Randy Moss turns 36 in a couple of weeks, and he’s caught just 56 passes over the last three years. Super Bowl XLVII may not be his final game, but it probably will be Moss’ last chance to give us one final “Randy Moss” moment. Moss will one day be in the Hall of Fame, despite the fact that he rubbed many fans, sportswriters, teammates, coaches, owners, and a few referees the wrong way. But Moss is a six-time Pro Bowler, a four-time first-team AP All-Pro, and ranks 9th in career receptions, 3rd in career receiving yards, and 2nd in career receiving touchdowns. He’s had 64 100-yard games in his career, second only to Jerry Rice. He’s produced despite a relatively unstable quarterback situation for much of his career (admittedly, some of this was due to Moss): over one-third of his career receiving yards came from Daunte Culpepper, and no other single quarterback was responsible for even twenty percent of his yards. When he finally got a HOF-caliber quarterback, Moss broke the single-season record for receiving touchdowns in a season. But even before New England and Tom Brady, Moss had established himself as one of the greatest receivers in NFL history. If the 49ers win on Sunday, he’ll be like a modern Lance Alworth, who won a forgettable ring with the Dallas Cowboys in 1971.
It’s fitting that Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis are in the Super Bowl together. Willis was only 11 years old when Lewis entered the NFL, and Willis has modeled his game and his uniform number after Lewis. And in turn, if any linebacker has resembled Lewis over the last decade, it’s Willis, and there will be a figurative passing of the torch on Sunday. Even if he isn’t the next Ray Lewis, Willis has paved his own path towards Canton: he has been a first-team All-Pro choice by the Associated Press in five of his first six seasons. Lawrence Taylor, Eric Dickerson, Jerry Rice, Gale Sayers, and Reggie White are the only other NFL players since 1960 to be selected as a first-team AP All-Pro five or more times in their first six seasons. Absent a serious injury or a shocking career turn, Willis will one day be a Hall of Famer himself, but it sure can’t hurt to add a Lombardi Trophy to the resume.
Justin Smith was taken by the Bengals with the 4th pick in the 2001 draft. His career has taken a winding path, as it took him awhile to develop into an elite player. In some ways, he’s similar to Ed “Too Tall” Jones, who was also a top-five pick but also did not make his first Pro Bowl until his age 30 season. Smith has been an elite player for the last four years, although by the time Smith is eligible for the Hall of Fame, J.J. Watt may have raised the expectation level for a 3-4 defensive end to an absurd height. It’s difficult for a 3-4 defensive end to make the Hall and Smith will have to battle Richard Seymour in voters’ minds. But with a big performance in the Super Bowl — voters like to latch on to those iconic moments — Smith will at least give himself a fighter’s chance down the road. It’s not exactly Jack Youngblood, but Smith coming back from a torn triceps to lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl is the type of story legends are built around.
On the other end of the spectrum, Navorro Bowman is just starting out his career but looks to be on the right path. Even more so than Willis, a Super Bowl MVP could go a long way towards Bowman establishing himself as a future Hall of Fame player. Right now, he risks his career turning into the west coast version of Lance Briggs, who is a seven-time Pro Bowler but has often played second fiddle (in the media’s mind) to Brian Urlacher. With two first-team All-Pro selections in his only two seasons as a starter, Bowman is off to a great start. On the other hand, inside linebackers don’t have the best track record when it comes to playing at an elite level for a sustained period of time, so Bowman is going to have an uphill battle regardless.
Aldon Smith is the next in a long line of freakish edge rushers in NFL history. With 33.5 sacks in his first two seasons, Smith is ahead of the pace set by Derrick Thomas, Lawrence Taylor, Shawne Merriman, and Dwight Freeney; in fact, no other player has recorded as many sacks in the first two seasons of his career since at least 1982. But as I discussed with Suggs on Sunday, it can be difficult for pass rushers to make the Hall, so a ring with a side of a couple of Super sacks would help.
Players like Clark Haggans, Leonard Davis, Carlos Rogers, and Isaac Sopoaga are in their 30s and haven’t come close to building Hall of Fame careers, but 29-year-old Frank Gore has a more realistic chance. He turns 30 in May, but is coming off back-to-back strong seasons: based on running back aging patterns, he may be able to keep his performance level up for a couple more years. If he can repeat his production from 2012 next year, he’ll crack the 10,000-yard mark for his career.
Gore is a four-time Pro Bowler who has played most of his career on bad teams. He needs more than just a great Super Bowl to get to Canton, but it would give him a leg up on players like Steven Jackson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Willis McGahee, and Michael Turner. As it stands, Gore is one of only three running backs with at least 8,000 rushing yards over the last seven years.
Gore is less than a year older than Vernon Davis, who has had a career full of twists and turns. He was the 6th pick in the 2006 draft based on his ridiculous combine numbers. Davis did not excel immediately, famously drawing the ire of head coach Mike Singletary, but broke out in his fourth year with 965 receiving yards and a then-record 13 touchdowns. And while he he’s recorded three 100-yard playoff games in his career, he has assumed greater responsibilities as a blocker in recent years. That’s been great for the 49ers but arguably limited Davis’ HOF chances.
Over the last three years, Jason Witten, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez have more receiving yards, Antonio Gates (among others) has more receiving touchdowns, and Brandon Pettigrew, Aaron Hernandez, and Jermaine Gresham have more receptions. Unfortunately for Davis, his blocking contributions haven’t helped him much with the voters: he’s never been named to an all-pro team and only been selected for one Pro Bowl. For a player like Davis who may not be immediately thought of as an elite tight end, a great receiving game in the Super Bowl would be huge. Cincinnati’s Dan Ross is the only tight end to gain 100 receiving yards in the Super Bowl, when he caught 11 passes for 104 yards and two touchdowns against the 49ers. Davis could conceivably remain a premier tight end for years, but a memorable Sunday may do more for him than another 700-yard season with great blocking.
Joe Staley has been solid player throughout his career, but he’s been even better since Jim Harbaugh became the head coach. He made the Pro Bowl in 2011, and had a dominant season in 2012. Can he maintain that level of play for another five years? He’s the best run-blocking left tackle in the NFL and is very good in pass protection, too. It’s hard to imagine a left tackle having a “dominant” Super Bowl, so for Staley, it’s more about continuing his run of strong play. Joe Jacoby was a star left tackle for the Redskins during their Super Bowl years (although he played right tackle starting in ’89), but the closet he’s come has been a Hall of Fame semifinalist in 2005, 2008, and this year.
That leaves us with Colin Kaepernick. On the surface, it seems silly to discuss the HOF potential of a player as green as Kaepernick. But I asked people on twitter who they thought had a better chance at one day becoming a Hall of Famer, Kaepernick or Joe Flacco: as it turned out, Kaepernick was actually the more popular choice. The basic reasoning was that five years of average play doesn’t give Flacco a leg up, especially since Kaepernick’s ceiling seems remarkably high. A Super Bowl win guarantees him nothing, but it would change the perception of him for the rest of his career. During down seasons, he wouldn’t have to deal with the question of “could a team win it all with him at quarterback.”
Kaepernick has started just 9 games this year, including the playoffs. He’s thrown 13 touchdowns against just four interceptions, and rushed for 440 yards (while averaging 7.3 YPC) and 4 scores in those starts. He’s also averaged 8.6 yards per pass attempt. Only six players age 25 or younger have averaged 8.6 yards per attempt on at least 200 pass attempts in a season: Milt Plum, Bert Jones, Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger (twice), Norm Van Brocklin, and Dave Krieg. That’s some pretty good company, even ignoring Kaepernick’s other impressive stats. The big question, of course, is whether he will be able to attack defenses without the threat of one of the league’s best rushing attacks. But Kaepernick has met every challenge thus far, leading a touchdown drive against the Patriots after New England tied the game and mounting a large comeback against the Falcons.
There are three other names worth mentioning. Placekicker David Akers is having his worst season, but he’s a six-time Pro Bowler and one of the better kickers of all-time. If he managed to say, win the game on a 53-yard field goal, who knows how his career will be remembered. Punter Andy Lee is a four-time Pro Bowler and was a first-team All-Pro each of the last two years. His career is showing no signs of slowing down. And finally, Jim Harbaugh’s off to a pretty successful start to his coaching career. He might be the best coach in the league right now, although it’s hard to analyze a coach after just two seasons.