The Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee has been embracing first-ballot candidates of late, electing three in the Class of 2018 and two more in the Class of 2017.
The committee elected Ray Lewis, Randy Moss and Brian Urlacher as first-ballot candidates in 2018 and Jason Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson in 2017. With retirements this offseason, an impressive list of first-ballot candidates will be waiting on the committee in 2023. That’s the subject of our weekly Talk of Fame Network poll – who looms as the most deserving first-ballot candidate then? Here are your options:
Dwight Freeney, edge rusher. A seven-time Pro Bowler and member of the 2000s NFL all-decade team, Freeney retired after playing 16 seasons with six teams. He spent the first 11 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, with whom he led the NFL in sacks with 16 in 2004 and won an NFL title in 2006. This committee loves edge rushers, electing five in the last five enshrinement classes. Freeney leaves the NFL ranking 17th in career sacks with 125 ½.
Antonio Gates, tight end. Gates hasn’t technically retired but, at 37 years of age, remains unemployed since the Los Angeles Chargers made him a salary-cap casualty this offseason. He was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a member of the 20002 NFL all-decade team. Gates set an NFL record for career touchdown receptions by a tight end with 114. He played 15 seasons, all with the Chargers, and caught 927 passes for 11,508 yards. He posted two 1,000-yard seasons and four seasons of double figures in touchdowns. But there are only eight tight ends enshrined in Canton and the shortest wait for induction was three years.
Joe Thomas, left offensive tackle. The Cleveland Browns made Thomas the third overall selection of the 2007 draft and he went to the Pro Bowl in each of his first 10 seasons – a major accomplishment given the fact the Browns never had a winning season in those 10 years. Thomas also was a seven-time first-team all-pro. He didn’t miss a game -- didn’t even mis a practice – in those first 10 seasons. But his streak off more than 10,000 consecutive snaps in Cleveland’s offense came to an end last October when he suffered a torn triceps and was placed on injured reserve. He announced his retirement in March.
Jason Witten, tight end. Witten played 15 seasons for the Dallas Cowboys and became the franchise’s all-time leading receiver. In fact, his 1,152 career catches place him second all-time among NFL tight ends and fourth overall. He set NFL record for receptions by a tight end in both a game (18 versus the NY Giants in 20120) and season (110, also in 2012). 10 in 2012. Witten had four 1,000-yard seasons and played in 11 Pro Bowls. He retired this offseason to become the lead analyst for Monday Night Football.