Congratulations to the 15 modern-era finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2023, whose names we learned last week. Being included is truly an honor for these players. This sport's past isn't always as treasured as it should be, but I love NFL history and get geeked every time we get to talk about another new group Hall of Famers. And I believe this is going to be a great class.
Let's break down the finalists:
FINALISTS IN FIRST YEAR OF ELIGIBILITY
I'm not sure if anybody in this class is as much of an automatic first-ballot selection as Peyton Manning was in the Class of 2021. But I would think Joe Thomas, (OT, Cleveland Browns, 2007-2017) is as close as it gets. Dude went years without missing a snap. He was one of the most durable and dominant players of his era. I would be shocked if he didn't get in this year -- but then, I have been shocked before. Maybe his comments on Jeff Saturday rubbed people the wrong way? Not me. I'd have him in. Without a moment of deliberation.
Then there is Darrelle Revis (CB, New York Jets, 2007-2012, 2015-16; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2013; New England Patriots, 2014; Kansas City Chiefs, 2017). I'm a huge fan! Revis was one of the most dominant players of his era, the kind of guy you would bench your fantasy receiver against back in the day. And, yes, he's a defensive player with a ring, if that kind of thing matters to you. (As we'll see when we get to a certain other Canton hopeful from a certain San Francisco team below, it clearly seems to matter to some.) I know I might get roasted for discussing Revis' case as if he is not a 100 percent obvious choice. But again, I've seen obvious go unrewarded before.
I have more doubt about the chances of Dwight Freeney (DE, Indianapolis Colts, 2002-2012; San Diego Chargers, 2013-14; Arizona Cardinals, 2015; Atlanta Falcons, 2016; Seattle Seahawks, 2017; Detroit Lions, 2017). Freeney has the credentials. He won a Super Bowl (checking that box). But the voters also seem to hold first-ballot enshrinees to some kind of tough-to-decipher level of prestige. Freeney might end up like that guy who is trying to walk into the club with his friends, and the bouncer is all, "Hey, we're letting your friends in, but we're not so sure about you." He might need to wait a rotation or two while another pass rusher who didn't make the first-ballot cut last year (see below) gets in.
OTHER FIRST-TIME FINALISTS
Albert Lewis (CB, Kansas City Chiefs, 1983-1993; Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, 1994-98) deserves congratulations for making it this far in his final year of eligibility. I loved this guy when I was a kid. He was a great player. But while I don't want to be too harsh here, I'm not sure he would get my vote. I mean, was he better than Revis? I don't think so.
I really like the chances of Darren Woodson (S, Dallas Cowboys, 1992-2004). Woodson's advocates are really going to lean into Woodson's three championships. (Again, this seems to be an important part of evaluating the candidacy of defensive players, to some.) And honestly, the Cowboys dynasty of the 1990s is kind of under-represented in Canton, if you ask me.
WHAT ARE WE DOING WITH THE WRS?
Let's break up this logjam, shall we? (I would have voted for Steve Smith Sr., but you all didn't ask me. He's not even a finalist. Which is a choice, I suppose.)
Torry Holt (St. Louis Rams 1999-2008; Jacksonville Jaguars, 2009) is a finalist for a fourth time. Let's quit messing around with him. I love Ike Bruce, who was in the Class of 2020, but if you were going to tell me that one of the receivers from the Greatest Show on Turf was going to get inducted, I would have sworn it would be my guy, Torry. I believe he's getting in this year. (Sorry, my predictions piece is looming.)
I mean no disrespect to second-time finalist Andre Johnson (Houston Texans, 2003-2014; Indianapolis Colts, 2015; Tennessee Titans, 2016), who was amazing during his career. But having just come off a fantasy football finals where my hopes were dashed by Justin Jefferson's stunning lack of production, I'm reminded of Week 16 in 2008, when a two-catch, 19-yard showing from Johnson did the same. Then Johnson torched my Bears for 148 yards and a pair of scores the following week, and, well, I'm still very petty.
Four-time finalist Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis Colts, 2001-2014) would also be a solid choice here. I don't think he gets enough love for bridging the gap between Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis. Wayne was such a solid player. I'm not going to be mad if he gets in.
WHAT ARE WE DOING, PERIOD?
It continues to amaze me that Patrick Willis (LB, San Francisco 49ers, 2007-2014), a second-time finalist in his fourth year of eligibility, has yet to receive "the knock," because the guy was pretty dominant. I want to hear, once and for all, a cogent explanation as to why he's not in the Hall of Fame. Yes, I am aware of the argument raised by a voter in this 2021 article (which I pointed to in my ranking of the semifinalists in November) that it's tough for defensive players to get into the Hall without a ring. I am aware Willis does not have a ring. But I said I wanted to hear a cogent explanation for Willis' absence.
Same goes for four-time finalist Zach Thomas (LB, Miami Dolphins, 1996-2007; Dallas Cowboys, 2008), who was a five-time All-Pro -- that's All-Pro, not Pro Bowler. Why torment the guy? Either put him in or don't make him a finalist. Dude is going to have to fly to Phoenix just to sit on his hands once again? Because I have a suspicion it's DeMarcus Ware (DE/LB, Dallas Cowboys, 2005-2013; Denver Broncos, 2014-16) who gets in this year. I thought Ware had a great chance last year, but again, it seem like we can't let just anybody in on the first ballot. Ware's spot on the waiting list ends up being filled by Dwight Freeney.
Three-time finalist Jared Allen (DE, Kansas City Chiefs, 2004-07; Minnesota Vikings, 2008-2013; Chicago Bears, 2014-15; Carolina Panthers, 2015) is also a possibility. But only if he promises to ride into the stadium in Canton the same way he rode onto the field in Minnesota for his induction into the Vikings Hall of Fame.
TWO MORE TOUGH CALLS
Willie Anderson (OT, Cincinnati Bengals, 1996-2007; Baltimore Ravens, 2008) was great. He made first-team All-Pro three straight seasons. But Joe Thomas' presence in this class probably hurts Anderson this year. I'm not saying it's right, I'm just keeping it real here.
Like his fellow finalist Albert Lewis, my guy Ronde Barber (CB/S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1997-2012) is probably going to be hurt by the candidacy of Darrelle Revis. I thought Barber was an excellent player who extended his career by switching to safety. The fact that he has to compete with players like Revis shows just how difficult it is to get into the Hall of Fame. I had Barber and Lewis behind Eric Allen, who didn't make the finalist list, in my ranking of the semifinalists.
WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?
I was shocked when Devin Hester (WR/ST/G.O.A.T., Chicago Bears, 2006-2013; Atlanta Falcons, 2014-2015; Baltimore Ravens/Seattle Seahawks, 2016) wasn't inducted last year. Ha ha ha. Just kidding. I knew Hester wasn't going to get in, considering, again, how carefully voters seem to hand out first-ballot nods. Special teams never gets the respect it deserves. And that about covers it. I'll be honest, I'm not 100 percent confident they are going to get it right with Hester this time around, either. It's just one of those things I've learned to come to expect, like the way people assume deep-dish pizza is the best pizza in Chicago, when all the people from Illinois know it's tavern-style pizza that's truly the staple of our diets. (Sorry, that analogy made more sense in my head. But I'm going to keep it in there anyway.)