There have been dozens of game-changing, league-altering players in the NFL’s history. Unfortunately, some legends were overlooked this year and not picked to be Hall of Fame finalists. I’m sure it’s a hard process to look through so many loaded resumes and pick just 15 modern-era finalists, but I’ve got some good arguments for players left off the ballot this year.
I’m sure you won’t agree with me on all of the players I’ll discuss, I’m not sure if I could even find players to bounce from the ballot in favor of all of these guys, but I stand by the idea that all of the ranked players below deserve to be enshrined.
*Writer’s note: All averages rounded down to whole numbers
WR- Torry Holt (Rams 1999-2008, Jaguars 2009)
Holt was a key member of The Greatest Show on Turf offense. He made seven Pro Bowls, one First All-Pro Team, and one Second All-Pro Team. He made the Hall of Fame’s 2000s All-Decade Second Team along with Terrell Owens. Holt is 21st all-time in receptions, 16th in receiving yards, and 35th in receiving touchdowns. He led the league in receiving yards twice (2000 and 2003) and receptions once (2003).
RB- Shaun Alexander (Seahawks 2000-2007, Redskins 2008)
He’s one of the few running backs in history who can boast that he won an MVP award. He took home the NFL’s greatest individual honor in 2005 when he ran for 1,880 yards and a then single-season record 27 touchdowns. He ran for over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns five times. That led to three Pro Bowls, one First Team All-Pro selection, and one Second Team All-Pro selection. He’s 8th all-time in rushing touchdowns with 100, and he collected all of those in just nine years.
DL- Simeon Rice (Cardinals 1996-2000, Buccaneers 2001-2006, Broncos/Colts 2007)
Rice made three Pro Bowls, one First All-Pro Team, and two Second All-Pro Teams. He was a part of the legendary Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense that won the Super Bowl with head coach Jon Gruden. While he was never the most dominant force at the defensive end position, Rice was consistent. In 12 seasons he recorded ten or more sacks eight times and finished with 122 sacks. That ranks 20th of all-time. He also recorded five interceptions, 28 forced fumbles, and eight fumble recoveries.
LB- Zach Thomas (Dolphins 1996-2007, Cowboys 2008), Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos 1983-1994)
It’s hard to believe Thomas was a fifth-round pick. In 13 seasons he made seven Pro Bowls, five First All-Pro Teams, and two Second All-Pro Teams. He made the Hall of Fame’s 2000s All-Decade Second Team along with DeMarcus Ware and Joey Porter. We don’t have tackle data from five of his seasons, but he still has 1,076 official combined tackles. He also recorded 20.5 sacks and 17 interceptions.
Mecklenburg made six Pro Bowls, three First All-Pro Teams, and one Second All-Pro Team. In 12 seasons, all with the Denver Broncos, the twelfth-round selection (that was a thing back in the day) recorded 79 sacks and over 1,000 unofficial tackles. Even if he won’t end up in the Hall of Fame, he never gets the credit he’s due.
DB- Darren Woodson (Cowboys 1992-2003)
The former second-round pick from the 1992 NFL Draft made five Pro Bowls and three First All-Pro Teams. He spent his full 12-year career with the Dallas Cowboys and won three Super Bowls with the team. During that time, he recorded 23 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles, 11 fumble recoveries, and 11 sacks. He’s a great player from a great team but is often overshadowed by other safeties.
WR- Hines Ward (Steelers 1998-2011), Sterling Sharpe (Packers 1988-1994)
Ward doesn’t have the flashy individual accolades that most Hall of Fame players possess, but he still deserves to be enshrined in Canton. Ward made just four Pro Bowls and three Second All-Pro teams. Those are usually the hallmark of a good player, not an all-time great, but Ward’s game was old-fashioned in an era where flashy receiving numbers were taking over. Ward was a technician with sturdy hands and an aggressive streak. He was a lethal blocker infamous for blindsiding defenders before laws were put in place to protect them from the receiver.
Ward played in a Steelers offense that was built around running the ball, this was before Ben Roethlisberger turned into a perennial Pro Bowler. He fit the offense perfectly. He won two Super Bowls with Pittsburgh and the Super Bowl MVP in 2005. He holds Steelers franchise career records for receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Remember, this is a franchise with two wide receivers already in the Hall of Fame and Antonio Brown on the roster (for now). Ward is 14th all-time in receptions (1,000), 25th in receiving yards (12,083), and 15th in receiving touchdowns (85).
Sharpe’s career was cut short by an injury, but he had more success in his seven seasons than most receivers have in their entire careers. Sharpe made the Pro Bowl five times and was a First Team All-Pro three times. He led the league in receptions three times, receiving yards once, and receiving touchdowns twice. He averaged 85 receptions, 1,162 receiving yards, and nine receiving touchdowns per season.
For reference, in his nine-year career, Calvin Johnson averaged 81 receptions, 1,291 receiving yards, and nine receiving yards per game. Johnson made six Pro Bowls and three First All-Pro teams. The numbers are there, but Sharpe has been overlooked because of receivers such as Randy Moss and Owens appearing on the ballot.
LB- London Fletcher (Rams 1998-2001, Bills 2002-2006, Redskins 2007-2013), Clay Matthews (Browns 1978-1993, Falcons 1994-1996)
Fletcher is another player who doesn’t have a ton of individual accolades, but his numbers and consistency more than make up for that. He made four Pro Bowls and two Second All-Pro teams in his 16-year career. Those accolades don’t come close to describing just how great Fletcher was. Tackle data wasn’t recorded until 2001, so we don’t have the numbers from Fletcher’s first three seasons, but in the last 13 years of his career, he recorded 1,796 combined tackles. That’s 138 tackles per year, a mark Luke Kuechly (135), Ray Lewis (111), Zach Thomas (134), Brian Urlacher (102), Bobby Wagner (130), and Patrick Willis (118), all fall short of (don’t have full data set for Thomas, Lewis, and Urlacher because tackles not recorded until 2001).
NFL.com credits Fletcher with 75 passes defensed (stat not kept before 2001). That’s more than Lewis’ 67. Fletcher also has 39 career sacks, which falls just short of the 41.5 both Lewis (17 seasons) and Urlacher (13 seasons) have. Fletcher also has 23 interceptions, making him a member of the prestigious 20-20 club, 19 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries, two safeties, and three defensive touchdowns. He played in 265 consecutive games, giving him the iron man title as the league’s most durable linebacker ever. His 265 games rank fourth all-time (excluding kickers), only behind Jim Marshall, Brett Favre, and Jeff Feagles.
Quick lesson on the Matthews family, there have been three men with the name Clay Matthews in NFL history. The first, Clay Matthews Sr., was a defensive lineman who played with the San Francisco 49ers until 1955. Clay Matthews Jr. is the one we’re interested in here. He played linebacker for two teams from 1978 through the 1996 season. He spent his first 16 seasons in the league with the Cleveland Browns and then finished off his career with three seasons in Atlanta. His son, Clay Matthews III, is the one we know from the NFL today. He’s a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers.
Now Matthews Jr. only made four Pro Bowls during his time in the NFL but there is an overwhelming pool of support from fans to put this man in the Hall of Fame. I believe his case is eerily similar to Fletcher’s. Both were respected tackling machines with long careers where they only gained minor recognition for their much greater accomplishments. If you think I’m overselling Jr., Pro Football Reference named him to their All-1980s Second Team. While that might not seem significant, the players on the First Team are Lawrence Taylor, Mike Singletary, and Rickey Jackson. All three of those guys are in the Hall of Fame. Fellow Second Teamer, Harry Carson is also in the Hall of Fame. If these are the guys Matthews Jr. is being mentioned alongside, then he deserves a gold jacket.
Unfortunately, we don’t have the tackle data from Junior’s time in the league. If we did, you’d see he easily eclipsed the 1,000 combined tackles mark and was probably more in the range of 1,500, but we can’t be sure. However, we do know he recorded 69.5 sacks and 16 interceptions. He actually recorded more sacks, but the numbers weren’t kept before 1982. So, we’re missing five years of sack data and all 19 worth of tackle data. It would be a lot easier to build a case if we actually had the numbers.
DB- LeRoy Butler (Packers 1990-2001), Ronde Barber (Buccaneers 1997-2012)
Butler made four Pro Bowl and was a First Team All-Pro in all four of those seasons as well. The career Packer spent 12 years in Green Bay. During that time, he played in 181 games and started 165 of them. Statistically, Butler is in rare air. He’s a member of the 20-20 club, with 38 interceptions and 20.5 sacks. Butler also had 13 forced fumbles and ten fumble recoveries. Unfortunately, we don’t have any of his tackle data because of when he played.
The NFL hasn’t been kind to safeties lately. John Lynch and Steve Atwater are waiting for their names to be called and they have more accolades than Butler. Still, the strong safety can’t continue to be overlooked. Butler is in the same class of defensive backs as players such as Ty Law. There has been a push for Law to make the Hall of Fame in recent years and he should get in as well, but I’d argue Butler is just as deserving. That’s why it’s a snub for Butler to not even be a finalist.
The next guy we’re going to talk about is also a member of the 20-20 club. Barber is the ironman of defensive backs, no one has more consecutive starts back there than him. That alone should draw Hall of Fame interest, but the full stat sheet he put up over the course of his career really says it all. 47 interceptions, 139 passes defensed, 923 interception return yards, 13 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries, 28 sacks, a safety, 12 defensive touchdowns, and 1,005 recorded combined touchdowns. We don’t have official tackle or the passes defensed data from the first four seasons of his career. From the 12 seasons that we have tackle data, Barber recorded more than 90 tackles five times including in his final season.
He has Hall of Fame-caliber accolades as well. In 16 seasons with the Buccaneers, Barber made the Pro Bowl five times, a three-time First Team All-Pro, and a two-time Second Team All-Pro. He was also a crucial member of the legendary defense that won Super Bowl XXXVII back during the 2002 NFL season. In three games that postseason, Barber intercepted two passes which he returned for over 100 yards and a defensive score. He also forced two fumbles. That was enough to get him on the Hall of Fame’s Second Team All-2000s. The players on the first team were Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson. Barber’s companion on the second team was Law, who was mentioned earlier. If Law, a shutdown corner with lower stats across the board and fewer All-Pro selections, is a finalist, then Barber has to be as well. No one can deny his historic contributions to the game.