You might've heard that the Panthers and Broncos are squaring off in Super Bowl 50. What you might not have realized: This guarantees that one of the NFL's most decorated active defenders will be earning his first ring. Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware spent the last decade-plus collapsing pockets and chasing some pretty darn elusive QBs (guys like Mike Vick) -- all the while getting chipped, clipped and who knows what else in the trenches. Yet neither owns the ultimate football bling. SB50 will change that for one of them -- but where do they stand among the best active players without a ring?
Below are the 10 most deserving candidates for a Lombardi Trophy. To be considered, a player must be heading toward his 10th season in 2016. The more service, the more worthy. Hit me with your thoughts: @HarrisonNFL.
Smith edges out Tony Romo (and Steven Jackson) on service. The five-time Pro Bowl receiver has been toiling away in the NFL for 15 years, but he's similar to the Cowboys quarterback in many ways. First of all, both got off to slow starts compared to the remaining players on our list. They've each led the league in important categories at spots in their respective careers, while both are known for their incredible toughness. What really sets Smith apart is the year he was having in 2015 before getting hurt. Glad he's coming back for another season after all.
Unfortunately, Johnson has never even gotten a whiff of the Lombardi Trophy. In his 12 years with the Texans, he made it to the postseason twice -- and both times, Houston was bounced in the Divisional Round. And Year 1 in Indianapolis certainly didn't go as planned. That said, Johnson has been an absolute beast at points in his career, despite mostly mediocre quarterback play (that's putting it rather nicely). He led the NFL in receiving yards in 2008 and '09, and he has three 1,500-yard seasons under his belt. Don't let his down year in Indy erase the previous dozen.
There seem to be varying views on Rivers' career (much like Tony Romo's), but you can't ignore his prolific numbers, ability to play hurt and longevity in the NFL. Rivers has led the NFL in a few categories, including touchdowns (in 2008), passing yards (2010) and completion percentage (2013). He also paced everyone in yards per attempt from 2008 through 2010. And who can forget him playing with a torn ACL in the 2007 AFC Championship Game? Easy, easy selection for this list.
His output has decreased over the last couple years, but among active players, he is tied for the most career sacks (136) with Julius Peppers. Allen's probable Hall of Fame case is devoid of just one line: "Won a Super Bowl ring in ..." Allen has, at times, been absolutely dominant. His motor is darn-near legendary. This was all on display in 2011, when he racked up a staggering 22 sacks -- tied for the second-highest total ever, just behind Michael Strahan's 22.5 in 2001.
Fitzgerald certainly owns the career numbers (1,018 receptions for 13,366 yards and 98 touchdowns) to merit inclusion on this list. And then, when you add in his postseason career and his ability to lift his game against the top competition, it becomes even more apparent that this is a player who more than deserves a Super Bowl ring. He is the only player ever to have three games of 150-plus receiving yards in the playoffs, and he has more postseason touchdown catches (10) than any other active player.
The consummate pro, Witten climbs this high on the list based on productivity, durability and having one of the longest waits. Witten has been a starter at tight end for the Cowboys since the 2003 season, and he hasn't missed a game since that season. He owns the NFL record for catches in a game by a tight end (18) and is currently second all-time in TE receptions to only Tony Gonzalez.
While Johnson has openly admitted that he's considering hanging up his cleats, there is no doubt that he is Canton material. Unlike Fitzgerald, Allen or Rivers, Johnson has never really had a bad season. Even a down year for Megatron, like 2015, carries a stat line of 88 catches, 1,214 yards and nine scores. From 2011 through '13, Johnson was, hands-down, the best wideout in pro football. How many players can claim that kind of dominance? #Lions
Peterson will enter his 10th season in 2016, qualifying him for our list. Not that his achievements aren't enough. Peterson is less than 400 yards behind Frank Gore for the most among active rushers -- despite having entered the league two years later -- and produced the second-most prolific rushing campaign in NFL history with 2,097 yards in 2013. If he retired today, he would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The only reason he is not higher on his list is the fact that he missed nearly all of the 2014 campaign due to suspension -- so his service time is on the lowest end of the spectrum.
Thomas is second on the list only because he lacks the service time of our No. 1 player. Otherwise, this left tackle would be at the top of the list. Thomas has been the definition of durability, having never missed a start in nine seasons. Moreover, and with apologies to Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson, he's the best player on this list from the 2007 NFL Draft. (Darrelle Revis might have him -- by a smidge -- as the best overall player from that draft class.) Being a left tackle, or playing for the Browns, shouldn't work against him.
He made the Pro Football Hall of Fame's All-Decade Team of the 2000s, despite playing just five seasons during that decade. Ware earns the top spot on this list because of his pedigree (134.5 sacks, third among active players), as well as his tenure in the league. Although he is just behind Jared Allen and Julius Peppers in career sacks, Ware has averaged more per season. He's hit double digits in eight of his 11 campaigns, with his rookie season being one of the seasons he failed to hit that mark. (In the other two, he fought major injuries.)