Cantonmetrics: 2023 Preliminary Nominees

Each September, the Pro Football Hall of Fame typically names around 95-125 modern-era players, who played at least part of their careers in the past 25 years and have been retired at least 5, as nominees for induction to the Hall of Fame. No more than five modern-era players are inducted each year, so the vast majority of players listed below won’t be inducted this year and most probably won’t be inducted at all. Still, it’s useful to have a baseline to look at them, show their relevant stats and honors, and argue over which players are worthy of induction.

Players are generally sorted according to their performance on past ballots, with those players that have advanced the furthest listed above those that haven’t advanced as far, and those that have advanced more recently listed above those that haven’t advanced as far as recently. Generally, the order in which players are listed only changes to arrange players based on the stage reached in the most recent year, and each new player to become eligible is listed at the top of their applicable category; during the selection process first-year eligible players are listed at the top of whatever category seems appropriate based on their Hall of Fame Monitor number from Pro Football Reference (not the stage I necessarily think they’ll reach). The stages are abbreviated and color-coded in the “Last 5 Years” columns based on a system I shamelessly stole from another blog post a decade or so ago I probably couldn’t find if I looked for it today: “UNL” if a candidate wasn’t even among the nominees that year, “PRE” if they only reached the nominees stage (this one), “Semi” if they were among the 25 semifinalists (announced in November), and “T15” or “T10” if they were among the finalists announced in January and were eliminated at the first or second stage, respectively, of deliberation (historically held during Super Bowl weekend and still announced then, but deliberations seem to have been held earlier, in mid-to-late January, each of the past two years).

To the right of the “Last 5 Years” columns are the various stats and honors that go into the Hall of Fame Monitor, along with the Monitor itself, which is color-coded with the background moving from red to green as the number climbs from 40 to 80. To the left of the Monitor are those awards that apply regardless of position: All-Decade team membership, MVPs (but not Defensive Player of the Year awards even though PFR treats them as equivalent to MVPs), first-team All-Pro selections, and Pro Bowl selections. There are two different columns for All-Pro team selections, with the one on the right counting only the most commonly cited selections by the Associated Press, while the one on the left counts each year a player was selected All-Pro by any of the three organizations recognized by the NFL’s official record books, generally the AP, Pro Football Writers Association, and Sporting News. Even though PFR’s own Approximate Value calculation can make up close to half of each player’s Monitor number, I haven’t listed it here. To the right of the Monitor are those statistical categories that feed into the Monitor at each position: yards and touchdowns for offensive skill positions (and kick returners in the latter case), sacks and interceptions for various defensive positions, field goals for kickers, plus specific positions if multiple positions have been merged into a single table. These right-side columns will be removed in latter stages of deliberation when all players are listed on a single table.

Finally, the “Notables Not Listed” section displays selected non-nominees, including any player that was on the nominees list the previous year (and most other players recently nominated), any first-year eligible player with a Monitor score over 40 (as well as any over 35 that are the highest-rated non-selected players at their position), any player I deem noteworthy (generally those previously nominated or that have particularly high Monitor scores) that just lost their last chance not to fall into the senior pool, and the non-selected player still on the ballot with the highest Monitor score if they don’t fit either of the first two categories (as well as any other high scores I deem worth including). These players are included purely for reference and interest and shouldn’t imply anything about how “deserving” they are of being nominated (much less inducted). It’s worth noting, though, that players can be and have jumped from not being nominated at all to eventually making the Hall of Fame, with Sam Mills last year joining Rickey Jackson as players that made the Hall of Fame in the last 15 years as modern-era players despite not necessarily being on the list of nominees every year of their eligibility, while Everson Walls and Willie Anderson have made the finals within the last five years despite being off the list of nominees not long before.

Without further ado, here are the 129 modern-era nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2023: 

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Cantonmetrics: Introduction

The Baseball Hall of Fame may be the oldest, most prestigious, and iconic of all of sports’ halls of fame, but the Pro Football Hall of Fame might be the most fun to speculate about. The Baseball Hall places all of its eligible players that haven’t fallen below a certain voting threshold on a single ballot and then asks its voters to choose no more than ten, resulting in massive backlogs that only get worse with time; the Football Hall, by contrast, iteratively narrows down its candidates down to 15 finalists and then further narrows that down to five, usually inducting all five at once. Moreover, the 15 finalists are themselves iteratively cut down to ten and then five, and while which players were cut at which stage isn’t always made clear by the Hall itself (especially since the announcement of each year’s class was made part of the NFL Honors show), nonetheless it does provide a template for seeing which players the selection committee is favoring and allows one to predict what the following year’s class will look like. Football is also, somewhat counterintuitively, one of the easier, or at least more fun, sports to fairly compare players’ Hall of Fame credentials, in large part because unlike in other sports, All-Star selections are made at the end of the season and so can incorporate the entire season, rather than giving an unfair boost to players who have strong early seasons but peter out down the stretch, and unlike in baseball, the Pro Bowl doesn’t enforce quotas requiring at least one player be selected from each team, resulting in the best player on crappy teams having their All-Star count inflated.

What makes this somewhat counterintuitive is that, more than in perhaps any other sport (popular with Americans at least), the importance of various players in football varies widely. The quarterback is significantly more prominent than any other position, while special teams players can seem largely anonymous unless what they do is truly special, and then there’s the offensive line, arguably more anonymous than special teams despite being surprisingly important to team success, because they almost never touch the ball and because statistics are generally pretty poor-to-nonexistent at capturing their performance and value. On the topic of statistics, which statistics are relevant can vary widely across positions; quarterbacks and other offensive players that touch the ball can usually be measured by yards and touchdowns, but for passing plays it’s not always clear how much of that can be attributed to the QB and how much to the receiver, and running backs can also have their numbers inflated by a good offensive line. On defense, sacks are all-important to defensive linemen but completely irrelevant to defensive backs, while interceptions are the reverse, and linebackers end up somewhere in the middle; meanwhile, neither of those stats captures players’ ability to stop the run. And more than in most other sports, the meaning of those stats has changed over time as passing has become a more important part of the modern game.

So there aren’t any easy statistical yardsticks to compare players of different positions, or in some cases players in the same positions in different eras, and when it comes to offensive linemen only those that truly obsessively study the film can really tease out whether one player is better than another. And yet in some ways, that’s part of the appeal to me: using what standards we do have to compare players at different positions, to see how a Tom Brady stacks up against a J.J. Watt or a Von Miller against a Julio Jones. Even then those standards are usually applied differently across positions – it takes a lot more for an offensive lineman to get into the Hall than a quarterback – and figuring out how to calibrate those thresholds is part of the fun.

My interest in this area started in 2010, after seeing the NFL Network’s “Top 10” series cover the best players not to make the Hall of Fame, some of which had only been on the ballot one or two years, and coupled with a pair of no-brainer first-ballot picks appearing on the ballot that year in Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, plus the aforementioned ability to tease out the committee’s thinking on the finalists based on last year’s vote, it allowed me to offer my first prediction for that year’s Hall of Fame class, something I’ve done every January since. Later that year NFL Network ran a multi-week series counting down the top 100 players in NFL history, effectively giving me a whole list of players for me to keep an eye on as they became eligible for induction. (Notably, every eligible player on the list was in the Hall of Fame even though some of the “snubs” on NFLN’s earlier list might have been deserving of spots, especially those that just hadn’t managed to break through into the top five in their limited time on the ballot.) Eventually I found the discussion of players’ Hall of Fame credentials on the website, which introduced me to the notion of All-Decade, first-team All-Pro, and Pro Bowl selections as the primary if not sole predictors of making the Hall of Fame; that led to my Top 50 Active Resumes posts, allowing me to see which players were getting close to the Hall, which ones were already in, and which ones were set to go in first-ballot, in near-real time, but which I eventually abandoned upon realizing I didn’t really have any basis for how I valued the various postseason honors across positions.

Eventually I actually put in the work to determine thresholds for when players would become Hall of Famers or first-ballot selections, and planned to post a link here to a spreadsheet tracking and predicting players’ chances based on that information that I’d update every year, but never did. I may yet do so, but part of what made me lose interest in the spreadsheet was Pro Football Reference coming up with their own Hall of Fame Monitor metric in 2019. Initially I didn’t intend to pay too much attention to it, at most considering it a supplement to determine what players to look at (though I did once use it as an easy way to compare a recently-retired player to others at their position), largely because it was primarily designed around a score of 100 representing the average Hall of Famer at each position, even though the cutoff for getting into the Hall at all was what was probably more important and interesting, and because PFR didn’t offer a way to directly compare Monitor numbers across positions, it left me wondering whether the Monitor was comparable across positions. PFR’s own page explaining the Monitor does seem to treat it as comparable across positions, though, considering 80 as marking the “strongest of the borderline candidates” and 40 as the bare minimum for eventual induction, so part of the purpose of this new section of the site is to make it easier to make such comparisons and use it as a shorthand and at least an initial basis of discussion.

The last twist that shaped this section came over the summer. Previously the Hall of Fame’s senior-committee selections, as well as the selection of coach and contributor candidates as those were moved to separate committees, were essentially black boxes, with the committees simply naming candidates to move directly to the final stage of the larger selection committee’s deliberations at the start of the process, and none of the process that went into selecting those nominees would officially be made public. This year, though, concurrent to moving to three senior selections and one combined coach/contributor selection, the Hall released lists of candidates at each stage of both the senior and coach/contributor processes, including not only lists of finalists, but of semifinalists as well, and even what candidates were eliminated at each stage of considering the finalists, something the Hall has neglected when it comes to the modern-era finalists in recent years. It’s now possible to get nearly as much of a sense of what the senior committee is thinking as it is to get a sense of the committee as a whole. Moreover, it was the clarification of the coach/contributor situation that put the final nail in the coffin of the spreadsheet as being the most important element for the launch of this section; none of the benchmarks used to compare players apply to contributors or even coaches, tipping the balance away from determining people’s Hall of Fame credentials or likelihood of being selected by the committees, and more towards looking at what the committees actually think about them. In other words, while tracking players’ postseason honors and how they translate to Hall of Fame status is still important, so is the history of how far retired players made it through the process each year.

I’m still using the “Cantonmetrics” name I came up with for this section when I still intended to base it around the spreadsheet, even though the metrics are less important than I originally had in mind for it. I’ve populated the new category with my previous prediction and Top 50 Active Resumes posts, as well as other posts relating to the Hall of Fame I’ve written over the years, including my posts on the 2010s All-Decade Team from 2019-20. Going forward I’ll have posts with tables of players selected, and not selected, at each stage of the Hall of Fame process, including their performance in the most important and objective cross-position areas used in the Hall of Fame Monitor metric as well as the metric itself, and the stage each player reached in each of the last five years, starting with the recently-announced list of preliminary nominees sometime in the next 24 hours, serving as a way to provide context and a starting point for discussion, which will likely serve as an overhaul/replacement for my existing prediction posts following the announcement of the finalists. Following the Super Bowl will be a season wrap-up post that will contain a revived and revised version of the Top 50 Active Resumes list with predictions based on the benchmarks I came up with for the spreadsheet, a look at the unselected finalists and strongest first-year candidates for the purpose of looking at next year (including potentially moving each year’s predictions to that point), and other such things. At some point, possibly soon, I’ll put up a page to serve as a larger introduction to this section and the Hall of Fame process more generally, but I probably need to spend a year figuring out exactly how this new system will work and how useful it actually is. This is going to feel surprisingly new for me considering the groundwork that I’ve been laying for it over the course of over a decade, but in many ways that just makes it all the more exciting.