Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors will meet virtually Tuesday to vote on the Class of 2021, and one of the modern-era finalists will be debating is longtime Miami Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas.
The Class of 2021 will not be announced until the night before Super Bowl LV during the NFL Honors Show, but circumstances of the pandemic have changed the normal routine of the selectors meeting the day before the Super Bowl.
The other finalists along with Thomas are QB Peyton Manning, DB Charles Woodson, WR Calvin Johnson, DE Jared Allen, WR Reggie Wayne WR Torry Holt, S LeRoy Butler, S John Lynch, CB Ronde Barber, DT Richard Seymour, LB Clay Matthews Jr, G Alan Faneca, T Tony Boselli and LB Sam Mills.
The finalists will join the recommended nominees of the Hall of Fame’s Coach, Contributor and Senior Committees: Tom Flores, Bill Nunn and Drew Pearson, respectively.
The Class of 2021 will include between four and eight new members, though it will not have more than five modern-era finalists.
At least one former Hall of Fame voter thinks Thomas should get the nod in his second year as a finalist.
"He tends to get pigeon-holed: Smallish but hard worker," Miller said. "And that misses the point. He was very productive, as well as a leader on the field."
Going by the five historians surveyed in the Talk of Fame Network story, Manning, Woodson and Faneca likely will get selected, as they were mentioned by all five. Boselli had four mentions, followed by Clay Matthews with two, and one apiece for Thomas, John Lynch, Richard Seymour, Calvin Johnson and LeRoy Butler. (Note: One historian said his final choice was either Boselli or Faneca.)
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021 will be enshrined Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021 in Canton, Ohio. Other events during the week of festivities will include the rescheduled Hall of Fame Game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys on Aug. 5, the Gold Jacket Dinner on Aug. 6 and the Centennial Class of 2020 Enshrinement on Aug. 7.
It's the second consecutive year as a finalist for Thomas, who played 12 seasons with the Dolphins after arriving as a fifth-round pick out of Texas Tech in 1996.
Thomas was inducted in 2012 into the Dolphin Honor Roll along with Jason Taylor, the other half of the Dolphins' dynamic defensive duo of the 2000s. Taylor was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018 in his first year of eligibility, while Thomas was a finalist for the first time this year.
In his 168 games with the Dolphins — all of them starts — Thomas averaged a remarkable 9.7 tackles, according to pro-football-reference.com. That’s an average of 155 for every 16 games.
In all of the 10 seasons when he played at least 12 games, Thomas finished with at least 128 total tackles. He topped 150 tackles six times, leading the NFL in that category twice (in 2002 with 156 and in 2006 with 165).
But it wasn’t just the tackles.
Thomas also made big plays for the Dolphins defense.
He ended up with 17 interceptions in his career, including three in 1996, 1998 and 2003. He forced 16 fumbles and recovered eight, and also had 20.5 sacks.
His stat sheet filled up nicely, but that doesn’t factor in the intangibles he brought to the Dolphins defense. He was the centerpiece of the Dolphins defenses Head Coach Jimmy Johnson built after arriving in 1996.
Thomas’ impact was immediate, evidenced by him earning a starting job as a rookie and leading to the release of established veteran Jack Del Rio, who would go on to become an NFL head coach.
With Thomas leading the way — with major contributions from Taylor obviously — the Dolphins defense finished in the top 10 in fewest yards allowed an impressive seven consecutive seasons (1998-2004). Five times during Thomas’ career, the Dolphins were in the top five.
Thomas’ brilliance was recognized, as he earned eight Pro Bowl invitations and was named an All-Pro five times.
Longtime Jets center Kevin Mawae went up against Thomas many times during his career, which ended with his induction into the Hall of Fame last year. And during his induction speech, while mentioning all the teammates, coaches and other influential people he encountered, to talk about Thomas.
It was one Hall of Famer saying one of his rivals belonged in the Hall of Fame with him.
“Zach Thomas was my nemesis,” Mawae said about three-quarters into his 27-minute Hall of Fame speech. “My first year with the Jets before my first game we played against each other, (Coach) Bill Parcells told me in front of my entire team, ‘If you don’t block Thomas, we won’t win the game,’ and for the next 16 matchups I never forgot that.
"Zach was one of, if not the smartest player I ever faced. He loved the game, had fun when he played and brought the best out of me. When people ask me who’s not in the Hall of Fame and that I think should be here, it’s an easy one for me: number 54 from the Miami Dolphins.”