The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio is a shrine to the best to ever lace up cleats and head out onto the gridiron. Nowhere else in the world can you see as much football history in one place, from the early regional leagues all the way up to Super Bowl 50. It’s an amazing museum that every true football fan should visit at least once.
The main attraction, of course, are the enshrinees themselves—the 303 men who the elite panel of voters have determined are the best and brightest professional football has ever had to offer. Being enshrined in the Hall of Fame is the ultimate end to a player’s career, an acknowledgment that you were integral to the history of the game. The tacky gold jacket and the bronze bust are secondary to the honor of having your name listed among the greats.
The class of 2016 is a fine one, led by quarterback Brett Favre. Joining him are Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, Kevin Greene, Tony Dungy, Ken Stabler, Dick Stanfel, and Eddie DeBartolo. It’s one of the better classes to ever make the Hall and some fine choices from the selectors.
There are, however, some notable names who have yet to be elected into the Hall. Even excluding active players, or players who have not yet been retired long enough to be eligible, there are quite a few candidates who are on the outside looking in and deserve to have their cases re-examined. Some of them only recently became eligible and should make it in in the next few years. Others are lacking the top winning resumes of players like Favre or Harrison. Still others have slipped through the cracks and now need to be rescued by the veteran’s committee.
Here are the best 15 eligible players who are not yet in the Hall of Fame.
15 Rod Smith
Rod Smith was underappreciated as an active player, making the Pro Bowl only three times despite regularly ranking among the top wide receivers for nearly a decade and playing key roles on both of Denver’s Super Bowl winning teams in the 1990s. Smith is Denver’s career leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns, and he’s the only undrafted player in NFL history to top 10,000 receiving yards in his career. The College Football Hall of Fame saw how great he was and inducted him in 2009. The Denver Broncos Ring of Fame added him three years after. The receiving position has a bit of a logjam at the moment, but Smith deserves consideration.
14 Isaac Bruce
Issac Bruce has been a Hall of Fame semifinalist for the last two years, but hasn’t gotten into the final room just yet. It’s hard to see why, as a key contributor to St. Louis’ Greatest Show on Turf offense, Bruce helped set the pace for one of the most productive offenses of all time. He’s fourth on the all-time list in receiving yards with 15,208 and he’s in the top ten in raw receptions as well. Stat inflation and the rise of the passing game will make 15,000-yard receivers more common in the future, but Bruce was just the second man to hit that plateau. That’s an impressive note to have on a resume.
13 Ricky Watters
The main thing hurting Ricky Watters’ candidacy is the fact that he moved around so often in his career. Most of the voters are beat writers for local teams and they’ll fight hard for their players to make the Hall, but Watters split his career fairly evenly between San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Seattle—not staying long enough in one place to develop fierce loyalty. No matter where he was, Watters was one of the top running backs of the 1990s, just behind the Hall of Fame duo of Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders. The five-time Pro Bowler’s mouth and demeanor off the field may be hurting him, but his performance on the field was definitely Hall-worthy.
12 Steve Wisniewski
An eight-time Pro Bowler and two-time All Pro, Steve Wisniewski was a semifinalist in 2014 but hasn’t gotten any closer. A member of the Hall’s 1990s All-Decade Team, Wisniewski was a fixture at left guard for the Raiders for 13 seasons, keeping Jeff Hostetler upright and opening holes for Napoleon Kaufman. He missed only two starts in his entire career due to injury—a real iron man-type. Offensive linemen often get the short end of the stick and guards get even less acknowledgment than tackles or centers. Wisniewski is one of the top guards of all time and deserves a slot in Canton.
11 Drew Bledsoe
Ask someone to name the best quarterbacks of the ‘90s and ‘00s and you might be waiting for a while for them to get to Drew Bledsoe—and that’s just unfair. Had he not gotten injured in the 2001 season, allowing a path for a kid named Tom Brady to take his job, we might be remembering him as the QB for the Patriots’ early dynasty period. In the mid-1990s, Bledsoe was one of the top quarterbacks in the game, ending an eight-season playoff drought for New England and won two AFC Championship Games for the franchise. It’s understandable why contemporaries like Favre, Steve Young, and Troy Aikman made it into the Hall before Bledsoe did, but Bledsoe’s 44,611 passing yards deserve at least passing consideration.
10 John Hadl
Here’s one for the Seniors Committee. John Hadl was one of the top quarterbacks in the old AFL, teaming up with Lance Alworth to provide the most explosive and exciting San Diego Chargers offense of the time. He was named either an AFL All-Star or NFL Pro Bowler on six occasions, both with San Diego and later the Los Angeles Rams. You have to put his numbers in context; his 3,473 passing yards in 1968 don’t sound impressive by today’s standards, but they were the fifth-highest total ever at the time. When he retired, only Fran Tarkenton and Johnny Unitas had more career passing yards than he had—he’s an icon from the early days of the AFL who is a great candidate for one of the two yearly Senior Candidate slots moving forward.
9 Boomer Esiason
The Cincinnati Bengals have gotten the short end of the stick from the Hall of Fame, with only Anthony Munoz making it thanks to his time with the team. They’ll be on this list multiple times, with their Pro Bowl and All-Pro quarterback of the ‘80s showing up first. Boomer Esiason ran one of the most potent offenses of the 1980s, running Sam Wyche’s no-huddle offense to perfection. He was the NVL MVP in 1988 and nearly won the Super Bowl, until some Joe Montana magic ended those chances. If John Taylor doesn’t catch the winning touchdown pass, Esiason has a Super Bowl ring and maybe a spot in Canton.
8 Randall Cunningham
We finish our brief run of quarterbacks with Randall Cunningham, one of the most exciting players to ever step onto a football field. Early in his career, it looked like Cunningham was going to be a shoo-in for Hall honors when all was said and done; from 1988-1990, Cunningham took a step into an elite world, becoming the first African-American quarterback to be named a starter in the Pro Bowl and electrifying Philadelphia with his mobility and strong arm. A torn ACL the next season slowed him down, but he bounced back in Minnesota with some spectacular years in his mid-30s. Cunningham never won the official AP MVP Award, but he was given MVP nods by the Maxwell Football Club, Pro Football Writers of America, and Newspaper Enterprise Association at various points. He was Michael Vick before Michael Vick was Michael Vick, only more accurate and more athletic.
7 Kevin Mawae
Kevin Mawae has been a semifinalist in each of the last two seasons, so there’s still some hope he’ll get into the Hall sooner rather than later. He definitely has the resume to earn it; the eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All Pro served as a rock in the center of the line for both the New York Jets and Tennessee Titans. He was named to the Hall of Fame’s own 2000s All-Decade Team, too, so the voters do know how important he was on the field. Only seven modern pure centers are in the Hall of Fame and Mawae should be the eighth.
6 Jimmy Smith
The Jacksonville Jaguars are one of only two NFL teams with no representatives in the Hall of Fame. That means Jimmy Smith, a five-time Pro Bowler for the franchise, has been slighted. With a late start to his career, due to a broken leg and near fatal case of appendicitis, Smith still managed to put together an incredible career. Smith has more receiving yards than the likes of Charlie Joyner, Michael Irvin or Don Maynard, all of whom have busts in Canton. Smith’s arguably the best player in Jacksonville’s history and would be a fitting first inductee for the team.
5 Alan Faneca
Alan Faneca was eligible for the first time this year and was named a finalist, but ultimately fell short. That bolds well for his chances of eventually being elected. The nine-time Pro Bowler, six-time first-team All Pro, and member of the 2000s All-Decade Team is the best offensive lineman of his generation and one of the top ten players at any position in the NFL during his 13-year career. Once again, guards get fewer accolades than any other offensive position, but Faneca’s resume will be too much to ignore for too much longer.
4 Edgerrin James
The Indianapolis Colts high-powered offensive machine of the early 2000s had three main components. Marvin Harrison made the Hall of Fame this year. Peyton Manning will be in Canton about 30 seconds after his name comes up in 2022. That leaves Edgerrin James, who was a finalist this year but just missed the final cut. James holds every significant Colts franchise record at the running back position and was named a first-team running back on the 2000s All-Decade Team. Missing out on the Colts’ Super Bowl win dampens his candidacy some, but he should eventually find his way into the Hall.
3 Zach Thomas
I’m a little stunned Zach Thomas hasn’t made the Hall already. The seven-time Pro Bowler and five-time All Pro was a force in the middle of Miami’s defense for over a decade—he has more tackles than any linebacker currently in the Hall and was another member of that 2000s All-Decade Team. Thomas suffers a little from playing at the same time as Ray Lewis, so he’ll always be in Lewis’ shadow when it comes to middle linebackers, but he was one of the top players at his position for a very long time. I’m surprised he hasn’t been a finalist more frequently.
2 Terrell Owens
The last player in our run of 2000s All Decade Team members, Terrell Owens is a victim of the wide receiver logjam. With receiving numbers exploding in the modern era, players with statistics that would have made them shoo-ins for enshrinement a decade ago are facing a tougher time and a reluctance to induct more than one at a time has created a sort of conga-line waiting period. Owens has to wait for Marvin Harrison, who had to wait for Tim Brown, who had to wait for Andre Reed, who had to wait for Cris Carter. Owens should get his turn next season; only Jerry Rice has more receiving yards and he ranks in the top 10 in receptions and touchdowns, as well.
1 Ken Anderson
Every year, I wait to hear that the Seniors Committee has acknowledged former Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson and every year I’m disappointed. Anderson was ahead of his time; the first player to benefit from Bill Walsh’s high-accuracy passing attack. The 1981 MVP, Anderson twice led the league in passing yards and was nearly always in the top five or ten of every major passing stat, especially with unheard of completion percentages; only Drew Brees has ever topped his 70.6% number from 1982. He’s another Bengals quarterback who may have been kept out by the 49ers, as if they don’t make a fantastic goal line stand in Super Bowl XVI, Anderson has a ring and quite possibly a spot in Canton. He’s one of the most successful passers in NFL history and while it’s fair enough he had to wait for players like Dan Fouts and Terry Bradshaw to get in ahead of him, it’s long past time for the deadly-accurate and exceptionally efficient Anderson to take his rightful spot in Canton as one of the greatest to have ever played the game.