This is one of my favorite times of the year, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame announces the 25 modern-era semifinalists for the following year's inductions. Mostly, I love the debates. Because it's pretty incredible that we are talking about the best of the best to decide who is going to get that ultimate honor of wearing the gold jacket. And honestly, every player we're about to mention here was amazing in his day. There is no doubt. But sometimes you have to make some tough decisions. And this was the case for me, as I went about deciding my personal rankings of these semifinalists.
Again, I'd like to stress that these are my personal rankings. This list is NOT MEANT TO BE A PREDICTION OF THE CLASS OF 2020. Not by any stretch. But as a football historian of sorts, I wanted to give you my thoughts on each of these fine players. Use all the clown emojis you can to spam my social media accounts. It's fine.
25) Bryant Young, defensive tackle (San Francisco 49ers, 1994-2007): A rock-solid defensive tackle who played a lot of years in the NFL. He was a key member of the Super Bowl XXIX championship team. He made the 1990s All-Decade Team, listed alongside Cortez Kennedy, John Randle and Warren Sapp. I'm not saying Young's the Paul Roma of that list. Well, maybe the Steve McMichael. (Who actually might be better for this list.)
24) Carl Banks, linebacker (New York Giants, 1984-1992; Washington Redskins, 1993; Cleveland Browns, 1994-95): Here's a phrase that I will likely write a lot on this list. He was a great player, but ... Here's the thing, though: Great player, but he hit the Pro Bowl only once. To his credit, Banks made the 1980s All-Decade Team, but I'm thinking some of his success might've had to do with opposing offenses focusing a bit more on Big Blue's other outside linebacker (Lawrence Taylor).
23) Simeon Rice, defensive end (Arizona Cardinals, 1996-2000; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2001-06; Denver Broncos, 2007; Indianapolis Colts, 2007): Again, really like the player. He was a huge part of the Buccaneers' first and only championship team, racking up 15.5 sacks in that season. And you wonder if playing for the low-wattage Cardinals for the first half-decade of his career really hurt the perception of him over the long run.
22) Hines Ward, wide receiver (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1998-2011): Solid player. I could spend all day on YouTube watching him deliver crushing blocks to opposing defenders. Loved him. But sometimes there are guys who are better suited for a team's ring of honor (which is an amazing accomplishment, by the way). I just feel that since he was contemporaries with some other great receivers, it's hard to justify him being in the Hall of Fame.
20) Fred Taylor, running back (Jacksonville Jaguars, 1998-2008; New England Patriots 2009-2010): This is a tough one. I love my friends down in Duval County, Florida. And maybe I'm ranking him a bit low because he stole all of Maurice Jones-Drew's fantasy points. But he was really good. He led the NFL with an average of 107.6 rushing yards per game in 2000. However, he had only one Pro Bowl season. And maybe if you didn't think of him as a combo with MJD, he'd get a chance. Though it would be cool if the NFL admitted tandems like the WWE puts tag teams into its Hall of Fame.
19) Tony Boselli, offensive tackle (Jacksonville Jaguars, 1995-2001; Houston Texans (injured reserve), 2002): Loved him at USC. And really, the Jaguars had the right idea when they selected him with the second overall pick of the 1995 NFL Draft. But for me, he's one of those players who will get overlooked because of his injuries. If he had stayed healthy, I really do believe we'd be talking about perhaps the greatest to ever do it. (And he's really good on the radio.)
18) Clay Matthews, linebacker (Cleveland Browns, 1978-1993; Atlanta Falcons, 1994-96): In addition to selecting RB tandems, maybe the NFL should consider enshrining families because the Matthews family would top the list for me. I know you would think the Mannings, but I'd be all about the Matthews flock.
17) Ricky Watters, running back (San Francisco 49ers, 1991-94; Philadelphia Eagles, 1995-97; Seattle Seahawks, 1998-2001): Loved his game. He was really one of the best dual-threat running backs of the 1990s. The five-time Pro Bowler led the NFL in scrimmage yards (1,855) in 1996, but he never paced the league in rushing yards. So it's tough to figure out where he ranks among the great 1990s running backs, a group that includes Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and many more notable rushers.
16) LeRoy Butler, safety (Green Bay Packers, 1990-2001): Obviously, signing Reggie White was a huge part of making the Packers one of the best teams of the 1990s. But this second-round pick out of Florida State was just as important. He was a four-time Pro Bowler. A four-time first-team All-Pro. Don't let Packers fans fool you into thinking the 1990s was all about Brett Favre.
15) Ronde Barber, cornerback (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1997-2012): Barber was a great cornerback on a great team. He had an iconic pick-six in the 2002 NFC Championship Game that will forever live in lore in Ybor City. But the 1990s had Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, Darrell Green and Aeneas Williams. All four of them are already in the Hall of Fame. The 2000s had Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson (who will get in) and Ty Law. You can love your favorite player, but this is as high as Ronde goes for me.
14) John Lynch, safety (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1993-2003; Denver Broncos, 2004-07): The truth of the matter is that Lynch's chances of getting the Hall call will increase if the 49ers continue this momentum in the coming years. That's not to say Lynch wasn't a great player. He clearly was. But contemporary success as a GM is the kind of thing that builds the narrative for voters and fans alike, even though it obviously has nothing to do with the guy's on-field contributions. I'm not proud of it, but it happens.
13) Darren Woodson, safety (Dallas Cowboys, 1992-2004): So we have a bunch of safeties on this list who played at roughly the same time. Woodson has the same dilemma as Butler and Lynch: really good players on some great teams. I know everyone raves about the Cowboys' 1990s offense -- and rightfully so, with the famed Triplets -- but Dallas had a stellar defense, too. And it's ridiculous only one player from this group, Charles Haley, has made the Hall of Fame so far. (And even Haley's enshrinement was a struggle.)
12) Torry Holt, wide receiver (St. Louis Rams, 1999-2008; Jacksonville Jaguars, 2009): Listen, this guy was really good. More than just a tag-teamer with Bruce -- though I wouldn't mind seeing "The Greatest Show on Turf" get group representation in Canton -- he led the NFL with 1,635 receiving yards in 2000. But his greatest season came in 2003, when he led the NFL in both receptions (117) and yards (1,696).
10) Reggie Wayne, wide receiver (Indianapolis Colts, 2001-2014): I do have him above Torry Holt, which I know might be an issue for some people. But Wayne was one of the most clutch receivers in the game. Although, I would argue that his touchdown in Super Bowl XLI probably shouldn't have happened -- and I have told him that to his face -- he's still the top receiver on this list.
9) Sam Mills, linebacker (New Orleans Saints, 1986-1994; Carolina Panthers, 1995-97): He not only was a huge part of the famed "Dome Patrol" in New Orleans, but he was one of the founders of the great Panthers defense during their infancy. What's important to note here is that he was an undrafted free agent (released by the Browns) who worked his way through the USFL to make an impact in the NFL.
8) Alan Faneca, offensive guard (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1998-2007; New York Jets, 2008-09; Arizona Cardinals, 2010): Look, we all play fantasy football. And we've probably drafted a Steelers running back in the first round seemingly every year. A big reason why is because of the vaunted Steelers offensive line, which was led by Faneca for a decade.
7) Steve Hutchinson, offensive guard (Seattle Seahawks, 2001-05; Minnesota Vikings, 2006-2011; Tennessee Titans, 2012): Not many guys can say they helped lead two running backs to MVP seasons, which is exactly what Hutchinson did. OK, well, not exactly. But hear me out. He was instrumental for Shaun Alexander, who won the NFL MVP award in 2005. And while Adrian Peterson won the MVP in 2012 -- the year after Hutchinson left for Nashville -- the road-grader was a huge part of AD's vast success over the first half-decade of his career, which set the table for Peterson to bring home the hardware in 2012. And he would definitely fulfill the "We need a lineman here" vote, too.
5) Steve Tasker, special teams (Houston Oilers, 1985-86; Buffalo Bills, 1986-1997): Look, this isn't a hot take. The dude was a seven-time first-team All-Pro, according to Pro Football Weekly. And it's about time for a special teams wiz to get this kind of shine. You hear coaches talk about all three phases of the game, yet special teams are greatly overlooked by the Hall. But ask anybody: Who is the best all-around special teamer of all time? Tasker is the answer. So put him in.
4) Zach Thomas, linebacker (Miami Dolphins, 1996-2007; Dallas Cowboys, 2008): I mentioned this last year, but Thomas has been overlooked for way too long. He was a five-time first-team All-Pro -- and made the second-team twice, as well. The 2000s were loaded with standout inside linebackers, including Hall of Famers Derrick Brooks, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher. But Thomas fits in nicely with them. Like when Curt Hennig joined the nWo.
3) Patrick Willis, linebacker (San Francisco 49ers, 2007-2014): One of the scariest players of his era. He was a first-round pick, earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and piled up seven Pro Bowl nods as well as five first-team All-Pro designations (not to mention, one second-team All-Pro). Did I mention he did all of this in eight seasons? I hope he's not overlooked because he retired young. No one was better during his time.
2) Steve Atwater, safety (Denver Broncos, 1989-1998; New York Jets, 1999): I hate to keep harping on this, but if you haven't seen Atwater blow up Christian Okoye on Monday Night Football in 1990, then you haven't seen anything. The hit was akin to Ice Cube taking out Deebo during the climactic scene of Friday. If I'm not mistaken, Okoye was never the same after that.
1) Troy Polamalu, safety (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2003-2014): One of the most exciting players in NFL history. He perfected those "suicide dives" at the line of scrimmage more than anybody else. He was a member of two SteelersSuper Bowl championship teams. And it just makes sense that he would follow Ed Reed into the Hall of Fame one year after the famed Ravens safety made it. I won't tell you who was better (Ed Reed). I'll leave that up to you to decide.