Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021: 25 semifinalists ranked

The Pro Football Hall of Fame revealed the 25 modern-era semifinalists for the Class of 2021 on Tuesday. And if you know anything about me, you know that I love to needlessly debate things that are purely subjective. I mean, this is why I spend so much time on Twitter talking about which Star Wars movie is the best. What the Beastie Boys’ best song is. And why Topanga was the best character on Boy Meets World. But today, we will talk about the best football players of all-time — specifically, those who are poised to be considered for entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And I know I say this every year, and every year, you get it twisted — but this is my personal ranking. This list is NOT MEANT TO BE A PREDICTION OF THE CLASS OF 2021. (I mean, it should be, because I’m spot-on here, but I guess there is some other type of electoral process. Which is fine.) So I’m not saying that your favorite player is bad, or doesn’t deserve to get in. I’m just giving you my personal thoughts. To enjoy, and flame me about on social media.

Let’s get started.

25) Bryant Young, defensive tackle (San Francisco 49ers, 1994-2007): Young was an amazing defensive tackle during his time in the NFL. He won a Super Bowl. He made the 1990s All-Decade Team. But when I look at his peers on that team, I’m not quite sure he stacks up with Hall of Famers Cortez Kennedy, John Randle and Warren Sapp. Look, I love Winston Zeddemore as much as the next guy — he was really great. But he wasn’t on the Hall of Fame level of the other three Ghostbusters.

24) Hines Ward, wide receiver (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1998-2011): Ward might be the only person on this list who has both won a Super Bowl and appeared in a Christopher Nolan Batman flick. So he’s got that going for him. I loved his physicality and the way he played the game. But when I look at the receivers on this list, I have him at the bottom. No disrespect. It’s like being the worst-looking of the Hemsworth brothers. It sucks to be last — although you are still pretty handsome.

23) Tony Boselli, offensive tackle (Jacksonville Jaguars, 1995-2001; Houston Texans (injured reserve), 2002): We need to figure out if Boselli is getting in or not, because it seems uncool to keep doing this to this man. The multi-year finalist was an amazing talent who might have gone down as the best to have ever done it — if he had stayed healthy. Voters need to decide if this is going to be the thing that keeps him out, or if they are going to just judge him based on what he did during the time he was on the field.

22) Clay Matthews, linebacker (Cleveland Browns, 1978-1993; Atlanta Falcons, 1994-96): Matthews put together a fine career on his own right over nearly two decades. But you know how the WWE Hall of Fame will induct, like, The Four Horsemen or The Hart Foundation? I wish the NFL would do that here, and just induct the Matthews family in total. I mean, if you adopted that kind of format change, even Eli Manning could get in! (Kidding!)

21) Fred Taylor, running back (Jacksonville Jaguars, 1998-2008; New England Patriots, 2009-2010): Wait, if we’re doing that for the Matthews family, then maybe we can extend the rule to include members of dominant running back tandems? I loved watching Taylor and my guy Maurice Jones-Drew back in the day. Taylor was great! However, while I’m not going to take anything away from what he was able to do, compared to everyone else on this list of elite players, this is where he lands. Which, believe me, is still amazing.

20) Ronde Barber, cornerback (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1997-2012): I love Ronde, but I think it’s tough for him to stand out at a position packed with Hall of Famers, whether you’re talking about the 1990s (Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, Darrell Green and Aeneas Williams) or the 2000s (Champ Bailey and Ty Law). He really needed to get in last year, because this year, he’s going to get squeezed out in part by the presence of likely first-ballot inductee Charles Woodson.

19) Willie Anderson, tackle (Cincinnati Bengals, 1996-2007; Baltimore Ravens, 2008): I’m not going to lie; when I first saw Willie Anderson’s name, I rejoiced that Flipper Anderson was getting some love. But the similarly overlooked (if nickname-less) Bengals tackle was a beast for a long time who earned first-team All-Pro honors three times and second-team honors once. He was one of the best offensive linemen to ever do it. You wonder: Had he been with a more successful team, would he be in the Hall already?

18) John Lynch, safety (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1993-2003; Denver Broncos, 2004-07): I’m not going to lie (again), but I’m kind of shocked Lynch didn’t get in last year, riding a wave of goodwill sparked by the 49ers’ run to the Super Bowl. Voters can get kind of sentimental with that kind of stuff. I would never say Lynch, a seven-time finalist, doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame — but the competition at safety looks tough this year.

17) Eric Allen, cornerback (Philadelphia Eagles, 1988-1994; New Orleans Saints, 1995-97; Oakland Raiders, 1998-2001): Allen is one of the overlooked players of those great Eagles defenses of the early 1990s. A lot of these guys, like Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons, never seem to get the credit they deserve, so I’m excited to see Allen on this list. He was a one-time first-team All-Pro (1989) and a two-time second-teamer, but team accomplishments (or a lack thereof) often overshadow individual achievements, and you feel like if the Eagles had won a Super Bowl with Buddy Ryan, Allen would have received this kind of attention a long time ago. As for Allen as a player, the one play that stands out to me was his 94-yard interception return off Boomer Esiason in 1993.

16) Rodney Harrison, safety (San Diego Chargers, 1994-2002; New England Patriots, 2003-08): It’s really tough to figure out where Harrison fits on this list, which already has a logjam of great safeties. He kind of fits into that category where Darren Woodson hangs out, as a great safety who was on a multi-championship team. But it’s important to note that both Pro Bowl nods and the first of Harrison’s two first-team All-Pro bids came while he was a member of the San Diego Chargers, before he started winning titles in New England.

15) LeRoy Butler, safety (Green Bay Packers, 1990-2001): I did use my time this offseason to go back and really study Butler, and he was just really impressive — I’ve actually moved him up over John Lynch from last year’s ranking. It’s very close for me. But he really was an important part of the Packers’ success of the 1990s, along with Hall of Famers Brett Favre and Reggie White. He’s the third-best guy of that trio — but he was still really excellent. He’s the Scott Hall of the gang. (White is Kevin Nash and Favre is obviously Hollywood Hogan.)

14) Cornelius Bennett, linebacker (Indianapolis Colts 1987, 1999-2000; Buffalo Bills, 1987-1995; Atlanta Falcons, 1996-98): Those of us who grew up watching the Bills dominate in the 1990s (well, except for in Super Bowls) know that Bennett was a special player. A five-time Pro Bowler, one-time first-team All-Pro and two-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year. There were few in his class. Setting aside the lack of ultimate team success, Bennett is certainly deserving of Hall recognition, based on what he accomplished on the field.

13) Darren Woodson, safety (Dallas Cowboys, 1992-2004): On my list last year, Woodson sat behind Steve Atwater and Troy Polamalu at the safety position, but both players made it in the Class of 2020, so I’m going to give Woodson the nod as the top full-time safety this year. I mean, look: That Cowboys team was loaded with not only great players, but huge personalities. (Not that Woodson isn’t great on TV, too — he is.) And for some reason, that Dallas defense was never really considered one of the best, even though it consistently ranked among the best year in, year out. So let’s give Woodson — and that ’90s Cowboys defense — some credit.

12) Torry Holt, wide receiver (St. Louis Rams, 1999-2008; Jacksonville Jaguars, 2009): If you were asking me (and they clearly weren’t), I would have had Holt ahead of Ike Bruce (who was part of the Class of 2020) for the Hall of Fame last year. Watching those “Greatest Show on Turf” teams, I always thought Holt was the best receiver of that group. I wonder how much longer he’s going to have to wait. I still have him behind Reggie Wayne, and with Megatron added to the mix this year, I’m not sure how Holt gets in.

11) Richard Seymour, defensive lineman (New England Patriots, 2001-08; Oakland Raiders, 2009-2012): The Patriots dynasty could be broken into three different stages. Like how you have trilogies of Star Wars movies. And Seymour would be like one of the most important parts of Episodes I to III. Like General Grievous or something. Just like that. At any rate, with Ty Law going in with the Class of 2019 and Seymour being a four-time semifinalist (and two-time finalist), we’re going to start seeing a wave of players from early in the Patriots’ dynasty finally starting to get some love.

10) Reggie Wayne, wide receiver (Indianapolis Colts, 2001-2014): Most people do not give me enough credit for how objective I am being here. This guy had a touchdown against the Bears (my team!) in Super Bowl XLI that was an absolute killer. (I mean, it shouldn’t have happened, but that’s a story for another day.) And I’m still doing my professional due diligence and slotting him where he belongs as one of the most clutch receivers in NFL history. I’m wondering if voters will put him in with Peyton Manning, which I wouldn’t be mad at. I mean, assuming Manning gets in this year, of course.

9) Sam Mills, linebacker (New Orleans Saints, 1986-1994; Carolina Panthers, 1995-97): Let’s give a little love to the famed “Dome Patrol” in New Orleans, one of the best defensive units nobody ever seems to talk about. The late Mills is also still the inspiration for the Carolina Panthers’ “keep pounding” mantra. Really, I would just love to see him finally get the recognition he deserves after working his way up from an undrafted free agent (released by the Browns) who went to the USFL and eventually became one of the game’s best.

8) Zach Thomas, linebacker (Miami Dolphins, 1996-2007; Dallas Cowboys, 2008): Looking at some of the inside linebackers currently in the Hall of Fame, like Derrick Brooks, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, Thomas might be the worst band on the concert bill. But still, he was a five-time first-team All-Pro. And that makes him pretty deserving.

7) Alan Faneca, offensive guard (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1998-2007; New York Jets, 2008-09; Arizona Cardinals, 2010): I’m still kind of stunned Faneca didn’t get in as part of last year’s expanded Hall of Fame class. You can’t look at the success the Steelers had running the football over the years and not give some consideration to the offensive line blocking for those guys. There are some who would argue Faneca is more deserving than Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis. I am one of those people.

6) Steve Tasker, special teams (Houston Oilers 1985-86; Buffalo Bills, 1986-1997): You’re not going to get me to budge on Tasker. The guy was a Pro Bowler nearly every season he played. Sure, his All-Pro nods came from Pro Football Weekly, the NFL version of winning at the Golden Globes. But what’s important here is, NFL coaches always talk about how important specials teams are — which means it’s finally time to elect a special teams ace to the Hall of Fame.

5) Jared Allen, defensive end (Kansas City Chiefs, 2004-07; Minnesota Vikings, 2008-2013; Chicago Bears, 2014-15; Carolina Panthers, 2015): I know a lot of you kids might not have seen Allen play. You might best recognize him from that meme-able moment when Dan Orlovsky ran out of his own end zone; Allen was the defensive player pointing and laughing. But Allen was one of the best defensive ends of his era. He was a four-time first-team All-Pro. He led the NFL in sacks twice. And he’s tied for the NFL record with four safeties. I know there are going to be voters who don’t want to put him in on the first ballot. But he belongs in the Hall of Fame. He’s a first-ballot guy in my eyes. One of the best to ever do it.  

4) Patrick Willis, linebacker (San Francisco 49ers, 2007-2014): Oh yeah, I forgot we still had to do this. Willis was one of the best players of his era. He was the Defensive Rookie of the Year after being a first-round pick in 2007. Dude was selected first-team All-Pro five times. FIVE TIMES. There are a lot of guys on this list who made just a couple of All-Pro teams. The guy did it five times. Get over the relative brevity of his career and just recognize him as a Hall of Famer. Don’t make me do this again next year.

3) Charles Woodson, cornerback/safety (Oakland Raiders 1998-2005, 2013-15; Green Bay Packers, 2006-2012): I know this has nothing to do with his Pro Football Hall of Fame candidacy. But Woodson is one of the few in football history to be a collegiate national champion, a Heisman Trophy winner and a Super Bowl winner. And now he’s going to add another legendary title: Hall of Famer. Dude was also a three-time first-team All-Pro and four-time second-teamer.

I understand why many would put Woodson second on this list, seeing as how he was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2009 and the 1998 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. And seeing as how he was awesome. But if you’re asking me (and you are), I feel like Woodson has to slot below one of the most dominant receivers of all-time …

2) Calvin Johnson, wide receiver (Detroit Lions, 2007-2015): I’m not even going to entertain the argument that Megatron might not be a Hall of Famer. If you’re against this candidacy, you’re also the kind of person who spends too much time telling people The Wire was a bad TV show. Like, I understand that people have a right to their own opinions. But there are some that shouldn’t be considered.

Mega was a three-time first-team All-Pro — and you have to remember, he played two seasons before Matthew Stafford got to Detroit. He twice led the NFL in receiving yards, nearly becoming the first person in NFL history to reach 2,000 receiving yards in 2012. And even though he played as recently as 2015, you still feel compelled to say, “If he played in the NFL today, he might have 2,500 receiving yards.”

1) Peyton Manning, quarterback (Indianapolis Colts, 1998-2011; Denver Broncos, 2012-15): You could almost make an argument that Manning would be a Hall of Famer based on his Denver years alone, when he set single-season records for passing yards and TDs (5,477 and 55, respectively, in 2013) while earning two All-Pro nods and winning his second Super Bowl. And it’s always hilarious to me when Broncos fans get defensive about Manning. It’s like, you had John Elway. You should be making the case for Elway being the best of all time. But there is no doubt Manning is getting into the Hall of Fame. Fin.

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