Now that the 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame class of Alan Faneca, Tom Flores, Calvin Johnson, John Lynch, Peyton Manning, Bill Nunn, Drew Pearson, and Charles Woodson has been announced, it’s time to start arguing about who should be inducted into the class of 2022.
Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022 Overview
Wide receiver Steve Smith leads an impressive (but not quite Peyton–Woodson–Megatron impressive) group of first-year eligibles for 2022. This includes fellow receivers Anquan Boldin and Andre Johnson, sack specialists DeMarcus Ware and Robert Mathis, and many others.
If no one on that list screams “absolute no-brainer first-ballot-or-we-protest” Hall of Famer to you, don’t worry, you are not alone. I’ve talked to enough voters over the years to know that next year’s selection committee is more likely to use the 2022 class to clear up some logjams among long-time finalists than to rubber-stamp some excellent-but-not-historic first-time candidates.
With that in mind, here are my very early predictions for the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2022.
Early Predictions for 2022 Hall of Fame Class
Tony Boselli, Offensive Line, Jacksonville Jaguars
The selection committee has been slowly clearing a logjam along the offensive line for several years, inducting Kevin Mawae in 2019, Steve Hutchinson in 2020, and now Faneca in the 2021 class. Boselli proceeded to the back of the queue because of his short career.
You may not think that’s fair (some committee members agree with you). Yet, Faneca started for the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game when he was 33 years old. It would have been a little unfair to him not to factor his longevity into the Hall of Fame equation. The same could apply to Mawae and Hutchinson.
At any rate, the committee tends to tidy these logjams up completely so they can make room for the next ones. The committee is also kind to sixth-time finalists. Boselli will finally get his much-deserved bust and jacket in 2022.
LeRoy Butler, Safety, Green Bay Packers
Simmer down, Packers fans! We know you are stomping mad that Butler has been asked to wait his turn. After all, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is ever-so-biased against the Packers! (Vince Lombardi’s favorite diner waitress has not yet been inducted, and it’s a TRAVESTY).
Anyway, the selection committee has been sorting through a modern-era backlog of safeties for years: Brian Dawkins in 2018, Ed Reed in 2019, Troy Polamalu and Steve Atwater in 2020, and John Lynch in the 2021 class.
Lynch (like Atwater) found himself in finalist purgatory for many years as overwhelmingly-qualified candidates like Reed and Polamalu leapfrogged him. Butler is not quite in that “overwhelmingly-qualified” class. So, the committee chose to waive Lynch through, clearing room for Butler next year.
To offer my two cents before moving on, I think Butler was indeed a better player than Lynch. I also think that younger fans slightly overrate Butler and severely underrate Lynch based on the stats they see on Pro Football Reference.
Lynch was a superstar and a pivotal figure for an era-defining Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense at the turn of the millennium and was very good for several years before and after his peak. He’s a deserving Hall of Famer. Diminishing his accomplishments to prop up Butler is neither accurate nor cool.
Richard Seymour, Defensive Line, New England Patriots
Boselli and Butler will benefit from a cleared backlog of similar candidates. Seymour’s Pro Football Hall of Fame prospects in 2022 may actually benefit from a backlog itself. First-year eligibles Ware, Mathis, and Mario Williams join Jared Allen among edge rushers in the Hall of Fame pool next year.
My gut tells me Ware and perhaps Mathis will be finalists. Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers are waiting in the wings for 2023 and 2024. There is about to be a run of guys in the 125-plus sack range seeking induction.
Seymour recorded just 57.5 sacks, which could be a severe detriment to his candidacy. It could also help differentiate him as an all-around defender who contributed to the beginning of the greatest dynasty in NFL history, as opposed to being a sack guy who mostly played for playoff also-rans. (That’s not how I think of Allen, Ware, or anyone else; I’m just broad-brushing an argument.)
There also may be a sentiment among the committee to push Seymour and/or Allen through so that they don’t spend the next five years arguing among a bunch of defensive linemen and hearing about who they “snubbed.”
If Seymour doesn’t get in next year, his candidacy may derail for a long time. Think of him as the John Lynch of defensive ends, destined to be thought of as a “system guy” as memories among fans fade and stat totals become more important to these players’ reputations.
Steve Smith, Wide Receiver, Carolina Panthers
Let’s set up the board when it comes to wide receivers in the Hall of Fame pool.
Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne were finalists in 2021. I call them Sammy Hagar candidates because both were the “other guys” for beloved and historically-great offenses during the downsides of their eras of dominance. Both are similar enough to split the ticket, and neither is overwhelmingly qualified.
Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Andre Johnson all enter the candidate pool for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022. Andre Johnson is an excellent player of the sort stuck at the semifinalist stage forever. (Here’s a litmus test — unless you are a Houston Texans fan, you probably barely remembered Johnson until you just read his name, right?)
Boldin had a unique career and lots of signature playoff moments but is no more qualified than Holt or Wayne. In many ways, Boldin’s candidacy mirrors that of Hines Ward, who is still lurking among the semifinalists. He’s a tough-guy leader for great teams known more for the quality than the quantity of his production.
Disentangling Smith from his WR cohort
That leaves Smith, who has solid-not-spectacular stats but an outsized reputation. Plus, he has lots of defining moments, from his superlative games in the 2003 NFL Playoffs to the broken-arm touchdown. Defining moments are still a big deal among some of the older Hall of Fame voters.
There was a sentiment among committee members that Calvin Johnson was not quite first-ballot worthy. A few voters think too many non-Peyton types are waved through too quickly. As such, Smith might be forced to wait because some voters are stanning for Holt and/or Wayne, others push for annual finalists at other positions, and a few just stand on principle.
However, Smith stands about as much of a chance of squeezing in on the first ballot as, say, Jared Allen does of differentiating himself from a bunch of similar edge rushers, or Ronde Barber does of convincing enough voters that he was more than a system product.
Zach Thomas, Linebacker, Miami Dolphins
Zach Thomas got stuck behind teammate Jason Taylor (Hall of Fame class of 2017) at the beginning of his candidacy, then found himself on a bunch of ballots where the committee was trying to wave through Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, and (eventually) Terrell Owens or some other combination of Mount Rushmore types.
Lurking in the background of Thomas’ candidacy are a handful of influential old coaches. They write Thomas off as an undersized “system guy.”
Thomas also has some major proponents among former opponents, coaches, and peers, and Thomas’ detractors did not sway every voter. Yet, the less-than-ringing endorsements were just enough to leave Thomas trapped on split tickets with fellow linebackers Sam Mills and Clay Matthews.
Matthews is now a Seniors Committee candidate, and Mills is going there as well. There is no top-priority linebacker on the first ballot. And the “not a slobberknocker old school linebacker” argument sounds sillier every pass-happy year. Like Butler and Boselli, Thomas will benefit from a relatively clear slate. He’ll earn his much-deserved enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2022.
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