There are six modern players in the Hall of Fame who primarily played the inside linebacker position.1 Ray Lewis will be number seven. Brian Urlacher, who retired the same year as Lewis, will likely be number eight. And Patrick Willis is now very likely to be number nine.
There is only one knock on Willis’ star-studded career: he played in just 112 games, spanning 8 seasons. But let’s compare Willis to the other six modern HOF inside linebackers (Mike Singletary, Nick Buoniconti, Jack Lambert, Harry Carson, Willie Lanier, and Dick Butkus), Lewis, and Urlacher. The best way I can think of to compare defensive players is through Approximate Value, the all-encompassing metric created by Pro-Football-Reference.com. I’ll leave it to a different writer to debate the merits of whether AV is an appropriate metric by which to measure Willis.
Through seven seasons, Willis accumulated 104 points of AV: he recorded 16 points as a rookie, then 13, 19, 15, 16, 16, and 10 in 2013. Those other eight inside linebackers averaged 83 points through seven seasons, which puts Willis’ remarkable start to his career in the proper light. In fact, other than Willis, just three defensive players have recorded over 100 points of AV through seven seasons: Lawrence Taylor, Reggie White, and Alan Page.
The graph below shows the AV accumulated by the six modern HOF inside linebackers, Lewis, Urlacher, and Willis. I have color-coded each player’s line, although it took some work.2 On the X-Axis is season of each player’s career (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.); the Y-Axis represents points of AV in that season.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Ray Lewis was ridiculous. Now, consider what it means that through seven seasons, Willis exceeded the production of the top inside linebackers of the last 50 years. In fact, his production is even more striking through six seasons, where he gained 103 points of AV; on average, the other eight players had 106.25 points of AV through nine seasons. Take a look:
Please remember that “average” in the above graph is average of the best inside linebackers in the modern era. And compared to the very best, Willis exceeded their level of play through seven seasons by such a significant amount that it took the group two more seasons to catch up. So what did Willis miss? What those players did in years 10+: which was roughly two good seasons, two average seasons, and then some mediocre play. Now I suppose, for some, that might make a big enough difference. But to me, Willis’ domninant play makes him an easy choice.
There’s also some precedent to support Willis’ case. Butkus retired after his ninth season; Lanier last made a Pro Bowl in his 9th year, and tacked on two years where he produced a combined 10 points of AV. And if we look at all players, we find a few more examples.
Willis built his Hall of Fame case on seven great seasons, from ’07 to ’13. Consider:
- John Mackey is one of the greatest tight ends of all time, but he didn’t do much after his first six seasons. In his seventh and eight seasons, he totaled 878 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns. In his ninth and tenth seasons, he totaled just 253 yards and 0 touchdowns, and retired after that.
- Earl Campbell played the offensive equivalent of inside linebacker, and tailed off one season earlier than Willis. For Campbell, his sixth year was his last great one: in his seventh season, he rushed 146 times for 468 yards, averaging 3.2 yards per carry; in his eighth and final year, he rushed for 643 yards and 1 touchdown.
- Tight end Kellen Winslow, Sr. played in 109 games in his career. His career lasted a little longer than Willis when you measure by years, but he missed more time, resulting in fewer games.3
- Mike Ditka made the Pro Bowl the first five seasons of his career, but after his sixth season, most of his years (all of which took place outside of Chicago) were pretty nondescript.4
- Dwight Stephenson played for eight years, but he was on the bench for his first season and the first 11 games of his second. So he had just six years as a full-time starter, one fewer than Willis.
- Eric Dickerson was great for seven seasons, like Willis. He played four more years after that, but nothing about those years was HOF-caliber.
- Gale Sayers played in just 68 games in his career.
- Dave Casper isn’t thought of as a “short career” guy, but he should be. Yes, Casper played for 11 seasons and in 147 games, but in his first two seasons, he played in 28 games and made 0 starts, catching just 9 passes for 97 yards. In his final season, he played in 7 games, and caught 4 passes for 29 yards. Casper built his HOF career over 8 seasons of play and 112 games, just like Willis.
All of this isn’t to say that Willis’ short career shouldn’t be held against him. It should. But as we’ve seen, his otherworldly-level of play when healthy is more than enough to meet the HOF standards. And given that many of the players identified above were playing in the brutal middle of the field — running backs, tight ends, and inside linebackers — it makes it even easier to give Willis a pass for not lasting as long. The NFL is a collision sport, and running backs, tight ends, and inside linebackers have the scars to prove it.
- AV goes back to 1960, so I am defining modern as players who entered the league in that season or later. That means we have to exclude Sam Huff, Ray Nitschke, Bill George, Joe Schmidt, Mike McCormack, Les Richter, Chuck Bednarik, and Bill Willis. [↩]
- For example, three Bears made the list: I have Singletary with a red line and a black marker, Urlacher with a black line and a red marker that’s a diamond, and Butkus with a black line and a red marker that’s a square. I used the same red/yellow color scheme for Willis and Lanier, but of course I made the Willis line much more prominent. [↩]
- Even if you give him 7 more games for 1982, since the strike shouldn’t count against Winslow, that only brings him to 116. Given that Winslow started just 1 games out of 7 as a rookie, that’s close enough to canceling out for me. [↩]
- Yes, he did win a Super Bowl during that time. [↩]