Former Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis heads the list of 27 semifinalists announced Tuesday by the Pro Football Hall of Fame for its Class of 2018.
Lewis is one of six former players in their first years of eligibility, a roll call that includes Randy Moss, Brian Urlacher, Ronde Barber, Richard Seymour and Steve Hutchinson — with Lewis as the most likely to be a first-ballot choice.
Semifinalists this year were chosen from a preliminary list of 108, and the group is noteworthy for its size. Normally, the Hall holds its semifinalists to 25, but for the second straight year ties in the voting forced it to expand that list.
There were 26 in 2017.
As happened a year ago, two coaches were chosen … and they were the same two: Don Coryell and Jimmy Johnson. And though there were changes among the players, all but four eligible for the Class of 2018 return from last year’s semifinalists — with Chris Hinton, Mike Kenn, Clay Matthews and Darren Woodson shut out.
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RB (2) — Edgerrin James, Roger Craig.
WR (5) — Randy Moss, Isaac Bruce, Terrell Owens, Hines Ward, Torry Holt.
OT (2) — Tony Boselli, Joe Jacoby.
G (2) — Alan Faneca, Steve Hutchinson.
C (1) — Kevin Mawae.
DE (2) — Simeon Rice, Leslie O’Neal.
DT (1) — Richard Seymour.
LB (2) — Karl Mecklenburg, Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher.
CB (3) — Ronde Barber, Ty Law, Everson Walls.
S (4) — Steve Atwater, LeRoy Butler, Brian Dawkins, John Lynch.
(2) — Don Coryell, Jimmy Johnson.
S LEROY BUTLER. In his 12th year of eligibility, the former Packers’ strong safety finally makes a cut. Butler is a four-time All-Pro, Super Bowl champion and member of the 1990s’ all-decade team. In fact, he’s a first-team all-decade choice, and I mention that for this reason: There are three first-teamers from that club not in the Hall of Fame, including one that’s never been discussed. And you’re looking at him. Yep, though Butler was the first defensive back in NFL history to produce 20 career sacks and interceptions, a member of the Packers’ Hall of Fame and originator of the “Lambeau Leap,” he never made it this far … and congratulations, LeRoy. Drafted as a cornerback out of Florida State, Butler could cover wideouts as well as tight ends, rush the quarterback, defend the run and patrol the middle of the field. In short: He could do it all. “He had no weakness,” said former Green Bay GM, Hall-of-Famer Ron Wolf.
DE LESLIE O’NEAL. This is his first time as a semifinalist, and hallelujah. The former pass rusher has as many career sacks (132-1/2) as Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor, yet he was so far under the radar that his name didn’t even appear among the 126 candidates on the 2014 preliminary ballot … and would have stayed there had a selector not appealed to the Hall. O’Neal has more sacks than all but 12 players in league history, and all 12 are either in Canton or not yet eligible. O’Neal has been eligible the past 14 years, but hasn’t gotten a sniff … and don’t ask me why. All I know is that San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and former Hall of Fame voter Nick Canepa calls him “the greatest defensive player in Chargers’ history” … and, yes, better than Hall-of-Famer Junior Seau. Getting this far is an achievement for the six-time Pro Bowl choice, but it shouldn’t stop here. At some point, he deserves to have his case discussed as one of 15 finalists.
DE SIMEON RICE. This is his first tour as a semifinalist, too, and it comes after he and others — including Hall-of-Famer Warren Sapp — called for Rice’s inclusion in the Hall. “I know I’m a Hall-of-Fame player,” Rice told the Talk of Fame Network two years ago. Well, he’s not there, and he may have trouble with O’Neal in the same class of candidates. Rice didn’t have as many sacks (122) as O’Neal, but he was a Super Bowl champion and four-time All-Pro. Like O’Neal, he was a Defensive Rookie of the Year, and, like O’Neal, was not named to an all-decade team. Getting this far is a giant step for both, and should make Rice happy. When he failed to make the cut in 2015, Rice told the Talk of Fame Network, “I was literally gassed I was blown away … I thought my reputation preceded me.” It has now.
CB EVERSON WALLS. He’s the only cornerback … and one of only two players (Ed Reed is the other) … to lead the league three times in interceptions. Furthermore, his 57 career picks rank 10th in league history, tie Hall-of-Famer Mel Blount and are more than those produced by Hall-of-Famers Lem Barney, Deion Sanders, Darrell Green and Mel Renfro. Yet this is his first trip to the semifinals, and it’s way past time. This is Walls’ last shot as a modern-era candidate, and that’s hard to fathom considering he was a four-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro and someone who started on a Super Bowl champion. “You can look at numbers all you want,” Walls told the Talk of Fame Network. “You can look at individual stories all you want. You can look at overcoming adversity all you want. You got me. That’s me. You got me … all in one package. How about that? That’s my pitch.”
RB ROGER CRAIG. The first player to gain 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in the same year, Craig is in his last year of eligibility as a modern-era candidate, too. And, like Walls, he deserves to be discussed. Unlike Walls, he has been. He was a 2010 finalist. He was an All-Pro, a three-time Super Bowl champ, an all-decade choice and the only back in history named to the Pro Bowl as both a halfback and a fullback. Furthermore, he showed up big in the biggest games — scoring nine times in his first 14 playoff games. When he retired, Craig led all running backs in career receptions, and, OK, so he ranks 44th in career rushing yards. He spent part of his career as a fullback … and a damned good one.
OT JOE JACOBY. This is his last year of eligibility, too. Jacoby has been a finalist the past two years, getting as far as the Top 10 in 2016. But because he failed to advance to the final 10 a year ago, there’s a feeling that his candidacy is losing ground. We won’t have long to find out. The all-decade choice should make it as a finalist again, but if he fails to be enshrined in 2018 he becomes a senior candidate — and then it can take years … decades … or never … to hear you name called again. And that’s hard to understand with this candidate. He was a critical component of the famed Hogs, an offensive line that helped drive the Redskins to four Super Bowls in 10 years, yet only one member of that group (Russ Grimm) is in Canton.
T MIKE KENN. This is his 19th year of eligibility, and it’s a setback. He was included a year ago. He’s not now, and now you have to imagine that his only chance will be as a senior candidate … if, of course, he’s ever nominated.
OL CHRIS HINTON. As the first offensive lineman named to the Pro Bowl at three different positions, and as a seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, he has strong case. And voters seemed to recognize that a year ago when he was named as a first-time semifinalist. But his failure to return is a blow. Hinton is in his 18th year of eligibility, with time running short before he joins the senior pool.
LB CLAY MATTHEWS. A four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, Matthews last year appeared as a semifinalist for the second time … and the first since 2012. But, like Hinton and Kenn, he disappeared this time around … and it’s a setback for a guy who, like Hinton, is in his 18th year of eligibility.
S DARREN WOODSON. This was the shocker. Woodson was a semifinalist two of the past three years, including 2017. He not only played on three Super Bowl winners but was such an invaluable member of the team’s defense that he set the Cowboys’ career tackling record and was a safety who could walk up and cover slot receivers. If there’s a silver lining, it’s this: He’s only in his 10th year of eligibility.
QB PHIL SIMMS. This was his last year of eligibility. Now he’s headed to the senior pool … and good luck.
DT KEITH MILLARD. See Phil Simms. One difference: This guy was a former Defensive Player of the Year.
G BILL FRALIC. See Keith Millard. He and Millard were both all-decade choices.
FIVE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
- There are more defensive players (13) than offensive (12) for the first time since 2005. There were eight defensive players chosen as semifinalists a year ago and six for 2015.
- Safety no longer is a dead zone. There are four candidates there for the second straight year — LeRoy Butler, Brian Dawkins, John Lynch and Steve Atwater.
- There is no quarterback for the first time since 2014.
- There are more candidates (5) at wide receiver than any other position. They are Moss, Terrell Owens, Isaac Bruce, Hines Ward and Torry Holt. All but Moss were semifinalists a year ago.
- Seventeen of the 25 semifinalists were all-decade choices. Players who weren’t include Darren Woodson, John Lynch, Isaac Bruce, Roger Craig, Karl Mecklenburg, Everson Walls, Simeon Rice and Leslie O’Neal.
THE NEXT STEP
The group of 27 will be reduced to 15 finalists in January, with those names taken to Minneapolis where an election of no more than five modern-era candidates will occur on Feb. 3, 2018, the day prior to Super Bowl LII. There already are two senior candidates — former Green Bay guard Jerry Kramer and former Houston Oilers’ linebacker Robert Brazile — as well as contributor nominee Bobby Beathard.