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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Every NFL team’s best player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame- NFC South

Every NFL team’s best player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame- NFC South

Overlooked NFC South legends
Publish Date: 03/19/2021
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

The Pro Football Hall of Fame houses the greatest players in NFL history. However, dozens of senior committee candidates have résumés worthy of induction but haven’t heard the knock on their doors. There’s still time to correct the voting process and fill Canton with the bronze busts of forgotten greats.

I began this project intending to highlight one player for each team in a single article. That became impossible. There are too many great players not in the Hall to only touch on one man per team, and doing it in a single article would only diffuse attention away from each legend.

Before meeting the NFC South’s most deserving Hall of Fame candidates, let’s recap how players become eligible for Canton and discuss how I formatted the article.

To qualify for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a player must be retired and inactive for at least five seasons. In this case, players who retired following the 2016 season become eligible this coming voting cycle. Those potential first-ballot Hall of Fame Class of 2022 members, which notably include Andre Johnson, Steve Smith Sr., and DeMarcus Ware, do not appear in this article.

Each player is accompanied by his position and the years during which he played in the NFL. It doesn’t matter if the player only spent part of his career with the franchise he’s listed alongside. So long as the player performed at a noteworthy level with a franchise, even if it was only for two or three years, he’s eligible for that spot.

This is the fourth article in an eight-part series. Check back regularly for the following editions.

AFC North l AFC South l NFC West

Atlanta Falcons- Tommy Nobis, LB (1966-1976)

Honorable mentions- John Abraham, Bill Fralic, Mike Kenn, George Kunz, Jessie Tuggle, Jeff Van Note

The Falcons are a forgotten franchise in NFL history. One of the few teams without a Super Bowl or NFL Championship, Atlanta only has eight players that passed through the organization at some point in their careers in the Hall of Fame. That list includes Eric Dickerson and Brett Favre, who each only spent one unproductive season with the Falcons.

It’s time Atlanta’s wing in Canton expands. Nobis is an egregious omission from a museum that’s supposed to honor the game’s best players. Nicknamed “Mr. Falcon” as the first draft pick in franchise history, Nobis spent his entire 11-year career with the team. He made five Pro Bowls, was a First-Team All-Pro in 1967, and joined Hall of Famers Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, and Dave Robinson on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-1960s Team despite only playing for four seasons during the decade.

As a rookie, Nobis supposedly recorded an insane 294 combined tackles. That’s unofficially the most tackles credited to a player in a single season, per Falcons team president and CEO Rich McKay on the team’s official website. A flurry of quotes from prominent players accompany McKay’s article, which makes the Hall of Fame case for Nobis.

Highly respected competitors both admired and feared Nobis. In an era ruled by Butkus, Jack Lambert, and Willie Lanier, Nobis stood shoulder to shoulder with the best of all-time.

Hall of Fame Miami Dolphins running back Larry Csonka proclaimed, “I’d rather play against Dick Butkus than Nobis.”

Versatile Hall of Fame offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf recalled, “I just remember how dominating a football player he was. I remember his speed. For a big guy, I was startled that a guy could make that many plays on the sideline from a middle linebacker position.”

McKay noted in his argument that Nobis is already a member of the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame, College Football Hall of Fame, Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, San Antonio Sports Hall of Fame, and Texas Sports Hall of Fame. Men don’t earn that much recognition by accident.

Long-time sportswriter Rick Gosselin is also in favor of inducting Nobis. Writing for Sports Illustrated, Gosselin claimed, “There has never been a more decorated linebacker at any level than Nobis.”

Gosselin’s article also cites a bold endorsement from former center Jim Otto. A combined 12-time All-Pro in the AFL and NFL, Otto is one of the most accomplished offensive linemen in NFL history. He put Nobis’ skill in perspective.

“I played against Butkus and Nobis, and I don’t think there was 30 seconds difference between them,” Otto claimed. “Butkus, Nobis and Willie Lanier were the best.”

Unfortunately, Nobis passed away in 2017.

Tuggle is another notable former Falcons linebacker that doesn’t get much respect in Hall of Fame debates. While he doesn’t have nearly as good a case as Nobis and falls short of Hall of Fame standards, Tuggle made five Pro Bowls and was a highly productive linebacker.

An undrafted free agent from Valdosta St., Tuggle was a statistical monster during his healthy seasons. Tackles didn’t become an official stat until 2001, but unofficial numbers place him anywhere between 1,640 and 1,805 tackles. He’s also credited with two 200-tackle seasons. For reference, Zach Cunningham led the NFL with 164 tackles in 2020.

Tuggle isn’t on the same level as Nobis, but he’s still a forgotten great.

Kunz was one of Atlanta’s first great offensive linemen. The right tackle joined the Falcons as the second overall pick in 1969. Kunz spent half of his career with the Falcons. He retired after only playing ten games in his final three years. During the first nine years of his career, Kunz made eight Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams.

Atlanta boasted three great offensive linemen in the early 1980s. Fralic played guard for the Falcons from 1985-92, Kenn played left tackle from 1978-94, and Van Note played center from 1969-86. All three made multiple All-Pro teams. Van Note spent his entire career with the Falcons, making six Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams.

Fralic was the second overall pick in 1985. He made all four of his Pro Bowls consecutively and was a First-Team All-Pro in 1986 and 1987. Despite a short prime, Fralic made the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-1980s Team along with Hall of Famers Russ Grimm, John Hannah, and Mike Munchak.

Kenn has the best case for Canton of Atlanta’s star linemen. The former 13th overall pick spent all 17 of his seasons with the Falcons, making five Pro Bowls. Kenn was a First-Team All-Pro in 1980 and 1991 and made five total All-Pro teams. Kenn has a better résumé than Jimbo Covert, who was on the 1980s All-Decade Team and got inducted into Canton as a tackle last year.

Abraham arrived in Atlanta in 2005 after three Pro Bowl seasons with the New York Jets. He recorded four of his eight double-digit sack years with the Falcons. Abraham retired after 2014 with five Pro Bowl appearances, three All-Pro selections, 47 forced fumbles, and 133.5 sacks. Those are the second-most official sacks among players eligible and not in the Hall of Fame (trailing Jared Allen’s 136).

Carolina Panthers- Sam Mills, LB (1986-1997)

Honorable mentions- None

Carolina’s franchise only began in 1995, making it another team devoid of legends from over 30 years ago. That doesn’t mean that the Panthers haven’t hosted numerous superstars over the years. However, most of the team’s best players are still active or have only recently retired. That leaves a slim list of Hall of Fame snubs.

Mills is the obvious and possibly only answer in this spot. While the former undrafted free agent spent most of his playing days in New Orleans, I chose him as a Panther to give Pat Swilling a place in the spotlight.

Mills arrived in Carolina in 1995 for his age 36 season after nine years with New Orleans. He unofficially amassed over 300 tackles during his three seasons in Charlotte. Mills earned the only First-Team All-Pro selection of his career in 1996 and retired after 1997. A five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Mills served as one of the original members of New Orleans’ legendary Dome Patrol defense.

At 5-9, 229 lbs., Mills didn’t have the prototypical height of most all-time great linebackers. Yet, former Saints Coach of the Year Jim Mora told the New Orleans Saints Podcast, “He’s the type of football player that should be in the Hall of Fame because he’s good in all aspects of his life and playing ability.”

In a 2020 Q&A, Mora told Luke Johnson of The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate, “I’m fortunate to have been around a lot of good football players. Some of them are in the Hall of Fame from the Saints — Rickey Jackson, Willie Roaf, Morten Anderson. I was with Marvin Harrison when I was in Indianapolis. Peyton [Manning] is going to be a first-ballot [Hall of Famer].”

“I’m not going to say Sam [Mills] was the best I’ve ever coached, but he was among the best I’ve ever coached,” Mora continued. “I was with him for three years in the USFL and I think nine years with the Saints. This guy was special. I mean, I’m talking special. The main drawback is people thought he was too short. People thought he was too short in college; he went to a small school [Montclair State] and had a lot of success there, but he didn’t get drafted, didn’t get signed or anything … Everybody thought he was too short.”

“Now, when we let him go toward the end of his career — and there was a little bit of a problem there, about letting him go — he went to Carolina,” Mora recalled. “They have a statue of him outside the stadium and he played there [three] years. He’s not even in the ring of honor with the Saints, and he should be. God dang. And he should be in the Hall of Fame! He should be. He deserves to be. Anyway, that’s how I feel about Sam.”

Mills has supporters among the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee too.

.@JeffDuncan_ presents the case for Finalist Sam Mills to be considered for the Class of 2020.@Saints | @Panthers | #PFHOF20

— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) February 1, 2020

Unfortunately, Mills passed away in 2005 from intestinal cancer. He was a modern-era Hall of Fame finalist in the past two voting cycles. This coming cycle is his final year of modern-era eligibility before he enters the dreaded senior committee pool.

New Orleans Saints- Pat Swilling, OLB (1986-1996, 1998)

Honorable mentions- La’Roi Glover, Wayne Martin

Swilling arrived in New Orleans as a third-round pick. He quickly surpassed his draft status, accumulating over ten sacks in 1987 for the first of six times. The Georgia Tech product served as a core member of the Dome Patrol defense, which also featured Vaughan Johnson, Mills, and Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson. Swilling was the outside linebacker opposite Jackson.

While Jackson amassed 128 sacks during his career, the long-time Saint was never a First-Team All-Pro. However, Swilling was a First-Team All-Pro and Second-Team All-Pro twice apiece. He also went to five Pro Bowls and was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1991 when he led the NFL with 17 sacks.

By the time he retired for a second time, Swilling had 107.5 sacks. He was highly inconsistent outside of his prime stretch between 1987 and 1992, but Swilling has the accolades of a Pro Football Hall of Famer. The defensive stud is already part of several Halls of Fame, including the College Football Hall of Fame (2009), Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame (2019), and Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame (2007).

“We were excited to finally bring New Orleans a winner and to make multiple playoff appearances,” Swilling said of the Dome Patrol in 2019. “It was an honor to play with Rickey, Vaughan and Sam. We made it very tough on opponents, especially when they came into our building. It is an honor to add the honor of being in the Hall of Fame of my hometown.”

Glover and Martin also made names for themselves as sack artists. Martin has five seasons with ten or more sacks, and Glover made six consecutive Pro Bowls from his defensive tackle position. He was a four-time All-Pro and even made the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-2000s Team.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers- Ronde Barber, CB (1997-2012)

Honorable mentions- Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn, Hardy Nickerson, Simeon Rice

Before Tom Brady moved to Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers hadn’t made deep postseason inroads since the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s not a coincidence that the four players mentioned here all peaked within five years of each other. The Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden Buccaneers squads had some exceptional players.

Barber arrived in Tampa Bay as a third-round pick in 1997. After only appearing in one game as a rookie, Barber didn’t miss a game until he retired after the 2012 season. Beginning in 2000, the Virginia product started 208 consecutive games. He holds the record for consecutive starts by a defensive back with 215.

Aside from consistently showing up, Barber was an elite performer. He patrolled the secondary of Tampa Bay’s legendary early 2000s defense alongside Hall of Fame safety John Lynch. In 2001, Barber led the NFL with ten interceptions and earned the first of three First-Team All-Pro selections. He made five Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams throughout his 16-year career.

Barber’s 47 interceptions and 12 defensive touchdowns are the most in franchise history. He’s also a member of the 20-20 club with 28 sacks. The All-2000s Decade Team member also amassed over 1,000 tackles after the stat became official in 2001.

In 2020, ESPN’s Jenna Laine wrote an article detailing Barber’s struggle getting past the stigma of playing nickelback for many years. Not everyone understands how Barber revolutionized the position in his unique role.

“He’s probably one of the best nickelbacks to play the game,” former Tampa Bay position coach Herm Edwards told Laine. “And he was a starting corner. A lot of people don’t realize that because we’d move him inside with three wide [receivers].”

As Laine pointed out, raw statistics put Barber among the all-time greats.

“Ronde Barber did so much more than his peers at the position. He was the first and only NFL player to record at least 45 interceptions and 25 sacks (28 career sacks). His 197 career passes defensed are second most in NFL history behind only [Champ] Bailey (203). Barber also registered 1,231 combined tackles (1,028 solo), 88 tackles for loss, 12 forced fumbles and 12 fumble recoveries.”

“When you look at the defense and the position he played and the way that he played it, he was the best. And that’s what it’s about,” Super Bowl XXXVII MVP Dexter Jackson told Laine. “Who was the best at that time? And for the 15-, 16-year period, Ronde was the best at playing nickel corner. Yes, he played outside and made plays. Yes, he was outside covering the best receiver. Ronde was able to do all those things and still be successful.”

Tiki Barber agreed with Jackson but took it another step forward in support of his brother.

“He revolutionized the position,” the former All-Pro running back explained. “People don’t give him credit for it. He was 10 years ahead of his time. The nickel corner is the most important position on the football field these days. You’ve gotta be part linebacker, part cornerback, part rush player, and he did it with excellence.”

If the Hall of Fame is supposed to honor the best players at their positions, Alstott joins Barber with a strong case. The former second-round pick is one of the last dominant fullbacks with a transcendent legacy that can survive decades of age and decay. A member of the Buccaneers from 1996 through 2006, Alstott made six Pro Bowls and was a First-Team All-Pro three times.

After 11 seasons, Alstott retired with 7,372 yards from scrimmage, 71 total touchdowns, and one of the best highlight reels out there. In ten playoff games, he ran for 342 yards and seven touchdowns.

“Mike played a huge role in the transformation of the Bucs into a Super Bowl contender,” Dungy told Sports Illustrated. “From a strategic standpoint, he was a fullback who could get tough inside yards. He caught the football well, creating big plays with short passes, and he was a very underrated blocker. Warrick Dunn won Rookie of the Year honors following him.”

“But his impact on the team was so much more than that,” Dungy explained. “He gave the Bucs an identity and a mentality – that of a physical offense that could run the ball on anyone, home or away. The defense was great, for sure, but Mike helped that defense be great by creating time of possession advantages and icing games in the fourth quarter.”

Dunn shared a backfield with Alstott for five years. The 12th overall pick in 1997, Dunn had five 1,000-yard rushing seasons during his 12-year career. The Florida St. product made three Pro Bowls on his way to amassing 10,967 rushing yards (23rd all-time) and 15,306 yards from scrimmage (20th all-time). Dunn doesn’t have a Hall of Fame résumé, but he was one of the most productive backs in NFL history.

Nickerson spent seven seasons of his 16-year career with Tampa Bay. The former Pittsburgh Steeler went to five Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro four times with the Buccaneers. Nickerson made the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-1990s Team after amassing well over 1,000 unofficial tackles during the decade.

Rice broke into the NFL as the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1996 with the Arizona Cardinals. He joined the Buccaneers in 2001, and his career took off. In his first five seasons with Tampa Bay, Rice recorded 67.5 sacks and made two of his three All-Pro Teams and Pro Bowls. Rice hit double-digit sacks eight times in his career, and his 122 sacks were the second-most of any player not in Canton (trailing Leslie O’Neal’s 132.5) before 2020, when Abraham became eligible.

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