There are between 45 and 50 Hall of Famers suiting up to play at any one time in the NFL.
During the 1980 season, 49 future Hall of Famers played at least one game. During the 1990 season, the figure was again 49. The 2000 season has delivered only 32 Hall of Famers to date, but as recent retirees like Ray Lewis and Charles Woodson become eligible, that number should continue to rise.
Who, among the thousands of players on NFL rosters in 2016, will make up that group of 45-50 players down the line? Let’s try to figure that out today, going team-by-team to try to guess who will one day be enshrined in Canton.
First, a couple of notes on the methodology. Our estimates will come up short because it’s exceedingly difficult to project players who are still relatively early in their career to make the Hall of Fame, if only because of the massive attrition rates involved. For example, looking at players taken in the drafts between 1985 and 1995, 71 players made it to exactly one Pro Bowl during their first three seasons. Of those 71 players, 11 (15.5 percent) eventually made it to the Hall of Fame. (And given that it’s easier to make the Pro Bowl now than ever before, that rate will continue to go down.) We know that the total pool of contributors who fit that criteria will deliver a few Hall of Famers, but the chances of any one such player like Alshon Jeffery or Doug Martin making the Hall aren’t very high.
The relative paucity of football statistics makes it impossible to implement a JAWS-like system for the NFL, but I’ve gone through and tried to compare where players are in their current careers to similar Hall of Famers to create a fair context for evaluation. This is very different from trying to build a case to justify putting a player in, which is often disingenuous and inaccurate, as Bill James’ Keltner List famously ripped apart. I’ll be treating players as if their career paths play out in the most plausible fashion, given their historical level of play, injury rates and typical aging curves, regressing everybody down some for the chance of serious (but totally unpredictable) injury.
One final note: This isn’t a commentary on who I think should or should not be in the Hall of Fame, but an estimate of who is likely to get in based on the historical predilections of the writers who have Hall of Fame votes. That means an emphasis on skill-position players and postseason success at the expense of linemen who don’t accrue statistics. I don’t agree with that, but that’s not what this piece is about.
With that all out of the way, let’s run through the NFL and find some Hall of Famers. To keep things terse (or at least terser), I’ll be focusing on players who I believe have better than a 10 percent chance of heading to Canton. I’ll list players who have between a 1 and 10 percent chance with briefer notes where relevant. Note that the data for this piece comes from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise mentioned.
1-10 percent: Calais Campbell is supremely underrated, but he doesn’t accrue any stats and has just two Pro Bowl appearances as he turns 30. … The newly re-signed Tyrann Mathieu was impressive as a rookie in 2013 and one of the five best defensive backs in football last season, but he has torn his ACL twice across his first three professional seasons. … Carson Palmer would need to string together four or five more seasons at his 2015 level to make it in, as it had been nine seasons since the long-time Bengals starter had even made a Pro Bowl. The closest comparison to Palmer in terms of late-30s breakouts would be somebody like Rich Gannon, and Gannon hasn’t engendered serious Hall consideration while being selected as a first-team All-Pro twice. The 36-year-old Palmer is still waiting for his first such nod.
Chandler Jones has one Pro Bowl appearance and 36 sacks through four seasons, the latter of which is tied for 36th all time through four years; not bad, but the vast majority of players ahead of Jones on the list failed to make it to the Hall of Fame. For every Charles Haley (40.5 sacks), there are two LaMarr Woodleys and Jim Jeffcoats. The fact that Bill Belichick traded away Jones doesn’t bode well, either. How often does Belichick trade away a defensive stalwart only to regret it in the long term? 20 percent
Patrick Peterson is off to about as good of a start to a career as you can imagine. During his first five seasons, the former LSU star has made five Pro Bowls and been named a first-team All-Pro three times (once for his return work). Only 12 HOF-eligible players since the merger have made it to the Pro Bowl in each of their first five seasons, and eight were enshrined. Patrick Willis will probably make it nine. Peterson’s still just 26 years old, so he might have this locked up before turning 30. 70 percent
Larry Fitzgerald was probably a lock for the Hall of Fame already, but his resurgent 2015 campaign just about sealed things up. Fitz has only been a first-team All-Pro once, but he now has nine Pro Bowl appearances in 12 years. Only nine other wideouts since the merger have made it to as many as seven Pro Bowls during their career. Five are in the Hall of Fame, two will be when eligible (Marvin Harrison and Andre Johnson), and also included in that list is Steve Tasker, who earned his Pro Bowl nods for special teams work. The remaining player who hasn’t made it to Canton is Torry Holt, and Fitzgerald has already comfortably topped Holt’s numbers with another couple of years to go. 95 percent
1-10 percent: Matt Ryan looked to be on a much better track earlier in his career by virtue of Atlanta’s steady success, but he has spent the past three seasons playing on a losing team while posting a 105 NY/A+, roughly what Matthew Stafford has done over the same timespan. With three Pro Bowls by 30, he really needs an MVP or a Super Bowl and a few big years to reopen his candidacy. … Desmond Trufant is one of the best cornerbacks in football nobody ever talks about, but he’s years away from making a real case.
Julio Jones has put everything together over the past couple of seasons and produced a pair of absolutely dominant campaigns. His two-year totals add up to 240 catches, 3,464 yards and 14 touchdowns. 2015 was his first time as a first-team All-Pro, though, and the long-term concerns surrounding his surgically repaired foot make it difficult to project him as a star for another decade. On talent alone, Jones is there, but his longevity remains in question. 35 percent
1-10 percent: Joe Flacco put together one of the most incredible postseason runs ever in leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl, but he has been entirely stagnant as a passer since. Now, if he did that again … Elvis Dumervil‘s career includes two 17-sack seasons, but with 96 sacks by the age of 32, it’s hard to see him getting into the 130-or-so range, at which point his candidacy would be a lot stronger. … Marshal Yanda might be the best guard in football and has made five straight Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro appearances, but Alan Faneca had nine Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro appearances and just missed out on Canton; even if Faneca eventually gets in, you can see how high the bar is for guards. … Eric Weddle suffers from playing in a conference with Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu for most of his career (he only has three Pro Bowl nods through age 30).
Terrell Suggs is an interesting case. He started his career as one of the youngest players in his rookie class, so even though Suggs has been around since 2003, he’s only 33. He doesn’t have the sort of steady double-digit sack totals you might look for from a star edge-rusher, but Suggs’ best year (2011) came while J.J. Watt had just emerged from his alien womb and earned Suggs a Defensive Player of the Year nod, which looks great on a Hall of Fame résumé. Being part of a historically famous defense helps. Suggs has 106.5 sacks, which is 24th all time, but he probably needs to get to the 130 range to guarantee his enshrinement. That will be tough on two torn Achilles. 30 percent
Steve Smith Sr. is one of the more fascinating Hall of Fame arguments out there. He gets bonuses for being a skill-position player and a force of nature as a personality; that stuff does matter in Hall of Fame voting. He has five Pro Bowl appearances and two first-team All-Pro nods, one of which was for his return work in 2001. That itself isn’t a Hall of Fame résumé. What works in Smith’s favor is that he has been around forever and accrued numbers despite playing with Jake Delhomme at quarterback for most of his career. Smith’s 11th in career receiving yards (13,932) and 15th in career receptions (961). Terrell Owens and Isaac Bruce had more catches and haven’t yet been elected to Canton, but once Smith gets to 1K, his chances of eventually making it in should be favorable. 60 percent
1-10 percent: LeSean McCoy made it to the Pro Bowl despite running for just 895 yards last season, which made it his fourth, but he will need to produce at least two more dominant seasons like the one he rolled off in 2013 before seriously forming a Hall of Fame case. … Space-eating nose tackles like Kyle Williams don’t do well in Hall voting, unfortunately.
Marcell Dareus is an impactful enough interior disruptor to accrue the sort of sack totals HOF voters will look for, especially among players of this generation, but with one All-Pro nod in five years, he will need a sustained run to push his way into serious consideration. 15 percent
1-10 percent: Greg Olsen was anonymous for the first six seasons of his career before becoming a bigger part of the offense after his move to Carolina; at 31, he would need to keep this level of play up for several more years to have a shot. … Ryan Kalil is approaching more serious status after being named a first-team All-Pro twice in three seasons. If he can pull that off again in 2016, his chances would spike to 30 percent or so.
Cam Newton produced a career year in 2015 and won league MVP, and the track record for quarterbacks who win MVP awards is awful good. There are exceptions — John Brodie, Brian Sipe, Ken Anderson and Joe Theismann all won league MVPs without earning a trip to the Hall of Fame, and Kurt Warner won twice before being turned down this past year — but Newton’s tracking well for a Hall of Fame career through five seasons. Even if he takes a step backward this season, Newton’s steady success and nearly unparalleled impact as a running quarterback bode well for his chances. 65 percent
Luke Kuechly didn’t make it to the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2012, which suggests that the Panthers just weren’t on television. Since then, he has been selected as a first-team All-Pro three consecutive times. HOF-eligible guys with three All-Pro nods in their first four years since the merger are 9-for-12; the exceptions are Keith Jackson, Terrell Davis (whose career was basically done after his fourth season) and Mike Alstott (who was picked because he was the only fullback with a household name). Kuechly’s on another level above those guys. It would be a shocker if he didn’t make it to Canton. 85 percent
1-10 percent: I used Alshon Jeffery earlier as the example of a career still in its infancy.
Kyle Long has three Pro Bowl appearances in three seasons, even if the most recent of them was a generous gift given his uneven play at tackle. Back inside at guard, Long should continue to excel, but he’s already entering his age-28 season. (For reference: Long was drafted during his age-25 season. Tyron Smith just finished his age-25 season, and it was his fifth year in the NFL.) Interior linemen have to be great for a long time to make the Hall, and even if he stays healthy, Long may find it difficult to rack up the counting honors needed. 20 percent
1-10 percent: Andy Dalton didn’t earn a Pro Bowl nod during his breakout season in 2015; he would need to keep up his new level of play for another decade or so to sniff Hall consideration. … Andrew Whitworth has gotten better with age and might be one of the best offensive linemen of the decade, but he’s turning 35 and has two Pro Bowls to his name.
Geno Atkins had his progress stalled by a torn ACL, which cost him half of 2013 and sapped him badly in 2014, but he returned to form with an 11-sack campaign in 2015. The list of defensive tackles with two first-team All-Pro appearances across their first six seasons has a whole bunch of Hall of Famers: seven of the 12 previous post-merger eligible defensive tackles who pulled that off, by my count, made it to the Hall. Atkins’ numbers will be discounted some as interior pass-rushers accrue more sacks, but he has a better shot at Canton than most would otherwise expect. 30 percent
A.J. Green is perennially compared to classmate Julio Jones, and while Green doesn’t have Jones’ freakish peak season numbers, he has been far more consistent and stayed healthier, which bodes well for his future. Green has started his career with five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons (averaging over 1,200 yards) and five uninterrupted trips to the Pro Bowl. Here’s the list of guys who have pulled that off since the merger: A.J. Green. That’s it. The last receiver to start his career with five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances, to put this in context, is Mike Ditka. It would be a major surprise if Green didn’t pick up a gold jacket down the line. 80 percent
1 to 10 percent: Joe Haden has two Pro Bowl appearances to his name, but inconsistent play and injuries make it unlikely he’ll string together a sustained run of Pro Bowls. (It does help that most of the league’s top corners are in the NFC.)
Joe Thomas has played nine years and made nine Pro Bowls, throwing in six first-team All-Pro appearances for good measure. Every other player who started their career 9-for-9 made it to the Hall of Fame. So will Thomas. 99 percent
1 to 10 percent: Tony Romo had an MVP-caliber season in 2015, but he didn’t take over as the starter until age 26 and has made only four Pro Bowls. He has neither the longevity nor the peak to seriously threaten. … Zack Martin has made Pro Bowls in each of his first two seasons, but it’s virtually impossible for an interior lineman to make serious HOF headway after two years.
Dez Bryant rolled off three consecutive monster seasons before a foot injury blew up his 2015 campaign. His average season during that run — 91 catches, 1,312 receiving yards, 14 touchdowns — would qualify as most star wideouts’ peak campaign. At the moment, Bryant hasn’t done enough. He has two Pro Bowls from those three huge seasons, but he still needs to add quite a bit to his résumé to stand out in a generation with so many incredible wide receivers. If he looks fully healed from the foot injury and doesn’t have any reoccurrences over the next couple of seasons, Dez will be in much better shape. 25 percent
Tyron Smith has made it to three consecutive Pro Bowls, throwing in an All-Pro berth in 2014. He has the added benefit of being extremely young for his draft class; as mentioned earlier, Smith just finished his age-25 season and doesn’t turn 26 until December. Just over 30 percent of post-merger players who made three Pro Bowls by 25 made it to the Hall of Fame. Elite offensive linemen also typically enjoy longer careers by virtue of the possibility for veteran tackles to kick inside to guard. It certainly appears Smith is in the middle of a long streak of consecutive Pro Bowls. 35 percent
Jason Witten should be about as much of a lock for the Hall of Fame as any active non-quarterback. The only argument you can make is that he hasn’t had a blow-away season, but his consistency has been remarkable. Witten hasn’t missed a game since his rookie season and has caught at least 60 passes for 700 yards in 12 consecutive campaigns. He’s second on the all-time tight end leaderboard for catches and receiving yards behind Tony Gonzalez, and he’ll be joining Gonzalez in Canton one day. 95 percent
1 to 10 percent: Aqib Talib spent the first five years of his career wandering through Tampa before finally finding his way in New England. … Chris Harris Jr. is perpetually one of the 10 best corners in the league without ever threatening to be the best (at least thus far).
Demaryius Thomas had one of the quieter 100-catch seasons you’ll ever see last season, but he has now produced four seasons in a row with 90 or more catches and 1,300 or more receiving yards. (The two prior seasons involved Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton). Thomas has made it to three Pro Bowls in six years, but the concern is simply the sheer number of great receivers flooding the AFC. I don’t think this will be the case, but Thomas might only be the third-best wideout in his own division in 2016, and that wouldn’t even be a knock on his skills. Given the presence of Emmanuel Sanders on the opposite side of the field for another year, Thomas might not enjoy his real breakout season until 2017. 35 percent
Von Miller‘s fascinating five-year career has included huge highs and troubling lows. We’re obviously on one of those highs right now, but we’re only two years removed from a season in which he was suspended for cheating a drug test and subsequently tore his ACL. Obviously, on talent and performance alone, Miller’s on the path to the Hall of Fame. It just feels like there’s a little more risk here than there typically is with similarly productive superstars. 75 percent
DeMarcus Ware has been a first-team All-Pro four times, posted a 20-sack season and won Defensive Player of the Year. His performance in last year’s playoffs was just icing on the cake. 98 percent
1 to 10 percent: Ezekiel Ansah broke out with a 14.5-sack campaign last season; it’s promising, but Osi Umenyiora’s a similar example of a player who did the same thing in his third year and went on to have a perfectly useful career without any shot of making the Hall of Fame. … Haloti Ngata made five consecutive Pro Bowls between 25 and 29, but he has slipped over the past two seasons and doesn’t have the sort of counting statistics that help make Hall of Fame arguments. … Matthew Stafford has the cachet of being a former first overall pick, but he has made it to one lone Pro Bowl in seven years as a pro while posting what basically amounts to a league-average NY/A+ (101). Slightly above-average quarterbacks need to win a ton of games and have a peak season that approaches or hits MVP level, as Terry Bradshaw did, to make it to Canton. Stafford has yet to do either.
Green Bay Packers
1 to 10 percent: Jordy Nelson has made one Pro Bowl and is now on the wrong side of 30 with an ACL tear in his recent past. If he plays into his late 30s at a high level, he has a shot. … Josh Sitton deserves to be in the discussion on performance, but he hasn’t been a first-team All-Pro once during his eight-year career.
Clay Matthews hasn’t really been hurt by his midcareer move to inside linebacker, even though it will drag down his sack totals when all is said and done. Matthews has made six Pro Bowl appearances in seven seasons; the Hall of Fame rate for eligible guys who have done that is 72 percent, and the players who missed were mostly offensive linemen and Alstott, who play positions the voters don’t value. Matthews would help his chances by moving back outside, but either way, he’s very likely to get in. 80 percent
Julius Peppers should be an open-and-shut candidate, especially after he retires and the (in my eyes, unfair and inaccurate) arguments that he took plays off in Carolina and Chicago fade into the annals of time. He has nine Pro Bowl appearances, three first-team All-Pro nods, a Defensive Player of the Year award, and 136 career sacks. The only thing he lacks is the sort of impactful postseason run that Ware just finished up for Denver, but it shouldn’t be necessary. 80 percent
Aaron Rodgers could only be kept out by vengeful “Bachelorette” fans. 100 percent
1 to 10 percent: Vince Wilfork made five Pro Bowls and won two Super Bowls, but nose tackles — even great nose tackles — do not do well through this process. … Duane Brown took a step backward last season and broke his Pro Bowl streak at three.
It’s one thing to say that J.J. Watt is on the path to having a valuable career that would eventually, viewed as a whole, be worth a spot in the Hall of Fame. That’s not the point I’m making, though. Watt has done enough to make it to the Hall of Fame right now. If he retired tomorrow, Watt’s résumé would include four first-team All-Pro appearances and three Defensive Player of the Year trophies. Every eligible player who has won the trophy twice has been enshrined. Watt’s already ahead of them. 100 percent
1 to 10 percent: T.Y. Hilton has a few years of playing as Andrew Luck‘s No. 1 receiver ahead of him, which should keep his numbers high. … Vontae Davis has made consecutive Pro Bowls, but at 28, he’s already behind the curve. … Robert Mathis did win Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, but it lurks as a dramatic outlier, and he wasn’t the same player last season after returning from a torn Achilles tendon. He’ll need to add another 20 sacks to seriously sniff the Hall.
Andrew Luck has been preordained to make the Hall of Fame since he entered the league, and while 2015 was the lowest point of his professional career, there’s little reason to think he’s veered far off that path. The Colts were a horrific mess before he got there, and they’ve gone 35-20 since, and if you want to argue that’s because of the running game and defense, well, you’re wasting your time. Luck’s status as a former first overall pick helps, too. A healthy Luck is going to be an MVP candidate for the foreseeable future; remember, he threw for 4,761 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2014. 55 percent
1 to 10 percent: Allen Robinson just had an enormous sophomore campaign, but that’s about where it begins and ends for the Jaguars right now.
Kansas City Chiefs
1 to 10 percent: Dontari Poe is a wrecking ball at nose tackle and made consecutive Pro Bowls in 2013 and 2014, but he has already required surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back, and bad backs don’t often get better as 346-pound players age.
Justin Houston is another Chiefs defender laid low by injury concerns. Houston had 48.5 sacks through four seasons, which put him in line with Von Miller (49.0) and left him eighth on the all-time list through four years. Last year, though, Houston missed most of the second half before briefly returning in the postseason, and a non-functioning ACL may cost him a chunk of his 2016 campaign. It’s still unclear whether the old Houston will ever come back, and you only have to think back to Shawne Merriman to remember a devastating pass-rusher who was suddenly laid out by knee problems. 25 percent
Eric Berry has had to overcome a torn ACL in 2011 and a season shortened by a high ankle sprain and lymphoma in 2014. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of his four other seasons, including first-team All-Pro nods in each of his last two healthy campaigns. Barring more on-field injuries, there’s little reason to think Berry won’t remain an impactful defender, and the lack of talent at safety in the AFC could clear a path for steady All-Pro nods. 35 percent
Los Angeles Rams
1 to 10 percent: none
Robert Quinn is still living off his remarkable 2013 campaign, when he recorded 19 sacks. He had 15.5 sacks in two seasons before his breakout campaign and has recorded 15.5 more in the two ensuing seasons. Quinn just turned 26, so there’s still plenty of time for him to have another monster season or two, but with each year that passes, 2013 seems more like an outlier. 20 percent
Aaron Donald may be part of the problem, if only because he keeps beating Quinn to the quarterback. Donald has made consecutive Pro Bowls, added a first-team All-Pro nod this past year, and has 20 sacks across his first two seasons. It’s possible Donald will slow down — Kevin Williams had 21 sacks across his first two years and averaged four per season the rest of the way — but he has already established himself as one of the most impactful defenders in football. 30 percent
1 to 10 percent: Mike Pouncey‘s path to the All-Pro team has been blocked, coincidentally, by brother Maurkice. … Cameron Wake‘s outside shot at a Hall of Fame nod probably ended with last year’s Achilles injury; Wake has been as impactful on the field as anybody in football, but his time in the CFL kept him out of the league until his age-27 season. … With 96 sacks to his name, Mario Williams could stick around for five more years and probably make it past 130 sacks, but given his reported lack of love in football, what are the chances he plays into his late 30s?
Ndamukong Suh, despite whatever controversies might surround him for after-the-whistle behavior, is a phenomenal football player. He has already been a first-team All-Pro three times in six seasons and barely misses any time; the only regular-season games he has missed during his pro career were via suspension. The furor over his post-play activities will fade and turn into a charming relic of the past. It would be an upset if he didn’t march into Canton. 75 percent
Adrian Peterson was going to the Hall of Fame the moment the 2012 season ended. 99 percent
New England Patriots
1 to 10 percent: Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower are at the core of the next great Patriots defense if the Pats can manage to re-sign the duo, but they’ve combined for one Pro Bowl appearance and two 16-game seasons in seven combined campaigns. … Stephen Gostkowski has been great seemingly forever, but he doesn’t have the signature kick(s) Adam Vinatieri has on his résumé. … Devin McCourty has somehow only made it to one Pro Bowl, and that was as a rookie cornerback in 2010.
Rob Gronkowski probably isn’t going to have a long career, thanks to his style of play and the back problems which ailed him in college at Arizona. But he has been so productive on a per-game basis that it doesn’t really matter. He’s seventh in league history among tight ends with 65 scores in 80 games. Gronk’s also an incredible blocker, although that part of his game never gets attention. As a historic force of nature and an outsized personality, Gronk’s chances of making the Hall of Fame are already very high. 75 percent
Tom Brady is going to make the Hall of Fame. 100 percent
New Orleans Saints
1 to 10 percent: none
Drew Brees is also going to make the Hall of Fame. 100 percent
New York Giants
1 to 10 percent: none
Eli Manning might make the Hall of Fame, which is going to infuriate a lot of people. On numbers alone, Eli shouldn’t be there. He has made four Pro Bowls, and while he has put together a very nice second peak after the arrival of Ben McAdoo, nobody who watches Manning on a week-to-week basis thinks that he looks like a Hall of Famer by any stretch of the imagination. The basis for his candidacy, then, is winning two Super Bowl MVP awards in victories over the Patriots, and Manning will get bonus credit for beating the previously undefeated 2007 Patriots. (The memories of Eli nearly throwing the game away with an interception on the play before the Helmet Catch have already mostly disappeared.) The list of guys who have won Super Bowl MVP two or more times includes Terry Bradshaw, Tom Brady, Joe Montana and Bart Starr. They’re all in (or will be in) the Hall of Fame. I’d also argue that Eli doesn’t belong on a tier with those passers because of what they all did in the other hundreds of games they each played over the course of their respective careers. I wouldn’t vote for him, but some will. 40 percent
Odell Beckham Jr. is playing in a pass-happy era, but when you compare his first two seasons to every other wideout in league history, Beckham tops everyone in receiving yards (2,755) and is second in receptions and third in receiving touchdowns — and he missed five games. Beckham is averaging 102.0 receiving yards per game, and the guy in second place — Randy Moss — averaged 85 yards in his first two years. He has been as good as any wide receiver in league history through two seasons, and that’s without even considering the catch. 50 percent
New York Jets
1 to 10 percent: Brandon Marshall has a more compelling case than it might seem at first glance; eight of his past nine seasons have produced 1,000 receiving yards, and at 31, he’s already 22nd in receptions and 31st in receiving yards. Things could go south in New York and this could look silly, but if he ages well, it could get interesting quickly. … Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson have one Pro Bowl appearance each; they’ve each got a lot more work to do.
Sadly, so does Nick Mangold, despite the fact that the longtime Jets center has made seven Pro Bowls. There are 15 Hall of Fame-eligible players who have debuted since the AFL-NFL merger and made at least seven Pro Bowls without being selected for the Hall. Seven of those 15 players are offensive linemen. Mangold needs one or two more Pro Bowl seasons to safely pave his path into Canton. 30 percent
Darrelle Revis shouldn’t have any such concern. With five first-team All-Pro appearances, a Defensive Player of the Year award, and a key role on two memorable teams (and the Buccaneers!), his Hall ticket should already be punched. 95 percent
1 to 10 percent: none
Khalil Mack‘s monstrous sophomore season is the sort of leap we saw from perennial Pro Bowlers like J.J. Watt and Von Miller during their second seasons. It’s incredibly promising for his future, but Mack’s still just 32 games into his career. Think about his sometimes teammate: Aldon Smith had 14 sacks as a rookie and 19.5 sacks the following year … and he has produced 14 sacks since. Careers go in strange, unexpected ways. If Mack does it again in 2016, his chances of reaching Canton will shoot up. 25 percent
1 to 10 percent: Fletcher Cox is the proud owner of a mammoth new contract, but he has only made one Pro Bowl in his first four seasons. I fully expect that to change with Jim Schwartz around as defensive coordinator, but let’s wait for that to happen first.
Jason Peters had a case as the best non-Joe Thomas left tackle in football for a while there; he slipped some last season, and this is probably his last year in Philadelphia, but Peters has made it to eight Pro Bowls and been a first-team All-Pro twice by the age of 33. He’s probably one additional good season away from the Hall. 50 percent.
1 to 10 percent: Le’Veon Bell was arguably the best running back in football in 2014. He was ineffective and injured in 2013 and hurt for most of 2015. If that 2014 version comes back for years at a time, Bell has the talent and the supporting cast to be a Hall of Fame-caliber back. … David DeCastro deserved a Pro Bowl nod in 2014 but finally got his first call in 2015.
James Harrison had a five-year run as one of the most terrifying defenders in all of football, making five consecutive Pro Bowls and winning a Defensive Player of the Year award. He was a backup for the five preceding seasons and has been a middling rotation linebacker for the four succeeding campaigns. He has 76.5 career sacks; for a player who was primarily a pass-rusher, that doesn’t seem like enough to justify a Hall of Fame berth. 25 percent.
Maurkice Pouncey is only being held back by injuries; he has missed one quarter shy of two full seasons with serious knee and leg damage. His four other seasons have produced four Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro appearances. If Pouncey recovers from the serious infections which prevented him from coming back last year, he should regain his title as the AFC’s best center. 35 percent.
Antonio Brown is one of the toughest people to slap a number on for this piece. He has been incredible over the last three seasons — so incredible that it’s basically unprecedented — but he’s still so young that he can’t be considered a lock for the Hall. Brown’s not in the top 100 in receptions or receiving yards, although he should get there this season. Brown is on a Hall of Fame career path, but if things went south quickly, I don’t know that he has done enough to guarantee things as of yet. Of course, if what Brown’s done isn’t enough, I don’t think anybody outside of J.J. Watt could have locked things up this quick. 80 percent.
Ben Roethlisberger will make the Hall of Fame unless there is a serious reevaluation of his off-field behavior. 90 percent.
San Diego Chargers
1 to 10 percent: Keenan Allen produced Brown-esque numbers before getting hurt last year. Health is also a skill.
Philip Rivers was traded for Eli Manning on draft day, but he’s sort of the anti-Eli in terms of respective Hall of Fame cases. Rivers has a much better statistical track record and has made it to five Pro Bowls. He’s also 4-5 in the playoffs. Rivers is a better quarterback than Eli in a vacuum, but Manning has had the context to produce a better story. It would take something special from the 34-year-old Rivers over the next couple of years to improve his resume. 35 percent.
Antonio Gates hasn’t been the sort of game-changing weapon he was at his peak over the past few seasons, but that’s just fine. It has been four years since Gates made a Pro Bowl, but he made eight consecutive trips there between 2004 and 2011. The chances of a skill-position player with that sort of history missing out on Canton are slim. 70 percent.
1 to 10 percent: The ruptured patella Jimmy Graham suffered last season has the league’s worst rate of long-term recovery. The injury has seemed to drastically sap the athleticism of similarly-scarred players. Graham’s outlook has drastically changed over the past two years; he has gone from the prime of his career as the focal point of the Saints to a question mark as just another part of the Seattle offense. … Bobby Wagner may benefit from playing on a legendarily successful defense or the success of others may cause voters to punish Seattle’s middle linebacker. At this point, I’m not sure whether either is fair. … Michael Bennett finally got his due as a Pro Bowler in 2015, but he turns 31 this year. His four-year breakout run hasn’t been a historically-notable peak, and Bennett won’t have a long enough career to accumulate huge counting stats.
Russell Wilson could lose it overnight — Colin Kaepernick seemed to — but Wilson’s only getting better. He laid the running game arguments to rest last year, with Seattle’s attack only kicking into high gear after Marshawn Lynch was injured and the Seahawks moved to more of a pass-friendly attack. It’s far easier to imagine situations where he keeps it up and makes the Hall of Fame than ones where he slips and struggles to achieve greatness. 85 percent.
Richard Sherman had four Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro awards in his back pocket before turning 28. He produces counting stats, having accumulated eight picks in consecutive seasons, and he has that legendary moment of picking off Kaepernick on the “SORRY RECEIVER” play in the NFC Championship Game. It would take a career-ending injury or an Nnamdi Asomugha-in-Philadelphia-esque sudden dropoff in play for Sherman to miss out on enshrinement. 90 percent.
Earl Thomas is just that much better, having five Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro awards before turning 27. The competition at safety isn’t quite as intense as it is at cornerback, and Thomas is quietly more essential to what Seattle’s done on defense in year’s past. It’s a good competition to have, and it’s the third guy on the Seattle roster who is all-but-guaranteed to make the Hall of Fame. 95 percent.
San Francisco 49ers
1 to 10 percent: Joe Staley has made five consecutive Pro Bowls, but the league didn’t notice how good he was until 2011, which limits how many he’ll be able to accrue before time runs out on his career.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1 to 10 percent: Jameis Winston didn’t blow away anybody during an up-and-down rookie season, but he didn’t do anything to sabotage his chances, either. First overall picks will get plenty of opportunities to prove themselves, to which Sam Bradford can attest. … Lavonte David remains wildly underrated and managed to make the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2015, but he otherwise plays in total obscurity. (He did make an All-Pro team in 2013 without being voted into the Pro Bowl, which is strange.)
Gerald McCoy is perhaps unfairly compared to Suh by virtue of the two being taken second and third, respectively, in the 2010 draft, but McCoy is a hell of a player who stands on his own. The biggest difference between the two is injuries: Suh doesn’t really ever miss time, while McCoy has been out for 17 games as a pro. Suh has 42 sacks in 94 games; pro-rate that to the 79 games in which McCoy’s played, and you would expect the Oklahoma star to have generated 35.2 sacks. He’s actually generated 35.5. If he continues to stay healthy, McCoy should rise up toward Suh. 30 percent.
1 to 10 percent: Yes, DeMarco Murray could revitalize his career in Tennessee with Mike Mularkey’s exotic smashmouth approach, but injuries kept him from realizing his promise until that dominant 2014 campaign. That guy could come back, but it’s unlikely.
1 to 10 percent: none
Josh Norman is the ultimate one-year bet; is he the Defensive Player of the Year candidate who terrorized opposing receivers last season, or is he the middling corner who was on the bench for most of his professional career until his breakout? History tells us to believe the former, for better or worse. 25 percent.
Trent Williams is overshadowed a bit by Tyron Smith and Jason Peters occupying the same space in the same division, but William is as good as anybody else in the league at times. Williams’s athleticism as a run blocker allowed him to adapt to both the zone-blocking scheme installed by Mike Shanahan and the hybrid scheme Jay Gruden installed upon his arrival. The Washington Post also says he allowed a career-low 2.5 sacks last season. He made his fourth straight trip to the Pro Bowl this year, which is why Williams is also on the slow-but-steady bus to Ohio. 40 percent.