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With Julius Peppers eligible next year, Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2023 offers clues

Julius Peppers

CHARLOTTE — When the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its class of 2023 Thursday night, it didn't include any former Panthers.

But the construction of the class did suggest what could be coming in future years — or not coming for a moment — for some of Carolina's former stars.

The five modern-era candidates chosen to join the Hall included cornerback Darrelle Revis, offensive tackle Joe Thomas, defensive end DeMarcus Ware, linebacker Zach Thomas, and cornerback Ronde Barber, along with coach Don Coryell and seniors Joe Klecko, Ken Riley, and Chuck Howley.

That list, and the players not on that list, could be signals for Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers and wide receiver Steve Smith Sr..

Peppers will be eligible for the first time next year, and his resume suggests it won't be a long wait.

He retired with 159.5 sacks, which is fourth in NFL history. He trails only Bruce Smith (200.0), Reggie White (198.0), and Kevin Greene (160.0) on the all-time list, all of whom are already in the Hall. Peppers was named to the Pro Bowl nine times, and earned six All-Pro recognitions.

While his numbers alone make it clear he'll be in the Hall, recent classes underscore why he has an excellent shot next year.

With Ware (138.5 career sacks, ninth all-time) going in on his second year of eligibility, Jason Taylor (139.5, seventh) going in on the first ballot in 2017, and Michael Strahan (141.5, sixth) going in on his second year of eligibility in 2014, a precedent has been established at the position.

If top pass-rushers go in that quickly, it seems reasonable that a guy with much better numbers should as well.

Peppers also has the benefit of longevity, as he's among a select group of players to make the league's All-Decade teams twice, in the 2000s and the 2010s.

The only other players to join him on those two lists were quarterback Tom Brady, return specialist Devin Hester, and punter Shane Lechler.

For reference, tackle Willie Roaf, guard Larry Allen, and defensive tackle Warren Sapp made the All-Decade teams in the 1990s and 2000s. All three are in the Hall of Fame. Brady will go in as soon as he's eligible, Hester's been a finalist for the last two years, and there's only one punter in the Hall (Ray Guy).

A look at some of the best pictures of Steve Smith Sr. during his career with the Panthers.

For Smith, on the other hand, this year's class didn't bring welcome news.

No receivers from the group which includes Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, and Torry Holt were chosen this year, meaning they'll likely be back next year among the finalists for another round of (seemingly) deadlocked discussions. They each have their own cases, and reasonable minds can disagree about the order.

The problem is the quantity, not the quality.

Johnson will be in his third year as a finalist next year, and Wayne and Holt will be back for the fifth time each.

It's similar to the logjam of the early-2010s, when receivers Cris Carter, Andre Reed, and Tim Brown were stuck together.

It took Carter until his sixth year of eligibility to get elected in 2013, and then Reed went through in his eighth year in 2014, and then Brown in his sixth year in 2015. For three years, they were all finalists without being voted in (2010-12), and once one broke through, the rest followed quickly.

It's possible that until at least one of the Johnson-Wayne-Holt trio is chosen, Smith might not even make the finalist discussion.

His numbers suggest he's certainly deserving of consideration.

Table inside Article
Player Games Receptions Receiving yards Receiving TDs
Steve Smith 219 1,031 (12th) 14,731 (8th) 81 (30th)
Reggie Wayne 211 1,070 (10th) 14,345 (10th) 82 (28th)
Andre Johnson 193 1,062 (11th) 14,185 (11th) 70 (49th)
Torry Holt 173 920 (22nd) 13,382 (17th) 74 (40th)

He's one of only four players to win the triple crown (leading the league in receptions, yards, and touchdowns), which he did in 2005 when he had 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The other three players to pull that off had considerably better supporting casts and situations. Jerry Rice, in 1990, had Joe Montana at quarterback. Sterling Sharpe, in 1992, was coached by Mike Holmgren and had Brett Favre throwing it to him. Cooper Kupp, in 2021, had Sean McVay and Matt Stafford.

Smith, on the other hand, had John Fox and Jake Delhomme and played on a team that actually had more rushing attempts (487) than pass attempts (449) that year.

In terms of total numbers, Smith has a solid case. He's eighth on the league's all-time receiving yards list (14,731), and the only player ahead of him there who is not already in the Hall is the not-yet-eligible Larry Fitzgerald. So he's ahead of Johnson, Wayne, and Holt there. Smith's 12th on the all-time receptions list (1,031), where he trails Wayne (1,070, 10th) and Johnson (1,062, 11th) but sits ahead of Holt (920, 22nd).

Smith doesn't have a Super Bowl ring, or a Hall of Fame quarterback teammate, so Wayne and Holt will stay ahead of him in those rankings.

Smith has been gracious about his place in the line and those ahead of him, but his resume stands on its own and will be judged in due time.

This year, all three of the receivers in the discussion made the cut from the final 15 to the final 10, along with cornerback Albert Lewis (in his final year of eligibility as a modern candidate so he won't be back next year) and pass-rusher Jared Allen.

But in 2022, Johnson made the cut to the final 10, while Holt and Wayne did not get that far. Often, players who reach the final 10 but aren't elected stand solid chances the following year. That could bode well for one or more of them, especially with a shorter list of top first-year eligible names.

Other than Peppers, tight end Antonio Gates is the only other player up for the first time next year who has been on an All-Decade team.

Luke Kuechly

The Panthers will also have linebacker Luke Kuechly eligible for the first time in 2025, and his case also has a contemporary parallel.

San Francisco's Patrick Willis also made seven Pro Bowls in eight years in the league, with a career also cut short by injuries. They were both on the All-Decade team for the 2010s, both were defensive rookies of the year, and both were five-time first-team All-Pros. Kuechly has a defensive player of the year award, which is effectively the only difference in their cases.

Willis has been among the final 15 each of the last two years.

Inside linebackers have been elected each of the last two cycles (Zach Thomas this year and Sam Mills in 2022), and the queue of receivers could impact the candidacies of players at every other position in future years.

Willis was among the players who made the top 15 but failed to reach the final 10 this year, along with Hester, Dwight Freeney, Willie Anderson, and Darren Woodson.

View photos of defensive end Julius Peppers throughout his decorated NFL career.

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