On Saturday night, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, and Ben Roethlisberger enter the final stages of their Hall of Fame careers, which gave us an idea: Which active players will eventually become first-ballot Hall of Famers?, but it's never too early to begin looking ahead to future Hall of Fame classes. We're nearing the end of a golden age of quarterbacking, as those like
Piecing together a list of active players who project as future first-ballot Hall of Famers means including the likes of Brady, Rodgers, Brees, and Roethlisberger, which already makes it difficult to trim the list down to 10 players. We tried anyway. For the record, some of the players included on this list are not already worthy of being first-ballot Hall of Famers. But based on how their careers have already started, they're on the right track. And remember: These aren't the only 10 active players who should be first-ballot Hall of Famers. Players like Joe Thomas and Frank Gore, to name just two of a few honorable mentions, are also worthy choices. They could make it into the Hall of Fame on their first try.
One more note: Leaving Eli Manning off the list will probably cause a stir. For the record, I do not believe he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's a Hall of Famer, sure, due to his longevity and Super Bowls, but first ballot? No way. One last note: NFL.com's (and former Cowboys executive) Gil Brandt made a similar list and most of it is pretty comparable to ours below.
OK, onto the list. This is what we came up with ...
10. J.J. Watt – Texans DE
It's an interesting question to pose: If Watt had to retire today, would he be a first-ballot Hall of Famer? He's won. During his peak from 2012-15, before the injuries started to take ahold of his career, he racked up 69 sacks or, to put it another way, 17 per season. It's more than just the sacks. It's his incredible interceptions at the line of scrimmage. It's the way offenses are forced to always account for him with double-teams.
But to answer the question, I think it's a no. He ranks 72nd all-time in sacks, which isn't good enough to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Watt can get there, but it comes down to his health. He's appeared in eight games the past two seasons. He's dealt with back issues, which can be tricky and limiting for a player who relies so much on his athleticism.
Watt's argument will likely rest on his peak and how historically dominant he was during those years. But he needs to support that argument with a productive stretch to close his career. He's still only 28. So, there's still time for him to reclaim the magic.
9. Rob Gronkowski – Patriots TE
The only thing preventing Rob Gronkowski from finishing his career as first-ballot Hall of Famer is his health. When healthy, Gronk is the most dominant tight end in the history of the sport. Tony Gonzalez is considered the game's greatest tight end in large part because of his sustained success. But take a look at their career regular-season numbers on a per game basis:
Catches per game
Yards per game
TDs per game
Factor in Gronk's playoff numbers (10 touchdowns in 12 games) and it's easy to see why he's on track to becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer. There's never been a tight end like him before. He's both a dependable blocker and the most unstoppable receiving threat in football.
The reason he's ranked so low? He's had his issues staying healthy. He missedHe's missed 26 regular-season games in his career, with most of those absences coming as a result of injuries. At age 28, Gronk should still have a few more years of his prime to go. If he can stay healthy for the next couple seasons and keep up his blistering pace, before remaining productive in the latter stages of his career, he should have no issues making his way into the Hall of Fame on his first go around. It helps, of course, that it doesn't look like Brady is slowing down either, which means his production shouldn't slip as a result of poor quarterback play.
It all comes down to his health.
8. Antonio Brown – Steelers WR
Like Gronk and Watt, Brown isn't there yet. Like Gronk, Brown is well on his way to securing his Hall of Fame legacy. During the Steelers' short-lived playoff run, I tweeted the following.
Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Antonio Brown.— Sean Wagner-McGough (@seanjwagner) January 14, 2018
It still rings true. Brown isn't a top-four receiver of all-time yet, but the only thing preventing him from reaching that status is his ability to stay healthy, which hasn't been a problem for him. If you don't include his rookie season, when he barely factored into the Steelers' plans, Brown is averaging 91.9 receiving yards and 0.56 touchdowns per game. In Jerry Rice's career, he averaged 75.6 receiving yards and 0.68 touchdowns per game. I'm not saying Brown is already as good as Rice, who played in an era that didn't favor offenses like the era Brown resides in. I'm just saying that Brown belongs in the top-tier of all-time receivers.
Assuming injuries don't derail his career, he's on track to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Another potential obstacle could be the Steelers' quarterback situation. If Big Ben retires soon, Brown could be stuck with subpar quarterback play. Even if that happens, Brown is talented enough to overcome it.
Brown gets the edge over Gronk because he has been less prone to suffering injuries.
7. Ben Roethlisberger – Steelers QB
Speaking of Big Ben, the only thing that could hold him back is if he becomes eligible at the same time as, say, Brady, Rodgers, and Brees. That's why he ranks so low on this list. But if he does step away independent of the other great quarterbacks of his generation, he's a lock to make into Canton on his first try.
Big Ben has the Super Bowls (two in three appearances), the longevity (he's been going strong since 2004), and the stats (eighth in passing yards, ninth in passing touchdowns, and ninth in passer rating). Assuming he keeps it up for a couple more years, he's a lock (also assuming Brady, Rodgers, and Brees don't all retire at the same time).
6. Adrian Peterson – Vikings, Saints, Cardinals RB
Ignore the past couple years of Peterson's dwindling career. He's the best running back of the past decade-plus. He's 12th all-time in rushing yards and tied for ninth all-time in rushing touchdowns. He actually got close to breaking Eric Dickerson's unbreakable single-season rushing record, coming within eight yards of tying it back in 2012 after tearing his ACL in 2011. He was rewarded with league MVP.
The dude's incredible. Like most running backs, he's lost his luster as he's aged. He's 32 now and will likely have to find a new team again. Don't let that take away from what he accomplished at his peak.
5. Julius Peppers – Panthers/Bears/Packers/Panthers DE
Unlike many of the players on this list, Peppers has largely already made his case. Only three players, Kevin Greene, Reggie White, and Bruce Smith, have recorded more sacks than Peppers, who resides at No. 4 on the all-time list with 154.5. Peppers, 38, hasn't decided if he'll return for the 2018 season. If he does, he'll likely pass Greene, who is only 5.5 sacks ahead of him. That would mean Peppers would finish his career with the third-most sacks in NFL history.
That makes this one easy: He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
4. Aaron Rodgers – Packers QB
Rodgers might not be the best quarterback of all-time based on his statistics, but he's arguably the most physically gifted quarterback ever. Brady can't do this, but Rodgers can:
Plus, it's not like his statistics are bad. They're just not as good as Brady's, but then again, not many quarterbacks size up to Brady.
Here's Rodgers' resume:
- One Super Bowl
- One Super Bowl MVP
- Two-time MVP
- 20th all-time in passing yards
- 10th in passing touchdowns
- No. 1 in passer rating
The thing is, Rodgers is younger than Big Ben, Brees, and Brady. He's still only 34 years old, which means he's likely to climb up the all-time leaderboard. He's not done yet.
3. Larry Fitzgerald – Cardinals WR
Fitzgerald is a lock. He ranks third all-time in catches, third all-time in receiving yards, and eighth all-time in touchdown catches. If he decides to return for 2018, he'll move up the leaderboard even further. If he doesn't, it won't matter much. Fitzgerald doesn't only have the numbers, he also has the iconic moments that can bolster a legacy.
No, he didn't win a Super Bowl, but he did do this to give the Cardinals a lead in the Super Bowl with less than three minutes remaining
He never made it back to the big game, but he
Fitz should get into the Hall of Fame on his first try.
2. Drew Brees – Saints QB
Drew Brees doesn't have the Super Bowls that Tom Brady has, but he has one ring and the individual numbers to make him a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's actually ranked one spot ahead of Brady in passing yards at No. 3, he's tied with Brady for the third-most touchdown passes, and he's one spot ahead of Peyton Manning with the sixth-best passer rating in NFL history.
Like Brady, he's not really slowing down, either. He's 39 and is coming off a year in which he set the NFL record for the highest completion percentage in a single season (72 percent). Whenever Brees does retire, he'll be quickly ushered into the Hall of Fame as soon as he's eligible.
1. Tom Brady – Patriots QB
What more is there to say about Tom Brady? He's probably going to win his third MVP this week at the age of 40. If the Patriots beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl, there's a good chance he'll win his fifth Super Bowl MVP. He's already won five Super Bowls. In half of his active seasons as the Patriots' starter, he's gotten them to the Super Bowl. He once quarterbacked an undefeated regular-season team. He's fourth all-time in passing yards, tied for third in passing touchdowns, third in passer rating, and second in fourth-quarter comebacks.
The thing is, he's not even slowing down. We're always wondering when he's going to retire, but that day doesn't appear to be coming anytime soon. Assuming he keeps up his level of production for a few more years, he'll improve his all-time rankings, probably win a couple more Super Bowls, maybe snag another MVP or two, and then he'll go out as the undisputed greatest quarterback in the history of the planet. At this point, the question isn't Brady is the best football player ever. The question is, is he the greatest sports player ever?