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Hall of Fame: Each NFC team's most deserving candidate

Why isn't Zach Thomas in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? John Lynch? Joe Klecko?

Well, because they all played on defense. Is that some $&%&? Oh. Wait. That's an article for another day. I will voice that grievance on Monday, when the Class of 2019 will be predicted in this space.

All those guys will be mentioned, in one way or another, as we plow through every franchise's most deserving candidate for Canton. This beast of a piece, all 5,000 words of it (when you combine the NFC and the AFC), gets to a lotttt more names, too, beyond each team's player. Then again, if you have the patience to read that many words, perhaps you should jump headfirst into "The Iliad."

However, if you are a history junky, or if you were pissed Terrell Owens didn't get inducted into the Hall the minute he walked off the field with the Bengals (his fifth team), then you will really geek out over this. Because all of the players listed own a legitimate gripe as to why they haven't been discussed seriously by the voters, much less inducted.

We start with the NFC. The list for the AFC dropped on Thursday. So take a gander and let me know your take on these Hall of Fame matters ... @HarrisonNFL is the place.

ARIZONA CARDINALS: Ottis Anderson, RB, 1979-1986. Running back might have been de-emphasized of late, but it's time to get an unheralded ball-carrier from an era that did value the position into the Hall of Fame. Anderson didn't get enough love when he was at his height as a player, yet he achieved lofty numbers on the field while reaching the pinnacle of the sport, twice winning the Lombardi Trophy as a member of the New York Giants. Anderson rumbled for over 1,600 yards as a rookie with the St. Louis Cardinals, then proceeded to rush for 1,000 yards in five of his first six seasons. (The only year he missed that plateau was the strike-shortened 1982 campaign.) Traded to Bill Parcells' Giants in 1986 after putting up just 51 yards for St. Louis that season and 479 the year before, he contributed a rushing touchdown to the Giants' win in Super Bowl XXI. Anderson orchestrated a productive second act in New York, rushing for over 1,000 yards in 1989, then helping the team win Super Bowl XXV. Oh, and Anderson was the MVP of that historic game, to boot ... when Scott Norwood missed his.

ATLANTA FALCONS: Mike Kenn, OT, 1978-1994. In the early to mid-1980s, the Bengals' Anthony Muñoz was the premier tackle in pro football. But the top tackle over in the NFC was Kenn. Besides making the Pro Bowl five straight times beginning in 1980, Kenn was known around the league as more of a technician than a mauler. Kenn's primary gig was to protect the blind side of the gimpy-but-talented Steve Bartkowski in the old NFC West. That included stonewalling edge rushers such as the Rams' Jack Youngblood, the 49ers' Fred Dean and the Saints' Rickey Jackson, all of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. More than that, Kenn performed at a high level for 17 years ... all in Atlanta.

CAROLINA PANTHERS: Sam Mills, LB, 1995-97. With Steve Smith Sr. and Julius Peppers not yet eligible (heck, Peppers is still playing), Mills is the correct answer here. When Mills came to the Panthers in 1995, not much was expected of team or player. Mills had already toiled in the USFL for three years, then in New Orleans for nine, making him 36 years old by the time he was roaming the field for Dom Capers' expansion team in 1995. Didn't matter. Mills made first-team All-Pro at the tender age of 37 in 1996, helping the upstart Panthers claw their way to the NFC Championship Game in their second season in existence. Mills' leadership was largely credited for Carolina's sudden surge into the elite, even if he was nearing the end of his career. Unfortunately, the five-time Pro Bowler passed away in 2005. That shouldn't stop voters from carefully considering his case for football immortality.

CHICAGO BEARS: Ed Sprinkle, DE, 1944-1955. The first disruptive pass rusher, at least in terms that we understand, Sprinkle was a terror off the edge at a time when players weren't known for getting after the quarterback. In Sprinkle's first year in the league, teams only averaged about 20 pass attempts per game. Thus, the microscope wasn't always on players with Sprinkle's talents. His peers were aware of No. 7, however, as Sprinkle was considered the meanest player of his era. From 1944 to 1955, he set the tone for Chicago's defense, prompting George Halas to call him "the greatest pass rusher I ever saw." Sprinkle hit them all, from Otto Graham to Bob Waterfield to Norm Van Brocklin. Sprinkle's fierce play started receiving notice when the Pro Bowl became a thing in the 1950s, as he made the All-Star game in four of the first five years of the decade.

DALLAS COWBOYS: Chuck Howley, LB, 1961-1973. The only Super Bowl MVP from a losing team has a resume that should win him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I'm not holding my breath. While the Seniors Committee has kicked the tires on Howley, too few of the old-time greats make it to Canton. The maximum allowed is three players every two years (every other year, a second Seniors nominee can be presented as a finalist), and with over 100 quality names on voters' lists to consider, Howley's journey won't be easy. Playing against him wasn't, either. A sure tackler, Howley was equally known for being able to get out in coverage. He retained his speed late into his career, when he was the oldest starting linebacker in the NFL at 37. The five-time first-team All-Pro was great in big games, accounting for five takeaways during the 1970 and 1971 postseason.

DETROIT LIONS: Buddy Parker, coach, 1951-56. Going back in time for this pick. Parker, who also coached the Chicago Cardinals and Steelers, made a name for himself in Detroit, where he led the Lions to back-to-back titles in 1952 and 1953. (That's right: The Lions once won championships. Amazing.) Parker had Detroit back in the NFL Championship in 1954, falling to the other dominant team of the era, the Cleveland Browns. (Yes, that's also right.) Parker departed Detroit abruptly in the '57 preseason, but the group he amassed went on to win it all that year, as well. The should-be-Hall-of-Fame head coach never led Pittsburgh to the promised land, yet his Steelers teams produced four winning records in eight seasons. To put that in perspective, consider that Pittsburgh managed three winning campaigns from 1933 to 1956, the year before Parker arrived.

GREEN BAY PACKERS: LeRoy Butler, S, 1990-2001. Butler's chances of getting one of those cool busts is slimmer than most, but that doesn't mean he didn't earn it. If Reggie White was the backbone of those Packers teams of the 1990s and Brett Favre was the leader, consider Butler the pulse. Butler could get the entire stadium going when he was playing at his highest level. Yes, he is credited with creating the Lambeau Leap. But Butler was far more than the answer to a trivia question. He was one of the top safeties of the '90s, a guy who could do everything the position required: cover, tackle and occasionally get after the quarterback (20.5 career sacks). The issue for Butler is the abundance of talented and similarly locked-out peers at his position. Safety simply isn't a fast track for getting into Canton. Just ask Darren Woodson, Steve Atwater and John Lynch. Oh, and Tim McDonald. And Merton Hanks. And Eric Turner. And Carnell Lake. See what I mean?

LOS ANGELES RAMS: Isaac Bruce, WR, 1994-2007. Longtime Rams fans might want to see former safety Ed Meador, a ballhawk in the 1960s and another of the NFL's forgotten safeties. Henry Ellard certainly deserves mention, as he ranked third in career receiving yards when he hung 'em up in 1998. The former Rams speedster was also a quality punt returner. But this honor belongs to Bruce, who, despite being known for his time in St. Louis, started his career with the last Rams team in Los Angeles ... well, they played in Anaheim, but you get the point. You'll find Bruce's name sitting at fifth in career receiving yards, 10 spots ahead of Ellard's. Bruce also authored one of the more clutch touchdown catches in Super Bowl history in Super Bowl XXXIV, a play often overshadowed by "The Tackle." Most impressive, though, is Bruce's 1995 campaign. Call it ridiculous. The sophomore wideout dominated, catching 119 balls for 1,781 yards and 13 touchdowns with some crappy quarterback play holding him back. All things considered, it might be the greatest single season by a wideout in league history.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Matt Blair, LB, 1974-1985. I could go in many directions here, but I feel Blair is the right choice. He played 12 seasons in Minnesota, competing in two Super Bowls and six Pro Bowls along the way. Blair developed into one of the game's most versatile linebackers in the 1970s. Where No. 59 in purple and white really shined, however, was on special teams. Stat of the day: Blair has been credited with an unofficial 20 blocked kicks, third-most in NFL history. Goodnight. And to think, people got all lathered up about Kam Chancellor leaping over the line to block one kick. Other Vikings worth mentioning: Ahmad Rashad, Jim Marshall, Ed White.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Sam Mills, LB, 1986-1994. In the past, I would've listed Pat Swilling in this space, but I feel so strongly that Mills deserves more discussion that I'm double-dipping (see the Panthers' section above). While Mills' sack numbers don't jump off the page like Swilling's, racking up sacks was not Mills' job. His goal was to call the signals for Jim Mora's defense and make all plays, be it against the run, in coverage or, on occasion, blitzing up the middle. Also worth noting is the entirety of Mills' career in pro football. On that note: I had coffee the other day with writer Jeff Pearlman, whose book, "Football for a Buck," comes out next month. In it, he details the saga of the USFL, a league chock full of talented players that made it to the NFL, including some into Canton. Pearlman thinks, as does yours truly, that Mills was a top-three player in the USFL, among a group of guys like Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker and Reggie White. Mills was the top defensive player on a Baltimore/Philadelphia Stars team that made it to three straight championship games. All this before he became one of the NFL's top inside 'backers for a decade.

NEW YORK GIANTS: George Young, GM, 1979-1997. The only executive on this list of potential inductees is Young, who served as GM and personnel czar of the Giants for 20 years. Young took over football operations for Wellington Mara in 1979 and made quick work of revitalizing a former laughingstock. The rookie GM molded New York into a competitive team early, hiring Ray Perkins, then drafting Phil Simms with his first pick. Perkins would take the team to the postseason in 1981 (their first such visit since 1963) on the strength of Young's top pick that year: Lawrence Taylor. After Perkins departed for Alabama, Young took a chance on one of the former head coach's assistants: Bill Parcells. Two Super Bowls victories later, Young had remolded the franchise's legacy. Winning NFL Executive of the Year five times doesn't hurt, either.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Maxie Baughan, LB, 1960-65. Wait. Guessing you've never heard of Baughan. Neither had I, for many years. But once I began researching his career (with a not-so-gentle nudge from Dallas Morning News scribe Rick Gosselin), it was easy to see why Baughan merits serious consideration for the Hall. Start with nine Pro Bowl nods in the 1960s, in addition to being a two-time first-team All-Pro. What always stands out as a deciding factor, even amongst legendary players, is being good out of the gate. Baughan fits that bill, as he started for the world-champion Eagles as a rookie in 1960 and made the Pro Bowl. George Allen coached Baughan while with the Rams in the late 1960s. Crazily enough, Allen thought so highly of Baughan that when he needed a linebacker during the 1974 season, he called his former player out of retirement -- four years after Baughan had last suited up.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Billy Wilson, WR, 1951-1960. I realize most Niners fans want to see Roger Craig's name here, given that he rewrote the NFL history books with the first 1,000/1,000 rushing and receiving season back in 1985. The history books go back farther than that, as does the wonderful legacy of the team in San Francisco. Back in the days when the 49ers played at Kezar Stadium, Hall of Famer Y.A. Tittle was often seen handing off to fellow Hall of Famers Joe Perry and Hugh McElhenny. Even Hall of Famer John Henry Johnson was part of that backfield for one year. And that was the 1950s in a nutshell for you. While quarterbacks and running backs got all the glory, the top wide receivers (called split ends then) did not. Wilson was one of the era's elite, leading the league in catches three separate times during the decade. Wilson finished in the top 10 in that category seven times. He came in second place in receiving yards in 1955 and 1957 and led the league in receiving touchdowns in 1953. Talk about an anonymous star.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Ricky Watters, RB, 1998-2001. We could have placed Watters in the 49ers' or Eagles' sections. But he played the longest in Seattle. And had it not been for the combination of a shoulder injury early in the 2001 season and an ankle injury late in the year -- plus a more-than-ready Shaun Alexander to take his place -- Watters would probably already be in the Hall of Fame. By that point, he had played nine full seasons in the league. His best years were arguably in Seattle, where he rushed for 1,200 yards or more in each of his first three seasons. Watters was an equally adept receiver, catching 467 passes over the course of his career, averaging over 9 yards per catch (an impressive total for a running back). While Watters is 25th in career yards from scrimmage, remember that his career was bookended by injuries. He missed his entire rookie season and played in only five games during that final year. And yet, Watters was still going strong, tallying six 1,000-yard seasons in a row before missing time during his swan-song 2001 campaign. Plenty of folks in the football business feel Watters deserves more acclaim.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Hardy Nickerson, LB, 1993-99. John Lynch fits in this space. His name continues to surface as a finalist for the Hall of Fame, making it a matter of time before he sees his bronze bust next to the likenesses of Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks. Even Lynch would probably tell you that when he joined the Bucs, the best player the team had was neither of those guys. Nope, it was Nickerson. Had it not been for Reggie White's momentous signing in Green Bay, and had Tampa Bay not sucked, Nickerson's first season would have garnered far more attention. It was 1993, the first year of the open market as we know it, and the Bucs made the most of it. Nickerson not only was a quality addition, but he made 214 tackles and was first-team All-Pro on a team with no Pro Bowlers anywhere else. In his seven seasons in Tampa Bay, Nickerson made five Pro Bowls, was named first-team All-Pro twice and was an absolute tackling machine. He was the first building block, the first premier player, of Tony Dungy's Tampa 2 defense, which eventually helped Jon Gruden win a Super Bowl and a gazillion dollars. Like Howley and Blair, he's an all-timer at LB.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Joe Jacoby, OT, 1981-1993. You could easily write in Jerry Smith or Pat Fischer, two Redskins stalwarts from the George Allen glory days of the 1970s. It was in 1981 that the most deserving Redskins candidate for the Hall came into the league, during the first year of Joe Gibbs' stewardship. Jacoby was a mammoth tackle, long on physical stature but short on accolades from scouting departments. He went undrafted out of Louisville, despite being 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds. In those days, teams weren't looking for mountains at tackle, and Washington was higher on its third-round draft choice, guard Russ Grimm. Gibbs even ended up playing four rookies on the line that year. Yet, it would be Grimm (a Hall of Famer) and Jacoby who would become the best guard-tackle tandem in the league. Their dominance went on full display in the 1982 NFC Championship Game, when the Cowboys could not stop John Riggins running behind those guys. Because of their ability, the Redskins' offensive line would earn the nickname "the Hogs" and help Gibbs win three Super Bowls. Jacoby is still waiting on that ultimate honor, though -- having missed out in his 20th year of eligibility, he enters the pool of Seniors candidates, making his path to Canton that much tougher.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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