AFC North: Walter Jones
Baltimore Ravens: Ed Reed, safety
Claim to fame: With his big-play ability and rare athleticism, Reed is arguably the best ball-hawking safety of all time. His ability to play center field and cover the entire field makes him the ideal prototype for today's NFL safeties.
Case for enshrinement: Reed is tied with Champ Bailey for second on the NFL's active interception list with 46. Reed also plays well in big games; he has seven interceptions in seven playoff appearances.
As time passes, Reed likely will be credited for the shift toward cover safeties over big hitters at the position. With recent rule changes and the explosion of the vertical passing game, lumbering safeties gradually are being phased out in favor of elite, cover athletes like Reed.
Case against enshrinement: Although Reed has won big playoff games, his résumé is missing a championship. The closest Reed got was the 2008 AFC Championship Game, a close loss to Pittsburgh.
Longevity also could be an issue. Reed, 31, contemplated retirement this offseason because he's dealing with a nerve condition in his neck. With only eight seasons under his belt, Reed is playing on a year-to-year basis and likely won't pad his numbers much longer.
Touchdown machine: Part of what makes Reed unique is his ability to turn defense quickly into offense.
Including the postseason, Reed has reached the end zone 13 times in his career -- seven interceptions, three blocked punts, two fumble returns and one punt return. Reed is a game-changer, and a strong case can be made that he's the most feared defender in NFL history with the ball in his hands.
Bottom line: Reed is a virtual lock. But a Super Bowl title and/or another productive year or two for longevity's sake would erase any remaining shred of doubt.
Claim to fame: In 2007, Ochocinco came up with a premeditated sideline celebration to wear a replica Hall of Fame jacket. Ochocinco certainly has good credentials and is one of the top receivers of his generation. But Ochocinco is perhaps most famous for his antics and unpredictable personality.
Case for enshrinement: If you focus only on production, Ochocinco's numbers stack up. The six-time Pro Bowler is just 48 yards short of 10,000 receiving yards.
Ochocinco already has more career receiving yards than current Hall of Famers Raymond Berry (9,725 yards), Fred Biletnikoff (8,974 yards), John Stallworth (8,723 yards) and Paul Warfield (8,565 yards). Ochocinco has seven 1,000-yard seasons in his nine-year career, displaying his consistency. At 32, Ochocinco still has several good years left, which will further improve his numbers.
Case against enshrinement: Perhaps the biggest case against Ochocinco is that, despite his production, he hasn't won anything. Ochocinco has zero championships and is 0-2 in playoff games. Hall of Famers Berry, Biletnikoff, Stallworth and Warfield all won titles, while Ochocinco can't get out of the first round.
Also, Ochocinco's antics and trash talk could factor into the equation. Plenty of characters have made it to Canton. But when you package Ochocinco's brash behavior with the fact that he hasn't won anything of significance, it could be a formula that keeps him on the outside looking in.
Outlasting Brett Favre: If Ochocinco had his way, he would play in the NFL for another dozen years. That's not the norm for receivers, but that would certainly help Ochocinco's candidacy.
"I'm going to play until I'm 44," Ochocinco said recently. "Forty-five is a bit far-fetched. If Favre can get to 40, I know I can get four years on him. So that will be fine."
Bottom line: If Ochocinco retired today, I don't think he gets into the Hall of Fame. But the next several years will be very important for him. A championship would help.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Hines Ward, wide receiver
Claim to fame: Ward is one of the toughest and smartest receivers to play in the NFL. He never had ideal speed, height or athleticism, but Ward continues to put up outstanding numbers. He has at least 69 receptions in nine consecutive seasons.
Case for enshrinement: Ward is Pittsburgh's all-time leader in receiving yards with 10,947 yards, ahead of Hall of Famers Stallworth and Lynn Swann.
Ward has all the qualities you look for in a Hall of Famer: He's a leader, is productive, and has high character and two Super Bowl rings. Ward also has four Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl MVP on his résumé.
Case against enshrinement: Ward's numbers are not as gaudy as some of his contemporaries. In a pass-heavy era, Ward's stats will be compared to those current receivers Terrell Owens (14,951 yards), Randy Moss (14,465 yards) and Torry Holt (13,382 yards).
Smart voters will understand that Ward played most of his career for a run-first franchise. But there's no guarantee a majority of voters will view it that way. The numbers are the numbers, detractors might argue.
On the blocks: Playing his entire career for mainly a run-first franchise, Ward became the most physical blocking receiver of all time. His blocks have caused concussions and even broken bones. A jaw-breaking hit on Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers in 2008 prompted a rule change against helmet contact from the blind side, often called the "Hines Ward rule."
Bottom line: Ward will be a unique player to gauge when it comes to pure numbers. But owning Pittsburgh's key receiving records and winning a second Super Bowl after the 2008 season should put him over the hump.
Claim to fame: In just three seasons, Thomas already has three Pro Bowls on his résumé. With the recent retirement of the Seattle Seahawks' Walter Jones, Thomas is the new favorite to claim the title of the NFL's best left tackle.
Case for enshrinement: For starters, Thomas is batting 1.000 when it comes to making Pro Bowls. If he keeps up that pace for his career, a trip to Canton will be assured.
Thomas also is just entering his prime. At 25, he only will get better over the next several seasons. The surest way to the Hall of Fame is being the best position player of your era, and Thomas has a chance to do that.
Case against enshrinement: The Hall of Fame always has been a combination of individual and team success. So far, Thomas is severely lacking the latter.
Playing for the lowly Browns might be the only roadblock to Canton for Thomas. He's already one of the least publicized elite players in the NFL. The Browns are 19-29 in Thomas' three seasons and have zero playoff appearances. Staying healthy also will be key.
Thomas speaks: The AFC North blog caught up with Thomas during Cleveland's mandatory minicamp and asked him about his potential path to the Hall of Fame.
"My goal coming in was to be a Hall of Famer," Thomas said. "If you want to be in the Hall of Fame, there’s two important things: Super Bowls and Pro Bowls. So I'm on the right track with Pro Bowls. I have to start winning some Super Bowls and put some more Pro Bowls on top of that. Then you can start talking about the Hall of Fame."
Bottom line: It's way too early, but Thomas is on the right path.
|Diamond Images/Getty Images|
|Cleveland tackle Joe Thomas allowed just one sack in his rookie season.|
The AFC North version of the Blog Network caught up with Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas to discuss, among other things, which defenses give him the most trouble and why so many Browns enjoy fishing.
1. Joe, which team has the toughest defense?
Joe Thomas: Baltimore, they have the best personnel in the NFL on defense, no question. You just look at all the guys that made the Pro Bowl. It's sick how many great players they have. They probably have three of four guys that are going to the Hall of Fame, so they're unbelievable. And Pittsburgh is tough. The rivalry adds to it a little bit but their motto is just to hit you in the mouth. Every play is a fistfight in the back lot. It's just full-on collisions every play.
2. Who has the better TV show: Joe Thomas or Joshua Cribbs?
JT: (Smiles) Well...mine, obviously. That's an easy one. It's because the host is better.
3. Word around camp is you caught a 48-inch fish recently.
JT: Yeah, that was the biggest I've ever seen. This was actually a week before training camp. It was a super hot, calm day. We went down to the West Branch Reservoir near Kent, Ohio. We met up with a local guy down there. I hooked it, netted it in and it was unbelievable.
4. Did you eat it?
JT: Nah, we put it back in the water. We took some pictures and then released it. With those big ones, you want to let them grow and breed more fish for the next time. Now he's probably 50 inches and he's got kids that are 40 inches.
5. Several players on your team fish. What is it about fishing that draws you and your teammates in?
JT: I think it's kind of a release from your normal, day-to-day things. It gives you a chance to relax and get your mind off the game of football, because you need that. You need that in order to keep your sanity. You can't think about football 24 hours a day for 365 days. There is just something that's relaxing about being out on a boat on a lake.
(Writer's disclaimer: OK, so Thomas and I couldn't stop talking. We hope you don't mind).
6. Looking at the stats, you gave up one sack last year. What in the world happened? Do you still have nightmares about that one play?
JT: (Laughs) It was in the snow game against Buffalo, and me and Eric (Steinbach) got caught twisting and it was just poor technique. I guess I don't really have nightmares about that one, because it was so slippery and snowy that our technique just went out the window. That was probably a bad thing.
7. Who was the player?
JT: It was actually Aaron Schobel, so I don't feel too bad. He's a great defensive end and he made it to the Pro Bowl. But it's always something that you think about.
8. How can you get better in your second year?
JT: You can always get better. Even the great ones like Walter Jones and Jonathan Ogden, they can do something better. My coach told me in the offseason that he wants me to get 10-15 percent better. Everything you did poorly -- run or pass technique-wise or mental errors of blocking the wrong guy -- those are the corrections that you need to make if you want to make that improvement.
9. Who do you feel is the NFL's best left tackle?
JT: Still playing? Walter Jones. The thing about Walter, like all great players, he just makes it look easy. He's so smooth and effortless. He's so big, so strong and so quick. That's what makes a great lineman. If you try to go around him, he's too quick and too fast. If you try to run him over and you just don't get through because he's so strong. Not only that but he uses great technique. He's a great player for a lot of young guys to watch. He's as close to flawless as there is out there.