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BREAKING: As expected, Devin Hester named 2024 Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinalist

The GOAT returner is back in the semis, as is first-timer Julius Peppers.

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

As expected, former Chicago Bears’ Devin Hester and Julius Peppers have been named Pro Football Hall of Fame semifinalists for the class of 2024. This is Hester’s third year of modern-era eligibility; he was a finalist in each of his first two years. Peppers, who played with Hester on the Bears from 2010 to 2013, is in his first year of eligibility.

Both Hester and Peppers are expected to coast to the finalist round.

The semifinalist class is the first cutdown from the preliminary list of 173 players. Next up for Hester, Peppers and the other 23 semifinalists is the finalist round of 15 players. This announcement will come in January; last year’s finalist class was announced January 4.

The class of 2024 will be announced during the NFL Honors ceremony in February of 2024; this will include the vote on Steve McMichael as a senior candidate, which is a formality.

Players have 20 years of eligibility as a modern-era candidate before shifting to the senior pool. The Class of 2024 semifinalists, in order of oldest on the ballot to newest, with first-ballot candidates in caps (finishes prior to this year):

  • Eric Allen, cornerback (18th year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • Ricky Watters, running back (18th year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • Darren Woodson, safety (16th year eligible, 2023 top 15 finalist)
  • Eddie George, running back (15th year eligible, 2022 semifinalist)
  • Tiki Barber, running back (13th year eligible, 1st time semifinalist)
  • Willie Anderson, offensive tackle (11th year eligible, 2023 top 15 finalist)
  • Rodney Harrison, safety (11th year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • Torry Holt, wide receiver (10th year eligible, 2023 top 10 finalist)
  • Fred Taylor, running back (9th year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • Hines Ward, wide receiver (8th year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • Reggie Wayne, wide receiver (5th year eligible, 2023 top 10 finalist)
  • London Fletcher, linebacker (6th year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • Patrick Willis, linebacker (5th year eligible, 2023 top 15 finalist)
  • Jared Allen, defensive end (4th year eligible, 2023 top 10 finalist)
  • Devin Hester, returner (3rd year eligible, 2023 top 15 finalist)
  • Andre Johnson, wide receiver (3rd year eligible, 2023 top 10 finalist)
  • Anquan Boldin, wide receiver (3rd year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • Steve Smith, wide receiver (3rd year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • Robert Mathis, defensive end (3rd year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • Vince Wilfork, defensive tackle (3rd year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • Dwight Freeney, defensive end (2nd year eligible, 2023 top 15 finalist)
  • Jahri Evans, offensive guard (2nd year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • James Harrison, linebacker (2nd year eligible, 2023 semifinalist)
  • ANTONIO GATES, tight end (1st year eligible)
  • JULIUS PEPPERS, defensive end (1st year eligible)

ANY SURPRISES?

When I made my list yesterday of probable semifinalists, I listed a slew of players who have never before been semifinalists who I thought had a shot. The one I missed: Giants running back Tiki Barber. As a market with two teams, New York has two PFHOF voters, and while Gary Myers is technically the Jets man, he pushes Giants hard and has shown some success in recent years advancing Jets and Giants. He’s a big Tiki supporter and will be gunning hard for him.

Barber joins a crowded running back field with return 2023 semifinalists Fred Taylor and Ricky Watters and past semifinalist Eddie George, back after missing one year. Barber, George and Watters are all in the back half of their eligibility; one of them has to make the finals soon to have a shot at induction, and as the longest running semifinalist and earliest in his eligibility, Taylor has a real shot at getting to the finals this year. So we’ll see.

ENOUGH OF THIS NEW YORK STUFF. TELL ME MORE ABOUT HESTER AND PEPPERS.

In his first year of eligibility in 2022, Hester made history as the first pure returner to ever even reach the semifinalist round, much less the finals, much less to do so in his first year on the ballot. He is also the only pure special teamer other than Jan Stenerud to reach the finals in his first year of eligibility.

Since the start of the semifinalist round in 2004, the only player to reach the finals in consecutive years and then fail to reach the finals the next year was Gary Zimmerman, who began his eligibility with back-to-back finalist years, was a semifinalist in year 3, was a finalist in years 4 and 5 and was elected in year 6.

So Hester missing the semis this year would have been shocking, while the odds he’ll be in the finals again are overwhelmingly in his favor.

After that point, it’s still anyone’s guess if he’ll get into Canton this year, but there are essentially four open finalist slots:

  • Remove the class of 2023 + 20th year man Albert Lewis
  • Add Peppers and Gates

The question will be which four players make the jump into the finals. With no 20th year men this year (namely Tim McDonald or Leslie O’Neal), my early money is on Eric Allen, Fred Taylor, Ricky Watters... and in a chaos pick, perennial semifinalist Hines Ward.

As for Hester, he was in the top 10 in 2022 and dropped to the top 15 last year. In the finalist meeting for the class of 2023, the only time the voters meet formally and the meeting at which they select the class, only three finalists reached 30 minutes of debate, per voter clark Judge: Reggie Wayne at 33:48, Albert Lewis at 33:39 and Hester at 31:55. As Hester presenter Dan Pompei outlined last year, the Hester debate centered on snap counts.

I’ll have a series coming on Hester’s incredible numbers, including a note on snap counts. In any case, that’s where the Hester train is now, though in my view, there aren’t five players on this ballot with better numbers or impact than Hester.

As for Peppers, he is an odds-on favorite to be elected this year, though certainly it’s not assured. DeMarcus Ware was looking like a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2022 but had to wait a year; Terrell Owens famously waited three.

More to come.

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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.