The Hall of Fame is the pinnacle of sports immortality. No greater validation exists than being selected in to the Hall of Fame, proof that a player had been amongst the best at his craft for an extended period of time.
But what of those players who don’t make it? What would a team look like if it were comprised of the “almost greats,” those players who are just below the line of being HOF worthy.
Here are a couple guidelines in order for players to qualify:
- A player must be retired and eligible for the Hall of Fame (five years removed)
- A player must have never been nominated as a HOF finalist
In order for the roster to be comprised of “almost greats” I’ll use some discretion by ruling-out players with a high chance of being enshrined (see: Isaac Bruce and Kurt Warner) and limiting the selections to players from the post-merger era. The NFL has changed dramatically, so this is an attempt to piece together the best possible team to match the modern game.
To simplify the personnel groups we’ll stick to base packages, with our offense in 21 personnel (1 HB, 1 FB, 1 TE, and 2 WR’s) and an attacking-style 3-4 defense. No emphasis will be placed on right or left side positions on this roster.
Now that we’ve established the parameters, let’s get started!
Boomer Esiason (CIN 1984-1992, NYJ 1993-1995, ARI 1996, CIN 1997)
The Bengals of the 1980’s – one of the most historically bad franchises in history – produced just one NFL Hall of Famer: Anthony Munoz. A massive and dominant left tackle, Munoz earned his HOF nod spending most of his career protecting Boomer Esiason’s blind side. Despite being on those dreadfully awful Bengals teams, Esiason was selected to four Pro Bowls during his career. In 1988, he earned First Team All-Pro honors and was named the NFL’s MVP by the Associated Press. Achieving MVP status gave him the edge to be our starting Quarterback.
Honorable Mention: Donovan McNabb (PHI)
Ricky Watters (SF 1992-1994, PHI 1995-1997, SEA 1998-2001)
Ricky Watters was a 5-time Pro Bowler, and is one of the greatest forgotten running backs in history. He was a punishing runner that made any defender pay if they attempted tackling him. His 78 career rushing TD’s marks him down at 20th on the all-time list. He’s also one of only two players to ever record a 1,000+ yard rushing season with three separate teams. Watters was also a fine receiver, nabbing 467 catches over the course of his 10-year career.
Honorable Mention: Terrell Davis (DEN)
Larry Centers (ARI 1990-1998, WAS 1999-2000, BUF 2001-2002, NE 2003)
Speaking of running backs with a knack for catching the ball, Larry Centers is easily the choice for our starting FB. Centers ended his career with 867 catches, which puts him 26th all-time for any position. He set an NFL record for most receptions by a running back in a single season in 1995 when he caught 101 passes and followed up that season with 99 catches in 1996. Lest you think he was only a receiver, Centers was also the lead blocker for six 1,000+ yard rushers in his 14-year career.
Honorable Mention: Tony Richardson (KC 1995-2005, MIN 2006-2007, NYJ 2008-2010)
Sterling Sharpe (GB 1988-1994), Jimmy Smith (JAX 1995-2005)
Wide Receiver was easily the toughest position group to choose from as countless players had very similar stats and careers. One guy I simply couldn’t ignore was Sterling Sharpe, a player whose career ended way too soon. Sharpe was electric during his short time in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl nods in five of his seven seasons and becoming a three-time All-Pro honoree. If it weren’t for a neck injury during the 1994 season, there’s no telling where Sharpe’s career could have gone.
Jimmy Smith amassed 862 receptions and 12,287 in his career, ranking him 18th all-time in both categories. During his 11 year career, he posted 9 seasons of 1,000+ yards, tying him with Tim Brown on the all-time list behind only Jerry Rice. Selected to five consecutive Pro Bowls from 1997-2001, Jimmy Smith is the exact type of player that this list looks to emphasize. He was never considered a great receiver but he was among the best of his era and an integral part of the recently expanded Jacksonville Jaguars making the playoffs in four straight seasons (1996-1999).
Honorable Mentions: Hines Ward (PIT 1998-2011) and Irving Fryar (NE 1984-1992, MIA 1993-1995, PHI 1996-1998, WAS 1999-2000)
Ben Coates (NE 1991-1999, BAL 2000)
Coates played 9 years with the New England Patriots before a one-year stint with the Baltimore Ravens, where he picked up his only Super Bowl ring. He is ranked 10th all time in catches (499) and 7th all-time in TD’s (50) for a TE. In 1996, he set an NFL record (since broken) for most catches in a season by a TE with 96. During his prime between 1993 and 1998, he averaged 71 catches for 801 yards, earning him five consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl.
Honorable Mention: Keith Jackson (PHI 1988-1991, MIA 1992-1994, GB 1995-1996)
Jon Runyan (HOU/TEN 1996-1999, PHI 2000-2008, SD 2009), Erik Williams (DAL 1991-2001, BAL 2001)
Big Jon Runyan was an anchor on the right side of the offensive line during his 14-year career, but he only ever received two post-season awards. In 1999 he was named Second Team All-Pro by the Associated Press and in 2002 he was elected to his only Pro Bowl. Runyan was incredibly durable, starting a staggering 190 consecutive games (including 18 playoff contests) during his career. Runyan’s football claim to fame is being named the second dirtiest player in the NFL in a 2006 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Erik Williams was voted a four-time Pro Bowl selection, two-time All-Pro selection and won three Super Bowl rings with the Dallas Cowboys dynasty of the 90’s. After winning the starting RT job in his second year, Williams only missed more than two games in a season once, and that was in 1994 following a serious car accident.
Ruben Brown (BUF 1995-2003, CHI 2004-2007), Mark Schlereth (WAS 1989-1994, DEN 1995-2000)
Ruben Brown was a four-time All-Pro and a nine-time Pro Bowler in his 14-year career… this includes a stretch of 8 consecutive Pro Bowls to begin his career. That ninth Pro Bowl selection came after a career revival of sorts, when he helped Chicago reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1985.
Mark Schlereth was a three-time Super Bowl champion (one with Washington; two with Denver) and a two-time Pro Bowler. Always on the smaller side (usually listed at 6’3 290lbs), Schlereth was perfect for the zone-blocking scheme that Denver ran which required linemen to be agile enough to pull and move in space. With some big powerhouses in Runyan, Williams, and Brown, we need some agility on the OL, so this spot goes to Schlereth.
Tom Nalen (DEN 1994-2007)
Continuing with smaller offensive linemen from Denver, Tom Nalen gets the nod as our center. The 218th overall pick in the 1994 NFL draft, Nalen started 188 games in his 14-year career, earning himself five Pro Bowls and two All-Pro awards. Nalen was the lynchpin of the Broncos offensive lines that paved the way for six different running backs to rush for 1,000+ yards in a single season, including such studs as Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns, and Tatum Bell.
Leslie O’Neal (SD 1986-1995, STL 1996-1997, KC 1998-1999), Neil Smith (KC 1988-1996, DEN 1997-1999, SD 2000)
As a rookie in 1986, Leslie O’Neal played in 13 games (starting all of them) before suffering a knee injury. He still posted 12.5 sacks, more than enough to earn him the title of NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. O’Neal continued to dazzle with seven more double-digit sack seasons during his career, earning him six trips to the Pro Bowl. He finished his career with 132.5 sacks, ranking him 10th all-time.
When people speak of the Chiefs defenses of the 90’s, Derrick Thomas is usually the first name out of their mouths… but he wasn’t the only dominant player on those teams. Neil Smith actually came before DT, drafted second overall in 1988. The following year Kansas City drafted Thomas fourth overall, forming a devastating partnership for opposing QB’s that lasted damn near a decade. Smith was a six-time Pro Bowler and earned one All-Pro selection. He was also selected to the All-1990’s Second Team by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Smith wasn’t only a dangerous pass rusher, he was considered one of the best all-around defensive ends in his era.
Honorable Mentions: Simeon Rice (AZ 1996-2000, TB 2001-2006, DEN/IND 2007) and Greg Townsend (OAK 1983-1997)
Bryant Young (SF 1994-2007)
Young spent his entire 14 year career in San Francisco racking up 510 tackles and 89.5 sacks, most of them from the DT position. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and earned an All-Pro selection in 1996. Like Neil Smith, he was also named to the All-1990’s Second Team. He finished his career ranking fourth all-time in sacks for a defensive tackle, only behind Trevor Pryce and Hall of Famers John Randle and Warren Sapp.
Honorable Mention: Trevor Pryce (DEN 1997-2005, BAL 2006-2009, BAL/NYJ 2010)
Ken Harvey (Phoenix Cardinals 1988-1993, WAS 1994-1998), Pat Swilling (NO 1986-1992, DET 1993-1994, OAK 1995-1998)
Harvey was selected 12th overall in 1988 and went on to average 8 sacks per season during his first six years in the league with the Phoenix Cardinals. A four-year stint in Washington resulted in 39.5 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, four consecutive Pro Bowls and reverence as one of the great All-Time players for the franchise.
Swilling was a wrecking ball in the late 80’s and early 90’s with the New Orleans Saints. He racked up 107.5 sacks in his career, including six double-digit sack seasons. His high level of play earned him five Pro Bowl selections and two All-Pro selections. He was also named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1991 when he posted 17 sacks. Swilling holds the dubious record of playing in the most playoff games without a win, going a dismal 0-6 in his playoff trips.
Honorable Mentions: Willie McGinest (NE 1994-2005, CLE 2006-2008) and Cornelius Bennett (BUF 1987-1995, ATL 1996-1998, IND 1999-2000)
Donnie Edwards (KC 1996-2001, SD 2002-2006, KC 2007-2008), Hardy Nickerson (PIT 1987-1992, TB 1993-1999, JAX 2000-2001, GB 2002)
On the inside, I want three-down guys who can do everything all over the field. As a starter for KC and SD during his 13-year career, Donnie Edwards was the man you could always count on to be in the right place at the right time. He was never much of a pass-rusher but he led his team in tackles an astounding 11 (!!!) straight seasons and his 28 career interceptions rank him seventh all-time among linebackers.
Hardy Nickerson is the perfect thumper we need to play next to Donnie Edwards. While lacking the sideline-to-sideline presence of Edwards, Nickerson was almost impenetrable playing in the middle during his 16-year career. Nickerson earned five Pro Bowl selections and two All-Pro selections during his career. He was also named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All-1990’s Second Team.
Honorable Mentions: Jessie Armstead (NYG 1993-2001, WAS 2002-2003), Chris Spielman (DET 1988-1995, BUF 1996-1997)
Albert Lewis (KC 1983-1993, OAK 1994-1998), Eric Allen (PHI 1988-1994, NO 1995-1997, OAK 1998-2001)
Albert Lewis’ 6’2″ 205-pound frame makes him the prototypical corner of modern game, only he made a name for himself in the 80’s and 90’s. He truly was quite the freak, boasting 35-inch arms, a 38-inch vertical, and 4.38 speed. Lewis earned four Pro Bowl and two All-Pro selections during his lengthy 16-year career. He intercepted 20 passes in his first four seasons before quarterbacks decided to stop throwing the ball in his direction. Lewis was the better half of one of the greatest CB duos of all time along with Kevin Ross. Those two partnered with Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith to make the Chiefs defenses of the 1990’s a true powerhouse.
During his first 8 seasons in the NFL, Eric Allen was selected to six Pro Bowls and earned one All-Pro nomination. He wasn’t just a threat to intercept any pass that was thrown in his direction, he was one of the best at finding the endzone afterward. Allen is the only player in NFL history to return 3+ interceptions for touchdowns in two separate seasons (4 in 1993, 3 in 2000). His 54 interceptions rank him 21st all-time and his 8 pick-sixes rank him 7th all-time.
Honorable Mentions: Ty Law (NE 1995-2004, NYJ 2005, KC 2006-2007, NYJ 2008, DEN 2009) and Dre’ Bly (STL 1999-2002, DET 2003-2006, DEN 2007-2008, SF 2009)
Steve Atwater (DEN 1989-1998, NYJ 1999)
After a rookie year where he notched 129 tackles and finished second in voting for DROY to Derrick Thomas, Atwater earned Pro Bowl selections for his play in 8 of his remaining 10 seasons. He was also awarded with two All-Pro nominations and was a member of the All-1990’s First Team. Atwater was a punishing tackler who never backed down from a receiver or ball carrier. Although he’d probably face plenty of fines in today’s game, he brings the kind of attitude I want in the secondary.
Honorable Mention: Deron Cherry (KC 1981-1991)
Kenny Easley (SEA 1981-1987)
In only seven professional seasons Kenny Easley earned five Pro Bowl selections, three All-Pro nominations and was named the 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Easley’s career was cut short by a severe kidney disease that was diagnosed in 1987.
Honorable Mention: Sean Taylor (WAS 2004-2007)
Jeff Feagles (NE 1988-1989, PHI 1990-1993, AZ 1994-1997, SEA 1998-2002, NYG 2003-2009)
He was a two-time Pro Bowler and earned one All-Pro nomination in his career. Feagles is the all-time NFL leader in punts (1,713), punts inside the 20 (497), punting yards (71,211), and most consecutive games played (352). Feagles played for an astonishing 22 years.
Honorable Mention: Sean Landeta (NYG 1985-1992, NYG/STL 1993, STL 1994-1996, TB 1997, GB 1998, PHI 1999-2002, STL 2003-2004, PHI 2005)
Jason Elam (DEN 1993-2007, ATL 2008-2009)
Elam was a three-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro selection during his time in Denver. Prior to another Bronco kicker breaking it, Elam held the record for the longest field goal in NFL history at 63 yards. He’s also a two-time Super Bowl champion and currently ranks 8th all-time in Field Goals Made and 9th all-time in Field Goals attempted.
Honorable Mention: Gary Anderson (PIT 1982-1994, PHI 1995-1996, SF 1997, MIN 1998-2002, TEN 2003-2004)
Mel Gray (NO 1986-1988, DET 1989-1994, HOU 1995-1996, TEN/PHI 1997)
Mel Gray was a four-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro nominee. His career stats read as follows: 19 carries, 99 yards, 1 TD, 13 catches, 164 yards. Gray made a full 12-year career out of being a kick returner. He currently ranks fourth all-time in punt/kick returns and third all-time in punt/kick return yardage. His six kick return TD’s also rank him third all-time.
This team boasts an impressive 109 Pro Bowl Selections and 33 All-Pro nominations. Many of these guys will end up being after-thoughts in the “greatest of all-time” conversations but I’d put this team up against anyone. I’m sure I missed a few guys here and there, not to mention simply having my own preferences – but please, feel free to offer up your own suggestions in the comments section.
** This article was guest-written by Chris Hale
Find him on Twitter @Pickle_29