In late November, we learned the 25 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2020. Now that list of modern-era players has officially been whittled down to 15: Steve Atwater, Tony Boselli, Isaac Bruce, LeRoy Butler, Alan Faneca, Torry Holt, Steve Hutchinson, Edgerrin James, John Lynch, Sam Mills, Troy Polamalu, Richard Seymour, Zach Thomas, Reggie Wayne, Bryant Young.
And they have asked me to pick the five nominees!
All right, nobody asked that. But here is my list of the biggest locks, surprises, snubs, etc. Let's get started:
TWO GUYS WHO SHOULD BE LOCKS
If I'm being honest, the only player I look at and see as an automatic lock is Troy Polamalu. Actually, when I looked at the first-time eligible players for 2020, the only two players who stood out as automatic for me were Polamalu and Patrick Willis. But the latter didn't even make the list of finalists, which is something I'm going to need to hear more about because that doesn't make sense at all. But Polamalu is going to make it in, no question. He was the face of the Steelers defense during his time in Pittsburgh when the team won two Super Bowls and appeared in another. He reached the Pro Bowl eight times and was a four-time first-team All-Pro. He's in.
And really, I'm going out on a limb saying Steve Atwater is a lock because we've been here before. But it's long troubled me that he wasn't in previously. And maybe I'm just trying to will this into existence. Atwater was one of the most devastating hitters in the NFL. And if you don't want to take my word for it, watch this video of him famously lighting up Christian Okoye on Monday Night Football. Seriously, click on it now. It's worth it.
THE REST OF MY BALLOT
If Polamalu and Atwater are in, the rest of my five-man ballot would include Zach Thomas, Edgerrin James and Steve Hutchinson. Although, if I'm being completely honest with you, I would have had Steve Tasker on this list because special teams don't get enough respect. But alas, he didn't advance from the semifinals of this process. If we are waiting for Devin Hester's eligibility to make him the first special teams ace to get into the Hall, then I'm totally cool with waiting on that. (And don't bother looking it up -- he's eligible in 2022.)
Thomas is one of those guys who was quietly one of the best players at his position. He was first-team All-Pro five times and second-team twice. One of the most consistent players in the league. And one thing I like to do is compare people to their peers. For Thomas, guys like Derrick Brooks and Brian Urlacher. I feel like he fits.
James never gets enough love for what he meant to the Colts. Mostly because people tend to think Peyton Manning was doing it all on his own. But James was money. I'll never forget what he did to poor UCLA back in 1998, keeping the Bruins from the BCS title game by carrying the ball 39 times for 299 yards and three touchdowns. He followed that up by leading the NFL in rushing his first two years in the league. Edge tore his ACL in Year 3 or else he would be looking at monster career numbers and there would be no doubt about it. Even so, he still bounced back to record five more 1,000-yard seasons.
And finally, I would vote for Hutchinson. Partly (mostly) because he was an excellent player. And also because I look smart for listing a lineman. It's like when you're putting out a list of your favorite movies -- you can't put in Hot Tub Time Machine unless you throw in some critically acclaimed movie that you really didn't quite get, but your smart friends did, so you have to go along with it. But Hutch was legit, and he did help pave the way for Shaun Alexander in his MVP season, as well as Adrian Peterson during the first half of his career.
TWO GUYS I THINK SHOULD EVENTUALLY GET IN
I will start with Reggie Wayne. To me, he's the top receiver among those who made it this far. The stats are pretty good and he went to six Pro Bowls. But the thing I remember about him: He was one of those annoying players who always seemed to come up clutch, usually against your team. Like in Super Bowl XLI, for instance. But with Peyton Manning being eligible next year, this might hurt his chance for this season. Oh, man -- that might hurt James, too.
Sam Mills is always overlooked. For starters, he never gets enough credit for what he did in the USFL. Which doesn't make sense, because it is the Pro Football Hall of Fame, after all. Mills went to the USFL (where he was a stud) because he was released by the Browns. Then he became one of the key members of the "Dome Patrol." And then was one of the original members of the Carolina Panthers.
MAYBE NOT MY JAM, BUT THEY ARE TOTALLY GETTING IN
Torry Holt and John Lynch will get in -- probably this year. Holt is one of those players who, for whatever reason, has analysts left and right trying to talk his Hall of Fame enshrinement into existence. And look, he was an amazing player. But it's just so tough for Hall of Fame wide receivers. I mean, he played at the same time as guys like Randy Moss and Terrell Owens. But if Tim Brown is in, we might as well let Holt in, as well.
Lynch is automatic this year, especially if the 49ers hit the Super Bowl. Now, I will say that Lynch should probably get in, I suppose. He was great. But the people making the decisions are human beings. And they get swept up in narratives. If he's built a Super Bowl team (and he has), this is the kind of thing that will influence the voters when they vote ... the day before the Super Bowl. So, it's happening.
Let's start with Richard Seymour, who was an original part of the Patriots dynasty. Like one of the original members of a massive band whom you've since forgotten about. Like Scott Raynor. But he was huge during those early days. The Patriots have dominated the NFL for two decades and the only Hall of Fame players they currently have from this run are Ty Law, Randy Moss and that's it. Crazy. Why?
I'd also like to mention Leroy Butler. Well, I don't want to mention him, because he's a member of the Packers. Still, Green Bay has been good forever, but the only guys in the Hall from the Brett Favre era are the quarterback himself and Reggie White.
Tony Boselli has always been a challenging eval for me. He was dominant when he was healthy. The problem? He wasn't healthy often enough. But then you think of how Gale Sayers and Terrell Davis were given the benefit of the doubt -- should Boselli be given the same grace? That's going to be a tough one for me.
Bryant Young was a rock-solid defensive tackle for the 49ers. A key clog in that Super Bowl XXIX championship team. But since Warren Sapp, John Randle and Cortez Kennedy are already in, I'm not sure that Young makes the cut. If those guys are Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden of the DTs in this era, then Young is kind of like Screaming Trees. But I see I nearly lost you here with that analogy.
And then there's Isaac Bruce, whom I love. But Holt is going to make it. Wayne will eventually. And then he's going to continue to get pushed down the list. At some point, we need to stop leading him on with this. Especially with guys like Calvin Johnson looming on the horizon.
Well, I've already kind of touched on this above, but Tasker and Willis are two guys I would have voted for if they had made it this far. And if I was allowed to vote. Which I'm not. Tasker, I get. But Willis really throws me off. He was a first-round pick, earned NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He went to seven Pro Bowls in eight seasons, earning five first-team All-Pro selections in the process. The guy was one of the best players of his era. And I don't get why he didn't make it to the finals, other than him retiring at a seemingly young age. But we need to start getting over that, because not everyone can play as long as a quarterback. Eight years of dominance is clearly enough.