New England Patriots

New England Patriots

New England Patriots

On Thursday night, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced the incoming Class of 2023. The modern-era class consists of former Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis, as well as tackle Joe Thomas, defensive end DeMarcus Ware, linebacker Zach Thomas, and cornerback Ronde Barber. Revis and Joe Thomas were selected in their first year of eligibility.

All five players are certainly deserving, coming from a competitive list of 15 finalists. Some worthy players were certainly going to be left out, but for the second year in a row one omission is especially glaring.

  • For the second year in a row, in his second year of eligibility, long-time Chicago Bears kick returner Devin Hester was left as the finalist stage. The greatest return man in the history of the sport will have to wait another year before taking his rightful place in Canton.

    Hester’s Hall of Fame resume is, seemingly, impeachable. Only 10 players in the history of the league have returned over 300 punts and he has the best average of all of them, at 11.7 yards per return. His 14 punt return touchdowns are also an NFL record, as are his four separate seasons with multiple punt return touchdowns.

    Among kick returners, he is also one of this best. He’s seventh all-time in return average, and sixth in regular season touchdowns with five. But perhaps his greatest and most notable moment came on a kick return, meeting sky-high expectations when he housed the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI as a rookie. For all but one of their ensuing kickoffs, the Colts kicked the ball short, ceding the yards in the biggest game of the year rather than risk giving Hester another chance.

  • MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 04:  Kick returner Devin Hester #23 of the Chicago Bears returns the opening kickoff 92-yards for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

    MIAMI GARDENS, FL – FEBRUARY 04: Kick returner Devin Hester #23 of the Chicago Bears returns the opening kickoff 92-yards for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLI on February 4, 2007 at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

  • Hester getting snubbed is unfortunate, but not surprising. The modern-era selection committee has made its share of head-scratching decisions in recent years, from putting Marin Harrison is over Terrell Owens head-to-head, to repeatedly leaving Rodney Harrison short of even the finalist stage (something I have ranted on regularly), and more.

    But a troubling theme is the lack of recognition for players who play more individualized roles. As the game has become more specialized, the skill sets of each position have diversified. Yet the Hall has to this point been hesitant to put such players in. If that continues, this trend could impact some former Patriots who are currently or soon-to be eligible for Canton.

    In one sense, that applies to players like Hester. Kickoff and punt return specialists were not as prevalent in the past. Hester was officially listed as a ‘wide receiver,’ but nobody is saying he should be in for the way he impacted the game on offense. Kickoff returner may not be one of the first positions in the sport that comes to mind, but it does deserve to be recognized as its own position if played at a high-enough level – as Hester did.

    Of course, the Patriots have arguably the greatest non-kicker/punter special teams player of all time in Matthew Slater. Slater has made a record 10 Pro Bowls at his position, is a five-time All-Pro, and is widely regarded by players, coaches, and other experts as being the greatest in the history of the game at what  he does. There are some parallels between his and Hester’s cases, and Hester now moving on to his third ballot doesn’t bode well for Slater.

  • Matthew Slater #18 of the New England Patriots celebrates after a missed field goal by the New York Jets during the first half at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    Matthew Slater #18 of the New England Patriots celebrates after a missed field goal by the New York Jets during the first half at Gillette Stadium on October 24, 2021 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

  • Hester’s snub goes beyond just the special teams hesitancy though. It shows there’s still a reluctance to put more modern-prototype players in Canton.

    That applies to the way prototypes have grown at traditional positions. There is no longer a singular ‘mold’ of player at most positions, as there may have been 20-plus years ago. A running back may now contribute as much or more as a pass catcher than as a pure rusher. The days of bellcow backs and measuring success exclusively by 1,000-yard seasons are over. Players like Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara – while not automatic Hall of Famers – are considered two of the best backs in the game right now but have just two total 1,000-yard rushing seasons between them.

    This trend has been an issue for a while, dating back to Larry Centers. Centers has the most catches by a back in league history, and his 827 receptions ranked seventh overall in league history when he retired. More modern receiving backs such at Tiki Barber (5th all-time in RB receptions, while also having over 10,000 rushing yards) and Matt Forte (most receptions by a running back in a single season, 8th overall) have also failed to even get close. Darren Sproles, who is 10th all-time in running back receptions and was also a great returner, will be eligible for the first time next year.

    Wide receiver is another position that has seen this kind of positional specialty take over. ‘Traditional’ wide receivers are over 6 feet tall, play exclusively on the boundary, and are big play threats. Yet the last 15-20 years have seen the rise in smaller, shiftier slot receivers. Those players have dominated the game as much if not more than some of the big guys.

    One of the first players to really shine in that role was Wes Welker. From 2007-2013, Welker had 745 receptions – 50 more than the next-closest player in that span as the played the most involved receiver role in some of the best offenses in NFL history. His 903 career catches rank 22nd all-time. Yet in three years on the ballot, he’s yet to reach even the semifinalist stage. He was unquestionably dominant, but not in the way a ‘traditional’ wide receiver would be.

    As a result, Walker has yet to even make the semifinalist round in his three years on the ballot. Two receivers who at times played similar roles – Hines Ward and Steve Smith – were both left off at the semifinalist round this year.

    Welker’s case (as well as some of these other players) also informs us of how the committee will likely view Julian Edelman’s case. The two were very similar players – Welker had better numbers but Edelman is one of the greatest playoff performers in the history of the sport. Still, both seem like they’ll be on the outside looking in given the history of how the selection process has operated.

  • EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 22: Wide receiver Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots celebrates with teammate Wes Welker #83 after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter of a game at MetLife Stadium on November 22, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Patriots defeated the Jets 49-19. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)

    EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – NOVEMBER 22: Wide receiver Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots celebrates with teammate Wes Welker #83 after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter of a game at MetLife Stadium on November 22, 2012 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Patriots defeated the Jets 49-19. (Photo by Rich Schultz /Getty Images)

  • Positional values have come into play too. Logan Mankins, who was named to seven-consecutive All-Pro teams as well as the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade team, yet has failed to even make the finalist stage since becoming eligible in 2020. Despite being arguably the best guard of his era, he’s struggled to gain ground simply because of the position he plays. In total, the modern-era committee has elected just two true guards since 2015. The Senior Committee has put in just any many players at that position in that time.

    To be fair though, the Hall really may just have an offensive line problem as a whole. Joe Thomas is just the third tackle put in by the modern-era committee since 2015. Kevin Mawae is the lone center to be added since 2012. What the all is telling us is that during a 10-year span, there were just six Hall of Fame-caliber offensive linemen in the game. This isn’t to say they should widely loosen the criteria and let everybody in like the Basketball Hall of Fame does, but that number seems a little low.

    On the defensive side of the ball, we run into another recent-developing trend. In some modern defenses, certain players can massively impact the game without it showing up in the box score. Tracking defensive linemen goes beyond ‘sacks.’ That’s the case in New England, where Vince Wilfork was a crucial part of some of Bill Belichick’s best defenses. He took that role over from Richard Seymour, who’s case was also probably overly prolonged until he got in two years ago. This year, Wilfork was left at the semifinal round while multiple defensive linemen with gaudier numbers (Ware, Dwight Freeney) made it through ahead of him.

  • FOXBORO, MA - SEPTEMBER 22: Vince Wilfork #75 of the New England Patriots signals to the defense during the second half of their 23-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium on September 22, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

    FOXBORO, MA – SEPTEMBER 22: Vince Wilfork #75 of the New England Patriots signals to the defense during the second half of their 23-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Gillette Stadium on September 22, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

  • Then there’s traditional specialists – kickers and punters – who weren’t widely honored by the committee for a long time. Up until 2014, long-time Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud was the only such player in the Hall. Since then the committee has put to more through – punter Ray Guy in 2014 and kicker Morten Andersen in 2017. Still, both had long waits to get in. In particular Guy, who is viewed by a consensus as the greatest punter of all time and was a key member of of the dominant Raiders teams in the 70s – wasn’t inducted until 27 years after his retirement, and had to wait for the Senior committee to put him in after exhausting his eligibility with the modern-era committee. Andersen was elected as a modern-era candidate, but in his fifth ballot.

    In two years, long-time Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri will appear on the ballot for the first time. He’s as worthy as any kicker that’s ever been through the process. It does seem like he’ll get in eventually, but will the committee make him sweat it out first? There hasn’t been a kicker or punter reach even the semifinalist round since Andersen in 2017.

    Look, maybe the selection committee will catch up next year, put Devin Hester in like he should be, and this all goes away. If they don’t though, then it’s probably time for Patriots fans to just look ahead to Rob Gronkowski in 2027 and Tom Brady in 2028.

  • Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected].

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