There was room in Canton for a Pro Bowl middle linebacker who started in two Super Bowls and collected 2,000 career tackles.
His name is Ray Lewis.
But is there room for another?
That’s what London Fletcher would like to know.
As a Super Bowl MVP and a member of the 2000s NFL all-decade team, Lewis was a slam-dunk first-ballot Hall of Famer. He arrived in the NFL as a first-round pick and exceeded the level and expectations of his draft slot.
Fletcher was not a first-round draft pick. He wasn’t even a draft pick. He wasn’t even a scholarshipped football player in college, earning NCAA Division III Linebacker of the Year honors at John Carroll. There were 34 linebackers drafted by 25 different NFL teams in 1998 – and Fletcher wasn’t one of them.
But it wasn’t just his level of competition that hurt his draft stock. At 5-10, Fletcher didn’t fit the prototype for his position. At that size, middle linebackers tend to be physically swallowed up by NFL centers and guards. So Fletcher signed with the St. Louis Rams as an undrafted free agent and went on to become one of only two rookies to make the team.
Fletcher spent his rookie season chasing kicks on special teams but was rewarded for his hard work with his first NFL start in the season finale against San Francisco. He led the team with eight tackles that day and added a ninth tackle on special teams.
"London played so well," recalled then Rams coach Dick Vermeil, "that after the game John Madden came down out of the booth and asked me, `Where in the hell did he come from? He's a player.'"
Yes, indeed. Fletcher remained on the field as a starter for the next 14 seasons. He started 223 of a possible 224 games, sitting out the first snap of a 2000 game against Carolina when the Panthers opened in a four-receiver set. He strung together 14 consecutive seasons of 100-plus tackles, including a career-best and NFL-leading 166 in 2011 at the age of 36.
Fletcher led the Rams with 138 tackles in his first season as a starter, helping St. Louis lead the NFL in run defense and win its first Lombardi Trophy. He added a team-leading 116 tackles in 2001 as St. Louis won its second NFC championship.
Fletcher spent his first four seasons with the Rams, then moved to Buffalo in free agency and spent five seasons with the Bills, then returned to the NFC for his final seven seasons with the Washington Redskins.
Despite all of his tackles, Fletcher found himself competing for Pro Bowl spots in the NFC with first-round draft picks Brian Urlacher, Dan Morgan, Keith Brooking and Mark Fields and in the AFC with first-rounders Ray Lewis, Jonathan Vilma and Al Wilson. As a result, Fletcher was selected a Pro Bowl alternate eight times before election to his first Pro Bowl in 2008 at the age of 33.
Fletcher would play in four consecutive Pro Bowls before his streak ended in 2013 despite a team-leading 111 tackles. He retired after that season, having started the final 215 games of his career. In 2012, in celebration of the franchise’s 80th anniversary, the Redskins selected the 80 greatest players in team history and Fletcher was among the honorees.
According to game tape charted by coaches, Lewis was credited with 2,643 tackles in his 17 seasons. Fletcher was credited with 2,450 tackles in his 16 seasons. Independent arbiter Stats LLC credited Lewis with 2,055 tackles in his career and Fletcher with 2,031.
Lewis also added 20 forced fumbles, 20 fumble recoveries, 31 interceptions, 41 ½ sacks and three return touchdowns. Fletcher added 19 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries, 22 interceptions, 39 sacks and three return touchdowns.
"London had very good speed and quickness supported by outstanding instincts," Vermeil said. "That got him to the ball quicker than anyone I've ever coached. He had the ability to maintain the discipline of the scheme, then go on and make plays a teammate should have made."
As a first-round draft pick, Lewis took the short path to the top. As an undrafted free agent, Fletcher took the long path to the top. The longest, in fact. After his five-year waiting period, Lewis was ushered into Canton on the first ballot. Fletcher has finished his five-year wait and will be eligible for the Hall of Fame for the first time in 2019.
Fletcher lacks the Pro Bowls of Lewis (13) plus the all-decade acclaim. But what does the game tape say? There’s room in the Hall for one 2,000-tackle, Pro Bowl middle linebacker with a championship ring. Will there be room for another?