Assessing Hall-of-Fame futures of Witten, Freeney, Hester & Co.
If, as reports indicate, Dallas tight end Jason Witten has decided to retire, he becomes the fifth Hall-of-Fame worthy player to call it quits in the past two weeks -- joining Dwight Freeney, Devin Hester, Nick Mangold and James Harrison.
That group is so distinguished that four of the five already have been designated "future Hall of Famer" ... "certain Hall of Famer " ... or "first-ballot Hall of Famer" by fans, the media and at least one former teammate. And that's great, except for one thing.
There are few "certain Hall of Famers," and that includes this group.
Yes, you can make cases for all five, but there are only two that I see -- Witten and Freeney -- who are on the Hall-of-Fame radar, with Hester an outside possibility.
Why? Let's call roll and find out.
JASON WITTEN, TE
The Plus: There's productivity, durability and reliability. He's not only the fourth leading pass receiver of all time; he's the second most prolific tight end, behind Tony Gonzalez. He's an 11-time Pro Bowler and four-time All-Pro, too, and holds the NFL record for most catches by a tight end in a season (110) and in a game (18). Plus, he was always there. In 15 NFL seasons, the guy missed only one game -- playing through fractured ribs, a lacerated spleen and a sprained knee. Oh, yeah, almost forgot: He's a former Walter Payton Man of the Year winner, too.
The Minus: There are only eight tight ends in Canton, seven of whom are modern-era choices. But while it took John Mackey 15 years to make it and Mike Ditka 12, the Hall probably names Gonzalez a first-ballot choice in 2019 when he becomes eligible. Then, of course, there's the competition, with Witten battling all-decade choice Antonio Gates for admission somewhere along the way. Lastly, there are the championships. Not only didn't Witten make it to a Super Bowl; the Cowboys won only two playoff games during his tenure. Yeah, I know, that's not his fault. But it can ... and will .. be a consideration.
The Verdict: Voters love big numbers by pass catchers, with Terrell Owens and Randy Moss the latest evidence. Neither won a Super Bowl, and both made it. Witten should, too. There's just too much to like for him not to make it.
DWIGHT FREENEY, LB/DE
The Plus: Freeney was such an effective edge rusher that he's tied for 17th among the all-time sack leaders. So what? So, of all those ahead of him who are Hall-of-Fame eligible, only one (Leslie O'Neal) is not in Canton. Then there's this: He's a seven-time Pro Bowl choice, a four-time All-Pro, a first-team all-decade selection and a Super Bowl winner. He also led the league in sacks (2004) and had 47 forced fumbles, including an NFL-rookie record of nine in 2002. In short, there's almost nothing he didn't do.
The Minus: He was not the pre-eminent pass rusher of his era. Only once did he lead the league in sacks and only three times was he among the top five. Plus, of the nine players eligible for the Hall who are immediately behind him on the career sacks list, none are not in Canton.
The Verdict: It could be a close call, but voters love edge rushers -- with nine elected in the past 11 years. They also love all-decade choices with rings. Freeney checks both boxes. His chances are promising.
DEVIN HESTER, KR-PR/WR
The Plus: He had an NFL-record 20 combined career return touchdowns, including a league-best 14 by punt returns. That makes him the most successful return man of all time. Plus, he's the only guy to return the opening kickoff of a Super Bowl for a TD. Ask people today who was the best return man in NFL history, and most will name Hester.
The Negative: There are no return specialists in the Hall of Fame, and you can look it up. In fact, Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, a two-time all-decade choice, is the only member of the NFL's 75th anniversary team not in Canton. Brian Mitchell isn't in, either, and he had 13 combined return TDs and ranks second only to Jerry Rice on the list for all-time all-purpose yards.
The Verdict: Hester is in the conversation, but voters aren't kind to special teams -- electing one specialist (kicker Jan Stenerud) in the first 50 years and shutting out all return men. Former teammate Matt Forte called Hester "a first-ballot Hall of Famer," but, apparently, he didn't consult voters and/or the history books. Color this one iffy.
NICK MANGOLD, C
The Plus: He had ability (he was named to seven Pro Bowls and four All-Pro teams in 11 seasons), and he had durability. Mangold missed only four games in his first 10 years. But there was more than just that. He was one of the two best centers in Jets' history (Kevin Mawae is the other), anchoring an offensive line that six times in 10 years ranked in the top 10 in rushing, including numero uno in 2009. What's more, he was named first-team All-Pro more (twice) than any Jet player on offense outside of former tackle Marvin Powell (three).
The Minus: He didn't play for a championship team, with the Jets missing the playoffs all but three years of his stay with them. But that's not the elephant in the room. This is: Voters have trouble warming up to centers, with only one (Dermontti Dawson) elected in the past 20 years. And they still haven't acted on Mawae, who preceded Mangold and was a first-team all-decade choice, in his four years of eligibility.
The Verdict: I heard a pair of New York broadcasters touting Mangold for Canton, saying he almost certainly would wind up there. Someone pass them the memo. There is nothing certain about centers and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Make Mangold a longshot.
JAMES HARRISON, LB
The Plus: The guy emerged out of virtually nowhere to become a key fixture on a defense that led the Pittsburgh Steelers to three Super Bowls in six years. He was a five-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro and 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as well as a two-time Super Bowl champion and the Steelers' all-time leader in sacks. And don't forget: He produced one of the greatest defensive plays in Super Bowl history with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown.
The Negative: His 84-1/2 sacks are tied for 53rd all time with Greg Ellis, and be honest with me: Do you think of Greg Ellis as a Pro Football Hall-of-Famer? Neither do I. Harrison was a pure pass rusher, yet he put up nearly half the sacks of Kevin Greene, who ranks third all time with 160 ... and waited 12 years for induction.
The Verdict: Yes, voters love edge pass rushers, but they won't love this one. In a word: No.