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Devin Hester expected to be named Pro Football Hall Of Fame semifinalist tomorrow

Don’t be surprised when Devin Hester makes this list. Be outraged if he doesn’t. PFHOF analyst Jack Silverstein explains.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow morning on NFL Network we will learn the 25 (or a few more, with ties) semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2024. When Devin Hester is named to the list, there will be plenty of Chicago Bears fans and media members who will treat it as a huge celebration.

It is not.

Rather, it would be a huge outrage if he isn’t.

That’s because Hester has made the finalist round (top 15) in each of his first two years of modern-era eligibility. Since the semifinalist era, which started in 2004, only one player has reached the finalist stage in his first two years and dropped back to the semis, much less out of the semis entirely. (That would be Gary Zimmerman, who went finalist-finalist, dropped to the semis in year 3, was back in the finals in years 4 and 5 and was elected in year 6.)

So yes, you can expect Hester on the list tomorrow. In fact, of the 25+ semifinalists tomorrow, 16 are locks, another five are highly likely and another three are probable. Surprises will be few in number but potentially large in impact.

Here are my picks for the class of 2024 semifinalists, ranked in order of how little I’ll be surprised.

(And to be clear, these are NOT my picks for the Class of 2024, which is impossible until we get to the finalist round. And I absolutely think that Devin Hester has a shot at getting in this year. But he’s 8th on this list, which I will explain. Okay let’s go.)

Them not being in would be a major violation of all known voter trends and would be truly nuts, part 1:

1. Julius Peppers (1st year on ballot)

2. Antonio Gates (1st year on ballot)

3. Andre Johnson (2023 top 10)

4. Torry Holt (2023 top 10)

5. Jared Allen (2023 top 10)

6. Reggie Wayne (2023 top 10)

For the purposes of writing about this, I’m going to split up the first 12 players into two groups, even though they’re all essentially the same group. The finalist round is 15 players, no ties, and the 50 Hall voters then debate those 15 players in person, cutting them from 15 to 10 and then 10 to five. The voters then vote “yes” or “no” on each of the final five players, electing players who receive 80% “yes” votes. (In recent years, this final vote has become a formality, as the full voting body has not rejected a modern-era player since 2005.)

In any case, while there is movement between the top 15 and top 10 from year to year, simply reaching and staying in the finalist round nearly ensures a player of induction at some point. I’m only splitting these six because Johnson, Holt, Allen and Wayne finished in those 6 thru 10 slots last year (Albert Lewis, now a senior, was the other), while Peppers and Gates have a great shot at being first-ballot Hall of Famers, with Peppers holding an edge between the two.

Them not being in would be a major violation of all known voter trends and would be truly nuts, part 2:

7. Patrick Willis (2023 top 15)

8. DEVIN HESTER (2023 top 15)

9. Darren Woodson (2023 top 15)

10. Dwight Freeney (2023 top 15)

11. Willie Anderson (2023 top 15)

12. Hines Ward (semifinalist since 2017)

Again, I’m splitting these guys just so I can write about them separately, but I would be shocked if they weren’t all semifinalists. I’m talking “Michael Jordan was held scoreless tonight??” shocked. These six will be there. The entire process has collapsed if they’re not.

Looking at the six, there’s a bit more of a difference across this group than the top six. Willis is a lock of locks, and based on trends, Hester should be next.

But in the past 20 years, the PFHOF outlier in voting trends is Steve Tasker. He is…

  • the only player ever to reach the semis in his first five years of eligibility and still reach the senior pool
  • second to Roger Craig for the most times reaching the semis or beyond and reaching the senior pool (Craig had 10, Tasker had 9)
  • first for most times making the semis without ever reaching the finals

Again, only one player since 2004 has made the finals in each of his first two years of eligibility and then fallen to the semis, so Hester is basically a lock. But I guess with special teams, you don’t know until you know.

Darren Woodson has an interesting place in voting trends of the semifinalist era. The latest a player has reached their first finals and then made the Hall as a modern-era candidate is Sam Mills, who got to his first finals in Y18 and was elected in Y20, the final year of modern eligibility. Second on that list is LeRoy Butler, who was first a finalist in Y14 and was elected in Y16. Woodson first reached the finals last year, his 15th year of eligibility. His odds of election are good; his odds of missing the semis are also basically zero.

Freeney was a first-ballot finalist last year and Anderson made the semis three years ago in his 8th year and the finals in each of the past two years. Hines Ward is about to tie Terrell Davis with his 8th straight year in the semis to start his eligibility without reaching the finals. Voters have clearly decided that the Steelers great is getting in. They just have to work their way through the wide receiver logjam they’ve created for themselves.

And speaking of the wide receiver logjam…

I would be stunned if they’re not in, but I guess technically a tad less stunned:

13. Anquan Boldin (2022-2023 semifinalist)

14. Robert Mathis (2022-2023 semifinalist)

15. Steve Smith (2022-2023 semifinalist)

16. Vince Wilfork (2022-2023 semifinalist)

…holy non-sensical, Batman! In 2021, voters elected Calvin Johnson on the first ballot, had Holt and Wayne as returning finalists and Ward as a returning semifinalist. In 2022, with Andre Johnson in his first year of eligibility, voters elected Johnson to the finals and then for some reason added Anquan Boldin and Steve Smith to the semis, giving them six wide receivers in the semis or higher. Last year, they added Rams great Henry Ellard to the semis in his 20th year of eligibility, returned Boldin and Smith — and didn’t elect any of them.

So now they’re working their way through this wide receiver logjam. That sets us up for this madness of wide receivers over the next decade:

Joining Boldin and Smith in this group are Robert Mathis and Vince Wilfork, who were also first-ballot semifinalists in 2022 and returned to this round last year. In the semifinalist era, every first-ballot semifinalist is either in Canton or currently on the ballot. While I split these first 16 players into two or three groups, I would be shocked if any were excluded tomorrow. But I guess more like MJ being held to single digits than scoreless.

He’s pretty well locked in for Canton:

17. Fred Taylor (2020-2023 semifinalist)

The next seven players aren’t locks like the first 16, but they’re pretty close to being locks. As a collective, if more than two of these guys aren’t in the semis, that would be a surprise. We’ll start with Fred Taylor, who got an undeserving bad rap as a player and who might be Hall-worthy, but appears to have garnered favor from voters simply because he’s next up on the all-time rushing list. You can see my complaints about this process here:

Taylor is a great example of the gap between the perception of Hall voting versus the reality. Taylor and Jags fans have complained publicly about Taylor being a “snub” when the reality is that as a player who reached his first semis in Y5 and is about to reach the semis for his 5th consecutive year, he’s the opposite of a snub: voters have clearly indicated that he’s going to be one of the next RBs in Canton, depending on what they do with Ricky Watters (end of eligibility 2026) and if they elect Taylor after Adrian Peterson (start of eligibility 2027).

Almost certainly will be there:

18. Jahri Evans (2023 semifinalist in 1st year of eligibility)

19. James Harrison (2023 semifinalist in 1st year of eligibility)

Since I support more interior linemen reaching Canton, I’m glad to see Jahri Evans reach the semis, even though I was surprised that he made it last year on his first year of eligibility. Joining him as a first-ballot semifinalist was James Harrison, and considering that only one first-ballot semifinalist has missed the semis in Y2 (Chris Doleman), these guys are almost certainly in.

Speaking of James Harrison, and pertaining to our beloved Bears, next up is…

Probably will be there in a key year for him that affects Lance Briggs:

20. London Fletcher (2023 semifinalist in 5th year of eligibility)

As I outlined here, Lance Briggs has a tough road ahead as a number of linebackers were either already on the ballot ahead of him or would be soon. I wrote that before last year’s semis were announced, and when they were, there was a surprise entry: the iron man London Fletcher, who reached the semis in his fifth year of eligibility.

As I noted, Steve Tasker is the only player to reach the semis in his first five years and land in the senior pool, so if Fletcher is back in the semis this year — and the odds are in his favor — that puts a real dent in Briggs’s case, since this is his fifth year of eligibility.

Obviously if Briggs is in the semis tomorrow, that’s massive. But he has zero buzz in Hall circles other than from yours truly.

Moment of truth coming for this guy, part 1:

21. Rodney Harrison (2021, 2023 semifinalist)

Simeon Rice made the semis in Y6 and Y8 and has missed each of the past three years, so making two semis before Y10 is no guarantee. Further, since Rice’s two semifinal selections, the 2002 Bucs have gotten two more defenders into Canton (Lynch and Barber), putting them up to four and leaving Rice out of the semis for three years and counting.

Rodney Harrison reached his first semis in Y8 and got back in Y10 last year; in that sense he’s worse off than Rice. The flip is that the defense of the first run of Pats champs has two players in Canton (Law and Seymour) and only two more in contention, Harrison and Wilfork. Bottom line is that Harrison has to start stacking semifinalist selections to get in. His odds are solid this year.

Moment of truth coming for these guys, part 2:

22. Eric Allen (2021-2023 semifinalist)

23. Ricky Watters (2020, 2022-2023 semifinalist)

As I said, the latest any player has reached his first finals and then made the Hall as a modern candidate is Sam Mills, who was a two-time semifinalist and made his first finals in his 18th year, elected in his 20th. Eric Allen and Ricky Watters are both three-time semifinalists but are now in their 18th year of eligibility. Because the finalist round is the only time that the full selection committee meets formally to discuss a player’s case, these late-eligibility arrivals need as many meetings as possible for voters to push them in.

I’ll note that last month, myself and 10 other NFL historians selected our next five classes and elected both Allen and Watters — and that the same group (give or take a few people) voted this summer on a bunch of 2000s running backs and named Watters our #1 of the group, followed by Shaun Alexander and Priest Holmes.

Fingers crossed for the Year 20 guys:

24. Leslie O’Neal (2018 semifinalist)

25. Tim McDonald (never a semifinalist)

If I had to give odds for reaching the semis, they would look like this:

  • First 12 players: 100%
  • Next four: 99.9%
  • Taylor, Evans, J. Harrison, Fletcher: 95%
  • R. Harrison: 85%
  • Allen and Watters: 80%

That’s 23 semifinalists with at least two slots remaining, depending on ties. I’m putting Leslie O’Neal and Tim McDonald next, each in their 20th and final year of eligibility, and this is where the odds drop to like 50%. O’Neal is a one-time semifinalist, making it in 2018 / Y14. McDonald has never gotten there.

But the voters have shown increasing love to Y20 guys. Here are the recent Y20 semifinalists, with finalists in caps:

  • 2023: ALBERT LEWIS, Henry Ellard
  • 2022: SAM MILLS (elected), Steve Tasker
  • 2021: CLAY MATTHEWS
  • 2020: Carl Banks
  • 2019: Karl Mecklenburg
  • 2018: JOE JACOBY, EVERSON WALLS, Roger Craig
  • 2017: none
  • 2016: none
  • 2015: none
  • 2014: none
  • 2013: none
  • 2012: Donnie Shell

So after going five years without a Y20 in the semis, voters have put in 10 in six years, electing one and sending another four to the finals, including Walls in his first ever trip to the semis. My theory is that voters are becoming more proactive about combatting the senior backlog. Both O’Neal and McDonald have some buzz.

As my colleague Jeff Schlegel has pointed out, McDonald has been massively overlooked:

SO... WHO ELSE COULD GET IN?

Possible first-ballot semifinalist:

  • Haloti Ngata

If any of my first 25 are knocked out, or we end up with a tie that pushes the semis to 26 or more (last year was 28), let’s look at some guys who could break through instead, starting with the only other first-ballot player who I think could reach the semis: the star Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Past semifinalists who are still eligible:

  • Simeon Rice (2018, 2020)
  • Eddie George (2022)
  • Cornelius Bennett (2021)
  • Steve Wisniewski (2014)

Ngata is a good bet to break through, and these four are too, starting with the 2x semifinalist Rice and the 2022 semifinalist Eddie George. Bennett and Wisniewski are the only other past semifinalists still eligible.

Where the hell are they?

  • Kevin Williams
  • Nick Mangold

In light of everything I’ve shared above about some of the recent first-ballot semifinalists, the exclusion of Kevin Williams and Nick Mangold in their first three and two years of eligibility, respectively, is truly a head-scatcher. The only way it makes sense is that voters have shown favor toward players with counting stats; Mangold, a center, obviously has none, while Williams, a defensive tackle, is limited.

But the postseason honors should carry the day. Williams was consensus first team All Pro in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2009 and first team for the Associated Press (the NFL’s official voting body) in 2004 and 2006-2009. He was second team All-Decade in the 2000s, and his 63 sacks are more than PFHOF DTs Cortez Kennedy, Richard Seymour, Dan Hampton and Randy White.

Further, on a defensive line with Jared Allen and Pat Williams, Kevin Williams was the one guy who scared me most.

Mangold is similar to Williams: from 2008 to 2015 he made seven Pro Bowls and there AP All Pro teams, twice on the first team. The voters are notoriously stingy with centers, having elected just six modern-era centers since 1987, and that’s if you include Bruce Matthews. These guys should be getting in the mix soon.

I lowkey wouldn’t be stunned:

  • Randall Cunningham
  • Tom Nalen

Since Bob Griese’s election in 1990, 11 modern-era QBs have been elected; 10 have been first-ballot (Fouts, Montana, Kelly, Elway, Marino, Young, Aikman, Moon, Favre, Manning) and the 11th was Kurt Warner, who went finalist-finalist-election, which for his short career is a defacto first-ballot election. That means that quarterback is the only position where there is absolutely no debate or discussion, making it more difficult for other players to punch through.

So if 2x NFL MVP Randall Cunningham is on the semifinalist list for the first time here in Y18, that would be somewhat shocking. Yet I only say somewhat because of the aforementioned boosting of late-eligibility players combined with a renewed appreciation for Cunningham in this new era of both Black and dual-threat quarterbacks. The historic Super Bowl, the ascension of Jalen Hurts with Cunningham’s Eagles, the unanimous MVP for Lamar Jackson, the drafting of Black QBs at the top 2 picks in 2023 + pick #4 — it could all add up to voters giving a new look to Cunningham and his MVP peaks.

With the 1990 PFWA MVP and the 1998 NEA MVP, Randall Cunningham is the only eligible player with major MVP awards in two or more seasons who is not yet in Canton.

Meanwhile, my colleague Thomas Hall has been banging the drum for Broncos great Tom Nalen, and seems to be garnering some attention. If voters do change their habits on centers, Nalen could be one of the beneficiaries.

Among the best at under-represented positions:

  • Shane Lechler
  • Lorenzo Neal

Ray Guy is the only pure punter in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His fellow Raiders great, Shane Lechler, joined Guy on the NFL’s All-Century Team. Lechler was also on the NFL All-Decade team of the 2000s and 2010s and a perennial All Pro selection. Despite the protests of my colleage Bryan Frye (hi bro!), Lechler is clearly the next punter going in.

While voters have elected one punter, they have never elected a modern fullback. As I discussed here, if voters ever come around on this position, Lorenzo Neal deserves induction.

Who else could, or should, punch through:

I still think it’s nuts that Richmond Webb has never reached the semis. I’m surprised that Ben Coates hasn’t either. I’m very high on Carnell Lake, who made All Pro at both corner and safety and was a beautiful mix of balance and brutality. Webb, Coates and Lake were all 1990s All-Decade members whose eligibility will be gone by 2027. I can’t believe that voters have ignored Ruben Brown. I think Donovan McNabb should be in play. Lomas Brown had an underrated career. I would love to see Brian Mitchell get his day in the room. And I do think that voters will eventually give a good look to Shaun Alexander and his 100 career rushing touchdowns, and possibly Priest Holmes too.

What about other Bears?

As for more Bears (other than Peppers, Hester and maybe Ruben Brown), I think more and more every week that we’re going to see Peanut Tillman on a semifinalist list at some point. I would be surprised if it was this year but with each passing year I’ll be less surprised. We need more attention on centers, and that should bring Olin Kreutz into the conversation. As for Lance Briggs, the elevation of Fletcher and Harrison last year really hurts Briggs’s chances.

We shall see!

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Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, a Pro Football Hall of Fame analyst with the Not In the Hall of Fame Committee, a contributor to PFHOF voter Clark Judge’s regular “Judge & Jury” series and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.