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Top 11 active locks in the NFL for Pro Football Hall of Fame: Where does J.J. Watt rank?

There have been close to 30,000 players in NFL history, with just over 300 of them making it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame so far. They're the true one-percenters -- the best of the best.

So it's hard to get to Canton, and some exceptional players are still rightfully waiting to hear their name called. But there are also the obvious cases -- the no-brainer, no-questions-asked players whose HOF qualifications are clear even while they're still playing. And there are quite a few active players who fit into that category.

J.J. Watt is one of them. When the three-time Defensive Player Of the Year winner announced on Twitter on Tuesday that he will retire after this season, it got us thinking: Where does Watt rank among the active future Hall of Famers in terms of how strong their HOF cases are?

For clarity's sake, the fact that Watt appears below, say, Tom Brady on this list doesn't necessarily mean we think Watt is less of a defensive lineman than Brady was a quarterback. Rather, we're saying that Brady is about as certain a Canton bet as there is in the game now, possessing a truly unimpeachable resume. After all, there might be some who feel that Watt's career was too short to brand him a first-ballot Hall of Famer. (Although we'd admittedly like a word with those folks.)

We tried to whittle our list of the surest active-player HOF locks down as far as we could and slot Watt in among them, from the strongest case in descending order. And, yes, we know there are many other current players who deserve to be mentioned as likely enshrinees one day. But part of the fun -- and the chore -- of the exercise is to find the surest of the sure things and make this list as exclusive as possible.

Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB · Age: 45

With Bucs since: 2020. Also played for: New England Patriots (2000-2019).

A mortal lock: There's no other way to categorize it. We could run through Brady's dizzying stats or his unparalleled longevity or team success, but by now you likely have most of it down by heart. 

The Athletic's Zak Keefer recently relayed a great anecdote that Hall of Fame voter Mike Chappell shared when Chappell was presenting Peyton Manning's case to the other 49 HOF voters, before Manning made it in as part of the Class of 2021. Chappell stood up in the room and said: "Peyton Manning. End of discussion."

When it's Tom's turn, it might suffice for his presenter to simply say: "Brady."

Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · QB · Age: 39

With Packers since: 2005.

Rodgers' case is nearly as compelling as Brady's, with one clear separator.

Yes, A-Rod has averaged more yards per attempt (7.7 to 7.4), has a higher career TD rate (6.2 percent to 5.4 percent) and a better completion percentage (65.3 to 64.3) than Brady in his career, albeit in about 100 fewer regular-season games. But it's Brady's postseason work that adds a few more feathers to his cap, even if some might feel Rodgers was the better pure talent at his peak. Either way, we're talking about two of the very best to ever do it -- in this era or any other.

Aaron Donald
Los Angeles Rams · DE · Age: 31

With Rams since: 2014.

Here's where it gets tricky. Although Donald entered the NFL three full seasons after Watt did, Donald has played 138 regular-season games to Watt's 149, so we can almost go apples to apples on their careers, even if they played slightly different positions.

Watt actually leads Donald in sacks (111.5 to 103), forced fumbles (27 to 24), fumble recoveries (17 to 7) and, for good measure, interceptions (2 to 0) and points scored (38 to 2). Their playoff production is fairly comparable statistically, even if Donald's Super Bowl dominance in February stands out against Watt's lack of appearances on that stage.

But what gives Donald the slightest of edges in our view is the season-to-season consistency. Whereas Watt's mid-career injuries kept him from playing in 42 of a possible 97 games from 2016 to 2021, Donald has missed only six career games (and counting) in his nine NFL seasons.

We don't know if Donald will continue playing after this season, but he's a singular, generational talent whose dominance inside as a 3-technique stacks up against the best of the very best all time at that spot.

J.J. Watt
Arizona Cardinals · DE · Age: 33

With Cardinals since: 2021. Also played for: Houston Texans (2011-2020).

Had Watt not put up his best season in recent memory in 2022, it might have been harder to recall with crystal clarity just how very destructive he was at his peak. We might never see another defender turn in a first-five-season run quite like Watt did from 2011 to 2015. He played in all 80 of those regular-season games, totaling 74.5 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, 12 recoveries, 132 tackles for loss, 209 QB hits, one interception (an 80-yard pick-six) and one safety.

The Texans won 42 games in that span, with 16 of those victories coming by a one-score margin. Anyone who truly appreciated Watt's footprint during that dominant chapter might believe Houston would have lost at least 16 more games had he not been on the field. That's the definition of a game-changing defender.

Von Miller
Buffalo Bills · OLB · Age: 33

With Bills since: 2022. Also played for: Denver Broncos (2011-2021), Los Angeles Rams (2021).

Just behind Donald and Watt is Miller, who actually has the highest sack rate of the three of them. Miller entered the league the same year as Watt and has been hit with some injuries over his career, but he's been more durable overall. And if we stack their career playoff totals, Miller has arguably been the best of the three when the games have counted most, including the effort that landed him the Super Bowl 50 MVP award.

There have been few edge rushers in the past several decades who have consistently threatened quarterbacks' livelihoods quite to the degree that Miller has. Yet, when it comes down to splitting the toughest of hairs here, Donald and Watt have more All-Pro mentions (7 and 5 to 3) and more Defensive Player of the Year awards (3 and 3 to 0).

Julio Jones
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · WR · Age: 33

With Bucs since: 2022. Also played for: Atlanta Falcons (2011-2020), Tennessee Titans (2021).

Jones is the NFL's active leader -- by pretty healthy margins -- in both receptions (902) and receiving yards (13,619), placing him 24th and 16th, respectively, on those all-time lists. His career receiving TD total (63) is comparably modest, but Jones' average of 88.4 receiving yards per game is No. 1 in NFL history for players with at least 50 career games (the Vikings' Justin Jefferson is averaging 99.4 through his first 48 games).

Jones' past few seasons have been frustrating and injury-riddled. But as with some others on this list, we'd be remiss to overlook just how consistently dominant Jones was at his peak. In his first nine seasons combined (126 games), he averaged 96.2 yards per game and 15.2 yards per catch. Jones is a shoo-in for Canton whenever he hangs them up.

Trent Williams
San Francisco 49ers · OT · Age: 34

With 49ers since: 2020. Also played for: Washington Commanders (2010-19).

Williams might be considered as dominant an offensive lineman as we have in the NFL now, and he's played at an exceptional level for most of his 12 NFL seasons. In fact, it's arguable that he's gotten even better in his later years with the 49ers when healthy. 

Injuries have robbed him of a few dozen games over the years, but Williams has been a Pro Bowler every single season since 2012, when he was a 10-game starter in his second year in the league, with the exception of 2019, which he missed entirely. What sets him apart is his rare movement skill for such a massive man (6-foot-5, 320 pounds); he's as much of a force in pass protection as he is getting out in front to pave the run game. 

Jason Kelce
Philadelphia Eagles · C · Age: 35

With Eagles since: 2011.

The famous podcasting Kelce brothers might not end up being the first bro tandem to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Jason and Travis (see below) both deserve to sport gold jackets in due time. It also wouldn't be out of the question to see them face off in the Super Bowl this year, which could make for a few spicy episodes prior to the big game.

The elder Kelce was an undersized sixth-round pick back in 2011, but then-Eagles coach Andy Reid scooped up a brainy brawler who would prove to be a fantastic center in Philly's West Coast-steeped system. Kelce has been named to six Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams; since the start of the 2013 season, he's missed a mere four games (all in 2014).

Kelce had a HOF resume prior to the podcasting gig, but let's be honest: It hasn't hurt his eventual candidacy one iota. 

Travis Kelce
Kansas City Chiefs · TE · Age: 33

With Chiefs since: 2013.

The younger Kelce paved his own trail to success in the league as a tight end and is unquestionably the best receiving threat at the position in the game now. In fact, there's a strong case for Kelce being the most dangerous receiving tight end of all time -- and he's having one of his best seasons this year at age 34, with a career-high 12 TDs and a chance to top his career bests for catches and yards, too.

Some still put Rob Gronkowski ahead of Kelce, and it's a fun debate, but both deserve enshrinement as soon as they're first eligible. In contrast to Gronkowski, Kelce has been, like his brother, a reliable player from a health standpoint, missing a combined three games over his past nine seasons.

Why Kelce here over his quarterback, Patrick Mahomes? One could argue that Mahomes is already a future Hall of Famer through six NFL seasons if his career were to end tomorrow, but that would put him at the very bottom of the HOF experience list, right in the Gale Sayers-Terrell Davis neighborhood.

Patrick Peterson
Minnesota Vikings · CB · Age: 32

With Vikings since: 2021. Also played for: Arizona Cardinals (2011-2020).

Like Watt, Peterson has had something of a resurgent 2022 season, logging four interceptions (many coming at crucial times for the 12-3 Vikings), 63 return yards and 14 passes defensed. And also like Watt, Peterson's early-career dominance cannot go overlooked. 

In his first eight NFL seasons, Peterson never missed a game, totaling 23 interceptions, 76 passes defensed and four punt-return TDs, making the Pro Bowl each of those years and racking up three All-Pro mentions in that span. Among active defenders, Peterson's 33 career picks are right behind two safeties -- teammate Harrison Smith and the Patriots' Devin McCourty

Tyron Smith
Dallas Cowboys · OT · Age: 32

With Cowboys since: 2011.

We considered a number of players for the final spot: Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner, Zack Martin, Khalil Mack, Jason Peters, Calais Campbell and even Justin Tucker among them. All of them have excellent cases to make the Hall eventually. 

Though two of Smith's past three seasons have been marred by injury, he was the epitome of dominance prior to that. Smith was named first- or second-team All-Pro for four years running between 2013 and 2016 and was voted to Pro Bowls in each of the past eight seasons in which he logged 11-plus games. The classic "dancing bear" big man at left tackle, Smith combines sweet feet with sheer power to maul most defenders opposite him when healthy.

The lack of a Super Bowl ring and his nagging ailments could hurt his first-ballot chances. But being a member of America's Team could help offset those factors. Smith's about as familiar of a household name as you'll find on the offensive line after playing in the spotlight in Dallas -- and for good reason.

Follow Eric Edholm on Twitter.

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