Here's What You Should Know About Hall's 15 Finalists for Class of 2022
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Listen to Hall-of-Fame voter Ira Kaufman, historian John Turney and I take a deep dive into the Hall's Class of '22 finalists on "The Eye Test for Two" on fullpressradio.com: https://www.spreaker.com/user/fullpresscoverage/eyetest-ep88).
So here’s what we know about the 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s modern-era Class of 2022: There are five candidates on offense, nine on defense and one from special teams. Three are in their first years of eligibility (Andre Johnson, DeMarcus Ware and Devin Hester), two others appear for the first time (Patrick Willis and Willie Anderson) and one returns after a year away (Bryant Young)
Anything else? Yes. The nine finalists not elected a year ago are back, including four considered frontrunners for induction in 2022. But that’s not all. There’s plenty more.
Just keep reading.
For me, it was Devin Hester. I know, he’s one of only two returners on the NFL’s 100th anniversary team. But the other is Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, and he’s never been a finalist in 28 years of eligibility. Like Johnson, Hester was named to two all-decade teams. Unlike Johnson, he was chosen to more Pro Bowls (4-3), more All-Pro teams (4-3) and set the league record for total return touchdowns (20) and TDs by punt returns (14). And that’s great. Except Hester is in his first year of eligibility, and Hall-of-Fame voters historically are loathe to act on special teamers -- naming only three specialists (kickers Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen and punter Ray Guy) to Canton in its existence. Anderson was a two-time all-decade choice, too. Plus, he was the league’s all-time scoring leader when he retired. Yet he had to wait five years before he was elected. No question, Hester is worthy of a Hall-of-Fame discussion and probably worthy of inclusion. I’m just surprised voters broke from the script.
Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward. Again. Six times he’s been a semifinalist, and six times he’s failed to move forward. Maybe he doesn’t have the prodigious numbers of some of the competition, but his value wasn’t only as a reliable receiver. He was an outstanding blocker, too, who was a Super Bowl MVP and a three-time Steelers’ MVP. Some day, one day, I want to hear his case debated. He deserves nothing less.
The most welcome addition – at least for me – was the return of former San Francisco defensive tackle Bryant Young. He reached the final 15 in 2020 but inexplicably was the only finalist not to return a year later. That prompted Hall-of-Fame voter Matt Maiocco to take action, pushing former 49ers’ public relations director Kirk Reynolds to organize a conference call with former offensive linemen and Hall-of-Fame voters. The response was overwhelming, with several of Young’s opponents comparing him favorably to Hall-of-Famers Warren Sapp and John Randle. Sapp was a first-ballot choice. Randle was elected in his second year of eligibility. Young is in his 10th year, and the key for him now is to stay a finalist. A similar path was taken in by former Denver safety Steve Atwater, who was a first-time finalist in 2016, then failed to return in 2017-18. That signaled an end to his candidacy. Or so I thought. Out of nowhere, he returned in 2019 and was elected in 2020.
THE LAUNCHING PAD
The four remaining Top-10 finalists from this year are back (only Clay Matthews, now a senior candidate, is missing), and no surprise there. Reaching the Top 10 puts you in the on-deck circle for the following year, and these guys are ready to move forward. They are tackle Tony Boselli, safety LeRoy Butler, defensive tackle Richard Seymour and linebacker Zach Thomas. Boselli and Butler are in their 16th years of eligibility, and this is their best opportunity – especially for Boselli, who’s been a Top-10 finisher the past five years. Both he and Butler were all-decade choices, with Butler the only first-team all-decade member from the 1970s, ‘80s or ‘90s not in Canton. That should change in February. If the board respects the queue – and ‘tis the season – Boselli, Butler and Seymour should make it. I’m not so certain about Thomas, only because I sense ambivalence among some voters. But he could, meaning only one spot would be vacant.
Selectors are so eager to induct first-year players that half of the past five modern-era classes – 10 of the 20 choices – have been first-ballot inductees. That includes defensive end Jason Taylor, a surprise pick in 2017 when he was in his first year of eligibility. I mention him because DeMarcus Ware is the most Hall-of-Fame worthy of the first-year eligibles here, with 138-1/2 career sacks – one shy of Taylor. Like Taylor, he was an all-decade selection. Unlike Taylor, he won a Super Bowl. Taylor was a four-time All-Pro, including three first-team designations, and a six-time Pro Bowler. He was also a Defensive Player of the Year who led the league in sacks in 2002. Ware was a seven-time All-Pro, including four first-team nominations, and nine-time Pro Bowler who led the league twice (2008, 2010) in sacks. I don’t think I need to draw you a map. The comparison is favorable to Ware, which makes him a favorite as yet another first-ballot Hall of Famer.
IT’S ABOUT TIME
Quick, now, tell me how many Cincinnati Bengals are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? I’m not talking about someone like Terrell Owens who had a cup of coffee with the team before leaving. I’m talking about someone who spent the bulk of his career with the Bengals. Answer: One. Tackle Anthony Munoz. That’s one in 54 years, and, yes, there’s something wrong there. Willie Anderson was a marvelous player who, like Munoz, played tackle but who, unlike Munoz, did not play the left side. He played the right, and, like it or not, that seems to be an issue. Look at the tackles voters elected in recent years – guys like Willie Roaf, Orlando Pace, Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden. They’re all left tackles. So is Boselli, a favorite to be elected in 2022. But Anderson was so good on the other side that Hall-of-Famer Michael Strahan called him “the best right tackle of his generation.” That’s good enough for me. Let’s talk about him. Well, now we can. One year after he cracked the semifinalist list for the first time, Anderson is in the room with the board of selectors. No, I don’t think he gains traction in 2022, but that’s not the point. He’s in the room, and that is.
IT’S ABOUT TIME, PART II
Former 49ers’ linebacker Patrick Willis is one of this group’s most decorated players. In his eight NFL seasons, he was a seven-time Pro Bowler, a six-time All-Pro (five as a first-teamer) and an all-decade selection. So what’s not to like? His eight NFL seasons, critics answer. Too short, they charge. Sorry, but that ship has sailed, and it left with the inductions of running back Terrell Davis and Kenny Easley in 2017. Plus, there’s this: How many seasons did linebacker Dick Butkus play? Answer: Nine, but his last season was cut short by a knee injury. Like teammate Gale Sayers, Butkus passed the eye test. One look, and you knew you were witnessing something … or someone … special. San Francisco fans feel the same about Willis. I think there’s more than a reasonable chance of his moving into the Top 10 in his first year as a finalist.
GRIDLOCK WAITING TO HAPPEN
That would be wide receiver. It’s not the deepest group. Linebacker is, with four finalists. There are three wide receivers here – Torry Holt, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne. But their resumes are so similar that this looks like another Andre Reed-Cris Carter-Tim Brown logjam in the offing … and that’s not good for any of them. Reason: They can split votes so that nobody moves forward. That's happened with Wayne and Holt, neither of whom moved into the Top 10 when faced with Isaac Bruce as competition. It took four years for Carter to break the deadlock in 2013, with Reed and Brown following each of the next two years. We could be facing a similar slowdown.
That would be for linebacker Sam Mills, in his 20th … and last … year of eligibility. If he fails to make it, as linebacker Clay Matthews did a year ago, he moves into the senior category and good luck. It’s so deep with talent that our Rick Gosselin names 58 all-decade players there, 53 of whom haven’t been discussed. So why is that an issue? Because only one is named annually as a finalist. Mills has been a finalist the past two years but had no legs. He didn’t make the first cut from 15 to 10 in either year. It’s now or never.
The 2022 Hall-of-Fame Finalists:
JARED ALLEN, Defensive End (2004-07, Kansas City, 2008-13, Minnesota; 2014-15, Chicago; 2015, Carolina).
WILLIE ANDERSON, Offensive tackle (1996-2007, Cincinnati; 2008, Baltimore).
RONDE BARBER, Cornerback/safety (1997-2012, Tampa Bay).
TONY BOSELLI, Offensive tackle (1995-2001, Jacksonville; 2002, Houston … injured reserve).
LeROY BUTLER, Safety (1990-2001, Green Bay).
DEVIN HESTER, Punt returner/kick returner/wide receiver (2006-13-Chicago; 2014-15, Atlanta; 2016, Baltimore).
TORRY HOLT, wide receiver (1999-2008, St. Louis Rams, 2009, Jacksonville).
ANDRE JOHNSON, wide receiver (2002-2014, Houston; 2015, Indianapolis; 2016, Tennessee).
SAM MILLS, linebacker (New Orleans, 1986-94; Carolina, 1995-97).
RICHARD SEYMOUR, Defensive tackle (New England, 2002-08; Oakland, 2009-12).
ZACH THOMAS, Linebacker (Miami, 1996-2007, Miami; 2008, Dallas).
DeMARCUS WARE, Linebacker/defensive end (Dallas, 2005-13, Dallas; 2014-16, Denver).
REGGIE WAYNE, Wide receiver (2001-14, Indianapolis)
PATRICK WILLIS, Linebacker (2007-14, San Francisco).
BRYANT YOUNG, Defensive tackle (San Francisco, 1994-2007).