In a normal universe, we would be celebrating the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2020 right about now. Instead, legendary players and coaches like Troy Polamalu and Jimmy Johnson will wait until next year to give their speeches in Canton, Ohio. The Hall of Fame Game, like the rest of the preseason, has been canceled during the coronavirus pandemic. The induction process, like so many things, is on hold.
Naturally, now seems like a good time to look forward. Let’s run team-by-team and try to estimate each notable player’s chances of making it to the Hall of Fame given his current résumé. In other words, instead of trying to project their chances by guessing what they’ll do in the future, I’m looking at what they’ve done so far, comparing them to players at similar points in their careers, and seeing how often players with those sorts of careers made it into the Hall of Fame. I’ll do a little bit of projecting the future here and there, given historical aging curves and what we know about each player’s injury history, but this is almost entirely about what each player has done so far.
Since there have only been 346 people elected to the Hall of Fame (some of whom aren’t even players), we don’t always have great measures or estimates for what players at each given position have to do to make it. Often, I’m making an educated guess as to what would get a player in by looking at which accomplishments and plaudits matter more to voters. While Pro Bowls and All-Pro awards are hardly gospel, they’re the best measure we have of how league observers valued a particular player in his time.
As a result, I’ll mention them often, especially when looking at players who don’t touch the ball frequently. Early in a player’s career, I’m also comfortable using draft status as an estimate of talent until they establish themselves as pros, which will lead to some very inexperienced players making this list.
Most importantly: This is my opinion of who is likely to get in given current résumés, not who belongs in. To use an example, I don’t think Eli Manning has the résumé of a Hall of Fame quarterback, but history tells us that most quarterbacks who win two Super Bowls typically get in. As a result, I would expect him to make it to the Hall someday.
I’ve split players into four groups. Locks have a 100% chance of making it. After that, we have players who are Likely to get in, who I estimate have between a 70% and 99% chance of earning induction. Below them are the players who are In the running (between 40% and 69%), and then the players who have Work to do to get on the Hall of Fame radar, who come in between 10% and 39%. I haven’t included players who I believe have no more than a 10% chance of making it into the Hall of Fame.
Typically, there are between 45 and 50 Hall of Famers playing at any one time. Let’s see if we can get a sense of who those 50 are right now:
In the running (40% to 69%): CB Tre’Davious White. White got his just due last season and was named a first-team All-Pro while tying for the league lead in interceptions (six). The former LSU corner was already a star on the field after his 2018 campaign, but getting that first nod is usually tougher than getting invited back. Of the nine corners who have debuted since the NFL-AFL merger and made the Hall of Fame, just two had been a first-team All-Pro by their third season, which puts White in good company alongside Rod Woodson and then-corner Ronnie Lott.
Work to do (10% to 39%): LB Tremaine Edmunds. The star inside linebacker made his first Pro Bowl last season, which is incredible given that it was his age-21 season. Of the seven players eligible for the Hall of Fame who made it to the Pro Bowl in their age-21 campaign, six are in the Hall. One issue: Five of those six are running backs, with Randy Moss as the only exception. Inside linebackers generally need to become Defensive Player of the Year candidates and earn multiple first-team All-Pro appearances to get serious consideration for Canton, but Edmunds is off to a great start.
There aren’t any Dolphins who would appear to have greater than a 10% chance of making the Hall of Fame. Xavien Howard made the Pro Bowl in 2018 and would be the best candidate, but he has missed an average of six games per season across his four pro campaigns. Players with that sort of injury history early in their careers typically don’t have the sort of lengthy peak needed to become a Hall of Famer.
In the running (40% to 69%): QB Cam Newton, CB Stephon Gilmore. Newton has an MVP award, which goes a long way toward pushing any player into the Hall of Fame. The former Panthers quarterback has two other Pro Bowl nods besides that 2015 campaign, although he hasn’t received a nomination since. He needs to have a second act and have another selling point — either winning a Super Bowl, competing for another MVP award or making it to a handful of Pro Bowls — to have a viable path to a gold jacket.
Gilmore wasn’t on track to become a Hall of Famer before he joined the Patriots, having made one Pro Bowl across his first five seasons in Buffalo, but he has made back-to-back first-team All-Pro teams and then won Defensive Player of the Year last season. He also came up with an interception while winning his first Super Bowl, which helps his case. As he turns 30 in September, Gilmore probably needs at least two more seasons in which he has a credible case as the best cornerback in football — or a really long peak — to get into Canton.
Work to do (10% to 39%): WR Julian Edelman, LB Dont’a Hightower, S Devin McCourty. These three Pats legends are more likely to land in the Hall of Very Good. Hightower has made huge plays in two Super Bowls, having stuffed Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line and strip-sacked Matt Ryan, but he has rarely gotten the regular-season attention he deserves. Hightower and McCourty have only made two Pro Bowls each, and while they’ll get a bump for their Super Bowl rings, it’s tough to imagine them getting in when guys like Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel didn’t make it from the first era of Pats Super Bowl winners.
Edelman’s case rests entirely on playoff and Super Bowl production. Pro Football Reference‘s Hall of Fame monitor ranks Edelman 110th among wide receivers, and that gives him credit for winning three Super Bowls. Edelman has never made a Pro Bowl, but the only player with more receiving yards in the playoffs is Jerry Rice. Edelman’s career as a starter really didn’t begin until he was 27, so while his case is built on postseason performance, I still don’t think he has the regular-season production needed to supplement a case.
Likely (60% to 99%): RB Frank Gore. Gore is the football equivalent of somebody like MLB outfielder Jim Rice as a compiler who plays a position the electorate loves. Gore is third in career rushing yards, which owes much to the fact that he also ranks third in carries. Gore isn’t quite a lock because he has never been a first-team All-Pro or won a Super Bowl, and he only has one top-five finish in a rushing title race (third in 2006). But as a running back who has been above average or good seemingly forever, he’s getting in.
Work to do (10% to 39%): RB Le’Veon Bell, LB C.J. Mosley. Bell’s case as a scheme- and personnel-transcendent back fell apart in an ugly 2019 season, with the former Steelers playmaker averaging just 3.2 yards per carry. The Hall is forgiving of running backs, and Bell’s versatility should age well, but he has missed a lot of time through injuries, suspensions and his 2018 holdout. Unless he turns things around dramatically this season, he would fall out of the “Work to do” category altogether.
Mosley’s case, meanwhile, has stalled in New York. He made it to four Pro Bowls in his first five seasons with the Ravens, and while that’s the sort of production we associate with Hall of Famers, he wasn’t able to earn a first-team All-Pro nod over that stretch. While guys like Franco Harris and Champ Bailey managed to make it to the Hall of Fame with similar starts to their careers, standouts like Chris Hinton, Ricky Watters and Donovan McNabb have come up short without getting to that next level. Mosley needs to be recognized as the best inside linebacker in the game at least a couple of times to get to the Hall of Fame; after missing virtually all of 2019 with a groin injury, he has opted out of the 2020 season with concerns for his family’s health.
Likely (70% to 99%): S Earl Thomas. He was nearly a lock after making four Pro Bowls and three first-team All-Pro nods across his first five seasons, but injuries have cost Thomas 20 games over the subsequent four years. Returning to form and earning a seventh Pro Bowl nod in his first season with the Ravens got Thomas back on track. Seymour made it to seven Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams and hasn’t made it to the Hall of Fame, but Thomas was more conspicuous at safety and was a key member of a legendary defense. I think Thomas is a prohibitive favorite to get in.
In the running (40% to 69%): QB Lamar Jackson, CB Marcus Peters, K Justin Tucker. Winning an MVP in Year 2 obviously leaps Jackson into consideration on its own, but it doesn’t seal the job. Quarterbacks like Ken Anderson, Boomer Esiason and Steve McNair won league MVP without earning enshrinement. Jackson does an incredible job of avoiding hits and getting out of bounds, but there’s naturally going to be questions about whether a quarterback can run the ball 10 times per game in the modern NFL and have a 15-year career as a starter. If he can follow in Patrick Mahomes‘ footsteps and win a Super Bowl this year, Jackson will have an impeccable résumé to start his career.
Peters might look better in the long term than he does now. Ten years after he retires, we’re more likely to look at his two first-team All-Pro nods and forget those times he guessed wrong and gave up touchdowns with the Chiefs and Rams. It’s tough to rack up interceptions in the modern NFL, but Peters has 27 since entering the league, nine more than any other player. He has a stronger case than you think.
While Tucker would be the overwhelming choice as the best kicker in football, the Hall has elected just two full-time kickers in its history. Adam Vinatieri will eventually join Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen, but those guys averaged 22 seasons in the league. Tucker is only nine years in, and while he can kick for a long time if he stays healthy, asking anyone in the NFL to do anything for 13 more seasons is risky.
Work to do (10% to 39%): RB Mark Ingram, OT Ronnie Stanley, DE Calais Campbell. Ingram wasn’t very good for extended stretches of time until his fourth season in the league in New Orleans, and while he has made three Pro Bowls since, he hasn’t had a top-five season in terms of production or won a Super Bowl. Stanley was a first-team All-Pro last season, which was his first serious recognition as a superstar. He could roll off a string of these nods in the years to come.
Campbell is probably going to miss out, which is a shame given how good he has been. The soon-to-be 34-year-old only made two Pro Bowls with the Cardinals, which was a farce. The big deal he signed with the Jags and the subsequent 14.5-sack campaign he posted in leading them to the AFC Championship Game turned the tide, as Campbell was a first-team All-Pro and made three consecutive Pro Bowl trips with Jacksonville. Seymour has a better résumé and more Super Bowl rings and hasn’t made it in, but he peaked earlier in his career; if Campbell can stay productive and win a ring or two with the Ravens, it might push him into more significant consideration.
Likely (70% to 99%): DT Geno Atkins. He rarely gets the public attention he deserves, but the Pro Bowl voters haven’t ignored the interior disruptor, with Atkins earning eight Pro Bowl nods and a pair of first-team All-Pro votes. That’s just about a magic formula for getting into the Hall. Since 1970, 55 players who are eligible for Canton have hit that 8+2 mark, and 52 of them won enshrinement. The only exceptions are a pair of interior offensive linemen (Alan Faneca and Steve Wisniewski) and safety John Lynch. I worry a little about Atkins because he plays in a small market and in an era in which he’s second fiddle to a better version of the same player (Aaron Donald), but history suggests Atkins is in.
In the running (40% to 69%): WR A.J. Green. He started his career with seven Pro Bowls in seven seasons, which is rarified air. Only nine players have done that in league history; outside of Green, the only player of the bunch who isn’t in the Hall of Fame or a lock to get in is offensive tackle Richmond Webb, who played a much less notable position. At the same time, Green has missed 23 games over the past two years with injuries. He turned 32 on Friday, and while there could be more left in the tank, he probably needs another Pro Bowl season or two to ensure he makes it.
Work to do (10% to 39%): QB Joe Burrow. Wait, Joe Burrow? The guy who hasn’t played a single NFL snap? We still have to see what happens with the former LSU star, but of the 24 quarterbacks drafted with the first overall pick since the merger, five are either Hall of Famers or extremely likely to be enshrined in Canton. Not knowing anything else about Burrow beyond where and when he was drafted, his Hall of Fame chances before starting his career come in by that small sample around 20%.
In the running (40% to 69%): WR Odell Beckham Jr., WR Jarvis Landry. When I last attempted something like this column in June 2016, I gave Beckham a 50% chance of making the Hall of Fame after two dominant seasons as a pro. He was excellent in his third season, but since then, his production has roughly been in line with Robby Anderson. OBJ hasn’t made a Pro Bowl since 2016, and while this could be a bounce-back year for the former Giants star, another middling campaign would push him into the “Work to do” tier.
After five consecutive Pro Bowl campaigns, I wonder if Landry actually has a better shot of surpassing his friend and longtime teammate. Over that five-year span, Landry ranks third in the NFL in catches and seventh in receiving yards. In part, that has been driven by health; the only other wideout ranking in the top 100 for receiving yards who has played all 80 games over the last five seasons is Larry Fitzgerald. Landry’s hip surgery then looms as a problem; if he can get past it and keep this up, he profiles as a borderline Hall of Famer.
Joe Fortenbaugh isn’t picking Odell Beckham Jr. to lead the NFL in receiving yards, but he expects Kevin Stefanski’s scheme to improve the wide receiver’s numbers in 2020.
Work to do (10% to 39%): QB Baker Mayfield, DE Myles Garrett. In both cases, I’m looking mostly at the historical output for first overall picks. I mentioned the math for quarterbacks in the Bengals section; in Garrett’s case, four of 26 non-QBs taken with the first overall pick since the merger have made it to the Hall of Fame. Garrett has played at a much higher level than Mayfield, but the $125 million man has missed 11 of 48 games thanks to various injuries and his season-ending suspension in 2019. A healthy, available Garrett is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and could rise quickly.
Lock (100%): QB Ben Roethlisberger. There are questions about Roethlisberger’s character; he has twice been accused of sexual assault. But history suggests that his on-field performance makes him a Hall of Fame lock.
In the running (40% to 69%): C Maurkice Pouncey, LB T.J. Watt. Pouncey fits that magic 8+2 formula I mentioned earlier with regard to Atkins, and at 31, he should still have a couple more Pro Bowls in him. The only thing likely to keep him out of Canton is an electorate that habitually underrates interior offensive linemen in favor of an endless stream of running backs. The only thing Pouncey is missing is a Super Bowl appearance.
Watt is off to a dominant start, having racked up 34.5 sacks over three seasons while earning two Pro Bowl nods and a first-team All-Pro berth last season. Players with two Pro Bowls and one first-team All-Pro spot across their first three seasons who are eligible for the Hall of Fame have made it to Canton just over 48% of the time. Watt’s last name and presence on a high-profile defense won’t hurt.
Smith-Schuster had a down 2019 season amid injuries and terrible quarterback play; he should bounce back to his 1,426-yard form from 2018. DeCastro has five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and two All-Pro nods; if Faneca can’t get in with nine consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and five All-Pro shots, DeCastro still has a lot of work to do. Fitzpatrick went from getting benched for the Dolphins in Week 1 to become a first-team All-Pro after his arrival in Pittsburgh; another year like 2019 will push him into Watt territory.
Heyward reminds me a lot of Campbell; they’re prototypical five-technique ends who upped their pass-rushing performance when given more opportunities to get after the quarterback. Like Campbell, Heyward didn’t earn widespread notoriety until he was approaching 30, with the Steelers star becoming a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowler for the first time in his seventh season. He repeated that feat in 2019, but he’ll need to have Campbell’s longevity and continue at this level into his mid-30s to have a viable path to the Hall.
Lock (100%): DE J.J. Watt. While injuries have cost Watt 32 games over the past four seasons, his unprecedented four-season peak from 2012 to 2015 locked up things. He is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, joining Lawrence Taylor as the only three-time winners of the award. Every two-time winner got in easily, so while Watt might not have the longevity he hoped for, the Houston icon could retire tomorrow and get in.
In the running (40% to 69%): QB Deshaun Watson. Watson has earned Pro Bowl nods in each of his first two full seasons as a starter, which is easier for quarterbacks than it is for most other positions. (You might remember Mitchell Trubisky in the Pro Bowl in 2018.) Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in football, although he might struggle to earn first-team All-Pro nods when stuck in the same time frame as Mahomes.
In the running (40% to 69%): QB Philip Rivers, G Quenton Nelson, LB Darius Leonard. I’ll start with the two young players. Nelson is one of seven players to start his career with two consecutive first-team All-Pro nods, a group that includes four Hall of Famers, Nelson, Devin Hester and Keith Jackson. Hester was a (great) returner, which typically doesn’t inspire the same sort of fervor as other All-Pro nods, while Jackson actually started with three consecutive All-Pro nods before dropping off and retiring after nine years. Nelson doesn’t play a high-profile position, but he’s off to a great start. Leonard, with one All-Pro spot and a Pro Bowl appearance last year, is right behind.
Rivers is probably the most difficult case to parse among veteran players. People in favor of him will point to his stats, which are clearly better than those of Eli Manning, but that ignores the point; Manning isn’t getting into the Hall of Fame because of his regular-season stats. Skeptics will point out that Rivers was 5-6 in the postseason and only made it as far as one AFC Championship Game, but he’s also sixth in NFL history in passing yards and passing touchdowns.
I polled my Twitter followers and found that 42.6% of voters thought Rivers was a Hall of Famer. I’m right there in the 50/50 range. He has eight Pro Bowl appearances, but he has never been a first-team All-Pro, never really been a viable pick as the best quarterback in football and has a total of four MVP votes across 14 seasons as a starter. The closest comp is Ken Anderson, who had a similar peak and won an MVP award but didn’t last quite as long and hasn’t been able to get in. I think Rivers probably gets in, but it might take a while.
Work to do (10% to 39%): WR T.Y. Hilton, DE Justin Houston, DT DeForest Buckner, CB Xavier Rhodes. Houston probably had the best shot of these four earlier in his career, given that he made four consecutive Pro Bowls and led the league with 22 sacks in 2014, but he hasn’t been dominant since dealing with a knee injury between 2015 and 2016. Buckner made the Pro Bowl in 2018, but he was otherwise underappreciated during his four seasons in the Bay Area. Some players draw more attention after getting traded or signing a big extension, and Buckner did both this offseason.
In the running (40% to 69%): DE Josh Allen. If you think this is too early for the second-year seventh overall pick, think again. Allen was named as a Pro Bowler after racking up 10.5 sacks as a rookie. Top-10 picks who make it to the Pro Bowl as rookies have a great track record. Of the 27 Hall-eligible players who have pulled that off, 14 are enshrined in Canton. There are another 11 players who aren’t yet Hall-eligible, and five of them are locks to do the same. Allen will have a tougher time (presumably) without Yannick Ngakoue or Calais Campbell around in 2020, but he’s off to a great start.
Work to do (10% to 39%): DE Yannick Ngakoue. He was a Pro Bowler in 2017 and has 37.5 sacks over his first four pro seasons, but he was overshadowed a bit by Campbell over that time frame. Ngakoue has deserved more attention and might get it in a new locale if the Jaguars honor his request and trade the 25-year-old before the season begins
Work to do (10% to 39%): RB Derrick Henry, OT Taylor Lewan, DE Vic Beasley Jr., S Kevin Byard. All of these guys have something in their favor, but it isn’t enough to propel them to meaningful consideration as of yet. Henry plays a Hall-friendly position and just won a rushing title. Lewan has three Pro Bowls. Beasley won a sack title. Byard was a first-team All-Pro in 2017 when he led the league with eight picks, but despite playing at an upper-echelon level over the ensuing two seasons, he hasn’t received the same consideration. Judging safeties on interceptions is stupid, but we haven’t evolved beyond that point.
Lock (100%): LB Von Miller. The superstar edge rusher has made the Pro Bowl every year except 2013, when he was suspended before going down with a torn ACL. He has three first-team All-Pro nods and a Super Bowl MVP before turning 31. Even if he slows down from here on out, Miller’s going to the Hall.
Work to do (10% to 39%): RB Melvin Gordon, DE Jurrell Casey. Gordon made it to two Pro Bowls during his five seasons with the Chargers, but injury concerns and fumble woes make it tough to see a Hall of Fame ceiling for the former first-rounder. Casey has made five consecutive Pro Bowls, but the Titans were willing to cut him this offseason before trading him for a seventh-round pick, which also seems telling about where they saw his future. He’s in line behind guys like Atkins unless the USC product continues to make Pro Bowls deep into his 30s. (Justin Simmons, who was one of the NFL’s best safeties a year ago, is still waiting for his first Pro Bowl appearance.)
Lock (100%): QB Patrick Mahomes. I addressed this in my MVP column in July. Mahomes’ résumé — a league MVP and Super Bowl MVP — is usually enough to get a player into the Hall of Fame, let alone doing it over two seasons as a starter.
Likely (70% to 99%): WR Tyreek Hill, TE Travis Kelce. It might seem surprising to put Hill this high, but he has made it to four Pro Bowls and been a first-team All-Pro twice across his first four seasons. All seven players who did that and who are eligible for the Hall of Fame are in, and the list of ineligible guys includes Hill, Patrick Willis, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, Patrick Peterson, Zack Martin and Aaron Donald. Everyone but Hill is either a lock or extremely likely to make it to the Hall of Fame. Hill’s game still relies on speed, so he could be more susceptible to a career shortened by injuries than most other candidates, but if he gets three more seasons with Mahomes, he’s probably in.
Kelce is difficult to judge because tight ends aren’t well represented in the Hall. Just nine tight ends are enshrined, and Kelce’s game leans more toward receiving than any of them. At the same time, no tight end in history has more than four 1,000-yard seasons over their respective careers, and Kelce has just run off four consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns. Like Hill, if Kelce gets three more seasons with Mahomes, I think he’s a Hall of Famer.
Work to do (10% to 39%): S Tyrann Mathieu. The Defensive Player of the Year candidate was named a first-team All-Pro for the second time in his career, but he hasn’t received any other nominations across his other five pro seasons. Mathieu is a great player and only just turned 28, so he still has plenty of time, but he probably needs four or five more Pro Bowl seasons or a DPOY victory to really get in the discussion.
Lock (100%): TE Jason Witten. While Witten, 38, is years removed from his peak, he’s going to finish his career with 11 Pro Bowl appearances and two first-team All-Pro nods. Unless he really hangs on into his 40s, he’ll finish as the second-most-productive tight end in history, behind Tony Gonzalez. He’s an easy Hall of Famer.
Witten is also the only Hall of Fame candidate on the Raiders roster. Center Rodney Hudson deserves more attention, but he has been stuck behind Maurkice Pouncey in the AFC and only has three Pro Bowls to show across his seven years as a starter with the Chiefs and Raiders.
In the running (40% to 69%): DE Joey Bosa, S Derwin James. James was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie, and while he missed 11 games in 2019 with a foot injury, he should get back on track in 2020. Of the 16 Hall-eligible first-rounders who were first-team All-Pros as rookies, nine are enshrined. If James gets back there this season, he might even be able to jump into the Likely category.
Bosa’s case is trickier, in part because he missed four games in 2016 and nine games in 2018 with injuries. In his other two seasons, he racked up a combined 23 sacks and made a pair of Pro Bowls. While James is closer to the 69% end of the spectrum here, Bosa’s more toward the 40% mark. We all know what he’s capable of, but he needs to put together a first-team All-Pro or Defensive Player of the Year-level campaign soon.
Work to do (10% to 39%): WR Keenan Allen, G Trai Turner, DE Melvin Ingram III, CB Chris Harris Jr. Turner has made five consecutive Pro Bowls, but interior linemen typically need multiple first-team All-Pro nods to draw significant Hall interest. Harris has four Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro appearance in 2016, but his play has slipped over the past couple of years, and smaller cornerbacks typically don’t do well after they turn 30.
Likely (70% to 99%): RB Ezekiel Elliott, G Zack Martin, OT Tyron Smith. The Cowboys are blessed with two linemen bound for Canton. No offensive lineman is ever a lock when guys like Faneca still aren’t enshrined, but Smith plays the most prominent position on the line for the most popular team in the league. The left tackle has seven Pro Bowls and two All-Pro nods before turning 30. The only eligible player with that sort of résumé who hasn’t made it to Canton is Webb, and while Webb was also a left tackle, he didn’t make a single Pro Bowl after turning 30. One more nomination should get Smith in.
Martin, who also turns 30 during the season, might not even need another nod. He has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons, adding four first-team All-Pro appearances. The list of players who have done that isn’t long, as it consists of Lawrence Taylor, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Patrick Willis, Aaron Donald and Martin. That’s three Hall of Famers, two locks, and Martin, who would be a lock if the Hall valued interior linemen.
In related news, the Cowboys also have a running back likely bound for the Hall. Elliott has already won two rushing titles across his first four seasons, and that might be enough on its own. Since 1950, 12 players have won two or more rushing titles. Ten of those 12 are in the Hall of Fame, with Adrian Peterson and Elliott not yet eligible. Running backs mean less than they have in the past, but Terrell Davis just made the Hall for what really amounted to a three-season stretch as the best running back in football. Elliott should be a prohibitive favorite to get in.
In the running (40% to 69%): QB Dak Prescott, WR Amari Cooper. Prescott has made two Pro Bowls over his first four seasons, but his best résumé point is winning Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2016. Of the 35 Hall of Fame-eligible players who have won that trophy since the merger, 11 are in the Hall of Fame, and that number will rise in the years to come. Cooper has made four Pro Bowls in his first five seasons. If you want to know why people are excited about the Cowboys’ offense in 2020, consider that they could have as many as five future Hall of Famers lining up when everyone’s healthy.
Work to do (10% to 39%): DE DeMarcus Lawrence, DT Gerald McCoy, LB Leighton Vander Esch. Three different Cowboys defenders make this list, and you could make a case for Jaylon Smith, too. Vander Esch’s chances are stronger than his fellow linebacker because he was a first-round pick and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, while Smith was a second-round pick and didn’t make it until his third campaign. Aldon Smith, who was once the most promising young edge rusher in football, would need a miraculous comeback in his first season since 2015 to get back on the HOF radar.
In the running (40% to 69%): RB Saquon Barkley. As I mentioned with Prescott, Barkley’s Offensive Rookie of the Year nod gets him in this category alone. He had a wasted 2019 season, as he went down with a high ankle sprain in Week 3 and averaged 3.2 yards per carry over his next seven games after returning, but 2020 should see Barkley return to form.
Work to do (10% to 39%): OT Andrew Thomas. General manager Dave Gettleman’s latest first-round pick will start his career at left tackle after Nate Solder opted out of the 2020 season. We still have no idea how Thomas will perform, but if we look back through history, four of the 32 offensive linemen since 1970 who were drafted with a top-five pick have made it to the Hall of Fame. Giants fans would be happy if the No. 4 overall pick solidified a position that has been a mess since Will Beatty tore his pec in 2015.
Likely (70% to 99%): OT Jason Peters. The best trade Andy Reid ever made was moving up in the draft for Patrick Mahomes in 2017. The second-best trade in Reid’s history might have been trading a first-rounder to the Bills in 2009 for Peters, who has held down left tackle for 10 of the past 11 seasons in Philadelphia and will return to play guard in 2020. The one-time tight end has made nine Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro twice. Peters might not be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but he should get in eventually.
In the running (40% to 69%): C Jason Kelce, DT Fletcher Cox. Both players are on a streak, and their chances depend on keeping that streak going. Cox has made five consecutive Pro Bowls, although only one of those seasons resulted in a first-team All-Pro nod. Kelce has been a first-team All-Pro three consecutive times, although he oddly didn’t make the Pro Bowl in two of those campaigns. Since the merger, 11 offensive linemen have been named a first-team All-Pro in four consecutive seasons, and nine of them are in the Hall of Fame. If Kelce can earn that nod in 2020, that might be enough to get him in.
Dan Orlovsky denounces the NFL Network’s Top 100 players for 2020 for excluding Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz.
Work to do (10% to 39%): QB Carson Wentz, TE Zach Ertz, CB Darius Slay. Eagles fans will be furious, but the reality is that Wentz has made one Pro Bowl and hasn’t won a playoff game or led the league in a major statistical category (outside of fumbles) during his first four seasons. Things would be different if he had actually won the MVP award or been the quarterback who ran the Eagles through the playoffs in 2017. Wentz’s injury history this early in his career also doesn’t bode well for his chances of playing deep into his 30s. A big individual season and a few MVP votes in 2020 would be enough to push him into the next category.
Lock (100%): RB Adrian Peterson. With three rushing titles, a 2,000-yard season and an MVP award in his trophy room, Peterson will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Work to do (10% to 39%): DE Chase Young, S Landon Collins. As he enters the league, Young’s chances of making the Hall of Fame on draft status alone sneak him into Hall of Fame consideration. Five of the 40 defensive players chosen in the top three picks of the draft since 1970 who are eligible for the Hall of Fame are enshrined there, a percentage which will rise as players like Julius Peppers and Von Miller eventually become eligible.
Collins was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in 2016 and has three Pro Bowls across his first five seasons.
Likely (70% to 99%): LB Khalil Mack. He has made five consecutive Pro Bowls and has three first-team All-Pro nods to go with his Defensive Player of the Year trophy from 2016. He has been one of the five best players at the second-most lucrative position in football over the past five years, and the fact that he was traded for two first-round picks and then delivered a wildly successful season with all of that attention in 2018 helps him. He probably needs two more All-Pro seasons to finalize his case.
In the running (40% to 69%): S Eddie Jackson. A starter from Day 1, Jackson was a first-team All-Pro while leading the league in interceptions in 2018. Jackson and teammate Kyle Fuller both slipped last season, but each earned Pro Bowl nods, and that’s going to matter more to voters 15 years from now than how either player actually performed in 2019. The reason Jackson is in this section and Fuller’s in the next group is that Jackson has made two Pro Bowls in three seasons, while Fuller has two across six years.
Work to do (10% to 39%): TE Jimmy Graham, CB Kyle Fuller. Graham’s case is interesting. His peak is Hall of Fame-worthy — he has two of the three best seasons in fantasy football history by a tight end — but it really only lasted four seasons. From 2015 to 2019, his numbers are virtually identical to those of Eric Ebron. Graham has five Pro Bowls to his name, but I don’t think he has done enough to earn a gold jacket.
Work to do (10% to 39%): QB Matthew Stafford, CB Jeff Okudah. Stafford posted gaudy numbers earlier in his career when the Lions had him lead the league in attempts, but he has made it to one Pro Bowl and hasn’t won a playoff game in 11 seasons. If he can stay healthy, he’s probably going to retire in the top 10 for career passing yardage, but will that really be enough to get him in without more individual awards or team success? Okudah’s presence owes to his draft status as the third overall pick.
Lock (100%): QB Aaron Rodgers. He’s going to get in on the first ballot.
Work to do (10% to 39%): WR Davante Adams, OT David Bakhtiari, LB Za’Darius Smith. Adams hasn’t been able to break through the Julio Joneses of the world to earn a first-team All-Pro spot, which is probably where he needs to get. Bakhtiari, likewise, is blocked by Tyron Smith.
Za’Darius Smith might have been the best pass-rusher in the league last season and has been great over the past two years on a snap-by-snap basis, but he turns 28 in September. James Harrison was a backup for four seasons, started regularly for the first time at 29, and probably won’t make the Hall of Fame despite a pretty spectacular peak. Smith needs a similar sort of run over the next few years to have a shot.
In the running (40% to 69%): DE Danielle Hunter, S Harrison Smith. We don’t talk enough about Hunter, who only has two Pro Bowl nods over his first five seasons. He has the third-most sacks through his age-25 season of any player since the league made it an official stat in 1982, trailing only Derrick Thomas and J.J. Watt. He’s ahead of guys like Von Miller, Dwight Freeney, Terrell Suggs and Bruce Smith, and while he played more games than all but Suggs, the fact that he was a productive pass-rusher from the jump as a 21-year-old is a positive. Hunter just needs more individual recognition to raise his chances. He deserves it.
While Hunter’s chances are probably somewhere in the 65% range, Smith is closer to the lower end of the spectrum in the 40% zone. He has made five consecutive Pro Bowls and has a first-team All-Pro appearance. The Notre Dame product probably needs a second one to have a viable shot at Canton. With Anthony Harris hoovering up interceptions and Jamal Adams and Minkah Fitzpatrick emerging, the 31-year-old Smith probably needs to earn that nod in the next year or two.
Work to do (10% to 39%): WR Adam Thielen, LB Anthony Barr. Thielen only emerged as a starter after turning 26, which means he would have to play into his late 30s to have a chance at racking up the cumulative stats modern wide receivers will need for enshrinement. Barr made four consecutive Pro Bowls from 2015 to 2018, but it’ll be tough for him to get the first-team All-Pro votes he’ll need for Canton without racking up significant sack totals. There could still be a season in which Mike Zimmer needs to use Barr as an edge rusher and he ends up with 10 sacks, but that’s not going to be enough.
Likely (70% to 99%): QB Matt Ryan, WR Julio Jones. Jones is likely to top 13,000 receiving yards and earn his eighth Pro Bowl nod this season, which should be enough to seal things for the superstar wideout. He isn’t going to catch Jerry Rice, but he’s just under 5,000 yards behind Larry Fitzgerald, who ranks second in career receiving yards. Jones should make up some of that difference in 2020, and after Fitzgerald retires, he should be able to challenge the Cardinals great for that second spot.
Ryan’s case is trickier. His 2016 season was one of the most impressive years we’ve ever seen from a quarterback, as he dominated during the regular season and won league MVP. He followed that by posting a passer rating of 135.3 in the playoffs, which was the second-best mark in league history for a quarterback with at least 75 attempts. If the Falcons had held on to their lead and won the Super Bowl, Ryan would have won game MVP, and his 2016 probably would have been enough for a gold jacket.
Outside of that one year, though, he has three Pro Bowl nods, no first-team All-Pro spots and a 2-5 record in the postseason. I think he ends up getting in because he has simply racked up numbers year after year without missing much time, although I could also see an argument that he hasn’t done enough outside of that one brilliant year. He only needs three more years to get to 60,000 passing yards, and if that gets Philip Rivers in, Ryan shouldn’t have much trouble.
In the running (40% to 69%): RB Todd Gurley. What happens next is critical for Gurley, who would have seemed on the road to Canton after taking home Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2015 and adding an Offensive Player of the Year award two years later. Gurley was a first-team All-Pro in both 2017 and 2018, but he wasn’t able to clinch a rushing title and didn’t look like his old self last season. If he recovers and returns to his 2017-18 form, he still has plenty of time to get back on the Canton track, given that he turned 26 this week. As it stands, though, Gurley doesn’t have enough on his résumé to get in.
Work to do (10% to 39%): C Alex Mack, DT Grady Jarrett. Mack is entering what is likely to be his final season with the Falcons. While he has made six Pro Bowls, that’s not typically enough for interior linemen to make it into the Hall. Jarrett made his first Pro Bowl last season, but his disruptiveness hasn’t yet led to a gaudy sack total, which is what you need to get in as a defensive lineman.
In the running (40% to 69%): RB Christian McCaffrey. He is right on the borderline between “Work to do” and “In the running” tiers. If that seems surprising after what he accomplished last season, remember that it was his first season with either a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro nod. Unlike Gurley, McCaffrey didn’t win Offensive Player of the Year or make a deep playoff run. McCaffrey could turn into LaDainian Tomlinson, but what if he’s more like Shaun Alexander, who won league MVP at his peak and never really got serious Hall of Fame consideration?
If McCaffrey can piece together even two more seasons at his 2019 level and add two or three more like his 2018 campaign, that might be enough to make it to the Hall of Fame. But history tells us that’s a lot to ask. McCaffrey is still only 24 and has a relatively sterling health history, so it’s on him to buck history.
Lock (100%): QB Drew Brees. Brees could have retired five years ago and comfortably made the Hall of Fame.
Likely (70% to 99%): WR Michael Thomas. Last season, Thomas became the second wide receiver to win Offensive Player of the Year. When a group consists of you and Jerry Rice, you’ve done something right. Thomas now has three Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro nods in four years, and while there might be some sort of drop-off if Brees retires, the Ohio State product did just fine with Teddy Bridgewater on the field in 2019. We’re in a pass-happy era, but Thomas has more receptions (470) and receiving yards (5,512) than any player in league history through their first four seasons.
ln the Running (40% to 69%): RB Alvin Kamara, DE Cameron Jordan, CB Marshon Lattimore. Kamara took a step backward last season when he ran into some touchdown regression, but he still did enough to earn his third Pro Bowl appearance in three years. Twelve of the 29 Hall-eligible players who have started their careers with three consecutive Pro Bowl nods have made it to Canton. Kamara was also Offensive Rookie of the Year, which helps his chances further.
Jordan’s ascension from very good player to one of the best defensive ends in football over the last three years has helped drive his candidacy. Only Chandler Jones and Aaron Donald have more sacks since the start of 2017. The Cal product has five Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro appearance through his age-30 season. If he can keep this level of play up for three more seasons, Jordan could get in. A Super Bowl victory would probably help.
Lattimore has two Pro Bowl appearances in his first three seasons; if you throw out early-career players like Lattimore, Jalen Ramsey and Marcus Peters, eight of the 11 corners to pull that off since the merger are either in the Hall of Fame or going there. I’d like to see a bigger sample before I treat that rate as gospel, and players like DeAngelo Hall and Everson Walls had long careers without making it to the Hall, but Lattimore is off to a promising start.
Work to do (10% to 39%): OT Terron Armstead, OT Ryan Ramczyk. The Saints have the best tackle combination in football, but Armstead went underappreciated before picking up steam over the last couple of years, while Ramczyk raised his game in 2019. They both need multiple All-Pro seasons before they can rise up the ranks.
Lock (100%): QB Tom Brady. Duh.
Likely (70% to 99%): TE Rob Gronkowski. Gronk has five first-team All-Pro appearances. The only Hall-eligible players drafted since 1970 who have five of those and aren’t in the Hall are Alan Faneca and Zach Thomas. I would put Gronkowski’s chance somewhere around 99%.
In the running (40% to 69%): DT Ndamukong Suh. Timing can matter for players, and it has been weird for Suh. The former second overall pick was a four-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro during his five seasons in Detroit. He looked to be firmly on a Hall trajectory at that point, but over the ensuing five seasons, he has just one Pro Bowl appearance. He has stayed healthy and productive, so that hasn’t been the issue. The Nebraska product nearly won a Super Bowl with the Rams in 2018, but a win with the Bucs and one more All-Pro appearance would greatly help his chances.
Work to do (10% to 39%): WR Mike Evans, WR Chris Godwin, LB Lavonte David. Evans and Godwin might end up hurting each other’s chances by preventing the other from getting a 185-target season like the one Michael Thomas enjoyed in 2019. David has been supremely underrated during his career, but after earning a first-team All-Pro nod in 2013, he has made it to a lone Pro Bowl over the ensuing six seasons. To contrast with a Hall of Famer, Derrick Brooks had six Pro Bowls and three All-Pro appearances by this point.
Lock (100%): WR Larry Fitzgerald. He’s the second-most-productive receiver in football history. If you need something more, Fitzgerald’s 2008 playoff run is probably the best postseason from any receiver in league history.
Likely (70% to 99%): WR DeAndre Hopkins, CB Patrick Peterson. “Nuk” has been a first-team All-Pro in each of his past three seasons, which is the sort of run that earns skill-position players a trip to Canton on their own. Cliff Branch and Herman Moore are two of the few exceptions, but their performance fell off significantly after their third All-Pro trip and never recovered to their prior level. Even if Hopkins takes a step backward without Deshaun Watson, he’s probably just a couple of Pro Bowls away from getting in.
Last season was the first time Peterson missed an NFL game or failed to make the Pro Bowl, with both owing to his six-game PED suspension. The suspension hurts Peterson’s chances, but with eight Pro Bowls and three All-Pro appearances across his first eight seasons, his prior track record was impeccable. I think the PED suspensions could help keep out players like Edelman and Lane Johnson, but it’s tough to imagine Peterson not making it.
Joe Fortenbaugh breaks down why Julio Jones is the safer bet over DeAndre Hopkins to lead the league in receiving yards.
In the running (40% to 69%): DE Chandler Jones. You could make a case Jones belongs in the Likely category based on his 2017 and 2019 seasons, although I’d argue there’s a significant gap between those two campaigns and the rest of his career. He claimed a sack title in 2017 and was a half-sack behind Shaq Barrett a year ago. Jones now has five consecutive seasons with at least 10 sacks. He probably needs to keep that streak going for a couple more years or rack up another 15-sack campaign to move the needle to Likely.
Work to do (10% to 39%): QB Kyler Murray, S Budda Baker. You could also make the argument that Murray should be up a level after being taken with the first overall pick and winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, but that hasn’t historically been a helpful combination. Six players have done that since the merger: Murray, Cam Newton, Sam Bradford, George Rogers, Billy Sims and Earl Campbell. Only Campbell is in the Hall of Fame. If Murray breaks out in Year 2, he’ll be on the fast track.
Baker was a first-team All-Pro in 2017 and a two-time Pro Bowler, although his 2017 awards were for special-teams work, which isn’t valued as highly by voters.
Lock (100%): DT Aaron Donald. Donald clinched his gold jacket when he won his second Defensive Player of the Year award. With five consecutive first-team All-Pro appearances, he could retire tomorrow and get in without any questions.
In the running (40% to 69%): CB Jalen Ramsey. He has now made three consecutive Pro Bowls, although his only first-team All-Pro nod came in 2017. Moving to a higher-profile, more successful team will help Ramsey’s chances of drawing national attention, although he wasn’t close to Stephon Gilmore or Tre’Davious White a year ago. Given the age of Gilmore and Patrick Peterson, Ramsey is neck-and-neck with White and Marshon Lattimore as the likely best cornerback in football over the next five years.
Work to do (10% to 39%): QB Jared Goff, OT Andrew Whitworth, P Johnny Hekker. Goff took a major step backward in 2019 and doesn’t appear to be on the same level as the other top quarterbacks in the conference. Whitworth was criminally underrated during his time in Cincinnati, earning just one Pro Bowl nod during his first nine seasons with the Bengals. He has two first-team All-Pro appearances over the past five years, but it’s likely too little, too late.
Hekker’s case is interesting. The only player in the Hall of Fame primarily for his work as a punter is Ray Guy, and you could make a case that Hekker is on that track. Guy earned six Pro Bowl nominations and three All-Pro picks before turning 30. Hekker got a two-season head start, but he has been a first-team All-Pro four times before turning 30 in February. Guy got some help because the Raiders drafted him with their first-round pick, while Hekker gets extra attention because of his propensity for fakes. Guy only made one Pro Bowl after turning 30, and Hekker probably needs a couple more All-Pro appearances to earn serious consideration.
Likely (70% to 99%): CB Richard Sherman. Sherman has a strong case as the best cornerback of the decade and was an essential piece of what was likely the best defense of the decade. I think his five-year peak with the Seahawks probably would have been enough to get him in, but earning a sixth Pro Bowl trip with the 49ers last season only helped his chances. One more Pro Bowl would probably do the trick.
In the running (40% to 69%): OT Trent Williams. Williams made seven consecutive Pro Bowls before sitting out the 2019 season and forcing a trade to the 49ers. It’s possible to make the Hall of Fame as a lineman without an All-Pro appearance, but the only guy to do it since the merger is Jackie Slater. Williams needs a couple of high-profile seasons as the best left tackle in football, which is tough with Tyron Smith around. He’ll have a better shot reuniting with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco.
Work to do (10% to 39%): TE George Kittle, DE Nick Bosa. Tight ends have relatively short careers, which makes projecting their Hall chances exceedingly difficult. Kittle is the best all-around tight end in football right now, and if you could tell me right now that he would have a 12-year career, I’d expect him to be a Hall of Famer. If his career only lasts six or seven seasons, though, he’ll have to be a perennial All-Pro to make it to Canton. Given his style, I worry about his aging curve versus that of tight ends who are basically glorified wide receivers.
Bosa won Defensive Rookie of the Year, which hasn’t been quite as big of a boon as you might think. Just six of 32 Hall-eligible winners made it to Canton, although that’s going to rise in the years to come as the likes of Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers win enshrinement. Both Bosa and Kittle could make this placement look stupid if they have big seasons in 2020.
Likely (70% to 99%): QB Russell Wilson, LB Bobby Wagner. Wilson is somewhere in the 90% range. He has been phenomenal while winning one Super Bowl, and came within an interception of winning a second, but he has also never been considered the best quarterback in football or garnered a single MVP vote. He doesn’t need that sort of individual production to make it to the Hall of Fame, but the guys who made it in without a single first-team All-Pro appearance needed something else. Troy Aikman, John Elway and Roger Staubach won multiple Super Bowls. Warren Moon played until he was 44. Wilson hasn’t missed a game as a pro, so as long as he plays another five or six seasons and continues to rank among the better quarterbacks in football, he should be fine.
I had Wagner as a lock when I first compiled this list. I think Patrick Willis is going to make it in after an eight-year career in which he racked up seven Pro Bowl appearances and five first-team All-Pro nods and retired as he turned 30. Wagner turned 30 in June, and after eight seasons in the league, he has … six Pro Bowl appearances and five first-team All-Pro nominations. Wagner also has a Super Bowl victory and, quite famously, an MVP vote from Tony Dungy on his résumé. As long as Willis gets in, Wagner could retire tomorrow and follow his former rival right through the front door. If Wagner makes it to another Pro Bowl or two, I don’t think Willis’ status will matter.
In the running (40% to 69%): S Jamal Adams. Adams has two Pro Bowls and an All-Pro nod across his first three seasons, putting him in a group with safeties like Kenny Easley, Steve Atwater, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. Roy Williams is the lone Hall-eligible safety who didn’t follow his early success to Canton. It’s an extremely small sample, and Collins is another example of a player who had an early All-Pro appearance before taking a step backward, but Adams projects as a superstar.
Work to do (10% to 39%): OT Duane Brown. He has made four Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro in 2012, but there are just too many offensive linemen with more impressive résumés who have struggled to get in for Brown to have much of a chance. If Brown has a Whitworth-esque autumn to his career, he has a shot.