winslow, John Mackey, and Mike Ditka. However, there is much to be said about Gonzalez's durability and longevity, which are two things with which tight ends struggle. Just ask any fantasy owner of Jordan Reed (or Gronk, for that matter). While Gronkowski's physicality after the catch is superior to what Gonzalez did, durability has been an issue, which will likely prevent him from surpassing Gonzalez's career records.
Gonzalez missed just two games and played in 270 in his regular-season career. That's incredible at a position that is so physically demanding and that has worn down players in a hurry. Most tight ends have small windows of greatness. Ditka never cracked 500 receiving yards in his final eight seasons after a torrid four-year start. Winslow only had six seasons where he played in double-digit games. Todd Christensen was incredible from 1982 to 1987 when he was 26 to 31 years old, but had 305 total yards in the other seasons of his career. Ozzie Newsome never again averaged 30 yards per game after turning 30.
Gonzalez fought off Father Time with the best of them at any position. Gonzalez went to Atlanta in 2009 for his age-33 season and he played there through his age-37 season in 2013. In that Atlanta stint Gonzalez caught 409 passes. Only two other players in NFL history caught more than 400 passes after their age-33 season: Tim Brown had 414 and the incomparable Jerry Rice had 729. Forget just tight ends -- Gonzalez is one of the most prolific "old receivers" in NFL history. The closest tight end to Gonzalez's late production is of course Gates, who has 285 catches since he turned 33 in 2013. Gates remains a free agent and may end up retiring if he doesn't re-sign with Los Angeles.
We're making a lot of specific old-man production, but Gonzalez also ranks seventh in NFL history in catches before a player's age-30 season with 648. The only tight end to beat him was Witten (696), who never cracked 10.0 yards per reception again after he turned 33 in 2015.
Maybe Gonzalez would not be the favorite choice at tight end in a pick-up game with every other legend available, but for the Hall of Fame, he absolutely had a first-ballot type of career. If he has to wait, then the voters are simply disrespecting the position.
Ed Reed: Football's Genius
Ed Reed played safety for 12 seasons, but he had a mind for offense that could rival any defender. Some defenders get the "quarterback on the field" label, but Reed truly played that way. Even with quarterbacks always trying to be aware of where Reed was, he would read the play correctly and swoop in for the interception, sometimes with the grace of a wide receiver. With the ball in his hands, Reed's intention was always to score, even if it meant trying an ill-advised lateral to a teammate.
Reed was not a fan of taking a knee in the end zone for a touchback on a pick. In 2008, Reed had the longest interception return in NFL history when he took a pass back 107 yards for a score against the Eagles. He broke the record that had been held by … Ed Reed, who had a 106-yard pick-six in 2004 against the Browns. His eagerness to score with the ball in his hands helped Reed set an NFL record with 1,590 interception return yards.
Reed's 64 interceptions are 13 more than any player who has entered the league in the 32-team era (since 2002). It could be a long time before that number is surpassed, if it ever is in this era of safer passing. Reed and Everson Walls are the only players ever to lead the league in interceptions three times. Reed is tied for the postseason record with nine interceptions, so he made his mark in January too. He won his only Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2012 and was voted first-team All-Pro five times in his 11 seasons in Baltimore.
We talked about tight ends being disrespected by the Hall of Fame, but Reed figures to only be the 10th pure safety in Canton. None have gone first ballot since Ken Houston in 1986. If Reed is not a first-ballot lock at safety, then no one is.
Champ Bailey: The Trade Champion
In 2004, Football Outsiders was going into its second season of NFL coverage. I had not heard of it yet, but I have to wonder if there was a post about the time Washington traded a four-time Pro Bowl cornerback in his prime and the 41st pick in the draft to Denver for a running back. That seems preposterous now, and I can only hope that sites like this one have informed teams to stop going bananas for backs, though the 2018 offseason scares me that it hasn't. This really happened though when the Redskins packaged Champ Bailey and that high pick (used on Tatum Bell, a running back) to Denver for Clinton Portis.
Portis was special, but Denver knew its system could survive with any back. The defense needed help in the secondary after Peyton Manning shredded the Broncos in the 2003 playoffs. Unfortunately, he did the same in 2004 with Bailey and John Lynch in town, but Bailey peaked with Denver, making three straight All-Pro teams. Perhaps the most famous play of Bailey's career came in the 2005 playoffs against New England. Bailey picked off Tom Brady and raced 100 yards before Ben Watson knocked him out of bounds at the 1-yard line, barely escaping a fumble through the end zone. That play helped the Broncos reach the AFC Championship Game, where they lost to Pittsburgh.
Bailey led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 2006, but Denver did not threaten in the playoffs again until Manning arrived as Bailey's teammate in 2012. Bailey's final NFL game was Denver's meltdown in Super Bowl XLVIII against Seattle, but his legacy was in place years before that.
Bailey did not have the bravado of Richard Sherman, and he wasn't the team-hopping mercenary that Darrelle Revis became, but he is one of the best shutdown corners in modern NFL history. That should be more than enough for a first-ballot enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.
Best of the Rest
From past discussions on Twitter, I already know some people are going to make cases for some of the players I did not select as future Hall of Famers, so here are the best of those players.
CB Asante Samuel: He is likely to draw some consideration down the road thanks to his high interception count (51) in an era where players with 50 interceptions don't exist anymore. The active leaders in picks are Terence Newman (42), Reggie Nelson (36), and Aqib Talib (34). Samuel won two Super Bowls with the Patriots, made four straight Pro Bowls, and had seven interceptions (including four pick-sixes) in the playoffs from 2005 to 2008. However, it could be the one interception he is perceived to have dropped late in Super Bowl XLII that keeps him out of Canton. With that pick, the Patriots finish 19-0 and Samuel is a hero of Malcolm Butler proportions, but with a much better resume. I still say he gets too much heat for that play when he had to reach with full extension to have a shot at it, and he would have had a hard time landing with both feet in bounds. If fans want to scapegoat a potential Hall of Famer over that drive, keep it to Rodney Harrison for not breaking up the Helmet Catch.
LB London Fletcher: This is a tough one, because Fletcher certainly has longevity (16 seasons) and durability (played in 256 consecutive games with none missed in his career) in spades. He won a Super Bowl as a starter on the 1999 Rams, though he didn't make "The Tackle" (that was Mike Jones). That kind of eternal highlight would have helped. Fletcher made four Pro Bowls, but none before his age-34 season. No Hall of Famer who started his career after 1950 has had zero Pro Bowls before his age-34 season. Part of that was due to Fletcher playing the role of tackling machine for a lot of unsuccessful Buffalo and Washington teams (he played in two playoff games after leaving the Rams in 2002). If someone like the more accomplished Zach Thomas cannot even make it to the semifinalists in five ballots, then I have a hard time seeing Fletcher's case going anywhere. That's not even considering how we'll likely set aside edge players with greater impact from Canton like James Harrison and Robert Mathis. Fletcher could be the Jim Marshall of his era, and Marshall isn't in either.
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G Brian Waters: Can three offensive linemen from one team make the Hall of Fame in this era? Waters shared the spotlight with left tackle Willie Roaf and right guard Will Shields in Kansas City for his prime years. He also made the Pro Bowl for a sixth time as New England's right guard in the 2011 season, one of the Patriot's best offenses. It's possible that Waters was individually great, but it takes a lot for a guard to stand out for the Hall of Fame. One great bit of trivia involves Waters: he's the only offensive lineman since 1992 to win a Player of the Week award. He won it in Week 7 of the 2004 season when the Chiefs rolled up the Falcons 56-10 with eight rushing touchdowns and 271 rushing yards. The fact that the Chiefs did not have a rush longer than 16 yards that day suggests maybe all that yardage was a result of outstanding blocking that kept producing chunks of yards. As cool as that is, if people aren't pounding the table for Steve Wisniewski (eight Pro Bowls) or Ruben Brown (nine Pro Bowls), is anyone ever going to push for Waters?
CB Nnamdi Asomugha: He made a name (that's hard to spell at first) for himself in 2006 when he intercepted eight passes for an Oakland team that was horrific on offense, but more than respectable on defense. Oddly enough, Asomugha only had seven interceptions in the other 142 games of his career. Our charting data only goes back so far, but the belief was that quarterbacks just did not throw his way because of how tight his coverage was. It may have also been that the Raiders frequently trailed those years and faced the fewest passes. Whether or not that was the case, the Raiders (2009) and Eagles (2011) began to grossly overpay for Asomugha's services at a time when Darrelle Revis was showing us what a true shutdown corner looks like. In 2009, the Raiders made Asomugha the highest-paid player in NFL history at $14.3 million per season. The 2011 "Dream Team" Eagles signed him for five years and $60 million. Two years later he was in San Francisco for a base salary of $1.35 million and was waived in November, ending his career with a whimper. I'd sooner put Samuel in the Hall of Fame.
TE Dallas Clark: As we talked about earlier, tight ends have really short peaks. Clark was amazing when he had 317 yards in four games in the Colts' 2006 Super Bowl run. That led to three big seasons, including 2009 when he was first-team All-Pro with 100 catches for 1,106 yards. However, injury ended his 2010 after six games, and injury ended Peyton Manning's run in Indianapolis in 2011. Clark wallowed with inferior quarterback play for his last three seasons before retiring with 505 catches for 5,665 yards and 53 touchdowns. That may not sound like much, but the 500/5,000/50 club for tight ends only has eight members (Gronkowski is 26 catches away from making it nine).
Senior Nominees and Contributors
The 2019 class will feature two contributors and one senior nominee. You have to think with the extra spot that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen will get the nod this time. Other candidates who have gotten close before include former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former Giants general manager George Young. I'm still not sold on the worthiness of this category until it expands to include coaches and coordinators, freeing up more of the standard spots for deserving players.
I have asked the Hall of Fame and several of its voters, but no one has been able to tell me why Don Coryell, who last coached in 1986, is still eligible to be a semifinalist like he was a year ago. He should be a senior nominee now, which would give him a greater shot of getting inducted.
Since Jerry Kramer has finally gotten in as a senior nominee, then I'll continue my praise for Ken Anderson, the most deserving quarterback left out. Wide receiver Sterling Sharpe and Dallas linebacker Chuck Howley are two other names I have pushed for in the past. This category is open to more competition since Joe Jacoby, Roger Craig, and Everson Walls are now eligible after retiring 25 years ago.
2019 Hall of Fame Predictions
A quick reminder of how the Hall of Fame selection process works. A player becomes eligible five years after his last playing season. Nominees are first put on a preliminary list that usually has at least 100 names. Since 2004, that list is 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.
Last November was the first time I tried to predict the 25 semifinalists. I got 23 correct, with a total of 27 players appearing due to ties. So this year I have predicted the 25 semifinalists, the 15 finalists, and finally the five modern-era players I expect to make up the 2019 Hall of Fame class. First-time nominees are in all caps.
|2019 Hall of Fame Predictions|
|25 Semifinalists||15 Finalists||5 Inductees|
|Steve Atwater||CHAMP BAILEY||CHAMP BAILEY|
|CHAMP BAILEY||Ronde Barber||Tony Boselli|
|Ronde Barber||Tony Boselli||TONY GONZALEZ|
|Tony Boselli||Isaac Bruce||Steve Hutchinson|
|Isaac Bruce||Alan Faneca||ED REED|
|LeRoy Butler||TONY GONZALEZ|
|Alan Faneca||Torry Holt|
|TONY GONZALEZ||Steve Hutchinson|
|Chris Hinton||Edgerrin James|
|Torry Holt||Ty Law|
|Steve Hutchinson||John Lynch|
|Edgerrin James||Kevin Mawae|
|Jimmy Johnson||Karl Mecklenburg|
|Mike Kenn||ED REED|
|Ty Law||Hines Ward|
I needed a couple of players to add to the semifinalists, and I was not going to add Coryell since he should not be eligible anymore. I added Sterling Sharpe in the hopes that he'll get a push in what is his final season of eligibility before he goes into the senior pile.
Bailey, Gonzalez, and Reed just seem like no-brainer locks, so that left two spots open. Last year, four offensive linemen cancelled each other out in the final 10 with none of Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca, Kevin Mawae, or Steve Hutchinson going in. My feeling is that with Bailey and Reed, this class won't add another defensive back, so Ty Law, John Lynch, and Ronde Barber will wait at least another year. Karl Mecklenburg is in his final year of eligibility, but I do not think voters will put him in over more qualified linemen. So in the end, I went with two linemen: Hutchinson (who made the top 10 on his first ballot) and Boselli (who has made the top 10 in each of the last two years).
A perfect prediction table would be nice, but some clarity on the Coryell situation would be more helpful.