Congratulations to the 15 men selected as modern-era finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2022. This is honestly one of my favorite times of the year. I love the Hall of Fame. I love the debates about who should or should not get in. It really puts NFL history on display. Speaking of that, few have had as big an impact on NFL history as John Madden, who died on Tuesday at age 85. Madden (I don't even know what title to give him: Coach? Broadcaster? Gamer God?) was inducted into to the Hall of Fame in 2006 and gave one of the best speeches of all time. I'll never forget it.
But back to the current crop of finalists. This is going to be one of the most interesting selections in a long time. HOF shoo-ins like Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson and Calvin Johnson were inducted in 2021 -- there are no first-ballot locks this time around. Not to say that there aren't worthy candidates. But even me, as the most ardent Peyton Manning detractor in human history, couldn't plausibly suggest he didn't belong in the Hall. Here's a look at who's up for induction in 2022.
FINALISTS IN FIRST YEAR OF ELIGIBILITY
Devin Hester (WR/ST, Chicago Bears, 2006-2013; Atlanta Falcons, 2014-15; Baltimore Ravens/Seattle Seahawks, 2016) is my dude. I would put him in the Hall of Fame, no matter what. I know we don't all share this view. Some of you dogged me when I ranked the Class of 2022's 26 semifinalists and put Hester at No. 1. People told me he wouldn't even get this far. Well, Devin was the best at his position. Ever. I know a lot of folks will throw out names like Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and Dante Hall, but let's be serious. Like, Wally Joyner was one of my favorite baseball players of all time. He's not the best first baseman of all time. Tim Salmon was one of my favorites, too. Not the best ever. It's OK to have a favorite and realize he is not the best ever. But Devin certainly is. To me, he should be an automatic pick for Canton. But realistically, I know that might not happen.
DeMarcus Ware (OLB, Dallas Cowboys, 2005-2013; Denver Broncos, 2014-16) is one of those players who kind of snuck up on me. When I saw him on the first-time-eligible list, I wasn't really moved. But when you take a look at his résumé, you see he was a four-time first-team All-Pro. He's a member of the 100-sack club and led the league in sacks twice. He has a real chance here.
And if I'm going to keep it real with you, I'm a fan of Andre Johnson (WR, Houston Texans, 2003-2014; Indianapolis Colts, 2015; Tennessee Titans, 2016). He was amazing. Led the NFL in receptions and receiving yards twice. But he never had double-digit touchdowns in a season. And again -- keeping it real here -- I'm a Steve Smith Sr. guy. I would have put him in over Andre. They didn't ask me, though. I'm not sure if he gets in this time because of the players I'm about to mention in the next category ...
THE RETURNING RECEIVER FINALISTS
In the interest of transparency, I should mention I have worked with both of these guys and love them very much. Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis Colts, 2001-2014) caught a touchdown pass that helped the Colts defeat the Bears in Super Bowl XLI. And yet, I remain a huge, huge fan. His biggest competition in the voting is going to be Torry Holt (St. Louis Rams, 1999-2008; Jacksonville Jaguars, 2009), who was an absolute beast in the NFL. I'm as guilty as anyone for kind of overlooking how great Torry was during his career. And to be honest, I would have picked him over Isaac Bruce, who was part of the Class of 2020. I hope both Holt and Wayne get in this time. I would put both of them in over Andre Johnson.
LET'S MAKE A DECISION
As I've written before about six-time finalist Tony Boselli (OT, Jacksonville Jaguars, 1995-2001; Houston Texans [injured reserve], 2002), we need to make a call here. Either his lack of longevity is going to keep him out of the Hall of Fame, or it's not. He was one of the best to ever do it. And he falls into the Gale Sayers and Terrell Davis category, where greatness overcomes a career shortened by injury. But either put him in now or make him wait for the Seniors Committee to put him in.
And what is keeping Zach Thomas (LB, Miami Dolphins, 1996-2007; Dallas Cowboys, 2008) out of the Hall of Fame? He was a first-team All-Pro five times. FIVE TIMES. There were a lot of great linebackers in his era. But FIVE TIMES. I mean, Nickelback has sold a lot of albums, but nobody thinks they are a better band than, say, Nirvana. Wait, do people still buy albums? What's the metric to use here? "How You Remind Me" has 516 million views on YouTube (I had to do a Google search for Nickelback's most popular song). "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has 1.4 billion. Maybe that was a bad example. Still, FIVE All-Pro nods. I mean, Nickelback is eventually getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, right?
LOOK WHO'S HERE
Speaking of dudes who were five-time All-Pros, Patrick Willis (LB, San Francisco 49ers, 2007-2014) is a first-time finalist. Willis played for eight seasons, so he was an All-Pro more often than he wasn't. He was also the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007. Patrick should have been inducted years ago. As a first-ballot guy. But he's a first-time finalist. I hope he gets in.
I believe Willie Anderson (OT, Cincinnati Bengals, 1996-2007; Baltimore Ravens, 2008), another first-time finalist, has a real shot at getting in. Anderson received three All-Pro nods in Cincinnati, which would be like six anywhere else. Hey, don't get mad at me. Joe Burrow was the one talking about how there's not a lot to do in Cincinnati.
ONE GUY I'D LOVE TO SEE ENSHRINED
The perfect scenario would be for the late Sam Mills (LB, New Orleans Saints, 1986-1994; Carolina Panthers, 1995-97) to go in with Steve Smith Sr. But I'd love to see him get in now, not only for what he did with the Saints and Panthers (five-time Pro Bowler) but also for his play in the United States Football League, where he was a three-time All-USFL selection and two-time champion. Let's put the "Pro" in Pro Football Hall of Fame. Forgive me if I've used that before.
THEY HAVE A GOOD CHANCE!
I admit I'm a huge mark for Jared Allen (DE, Kansas City Chiefs, 2004-07; Minnesota Vikings, 2008-2013; Chicago Bears, 2014-15; Carolina Panthers, 2015). He was a four-time All-Pro and led the NFL in sacks twice. But if you vote in Allen and Hester, you can have the Bears in next season's Hall of Fame Game with new head coach Sean Payton going against the Chiefs with new OC Matt Nagy. I mean, look, I'm trying to make that a thing.
I also like Leroy Butler (S, Green Bay Packers, 1990-2001) a lot, too. I'm not sure he's appreciated enough for the role he played on those great Packers teams of the 1990s. But when you have Brett Favre and Reggie White on the team, I can certainly understand why he's sometimes overlooked. That said, let's remember he was a member of the 1990s All-Decade Team and a four-time All-Pro.
AND LET'S NOT FORGET ...
I don't want to be disrespectful to any of the other finalists. These are all great players. Like Ronde Barber (CB/S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1997-2012), who made one of the biggest plays in team history. But being measured alongside the likes of Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson and Aeneas Williams, among other star CBs of his era, is tough for him. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it seems like an uphill battle.
I know I probably say this a lot, but shouldn't there be more Patriots in the Hall of Fame? Richard Seymour (DE/DT, New England Patriots, 2001-08; Oakland Raiders, 2009-2012) deserves strong consideration. He was a three-time All-Pro with New England and made two Pro Bowls with the Raiders, which seems to be overlooked.
Bryant Young (DT, San Francisco 49ers, 1994-2007) is an interesting case. He was a Super Bowl champion in his rookie year. He made the 1990s All-Decade Team. But dang, he also has some stiff competition from the DTs of his era who are already in the Hall (SEE: Cortez Kennedy, John Randle and Warren Sapp). But Young was a great player. I mean, he's a finalist for the Hall of Fame. Getting this far is amazing.