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Which Panther will join Sam Mills in the Hall of Fame next?


CANTON, Ohio — Sam Mills might be the first true Carolina Panther to go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he might not have to wait long for a few familiar faces.

The coming years could lead to several more Panthers legends having a shot at the sport's ultimate recognition, and it might not be long before we hear their names.

There's a reasonable shot that in the next five years, there could be two more Panthers, if not more, joining Mills in the Hall, as wide receiver Steve Smith, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Luke Kuechly, and eventually, quarterback Cam Newton will be discussed, among others.

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

Smith was eligible this year for the first time and advanced to the cut of 26 semifinalists.

While his production and toughness merit induction, Smith does face a bit of a traffic problem at his position. There were three other wide receivers in the group of 15 finalists this year — Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson, and Torry Holt, plus return man Devin Hester.

Smith is eighth on the all-time receiving yards list with 14,731 (for reference, Wayne is 10th, Johnson 11th, and Holt 15th). He also did not have the advantage of playing with a Hall of Fame quarterback during his career the way Wayne (Peyton Manning) and Holt (Kurt Warner) did.

Smith lacks as extensive a playoff resume as some of those players (again, the quarterbacks were a factor there), but he was a five-time Pro Bowler, and in 2005, he led the league in receptions, yards, and touchdowns for a team which ran more than it threw.

His case is a strong one.

Also, of the seven players ahead of Smith on the all-time yardage list, the only one who isn't in the Hall yet is Larry Fitzgerald, and that's because he's not eligible yet.

There is a much easier case for Peppers, who will be eligible for the first time in 2024.

Peppers is fourth on the league's all-time sack list with 159.5 and second all-time in forced fumbles.

A nine-time Pro Bowler, Peppers compiled a better resume based on stats alone than a number of pass-rushers who didn't have to wait long. Jason Taylor was a first-ballot selection and had 20 fewer sacks and three fewer Pro Bowls.

If precedent matters, Peppers will be joining Mills, his former coach, soon.

View photos of Luke Kuechly from his record-breaking eight seasons with the Carolina Panthers.

A more nuanced debate will begin in 2025 when Kuechly becomes eligible for the first time.

The ding on Kuechly will be that he has less of a body of work, just eight seasons in the league and 118 games.

But the Hall has overlooked longevity in favor of incandescence in recent years, with this year's induction of Tony Boselli (91 games in seven seasons) and the recent additions of players such as Terrell Davis (78 games in parts of seven seasons). Being brilliant matters as well.

Kuechly went to seven Pro Bowls in his eight seasons and was a first-team All-Pro five times. He was also the defensive rookie of the year in 2012 and the defensive player of the year in 2015.

It will be interesting to track his candidacy alongside a peer with a nearly identical resume — 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis.

Willis was a finalist for the first time this year, also pushing through the truncated career argument. He played in 112 games in eight seasons with the 49ers, also making seven Pro Bowls, and he was also a defensive rookie of the year award winner. Empirically speaking, he and Kuechly have practically identical resumes.

Cam Newton

At some point, Newton will also become a strong candidate, five years from the time when he's last active.

The former Panthers quarterback was an actual unicorn, a run-pass option without peer.

He was a three-time Pro Bowler and the league MVP in 2015 when he led the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance.

He also leads all quarterbacks in the history of the game in rushing touchdowns (and only 24 running backs in the history of the game have more than his 75 scores). No player in league history has ever had more games with a rushing and passing touchdown (ahead of some guy named Steve Young).

Of course, the clock hasn't started for Newton, and some day other Panthers players will have their candidacies weighed.

The Panthers did have some representation in the Hall prior to Mills, including Kevin Greene, former general manager Bill Polian, original team president Mike McCormack, defensive end Reggie White (who played his final season here), and safety Donnie Shell (who worked in the front office for 15 years).

But Mills had the strongest tie to the franchise of them all, and looking ahead, it doesn't appear he will have to wait long for some Carolina company.

View photos from the ceremony in Canton as Melanie Mills and Jim Mora presented Sam Mills for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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