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Julius Peppers
Will Julius Peppers become a first-ballot Hall of Famer tonight?
The Panthers legend is in his first year of eligibility for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and tonight's announcement at NFL Honors will determine where he stands among the all-time greats.
By Darin Gantt Feb 08, 2024

LAS VEGAS — At some point around the time Julius Peppers was finishing his first stint with the Carolina Panthers, it was becoming clear that his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was a real possibility.

By the end of his second stint with the Panthers, it became clear it was a question of not if, but when.

And with the five years that have passed since he retired in the place it all started, the perspective time allows only cements the notion that he was one of the truly exceptional ones.

Tonight, we'll find out if Peppers becomes one of the elites among the elites, a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

"It's an outrage if he's not," former teammate Mike Rucker said flatly, and Rucker isn't one given to hyperbole. He saw it. He knows. It seems apparent to him, in his plain-spoken Midwestern way.

Of course, there's no shame in needing more than one year. The bronze bust at the Hall will outlive us all whether you arrive in Canton in your first year of eligibility or your fourth (like Dick "Night Train" Lane) or 14th (like Lynn Swann).

But there's something unique about the ones that take the minimum amount of time to arrive, the relatively easy decisions in a process that's supposed to be hard, and is. (Look at this year's list of 15 finalists. Don't say which one deserves to be in. Say which 10 don't.)

It's reasonable to suggest that all of this year's finalists deserve to eventually be enshrined, but only two of this year's 15 are in their first year of eligibility, Peppers and tight end Antonio Gates.

Since the Hall began identifying groups of 15 finalists in 1970 (the Hall inducted its first class in 1963), only 89 players have been picked in their first year as finalists. There are only 371 Hall of Famers total, which mean fewer than a quarter of them go in the first time.

A lot of them are guys who can be identified by one name, like Lombardi or Unitas or Butkus, or for younger viewers, Montana or Rice or Deion or Peyton. That's who we're talking about here.

So the idea of Pep joining the LTs of the word (mostly Lawrence Taylor [1999], but more recently, LaDainian Tomlinson [2017]) seems natural and deserved because, during his 17-year career, he was nothing short of a force of nature.

The stats tell the story easily enough. He finished with 159.5 sacks, fourth-most all-time, trailing Bruce Smith (first ballot), Reggie White (first ballot), and Kevin Greene (fifth).

That's the company he keeps.

First-ballot Hall of Famers by decade

1970s (15)

Hugh McElhenny, Jim Brown, Vince Lombardi, Gino Marchetti, Ollie Matson, Raymond Berry, Jim Parker, Forrest Gregg, Gale Sayers, Bart Starr, Lance Alworth, Ray Nitschke, Larry Wilson, Dick Butkus, Johnny Unitas.

1980s (16)

Deacon Jones, Bob Lilly, Jim Otto, George Blanda, Merlin Olsen, Paul Warfield, Willie Brown, O.J. Simpson, Roger Staubach, Ken Houston, Joe Greene, Jim Langer, Gene Upshaw, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw.

1990s (17)
Franco Harris, Jack Lambert, Tom Landry, Earl Campbell, John Hannah, Jan Stenerud, Dan Fouts, Chuck Noll, Walter Payton, Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Steve Largent, Don Shula, Anthony Muñoz, Mike Singletary, Eric Dickerson, Lawrence Taylor.

2000s (16)
Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana, Jackie Slater, Jim Kelly, Marcus Allen, John Elway, Barry Sanders, Dan Marino, Steve Young, Troy Aikman, Warren Moon, Reggie White, Bruce Matthews, Darrell Green, Bruce Smith, Rod Woodson.

2010s (19)
Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders, Larry Allen, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Walter Jones, Junior Seau, Brett Favre, Jason Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Brian Urlacher, Champ Bailey, Tony Gonzalez, Ed Reed.

2020s (6)

Troy Polamalu, Calvin Johnson, Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson, Darrelle Revis, Joe Thomas.

Peppers hasn't always been comfortable with that status that others see more easily, but two years ago, when he went to Canton to celebrate the induction of his former coach and fellow Panthers legend Sam Mills, you could see that defense mechanism recede a bit. 

He's always been confident in his abilities; he's always known he was excellent. But that weekend, it was as if it began to sink in how truly remarkable he was. You could see that he was beginning to realize he belonged.

And when you consider the other recent players who have gone through on the first attempt, you only then realize how truly special he is because he's better than most of them.

The last player at his position to be fast-tracked to Canton in his first year was Dolphins pass-rusher Jason Taylor. And Taylor was a fine player, one of the greats. 

But he finished his career with 139.5 sacks, six Pro Bowls, and four All-Pro mentions, and was a member of the All-Decade team for the 2000s.

Peppers finished with 159.5 sacks, nine Pro Bowls, and seven All-Pro honors and was a member of the All-Decade team for the 2000s and the 2010s. 

That's different. And that's the difference in Peppers. He didn't just burn brightly for a short time (though he did). He was incandescent for 17 years in a sport in which most players don't get to Year 4.

And that kind of longevity has already been recognized.

Two-time All-Decade Team selections

(Hall of Famers in bold)

QB Tom Brady, DE Julius Peppers, P Shane Lechler, RET Devin Hester, Coach Bill Belichick.

OT Willie Roaf, OG Larry Allen, DT Warren Sapp.

WR Jerry Rice, OT Gary Zimmerman, DE Bruce Smith, DE Reggie White, S Ronnie Lott, P Sean Landeta, K Morten Andersen, K Gary Anderson.

RB Walter Payton, G John Hannah, C Mike Webster, OLB Ted Hendricks, LB Jack Lambert, RET Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, RET Rick Upchurch, Coach Chuck Noll.

DT Bob Lilly, DT Merlin Olsen, MLB Dick Butkus, S Larry Wilson, K Jim Bakken.

By being named to those two All-Decade teams, he's already entered that subset of the greatest of the greatest. 

Only 29 players and coaches have ever made two of those. Most of them are in the Hall already. 

Other than special teamers (and again, no offense, but it's easier to punt well or return punts for more than a decade than to play defensive end), only three individuals aren't in the Hall already. 

That list includes Peppers, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady, and those other two have 15 Super Bowl titles between them and aren't eligible yet.

That kind of team success eluded Peppers, but that doesn't diminish his case. 

Teams win rings. The best of the best get bronze busts and gold jackets. 

The very best of the best receive them quickly. 

Tonight, we'll find out together whether the Hall of Fame agrees with what seems obvious to the eye — that Julius Peppers belongs in that upper room where the true legends of the game reside.

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

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