Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews III celebrate their Super Bowl victory.

I recently read an article on NFL.com by Gil Brandt. It was titled, “Eleven active players who should be first-ballot Hall of Famers”. I really liked the piece, even if I have some qualms with the players Brandt chose and the rankings he gave them. I tend to disagree with him a lot. But I thought it would be a fun exercise for me to make my own list since this is what originally got me in to sports writing in the first place. I’ll be listing all the active players I think will be first ballot Hall of Famers.

Before we begin I’d like to point out that the NFL ranks are full of talented players who will one day be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but since we’re focusing on the first ballot level players, you won’t be seeing players like Patrick Peterson just yet. To paraphrase a stat from Brandt, there have been just 16 first ballot Hall of Famers in the last 10 Hall of Fame classes. It truly is a highly regarded honor. One I predict that Randy Moss and Ray Lewis will receive in this year’s class. Most people think so too, but Moss could be held out for his off, and on, the field antics. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s jump right in.

1. Tom Brady

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Sometimes Tom Brady can make football less fun because he always seems to come out on top. He is the greatest quarterback of all time and that’s validated by his 5 Super Bowl rings, 2 league MVPs, and 13 Pro Bowls. Brady sits at 4th all time in passing yards, 3rd in touchdowns, and 2nd in fourth quarter comebacks. He’s also the winningest quarterback of all time and it really isn’t close. Then there’s all those playoff records…you get the picture.

2. Drew Brees

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There have only been nine times in NFL history where a quarterback has thrown for 5,000 yards or more. Brees has done it five of those nine times. The fact that he doesn’t have a league MVP is almost criminal. It is incredible what this guy has been able to do and he never had players on the level of Randy Moss like Brady, or Marvin Harrison like Peyton Manning. He’s brought New Orleans their only Super Bowl win ever and has his own long list of accolades. This season Brees became just the third quarterback in NFL history to throw for over 70,000 career yards, joining Peyton Manning and Brett Favre. Brees is 1st all-time in completion percentage, 3rd in passing yards, tied for 3rd in passing touchdowns, and is also 2nd in passes completed.

3. Larry Fitzgerald

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He’s easily a top five wide receiver of all time. In 14 NFL seasons he’s been selected to 11 Pro Bowls, and remember he’s been playing with backup level quarterbacks for a lot of that time. He’s caught passes from over 12 different quarterbacks in his career! Most people forget his incredible run in the 2008 playoffs because the Cardinals lost in the Super Bowl, but in four games Fitzgerald had 30 receptions for 546 yards and 7 touchdowns! That’s ridiculous! And throughout his career Fitzgerald is averaging over 100 yards per game in his nine playoff appearances. It’s easy to see how–he’s so big and athletic. Not to mention he might have the best hands in the game. I can’t remember the last time he dropped a pass. He’s 3rd all time in receiving yards, 8th in receiving touchdowns, and 3rd in receptions.

4. Aaron Rodgers

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There’s a reason why he’s been the league MVP twice during his 10-year stint as a starter for the Packers. Rodgers has thrown for over 38,000 yards and exactly 313 touchdowns despite missing significant time in 2013 and 2017. Rodgers has the highest passer rating of all time, which is part of the reason why so many people say he’s the greatest pure thrower of the football they’ve ever seen. His Super Bowl win in 2010, routine late game hail marys, and astonishing replacement of Brett Favre only add to his legend.

5. Adrian Peterson

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Peterson could’ve been held in the same realm as Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, and Jim Brown, but he had to deal with injuries and off the field issues that made him miss most of the 2014 and 2016 seasons. Still, he’s a top 10 running back of all time, whose punishing running style is rare these days. At his best, Peterson was an unstoppable force. Most of the time opposing teams even knew the Vikings were going to run the ball, but Peterson still gouged them for massive rushing totals. And then there was that knee injury towards to end of the 2011 campaign that some people thought had ended the great running back’s career. Then he ran for 2,097 yards the next season and won league MVP. Peterson is one of seven backs to run for over 2,000 yards in a season, holds the single game rushing record at 296 yards, is 12th all time in rushing yards, 9th in rushing touchdowns, and 4th in rushing yards per game with 92.3.

6. Joe Thomas

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In a league where large men run around and try to pummel each other as much as possible, Joe Thomas started 10,363 consecutive snaps. That means he started 167 straight games before the streak came to an end with a season ending injury this year. Thomas had also made 10 straight Pro Bowls and is a 6 time First Team All-Pro. Unfortunately, his talent has been somewhat wasted on the Cleveland Browns. Thomas has even told stories of having to introduce himself to a new quarterback in the huddle during a game. Even though he played on some of the worst teams ever, Thomas is the best offensive lineman of this era, easily.

7. Julius Peppers

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Julius Peppers is 37 years-old, 38 by the time this article comes out, and he recorded 11 sacks this season. That’s crazy for a player of his age to reach that number, but Peppers has always been an athletic exception to the rule. When he was younger it was common to see him chase down running backs. Peppers’ consistency is incredible: he’s had 10 seasons with 10 sacks or more and in 15 of his 16 seasons he’s recorded at least 7 sacks. He’s 4th all time in sacks, sitting behind three Hall of Famers, including Bruce Smith and Reggie White. If he sticks around another year he could move past Kevin Greene for third all time.

8. Antonio Gates

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This was a tough selection, not because Gates isn’t deserving, but because Jason Witten is his equal. Gates has 46 more touchdowns than Witten and that ultimately swings the scales in his favor, but I’ll explain later why Witten is on the same plane as Gates. It is hard to believe that Gates was once playing basketball in college, not football. That’s why he went undrafted and ended up signing with the then San Diego Chargers. 15 years later and he is the all time leader in touchdown receptions among tight ends. He’s also 3rd all time in receptions and receiving yards among tight ends.

9. Jason Witten

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Again I have Witten on equal footing with Gates and only gave Gates the edge because of the massive touchdown difference. But Witten leads Gates in other categories like receptions and yards. Witten has also been more consistent over the years than Gates has, mostly because he almost never gets injured. Witten hasn’t missed a start since the 2006 season! Gates on the other hand has been banged up over his career, but also has more yards per game than Witten. It’s 52.3 to 52.1 in Gates’ favor. See why I’m having such trouble choosing? Witten has 10 Pro Bowls and 2 First Team All-Pro selections to Gates’ 8 and 3 respectively. Witten is 2nd all time in receptions and receiving yards by a tight end.

10. Darrell Revis

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He’s the greatest shutdown corner since Deion Sanders. During his best years teams would completely avoid throwing in his direction. Recently people talk about Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Xavier Rhodes, etc. They don’t have a thing on Revis. He was that technically sound, there’s no other way to put it. The reason why he doesn’t have more career stats is because teams feared throwing at him. He’s a once in a generation corner and there still isn’t a player equal to him in the league today.

11. J.J. Watt

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This is where people start getting angry. Some will say that Watt hasn’t done enough to be a Hall of Fame player, let alone a first ballot member. Do you know the only other player with 3 Defensive Player of the Year Awards? It’s Lawrence Taylor, a member of the top 10 greatest players of all time. Watt is also the only player in NFL history to have 2 seasons with 20 sacks or more, and remember when he almost beat out Aaron Rodgers for the 2014 league MVP? If he returns in 2018 and is only half as good as he was before he’ll still probably cross the career 100 sack mark and make his way into the Hall of Fame.

12. Rob Gronkowski

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People might not like this choice either, but Gronkowski has been the NFL’s best tight end since his second year in the league back in 2011. At age 28 he has 474 receptions, 7,179 yards, and 76 touchdowns. He also missed half of the 2013 and 2016 seasons, along with several other games over the years. But despite his injuries, his numbers are on another level and he does have a shot to go down as the greatest tight end of all time. Granted he might not have the longevity or health to do that towards the end of his career, but you never know. So far Gronkowski has 5 Pro Bowls, 4 First Team All-Pro selections, 2 Super Bowls, and the 2014 Comeback Player of the Year Award. He may not become the greatest tight end of all time, but he certainly has been one of the most dominant.

13. Ben Roethlisberger

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Big Ben is my last pick for being a first ballot Hall of Famer and he’s probably just as controversial as the last two. He’s won two Super Bowls and went to a third so far, but people write those accomplishments off claiming the Steelers’ defense carried Roethlisberger. They’re partially right, and through 2013 Roethlisberger had only made two Pro Bowls. He’s made the last four in a row. Roethlisberger has caught fire towards the end of his career and has asserted himself as a top tier quarterback over the last few seasons. He’s 8th all time in passing yards, 9th in passing touchdowns, 8th in completions, and 6th in fourth quarter comebacks. I think he’s done enough to warrant a first ballot selection.

Honorable Mentions:

1. Philip Rivers

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Super Bowls have become a must have item on any quarterback’s résumé. Rivers doesn’t have one and that will keep him from being a first ballot Hall of Famer. But any quarterback that can put up the stats he has and make 7 Pro Bowls should be in Canton. He’s ahead of Manning because he’s so close to him in almost all major career statistical categories, and he’s played in twenty fewer regular season games. Actually, Rivers throws for more yards per game than Manning (256.9 compared to Manning’s 239.3). He’s got a higher winning percentage and better touchdown to interception ratio to.

2. Frank Gore

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The voters are always hard on running backs and Gore only has 5 Pro Bowls, despite being 5th all time in rushing yards and 12th in all-purpose yards. He’ll have to wait at least one year before being voted in to Canton. If it were up to me I’d put him in first ballot, but I don’t think the actual voters will agree.

3. Eli Manning

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He’s only up this high because he has two Super Bowls and two Super Bowl MVPs. His career numbers are better than those of Roethlisberger and Rivers in most categories, but he’s also played in more games than either of them. While Manning has certainly been an exceptional quarterback, he has way too many down years and is too inconsistent to be taken seriously as a first ballot Hall of Famer. Of course, one more Super Bowl could change everything…

4. Antonio Brown

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Antonio vs Julio is a big debate, one I usually like to avoid getting in the middle of but it can’t be helped. Brown has played in 115 games to Jones’ 95, but Brown has only started in 88 and Jones has in 94. Right now Brown has 5 straight years of 100 catches or more and this season he led the league in receiving despite missing the last 2 games. He’s been to 6 Pro Bowls and is a 4 time First Team All-Pro. For a generation of fans Brown and Jones will go down as their Randy Moss and Terrell Owens or Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald (I know the play styles of those guys are way different).

5. Julio Jones

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Jones has had five 1,000 yard years in his career and in the other two years he didn’t play in a combined 14 games. Otherwise he might be seven for seven. Jones is a 5-time Pro Bowler and a 2-time First Team All-Pro who has twice led the NFL in yards per game. Jones is an athletic freak who has deceptive speed for someone who is 6’4’’ and weighs 220 pounds. His highlight-reel could seemingly go on forever with all the sideline grabs and jump balls he’s pulled in over the seven years of the league.

6. Terrell Suggs

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He’s won a Super Bowl, the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, and a Defensive Player of the Year Award (DPOY). Not to mention his 7 Pro Bowls and 1 First Team All-Pro selection. At age 35 Suggs recorded 11 sacks this year, his 7th time going over the 10-sack mark and 11th with 8 sacks or more. Still, he’s only 17th all time in sacks and compared to other sack artists of his time like DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen, and Peppers he doesn’t really measure up yet except for the DPOY award. Another 8-sack year though would put him at 12th all time and that could change some things.

Who Else?

I guess I opened the bag as soon as I put Brown and Jones on this list. Here come a bunch of young players with the potential to break into this category within the next few years. Keep in mind I’m projecting here. There’s not even a guarantee all of these guys will make the Hall.

Most Promising Rising Cases:

Patrick Peterson CB Arizona Cardinals

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He’s already been to the Pro Bowl 7 times, once in each year of his career, and is a 3 time First Team All-Pro. There’s a good argument that he is the most consistent and effective corner since Revis’ prime and he’s still only 27 years-old. Because of this he has at minimum two more years of his prime left, at most five. Should he reach 10 Pro Bowls, it’s a closed case.

Von Miller OLB Denver Broncos

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He’s only missed the Pro Bowl once in his seven-year career and he only played in 9 games that season. He’s also a 3 time First Team All-Pro, former Defensive Rookie of the Year, and a Super Bowl winner/MVP. Outside of Watt, Miller has been the best pass rusher since he entered the league, consistently hitting or passing ten sacks each year, except for that one season. In two years he’ll likely have crossed the 100-sack mark, and then it’s just a war with Father Time. Miller will be 30 in two years, if his production drops off dramatically things could get iffy.

Earl Thomas FS Seattle Seahawks

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He’s another guy who’s been to 6 Pro Bowls and been a 3 time First Team All-Pro. Like Miller he’s 28 years-old which still gives him time to rack up more personal achievements. Thomas is arguably the best member of the Legion of Boom, a legendary defense that will only add to Thomas’ credit, and one that helped Seattle win a Super Bowl and almost capture another. He and Eric Berry have been the best safeties since Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. But competition for safeties getting into the Hall of Fame is stiff, just ask John Lynch, Brian Dawkins, and Steve Atwater.

A.J. Green WR Cincinnati Bengals

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While not on the level of Brown or Jones, Green has made the Pro Bowl each of his first seven years in the league. He’s also had to play on an erratic Bengals team in a sometimes incompetent, sometimes outstanding offense. Green is already 29 going on 30, but if he can add two more Pro Bowls he could lock himself in for the Hall. But we’ve seen some deserving receivers wait for years before they get into the Hall, so he may have to do even more work to secure his spot.

Not First Ballot:

1. Adam Vinatieri

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I will willingly accept special teamers into the Hall of Fame, but putting one in on the first ballot seems like a bit of a stretch still. Even if most people think he is the greatest kicker of all time.

2. Jason Peters

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The voters are fickle when it comes to offensive linemen. It will also hurt that Joe Thomas will be remembered as the best tackle of this generation, not Peters.

3. Dwight Freeney

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He’s been to 7 Pro Bowls and is a 3 time First Team All-Pro. He also has a Super Bowl ring. So what’s lacking? Well he’s a little low on career sacks, sitting at 17th overall with Terrell Suggs. But Suggs has a Defensive Player of the Year Award and Freeney doesn’t. Hence their different positions on this list.

4. Marshawn Lynch

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Running backs generally have to wait a little while before getting in. Lynch will be no exception, even if he did author the greatest run in NFL history.

There are other players worth mentioning, but they’re still building their résumés so they haven’t appeared on this list, but they might in the next one, so don’t freak out.