Seven first-time finalists among Hall's modern-era choices for Class of 2020

Photo courtesy of the Green Bay Packer

Clark Judge

(Pictured above: Former Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler)

Talk about upsets.

Among the 15 modern-era finalists announced Thursday for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 are seven players – or nearly half the class – who are finalists for the first time.

Two of those candidates – safety Troy Polamalu and wide receiver Reggie Wayne – are no surprises. Not only were both expected to make the cut but Polamalu is a favorite to be elected as a first-ballot choice. But the five others? Ah, that’s where it gets interesting.

They’ve waited years to hear their names called, so let the roll call begin:

-- Safety LeRoy Butler.

-- Wide receiver Torry Holt.

-- Linebackers Sam Mills and Zach Thomas.

-- Defensive lineman Bryant Young.

Of the group, Mills waited the longest. The former Carolina and New Orleans star, who died in 2005, is in his 18th year of eligibility as a modern-era candidate. That means he has three years left before exiting the modern-era category and joining the senior pool.

Butler is in his 14th year of eligibility, and his failure to become a finalist until now was the most puzzling. The reason: He was one of only two first-team members of the 1990s’ all-decade team not enshrined in Canton (not including special teams).

The other is safety Steve Atwater, a finalist for the second consecutive year and a Top-10 finisher in 2019.

Holt waited over 10 years for Thursday’s announcement, and that’s puzzling, too. He’s the only wide receiver from the all-decade team of the 2000s not already enshrined. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been close. He’s been a semifinalist the past six years.

But now he’s taken a giant step forward.

The same goes for Young, an all-decade pick from the 1990s. The difference here is that, unlike the others, in this – his eighth year of eligibility – he was a semifinalist for the first time.

And then there’s Thomas, a tackling machine for the Miami Dolphins who, like Young, was an all-decade pick. He was named to the 2000s’ team. But like Butler, Mills and Young, he had trouble just becoming a semifinalist – named to the final 25 only twice (2019-20).

Mills was a semifinalist three times (2016, 2019-20). So was Butler (2018-20).

All have plenty of competition, with eight others who’ve been in front of the Hall’s board of selectors – including three offensive linemen (Tony Boselli, Steve Hutchinson and Alan Faneca), one running back (Edgerrin James) and one safety (Atwater) who were Top-10 finishers in 2019.

The 15 finalists for the modern-era Class of 2020 will be considered for election on Feb. 1, the Saturday prior to Super Bowl LIV in Miami. That's when the board of selectors chooses five players who must receive a minimum of 80 percent of the votes.

One more thing: The finalists were chosen from a preliminary list of 122 candidates and are not part of the Hall’s Centennial Class, which will be named in early January. Ten seniors, three contributors and two coaches will comprise a class that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the NFL.

THE 15 FINALISTS FOR THE HALL’S MODERN-ERA CLASS OF 2020

Steve Atwater, safety – 1989-98 Denver Broncos; 1999 N.Y. Jets

Tony Boselli, tackle – 1995-2001 Jacksonville Jaguars

Isaac Bruce, wide receiver – 1994-2007 St. Louis/L.A. Rams; 2008-09 San Francisco 49ers

LeRoy Butler, safety – 1990-2001 Green Bay Packers

Alan Faneca, guard – 1998-2007 Pittsburgh Steelers; 2008-09 N.Y. Jets; 2010 Arizona Cardinals

Torry Holt, wide receiver – 1999-2008 St. Louis Rams; 2009 Jacksonville Jaguars

Steve Hutchinson, guard – 2001-05 Seattle Seahawks; 2006-10 Minnesota Vikings; 2012 Tennessee Titans.

Edgerrin James, running back – 1999-2005 Indianapolis Colts; 2006-08 Arizona Cardinals; 2009 Seattle Seahawks.

John Lynch, safety – 1993-2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers; 2004-07 Denver Broncos.

Sam Mills, linebacker – 1986-94 New Orleans Saints; 1995-97 Carolina Panthers.

Troy Polamalu, safety – 2003-14 Pittsburgh Steelers.

Richard Seymour, defensive lineman – 2001-08 New England Patriots; 2009-12 Oakland Raiders.

Zach Thomas, linebacker – 1996-2007 Miami Dolphins; 2008 Dallas Cowboys.

Reggie Wayne, wide receiver – 2001-14 Indianapolis Colts.

Bryant Young, defensive lineman – 1994-2007 San Francisco 49ers.

Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF

Comments (13)
No. 1-6
brian wolf
brian wolf

Disappointed Tasker, Ward and Woodson didn't make it

JFLavella
JFLavella

Clark: I've been reading, but not writing for a while. Had to do so today to congratulate you and rest of the committee. Such a strong class of finalists.

Particularly happy for Sam Mills' family. I want to remind you and your fellow electors not to forget the three years Sam played in the USFL when the NFL teams were too "short" sighted to sign him (pun intended). If you take those years into account, he should have been in the HOF a long time ago.

Secondly, thank goodness that Holt made the jump. Long overdue as I think he has a compelling case as the best of these three receivers. I wrote up a long summary today at zoneblitz.com explaining my rationale. In sum, he has more pro bowls, as many all pros, and four times as many league leading seasons as the other finalists. Counting stats suffered only because he had an 11 year career--not short, just not 16 like Bruce.

More so than most years, any 5 of the 15 finalists will be a great class. Job well done to the committee.

brian wolf
brian wolf

Could be a special Green Bay Packers class...

ToddK
ToddK

All deserving candidates. My five would be Polamalu, Faneca, Thomas, Atwater, and Mills. What does everyone else think?

bachslunch
bachslunch

Agreed, it’s a fine list. All are deserving, no major quibbles.

A little surprised Patrick Willis didn’t make it, but the other two LBs have been waiting a while. His short career is obviously an issue. The three biggest surprises for me are Sam Mills and Bryant Young, plus Reggie Wayne being a first time finalist. Was wondering if Hines Ward would be a finalist since he’s next in the WR queue in seniority after Torry Holt. Wayne jumped the line, surprisingly.

Nice to see Leroy Butler and Zach Thomas get this far also.

As to who the final five might be, that’s becoming more of a crapshoot. Definitely think Polamalu, James, at least one other safety (probably Atwater), and at least one OL (probably Faneca since he has been waiting longest) get elected for sure. How strongly the voters feel about Sam Mills will be interesting, as he only has a couple years of eligibility left (his 4/5/none profile is decent at the position, which is under-represented in Canton for this time period).

My guess for now:

Polamalu Atwater Faneca James Boselli.

But Mills, Bruce, Seymour, or someone else could surprise.

brian wolf
brian wolf

Had to come back to this article to speculate on the modern candidates.

With three safeties making the Hall as seniors, including Shell, will Polamalu be the fourth ? Is Atwater affected ? If not Polamalu, does Butler have a shot since only Dillon of GB was elected amongst four senior Packers ? With Cowher, Shell and possibly Polamalu voted in, does Faneca get left behind ? If not Faneca, does Hutchinson or Boselli get voted in ?

Would be great seeing Zack Thomas go in with former coach Jimmy Johnson ?

I dont believe Holt should jump ahead of Bruce, but do they cancel each other out ?

With Lewellen, Craig and Isbell missing out amongst the seniors, does James get in the RB ?


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