TAMPA, Fla. -- The art of the sack was never lost on these five guys: Bruce Smith, Derrick Thomas, Claude Humphrey, Richard Dent and John Randle.
Among the greatest practitioners of wrestling quarterbacks to the ground, those five players are among 17 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A minimum of four finalists and a maximum of seven will be chosen Saturday.
While defensive ends and linebackers shouldn't be measured solely on their proficiency of rushing the passer, this group certainly stood out in that area. They made a living in opposing backfields.
Smith is the career sacks leader with 200 in 18 years. He also was the defensive anchor for the Buffalo Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s -- and lost four straight times.
"I've had so many memorable experiences and wonderful relationships that I've built over the years," Smith said. "And certainly I'm not being presumptuous to the extent that I'm saying this is automatically going to happen. But just the experience alone of being categorized as one of the best ever and certainly at my position ... "
Smith has earned the right to brag. He made two all-decade teams (1980s and 1990s) after being drafted No. 1 overall in 1985. He had the most seasons with double-digit sacks (13) and the most postseason sacks (14.5). Even though he was not a great run defender, he improved in that area throughout his career, and Smith was a leader of the 3-4 defense, earning Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1990 and 1996.
Dent and Randle are tied for sixth with 137.5 career sacks, making Randle's total even more impressive because he was a tackle for the Vikings from 1990-2000, then played with Seattle for three years. He trails only Smith for consecutive seasons with at least 10 sacks (8).
Dent starred for the Bears and led the league with 17 sacks in 1985, the year the Chicago defense throttled the rest of the NFL on the way to the Super Bowl title, where he was the MVP. He played 15 seasons, 12 with Chicago, and also was with San Francisco, Indianapolis and Philadelphia.
Thomas is 11th in career sacks with 126.5. A rushing outside linebacker who also had responsibilities in pass coverage for Kansas City, Thomas set an NFL mark with seven sacks in one game against Seattle on Nov. 11, 1990, a year in which he paced the NFL with 20 sacks. He was the 1989 Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Humphrey played his entire career (1968-81) before the sack became an official statistic, so records of his achievements are sketchy. But historians recall his fierce pass rush and the way he dominated blockers. He spent 11 seasons with the Falcons -- he was 1968's Defensive Rookie of the Year -- and three with the Eagles.
Sackmasters are not the only defensive players among the finalists.
Rod Woodson played cornerback and safety and was a solid kick returner from 1987-2003 with Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Oakland, and had 72 interceptions. Cortez Kennedy, a run-stuffing tackle with pass-rushing skills, anchored Seattle's defense for 11 seasons, was the 1992 Defensive Player of the Year and made the all-decade team for the '90s.
Smith, Randle, Woodson and tight end Shannon Sharpe are first-time eligibles. Sharpe, who played for Denver and Baltimore from 1990-2003, held the record for receptions by a tight end with 815 until Tony Gonzalez broke it.
Receiver Cris Carter, who stands third in career receptions with 1,101, is on the ballot for the second year. Another wideout, Andre Reed, is among three candidates from the Buffalo organization, joining Smith and team owner Ralph Wilson.
Wilson and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue are finalists in the contributors' category.
Also among the finalists are former Dallas receiver Bob Hayes, like Humphrey, a senior committee choice; former Pittsburgh center Dermontti Dawson; and guards Russ Grimm, who is the assistant head coach of NFC champion Cardinals, Bob Kuechenberg and Randall McDaniel.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press