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Hall of Fame Class of 2024 offers clues for future Panthers candidates 


LAS VEGAS — When the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2024 was announced Thursday, it was a good night for the Carolina Panthers.

And not just because Julius Peppers was named to the Hall in his first year on the ballot.

The composition of the rest of the Class of 2024 offered hope for some future Panthers candidates, with precedents set and traffic cleared.

San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis going in can only be good news for Luke Kuechly. Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson going in removes a roadblock that was standing between Steve Smith Sr. and the final 15.

And with quarterback Cam Newton making the media rounds this week alluding to his playing days being done, the clock is ticking toward his eventual eligibility as well.

Carolina Panthers against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, Nov 4, 2018.

For the three of them, the best sign was clearly for Kuechly since he and Willis have practically identical resumes, other than the thing Kuechly has that Willis never achieved. 

Willis' career was cut short by injuries after just eight seasons. But he crammed a lot into those eight years. 

He was named to seven Pro Bowls and earned five first-team All-Pro recognitions. He was named defensive rookie of the year and to the All-Decade team for the 2010s.

If that sounds familiar, it should. 

Kuechly's career was cut short by injuries after just eight seasons. But he crammed a lot into those eight years. 

He was named to seven Pro Bowls and earned five first-team All-Pro recognitions. He was named defensive rookie of the year and to the All-Decade team for the 2010s.

The difference is that Kuechly also tacked an NFL defensive player of the year award in 2013 onto his resume, one of the few honors Willis never earned. 

The selection committee has inducted a number of players in recent years who didn't have the same kind of longevity as Peppers, including Jaguars tackle Tony Boselli (who played six full seasons and part of a seventh), and Broncos running back Terrell Davis (who played four full seasons, but then just 17 games over his final three years). 

If short careers were ever a deterrent, that no longer appears to be the case as long as those careers were brilliant. 

Kuechly certainly checks that box.

Steve Smith visits Julius Peppers during Panthers practice on Thursday, September 6, 2018.

For Smith, Johnson's induction at least moves him a step closer to being in the room to be discussed.

For the last three years, Johnson was in a knot with Torry Holt and Reggie Wayne in the final 15. With none of the three receivers able to work their way through the queue until Thursday night, all of them were stuck.

So Johnson moving forward helped relieve some of the pressure on that pipeline. Holt advanced to the final 10 in the voting this year and Wayne did not, creating what would appear to be a pecking order among the three receivers.

While that doesn't guarantee that Smith will advance next year (he has been a semifinalist the last three years), it at least opens a spot in the final 15. And without many automatic first-year considerations next year (other than Kuechly and perhaps Eli Manning if that's your thing), some of the holdovers could advance in the discussion. Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Hines Ward were in the final 25 this year but failed to advance to the final 15.

There's also the fact that statistically speaking, Smith is their equal or better in the major receiving categories, and like Johnson, didn't have the benefit of playing with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Smith's eighth on the all-time receiving yards list, and the only player ahead of him not in the Hall is the not-yet-eligible Larry Fitzgerald.

Carolina Panthers week 8 game against the Baltimore Ravens at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, October 28, 2018.

And then there's Newton.

He hasn't played since the end of the 2021 season after he returned to the Panthers from his one-year sabbatical with the Patriots. And it sounds like he's no longer looking for a chance to continue his career, as he has lobbied for publicly the past two years.

"I'm not a football player no more. I'm a YouTuber," Newton said in an interview with Boardroom, the media outlet owned by basketball superstar Kevin Durant.

Players are eligible for the Hall once they're five full seasons past their playing days, so Newton would be up for discussion for the Class of 2027.

While there's no reason to believe Newton will cruise through the process easily — no discussion of his on-field talent or larger-than-life personality has ever been simple — his resume dictates that he be considered.

Having an MVP award on his mantel is a big first step, along with the more subjective argument that he did things no one else has ever done.

He was the first rookie to throw for 4,000 yards in a season, and he's the league's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (75). The list of two-way quarterback records he's set (often eclipsing Hall of Famer Steve Young on those charts) is long, and his impact on the Panthers was undeniable after being the first pick in the 2011 draft.

His own injury-shortened career could work against him, especially with a long list of deserving quarterbacks on the way to the committee's docket in the coming years, with Manning (2025), along with Philip Rivers and Drew Brees (2026) coming soon. When Newton hits the ballot (assuming he doesn't play again), he'll be joined in that class by Ben Roethlisberger. So, if you think there was a traffic jam at receiver lately, those quarterback discussions could go on for years as well.

Time will tell how the selection process unfolds for those three Panthers greats, but nothing that happened in Las Vegas this week set any of them back.

View 90 photos of the legendary defensive end from his time in a Panthers uniform.

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