Editor’s note: This story was published last month when the 15 finalists were named for the Pro Football Hall of Fame modern-era class of 2023. Longtime Hall of Fame voter Clark Judge handicapped the field. On Thursday night at NFL Honors, the next five modern-day era players to reach the Hall of Fame will be announced in Phoenix, the site of Super Bowl LVII.
The 33rd Team’s Joe Thomas and Ronde Barber were among 15 finalists named Wednesday for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s modern-era Class of 2023. But let’s be honest: They’re more than that.
They’re two of the favorites to be inducted.
That won’t happen until August. First, however, the Hall’s board of 49 selectors meet later this month to choose five candidates for enshrinement from a ballot that includes nine defensive candidates – including cornerback Albert Lewis, a first-time finalist in his last year of modern-era eligibility.
Lewis is a longshot, but he has a good story. Thomas and Barber are good stories, too … but they’re at or near the head of the class.
A standout tackle with Cleveland, Thomas is one of three candidates in their first years of eligibility to make the cut from 28 semifinalists. Cornerback Darrelle Revis and linebacker Dwight Freeney are the others, with Revis another first-ballot favorite.
Barber, an all-decade cornerback with Tampa Bay, is a finalist for the third consecutive year. A top 10 finisher in 2022, he should push other holdovers like linebacker Zach Thomas and DeMarcus Ware for election.
Anyone else? Plenty. So let’s go to the scoreboard. Here are this year’s finalists for the Hall’s modern-era Class of 2023 (*returning finalist):
- DE Jared Allen*
- OT Willie Anderson*
- CB Ronde Barber*
- LB Dwight Freeney
- KR/PR/WR Devin Hester*
- WR Torry Holt*
- WR Andre Johnson*
- CB Albert Lewis
- CB Darrelle Revis
- OT Joe Thomas
- LB Zach Thomas*
- LB DeMarcus Ware*
- WR Reggie Wayne*
- LB Patrick Willis*
- S Darren Woodson
There are four defensive backs, four linebackers, three wide receivers (four if you include Hester), two tackles and one pass rusher. In each of the past two years, Hall voters elected more defensive candidates (6) than offensive choices (4), and that’s likely to continue.
Why? Keep reading. What follows is a cheat sheet for the vote:
Joe Thomas and Revis head this list. Thomas is a no-brainer. Revis is close. Voters didn’t elect a first-ballot finalist last year for the first time since 2012, but that changes this month.
Thomas was a first-team All-Pro six times. Revis made it four times. Thomas was a 10-time Pro Bowler. Revis was voted to the Pro Bowl seven times. Both were all-decade choices, both were named to their respective teams’ Rings of Honor, and Revis was a Super Bowl champion.
Bottom line: They’re heavy favorites.
The same goes for former linebacker DeMarcus Ware, who was a top-10 finisher last year. His 138.5 sacks rank ninth all-time, one ahead of Hall of Famers Richard Dent and John Randle. In fact, all but one of the NFL’s top 11 sack leaders eligible for Canton have been enshrined. The one? Ware.
Barber is another top-10 finisher from a year ago who figures to have momentum. The first NFL defender to have 20 sacks and 20 interceptions in a career, he’s another all-decade choice who won a Super Bowl. He also scored 14 career TDs – an extraordinary figure for a defensive back. That strengthens his case. So does this: He started more consecutive games (200) than any cornerback in NFL history and didn’t miss a game in his last 15 seasons.
Linebacker Zach Thomas fills out this roster, mostly because he, too, was a top-10 finisher last year. But he’s been a top-10 finisher the past three years, which means voters were reluctant to push him forward.
This year, there’s no reason not to, unless, of course, they act on an outlier like Albert Lewis, a first-time finalist in his 20th – and last – year of modern-era eligibility. That almost happened two years ago when Clay Matthews cracked the same barrier, but he failed to make the final cut from 15 to 10. That could happen again with Lewis this time.
If you figure Joe Thomas, Revis, Ware and Barber as the strongest candidates, then that leaves one spot for induction. Zach Thomas is the betting favorite, but Lewis could be a factor. Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy is a voter, and he called the former Chiefs standout “one of the top five cornerbacks of all time.”
However, if Revis and Barber are elected, I don’t see how voters go for a third cornerback. But what happens if one of them isn’t chosen? Well, then that could open the door for Lewis and make him this year’s Sam Mills, chosen in his last year of eligibility for the Class of 2022.
Wide receiver Andre Johnson could be a factor, too. He was a top-10 finisher a year ago as a first-time candidate, jumping receivers Reggie Wayne and Torry Holt to get there. Wayne and Holt are finalists for the fourth consecutive year, but they’ve never made the first cut from 15 to 10. That means they have no momentum, and someone must if Hall voters break the logjam at wide receiver.
On the Bubble
Devin Hester makes it here, mostly because he was a top-10 finisher in 2022, a bold move for a specialist. The Hall historically has been blind to specialists, with only three elected in its 60 years of existence. Two are kickers (Jan Stenerud and Morten Andersen), and one is a punter (Ray Guy). But that’s it.
No Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. No Brian Mitchell. No Steve Tasker. And no Devin Hester. Not yet. But he’ll make it. I just don’t see it happening now.
Another possibility is former 49ers’ linebacker Patrick Willis, who has the resume to make a leap. He was a first-time finalist last year and should move forward. In eight NFL seasons, he was named to seven Pro Bowls, six All-Pro teams (including five first-team selections) and an all-decade squad. That makes him a candidate to make a big jump.
Jared Allen has been a finalist the past two years but hasn’t cracked the top 10. This could be the year. The reason: He’s one of two pass rushers on this list (Freeney is the other), and voters typically lean toward them. Remember Jason Taylor in 2017? He made it to Canton as a first-ballot choice with 139.5 career sacks. Allen has 136.
It could be another season of immobility for Wayne and Holt. Neither cracked the top 10 the past three years, and Johnson is ahead of them. They don’t move until he does. Freeney is a first-time candidate, but his 125.5 sacks trail Allen.
Willie Anderson was a finalist last year for the first time, and hallelujah; he was the first Cincinnati Bengals’ modern-era finalist since Ken Anderson in 1998. What’s more, he’s a right tackle, and only two (Willie Roaf and Jackie Slater) have been inducted as modern-era candidates in the past two decades. One problem: There might be too much traffic for him to make a forward move this year.
The same goes for safety Darren Woodson, a star on the great Dallas teams of the 1990s and a finalist for the first time in his 14th year of eligibility. Like the rest, he’s Hall of Fame-worthy. Unlike the rest, the clock is ticking. Woodson has only six more years of modern-era eligibility before he disappears into the senior pool.
Clark Judge covered the NFL as a beat reporter and columnist for almost 40 years. He is a longtime Pro Football Hall of Fame voter. Follow him on Twitter @clarkjudgeTOF.