Pro Football Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker has described this year's enshrinement week as "Twice the fun in '21" and you know what, that kind of fits. (I mean, it's kind of a depressing way to look at all of that weight we might have gained over the past 16 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but for the Hall of Fame, it checks out.) After all, between the Class of 2021 and the Centennial Class of 2020, a whopping 28 new members will be enshrined. Of course, now that means everybody who is eligible for the Hall is in, which means there will be no more enshrinements.
I kid! Because while it's going to be tough to top the headliners this weekend (I mean, between Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson and Charles Woodson, this feels like the NFL's Coachella), next year looks pretty damn good, too.
If you'll allow me, I'd like to offer a few predictions for the modern-era members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2022.
Well, there are none. That's right. Last year, we had two locks with Manning and Woodson. A third player, Megatron, was a lock for me -- as I wrote in my predictions, I get worried about Hall of Fame voters. I was pleasantly surprised to see Megatron voted in with no fuss. (It would have been ridiculous to exclude him.) At any rate, we're looking ahead, and I don't see any candidates with enough no-doubt cachet for me to feel comfortable placing them here.
Steve Smith Sr., wide receiver (Carolina Panthers, 2001-2013; Baltimore Ravens, 2014-16)
I wrestled with this one. Of the players who will be in their first year of eligibility -- including Andre Johnson, Anquan Boldin, DeMarcus Ware, Devin Hester (who you know I'll be personally banging the drum for; more on that later) and even Tony Romo -- there are several who have strong cases. But none seem like automatic first-ballot guys, if we're thinking about how the voters will think. Presuming most will have to wait their turn, with everything else being equal, I'll give the first-ballot nod for 2022 to Smith, who I firmly believe belongs in the Hall.
Yes, he's an NFL Network colleague, but this isn't about that. Smith has 14,731 career receiving yards (eighth all time), more than any eligible player who is not yet in Canton, including Johnson, Boldin and the wide receiver finalists who didn't make the Class of 2021, Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne. I have more thoughts on this, but I would like to instead take this time to direct you to Chris Wesseling's definitive pitch for Steve Smith Sr. to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I know Smith's brash persona might not be to everyone's taste, but his numbers and film back up this claim. He should be in the Hall of Fame -- and I think voters will agree.
Torry Holt, wide receiver (St. Louis Rams, 1999-2008; Jacksonville Jaguars, 2009)
I'm kind of shocked Holt -- who I predicted would make it last year -- didn't get into the Class of 2021. I wonder if Holt (and Wayne) were left out because Megatron was going in. Which leads to another question: If Holt wasn't as good as Megatron, should he get in? But that's not how this works. Between Holt and Wayne, I'd prefer Wayne. But I feel like the voters are putting in Holt. Which probably precludes Wayne from following his former Colts teammates, Edgerrin James (Class of 2020) and Manning (Class of 2021).
Rounding out the class
Ronde Barber, cornerback/safety (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1997-2012)
Barber made the list of finalists for 2021. But he wasn't going to get in with Charles Woodson also eligible. Again, as with the receivers mentioned above, if Barber didn't merit inclusion with Woodson, should he get in in 2022? I mean, he was a great player. But I don't think he stands out with some of the best corners of his era, or safeties. Still, I feel like he has a lot of juice with Hall of Fame voters, which is really the most important thing, and what likely gains him entry.
Zach Thomas, linebacker (Miami Dolphins, 1996-2007; Dallas Cowboys, 2008)
No disrespect to Thomas or any of the other players listed here, but without a true superstar or automatic first-timer who has to be included in 2022, I'm imagining voters looking at these names and just going, "OK, you can get in." Again, I'm not saying Thomas isn't deserving. Dude was selected first-team All-Pro five times. That's just two less than Peyton Manning. And he's been a finalist for the Hall twice now. At some point, something has to give, and 2022 looks like a good year for it.
Tony Boselli, offensive tackle (Jacksonville Jaguars, 1995-2001; Houston Texans [injured reserve], 2002)
I wrote this last year (and likely previously) and I'll stick by this statement: voters really need to finally make a decision on Boselli. Dude is a finalist seemingly every year. He's one of the most amazing talents to play the position. And, yes, his career was cut short by injuries -- but that hasn't stopped other players from making it. Either put Tony in this year, or never speak of it again. You can't do this to the man.
Should be a mortal lock but ... you know
Devin Hester, returner/wide receiver (Chicago Bears, 2006-2013; Atlanta Falcons, 2014-15; Baltimore Ravens, 2016; Seattle Seahawks, 2016)
The Hall of Fame voting committee should feel very fortunate right now. Because if I had a vote, nobody would be leaving that room until Hester was a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Nobody in this entire list of eligible players could match Devin's ability to change a game with one play (sorry, Steve). Hester almost single-handedly won Super Bowl XLI for the Bears. He was the only player Colts coach Tony Dungy was worried about leading into that game. He inspired this epic rant from Dennis Green. I'm telling you, this should be a no-brainer. And again, if I had a vote -- and only one vote -- it's going to Devin. But I trust the Hall of Famer voters as much as I trust any working director to make a good Superman movie. I hope that I'm wrong, though. Because he should be in.
A few other names I would vote in
Patrick Willis, linebacker (San Francisco 49ers, 2007-2014)
It's wild to me that Willis wasn't even a finalist last year. I don't know what more you want from the man. He dominated throughout his entire career. Was it not long enough for you? The guy was a five-time first-team All-Pro. He was an All-Pro in FIVE OF HIS EIGHT YEARS. I want a 30 For 30 on why he wasn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Because it defies logic.
Jared Allen, defensive end (Kansas City Chiefs, 2004-07; Minnesota Vikings, 2008-2013; Chicago Bears, 2014-15; Carolina Panthers, 2015)
I mean, Allen was a four-time first-team All-Pro. A two-time sack leader. He had an NFL-high four career safeties. And when you're roasting Dan Orlovsky for running out of the back of the end zone (and for his food takes), it's Jared Allen pointing and laughing. I'd put him in just for that.
Sam Mills, linebacker (New Orleans Saints, 1986-1994; Carolina Panthers, 1995-97)
Zach Thomas is likely taking the linebacker spot in 2022. So it looks like another year of waiting for the famed member of the Dome Patrol, and the inspiration of the Carolina Panthers "Keep Pounding" mantra. But if the voters did want to enshrine Smith and the late Mills in the same class, I wouldn't be mad at that.
LeRoy Butler, safety (Green Bay Packers, 1990-2001)
I really am not trying to curry favor with Packers fans, but I have to admit they have a point when they ask, "Where is LeRoy Butler?" He was a member of the 1990s All-Decade Team. A four-time All-Pro. What gives here?