NFC North: Calling Canton

Adrian PetersonDennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireAdrian Peterson's career is off to a hot start, but he still has work to do to become a Hall of Famer.
Last in a series on NFC North players whose career trajectories put them on a path to consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame:

Of the five players profiled in this project, Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson might be the most accomplished relative to his career span. And yet his case exemplifies, more than any other, the difficulty of separating yourself as one of the all-time elites at your position.

Peterson has effected one of the most productive starts to a career for any running back in NFL history. And still, he'll probably need to repeat that output to land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

As the first two charts show, Peterson rushed for more yards (5,782) in his first four seasons than all but five running backs in NFL history and more touchdowns (52) than all but four. That measure quantifies what we already knew: Peterson has been the best back in the NFL over the past four years. It also gives us some perspective on how the start of his career compares to the best who ever played the game.

But four years of elite play doesn't necessarily qualify a running back for the Hall of Fame, not when players like Emmitt Smith endured for 15 years or Marcus Allen for 16 or Walter Payton for 13. The threshold for Hall of Fame running backs is the ability to sustain near-elite production beyond the short career arcs of most players at the position.

The next chart shows the 13 Hall of Fame running backs whose careers took place mostly in the post-merger era. Eleven eclipsed the 11,000-yard mark, and the two that didn't -- Larry Csonka and Earl Campbell -- were enshrined amid understandable mitigating factors. Csonka was the lead runner for the best team in NFL history, the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Campbell's white-hot career was cut short after 115 games.

Let's say Peterson doubles his current rushing total to get to 11,564 career yards. Currently, there are 18 players who rushed for at least 11,000 yards. Of the seven who aren't in the Hall of Fame, only two are eligible. Curtis Martin (14,101) and Jerome Bettis (13,662 yards) missed out in their first year of eligibility in January, but both seem likely to be elected within a few years.

Of course, it will be no small feat for Peterson to double his total -- and it isn't likely to come in the four years it took him to get this far. Take another look at the first two charts, which illustrate the historical company Peterson has kept early in his career.

Quite simply, running back is a brutal position. Terrell Davis rushed for a stunning 6, 413 yards during his first four seasons with the Denver Broncos. Slowed dramatically by health issues, Davis managed only 1,194 yards during the final four seasons of his career.

Another former Broncos running back, Clinton Portis, rushed for 5,930 yards in his first four seasons and 3,993 in the five seasons since.

It's possible that history will grade Davis and Portis with a "Broncos curve," a reference to the annual success of running backs in the system of former coach Mike Shanahan. Regardless, both had more production in their first four years than Peterson but slipped off that Hall of Fame pace thereafter.

Since the moment he arrived in the NFL, Peterson has drawn comparisons to Campbell, Eric Dickerson and some of the NFL's other all-time great running backs. His production over that stretch, relative to their early career performances, has justified those associations.

But there is a reason why football people caution such early comparisons with Hall of Famers. Even the all-time greats slow down in the second half of their careers. But importantly, they still reel off a number of highly productive seasons after their early explosions.

Dickerson rushed for 6,291 yards over his final seven seasons after opening his career with 6,968 yards in his first four. Jumping ahead, the still-active LaDainian Tomlinson has rushed for 7,505 yards over six seasons after amassing 5,899 yards in his first four.

So let's arbitrarily say Peterson's cumulative production drops by 25 percent over the next four seasons. That means he averages 1,083 yards per season instead of his current 1,445. At that relatively optimistic rate, Peterson would need to play at least five more full seasons to eclipse 11,000 yards and demonstrate the kind of production over time that would give him the Hall of Fame spot he has positioned himself for.

Obviously, voters don't hold fast to the 11,000-yard barrier and have been known to consider mitigating circumstances. Campbell, for example, took a bruising 1,404 carries in his first four seasons. That's an average of 50 more per season than Peterson has taken, and it almost assuredly contributed to Campbell's short career.

It's easy to say that Adrian Peterson just needs to keep on running like Adrian Peterson in order to make the Hall of Fame. The history of running backs suggests he will slow down at some point in the next four years. The question is how much Peterson produces at a lower rate. To me, another five seasons of 75 percent Adrian Peterson should do the trick.

Earlier: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has put himself on the path toward Canton. Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers and the Vikings' Jared Allen face stiff competition. Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson has all the credentials. Packers cornerback Charles Woodson is a lock.
Charles WoodsonJeff Hanisch/US PresswireCharles Woodson's longevity and nose for the ball have him on the path for the Hall of Fame.
Another in a series on NFC North players whose career trajectories put them on a path to consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

All of our previous Calling Canton nominees carry some kind of caveat among their credentials. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been a starter for just three seasons. Defensive ends Julius Peppers (Chicago Bears) and Jared Allen (Minnesota Vikings) fall in a category that hasn't always rewarded high-sack producers. Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson plays an uncelebrated position amid some equally talented contemporaries.

I don't know that we'll find a substantive flaw in the candidacy of Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, however. Packers columnist Vic Ketchman recently suggested Woodson will win election on the first ballot he appears. It's always difficult to predict the first-ballot tendencies of voters, but I'm guessing Ketchman's perspective reflects that of the football establishment: It would be a stunner if Woodson isn't inducted soon after his career ends.

Why such a slam-dunk case? In 13 career seasons, Woodson has already put himself in the appropriate statistical range for Hall of Fame cornerbacks. He has enough interceptions. His coverage skills have never been in question. He won a defensive player of the year award at age 33, a testament to the longevity of his elite skills, and has a particular talent -- stripping the ball -- to hang his figurative hat on.

That's my case in a nutshell, but let's examine the details:

  • Fair or otherwise, interceptions are always a key measure for defensive backs. Woodson has 47, which places him No. 49 on the NFL's all-time list. Obviously, interceptions don't tell the whole story. But as the first chart shows, there are 11 Hall of Fame players who spent their careers almost exclusively at cornerback. The range for their career interceptions is 46-68. To me, that tells us Woodson's low(er) interception total, which should grow as his career concludes and is based at least in part on how often teams throw his way, won't hold him back.
  • Interceptions aside, Woodson has risen to near the top of several all-time NFL lists. His 10 interception returns for a touchdown ranks No. 3 all-time, behind Rod Woodson (12) and Darren Sharper (11). And Woodson has more forced fumbles (27) than any other cornerback in NFL history, according to the database at pro-football-reference.com.
  • Forced fumble records don't go back more than a few decades, as you probably noticed if you followed the link to the database. Even so, we can safely say Woodson is the best of several generations and one of the best ever. A forced fumble is less valuable than an interception, because it still requires recovery to qualify as a turnover. Regardless, the candidacy of any potential Hall of Fame player is buoyed by a skill that stands out from his peers. Woodson without question has that.
  • The performance that led to his 2009 DPOY award provides a strong illustration for Woodson's multi-faceted success. That season, he became the fourth player in NFL history to record at least nine interceptions and two sacks in a season. Against the Detroit Lions, Woodson became the first player in league history to record two interceptions, a touchdown return, a sack and a fumble recovery in the same game.
  • There is no reliable way to quantify a player's coverage skills. But throughout his career, Woodson has been well-known for his instincts, ball skills and physicality at the line. Scouts Inc.'s report on Woodson includes these plaudits: "Woodson does a great a great job anticipating break points and jumping routes. He does a great job at jamming and rerouting his opponent off the line of scrimmage in press coverage." And lest anyone doubt his one-on-one skills, go back and watch the play Woodson broke his collarbone on in Super Bowl XLV. He was running stride for stride with Pittsburgh Steelers speedster Mike Wallace, who, among other things, is 10 years younger.

As with our other Calling Canton posts, I think it's important to measure Woodson against his contemporaries, knowing that only the best of any given era typically find their way to the Hall.

Woodson was one of four cornerbacks to make the NFL's all-decade team for the 2000s, joining Ronde Barber, Champ Bailey and Ty Law. As the chart shows, Woodson has three more interceptions than Law and trails Bailey by one. Current stars Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha will also enter the conversation at some point but will need several more years of sustained success to do it.

It's also important to note that since he entered the league in 1998, Woodson has more forced fumbles than any player -- at any position -- other than safety Brian Dawkins. Typically speaking, linebackers and safeties should have more opportunities to force a fumble than a cornerback. Woodson's numbers in that category are a testament to his all-around play and should be a big part of any argument for his inclusion on the first Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot he is eligible for.

Earlier: Rodgers has put himself on the path toward Canton. Peppers and Allen face stiff competition. Hutchinson has all the credentials.
Steve HutchinsonTony Medina/Icon SMISteve Hutchinson has been named to seven Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams during his career.
Another in a series on NFC North players whose career trajectories put them on a path to consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Of all positions and players we'll discuss in "Calling Canton," offensive line and Minnesota Vikings guard Steve Hutchinson will be the most difficult to quantify.

Offensive linemen compile no individual statistics. Evaluating them objectively is nearly impossible, and even subjective analysis is tricky. You could hand three knowledgeable football people a tape of an offensive lineman and get three different opinions. Knowing assignments and understanding the level of surrounding competence is crucial.

On top of it all, guard is the least visible position among the offensive line. Centers are typically leaders, make judgeable line calls and are the glue of a line. Tackles are scrutinized for their pass protection against elite rushers. Guards? They're in between, and that's part of why the Seattle Seahawks thought they could protect Hutchinson with a transition tag prior to his entrance into free agency six years ago.

Given that context, Hutchinson's 11-year career has without question has put him into discussion for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He has been named to seven Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro teams. He didn't miss a game during his first 10 1/2 seasons. His teams have had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of his 10 full seasons and the NFL named him to its all-decade team for the 2000s.


As the chart shows, Hutchinson's postseason honors puts him in stride with the eight post-merger guards who have been enshrined. (For the purposes of this list, I left out two players: Billy Shaw, whose career ended in 1969, a year before the AFL-NFL merger, and Bruce Matthews, who played more than half of his career games at a position other than guard.)

For Hutchinson, the most relevant questions will be how he is judged against his contemporaries and how long he must wait to get the voting committee's attention.

On the latter, we should remember that even the best guards in NFL history had to be patient. Russ Grimm was enshrined last summer, 19 years after he retired. It took Larry Little 13 years to get in. Randall McDaniel and Mike Munchak waited eight years.

On the former, we can debate who Hutchinson's contemporaries should be. For now, let's consider the other three guards the NFL named to its all-decade team for the 2000s.
Considering the voting committee has elected eight guards in 41 post-merger years, it might be tough for all four guards of the 2000s to make it to Canton. More than with some other positions, the presentations and first-person testimonials given on behalf of Hutchinson, Allen, Shields and Faneca will play a big role. We can't predict the content of future election meetings, of course, but we can with some confidence state that Hutchinson has had a Hall of Fame-like career. His due seems mostly a matter of timing.

Earlier: Aaron Rodgers has put himself on the path toward Canton. Pass-rushers Julius Peppers and Jared Allen face stiff competition.
Jared Allen and Julius PeppersUS PresswireWill Canton make room for predominant pass-rushers Jared Allen and Julius Peppers?
Another in a series on NFC North players whose career trajectories put them on a path to consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

NFL teams value pass-rushing more than any skill outside of quarterbacking, and here in the NFC North we have two of the best of this generation. Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers (89 career sacks) and Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen (83) have outright dominated many games during their careers. But is either on track for future enshrinement in Canton, Ohio?

My short answer: It could go either way.

Sacks didn't become an official statistic until 1982. In reviewing how Hall of Fame voters have judged pass-rushers since then, a few tenets seem clear:

  1. Sack totals alone, no matter how high, don't guarantee enshrinement. Otherwise, linebacker Kevin Greene (currently a Green Bay Packers assistant coach) and defensive end Chris Doleman would have been elected a long time ago. Greene has 160 career sacks, the third-most in NFL history. Doleman's 150.5 rank No. 5. They are two of 25 players with 100 or more career sacks, and eight of those 25 are in the Hall of Fame.
  2. The first chart is a list of the eight Hall of Fame defensive linemen and linebackers whose careers took place during the sack era. I included Oakland Raiders defensive lineman Howie Long and New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, whose careers began in 1981, and eliminated Bears linebacker Mike Singletary because pass-rushing wasn't much of a factor in his enshrinement. All but Long had at least 100 sacks. So although 100-plus sacks doesn't guarantee enshrinement, it's almost always a prerequisite. There is every reason to believe that Peppers, who is 31, and Allen, 29, can and will pass that milestone.
  3. Voters clearly perform a subjective judgment to determine which players with high sack totals deserve enshrinement. Generally speaking, players who seem classified as "pure" pass-rushers, including Greene and Doleman, face a higher bar than those who were more generally regarded as "havoc-wreakers." Examples: Long, Andre Tippett, Taylor, Rickey Jackson and John Randle.

Given their career arcs, both Peppers and Allen might have to justify a "havoc-wreaker" enshrinement. They've got good chances to break the 100-sack barrier, but how much further will they go? Peppers could reach Randle-Taylor-Richard Dent territory by averaging 10 sacks a year for the next five seasons. I would say that 50 sacks between the ages of 31 and 36 represents the high end of what Peppers might achieve.

Allen is 2 years younger, and a similar 50-sack run over the next five years could put him in the same territory by 34. That's a reasonable projection, but I wonder whether voters will discard Allen into the "pure pass-rusher" category that currently houses Greene, Doleman, Leslie O'Neal (137.5 career sacks), Simeon Rice (122) and Clyde Simmons (121.5).

One gauge to consider is ESPN.com's positional power rankings, although I recognize that it simply represents the thoughts of eight slappy bloggers. (But remember, Hall of Fame election is determined by 44 other slappy writers and broadcasters.) Allen was rated as the No. 4 pass-rusher but didn't receive a single vote for best defensive player.

For what it's worth, Peppers ranked No. 8 on the overall defensive player list. And I found it interesting last week that when asked to name the NFL's best player at the moment, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher quickly responded: "Peppers."

In an admittedly subjective question, I ask: If Peppers and Allen finish their careers with similar sack totals, who is more likely to be elected to the Hall of Fame? I'm going to guess Peppers, barring a dramatic career arc adjustment for either player.

Comparing current players to Hall of Famers is only part of the discussion, however. As we noted in our post on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, candidates also must be compared to their contemporaries. In theory, only those who dominated their respective eras should be enshrined.

Our next two charts address that topic.

Since he entered the league in 2002, Peppers ranks third in sacks. Allen, meanwhile, has more sacks than any other NFL player since he was drafted in 2004.

So let's say Peppers and Allen finish their careers in the 130-140 sack range. Both will have been among the most productive pass-rushers of their time, but they'll also be "competing" against a number of contemporaries with similar credentials. We of course hope that all deserving players eventually get in, but the definition of "deserving" can be relative.

To that end, it should be noted that defensive end Michael Strahan (141.5 sacks) would seem relatively assured of enshrinement. End/linebacker Jason Taylor (132.5) and Dwight Freeney (94) also will be considered.

Both Peppers and Allen have potential career spans long enough to settle this debate definitively on their own. But as it stands now, with Peppers entering his 10th season and Allen his eighth, we can say they've done enough to enter the Hall of Fame conversation. Both have more work to do, and it needs to be at the same standard they've set thus far.

Earlier: Rodgers has put himself in on the path toward Canton.
RodgersIcon SMIAaron Rodgers is on pace for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but can he keep it up?
First in a series on NFC North players whose career trajectory puts them on a path to consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Every summer, the Pro Football Hall of Fame welcomes a new class of elite achievers behind its sacred walls. Some were destined for the honor from the moment they entered the NFL. Others blossomed later in their careers, and a few benefited from adjusted judgments over time.

No matter the parameters, I want to use this slow(er) time of the year to consider the nascent candidacies of our most prominent NFC North players. We could easily generate a list of a half-dozen or so players who deserve inclusion in this discussion. I have some thoughts, but your nominations are welcome (via the mailbag.) We'll start, however, with a player who has opened his career with a performance that rivals any put forth by the most recent inductees at his position.

In his first three years as a starter, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has played at a Hall of Fame pace. He is nowhere close to achieving the career milestones that would qualify him for enshrinement, but that is a function of time and not performance.

In researching this topic, I isolated Rodgers' combined production during the 2008, 2009 and 2010 seasons. I then compared it to the first three full-time seasons of the past seven quarterbacks to enter the Hall of Fame. (Pro-football-reference.com has an excellent database for this kind of exercise.)

The results:

Some thoughts:

  • Rodgers started 47 of a possible 48 games over this period, more than every Hall of Famer we compared him to. That alone gave him the opportunity for better raw production. It's also fair to point out that Rodgers spent the first three seasons of his career in development on the sideline, a luxury none of the other quarterbacks received. But no matter how you look at it, Rodgers threw for more yards in his first three seasons as a starter than any of the past seven quarterbacks who have been enshrined.
  • Also consider that Rodgers threw for more touchdowns than all but Dan Marino, had a better completion percentage and passer rating than all but Steve Young, and tied Young for the fewest number of interceptions. Rodgers and Joe Montana were the only quarterbacks in this group to win a Super Bowl during one of his first three years as a starter.
  • In some cases, it was difficult to find perfect apples-to-apples comparisons. I skipped Young's tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and in the USFL, instead using the first three seasons after he replaced Montana as the San Francisco 49ers' starter. Young was 30 years old at the time and seven years removed from his entrance into pro football. I also skipped Montana's mostly inactive first season with the 49ers, but his sample size was still limited to 32 starts because of the 1982 NFL players strike.

Many of you will rightfully note the NFL's recent shift toward passing offenses and suggest that Rodgers' raw production is in part a product of his era. Fair point. To address it, I looked at three contemporaries whose advanced careers make them near-locks for election. In the second chart, you'll see how Rodgers' first three years stack up against the same span for Brett Favre, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. As you can see, the start of Rodgers' career compares favorably to each player:

Let's be clear here. Just about every quarterback on this list improved in a substantive way over the course of his career. The rest maintained an extraordinary level of consistency over a decade or more. Rodgers already has the highest passer rating in the history of the NFL for quarterbacks with at least 1,000 attempts. It's unreasonable to expect a significant surge in his raw numbers, and so a comparison after six years might look a little different.

While we're mentioning caveats, it's only fair to point out that some of the other quarterbacks -- especially Troy Aikman, John Elway and Peyton Manning -- opened their careers on struggling and/or rebuilding teams. Rodgers, on the other hand, took over a team that had advanced to the NFC Championship Game the season before.

These permutations shouldn't detract from what Rodgers has done, however. His early career deserves to be placed among those who ultimately proved to be among the best ever. Whether he continues on to Canton will be a function of his health and continued elite play for perhaps another five to seven years. That isn't an afterthought. Put another way, Rodgers probably needs to put together two more three-year stretches like the one he has just finished to put himself in strong position for the Hall of Fame.

Of all the careers I looked at, Young's might provide the best parallel. Like Rodgers, Young got a later start. In essence, Young put together seven elite seasons as the 49ers starter, playing until he was 38 to get to that point. He was on three Super Bowl championship teams but the starter on just one.

Obviously, there are differences between Young's history and Rodgers. But we know this: Rodgers has put himself on the path to Canton, and if you want to see how he can complete that journey, take a look at Young's history.

We'll continue taking a look at other NFC North players in a similar position as the summer continues.

The floor is yours.

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