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Patrick Willis and the Hall of Fame

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.

PWillis

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:

Willis avg

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.
  • 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.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. Yes, he did win a Super Bowl during that time. []
  • sunrise089

    I think Willis is an obvious ‘no’ for the Hall, but I’m sure I favor a smaller HOF than most. Willis though doesn’t manage to crack the top 250 in career AV, and it’s really hard for me to overlook that. Combine that with the questionable retirement rationale plus the more or less complete absence of ‘soft’ HOF justifications and I can’t get behind the candidacy. Plus, the idea that three of the nine greatest modern ILBs played during a ~10 year window screams recency bias to me.

    Chase, the only direct comment about your methodology I want to add is that you’ve been very open in the past about the Hall needing to adjust their standards when it comes to admitting MORE of a position. Couldn’t it be possible they’ve been too generous with inside linebackers and we need to adjust the other way for that position?

    • Brandon Magner

      Well, Lewis is an obvious “great”. Who would you place above Urlacher and Willis in the modern era to deserve mention alongside the aforementioned six?

      I’m probably going to sign off on the candidacy of any player that maintains a deserved reputation as the best player at his position for a half-decade-plus. Willis already crosses the All-Pro threshold for ILBs (Zach Thomas is the only 5x First Teamer to not be inducted, and Willis was better than Thomas).

      • sunrise089

        I’m OK with Urlacher, and from there I’m good. Two players per decade per less-important position is plenty for me.

        • Brandon Magner

          That doesn’t contradict the possibility that three of the nine-greatest modern ILBs did in fact play during a 10-year window, though. And I don’t see why that would be hard to believe, either. Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees were drafted within a four-year window. Heck, John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino were all selected in the same round of the same draft.

          • sunrise089

            Of course it’s possible that three HOF’ers at any position could be contemporaries, I just think third-best players should start with the presumption that they don’t meet the standard.

            For better or for worse QB is a different animal. It’s so much more prominent than any position in any other sport, and it’s becoming even more emphasized in recent years. I will say though that I don’t think Kelly deserved entry though.

            • Brandon Magner

              Urlacher has a better resume, but Willis may have very well been the better player. I know you meant the former, but just nit-picking. And I say that as a Bears fan.

              I guess we will have to agree to disagree on your two-player-cutoff stance. I will say that “QB is a different animal” is a very convenient (and unconvincing) counter to the reality that Drew Brees would be left out of the Hall under those guidelines.

              • sacramento gold miners

                The name Zach Thomas was brought up, was surprised he received the amount of recognition he did during his career. Every time I watched Dolphins games, it seemed like he was making a bunch of tackles down the field as opposed to closer to the line of scrimmage. I just didn’t see the plays guys like Urlacher and Willis on a more regular basis. That being said, I’m a strong proponent of Thomas’ teammate, Jason Taylor for the HOF.

            • What about TO, Moss, and Owens? Are they three of the nine greatest modern WRs?

              • Kibbles

                No, but they’re definitely two of the nine greatest modern WRs.

        • Kibbles

          That’s not really how it works, though. At RB, between 1988 and 1995- a seven year span- we saw Thurman Thomas, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Curtis Martin, Jerome Bettis, and Marshall Faulk enter the league. That’s six Hall of Famers. And Terrell Davis has drawn enough interest that we might well be looking at seven in seven years.

          Now, sure, go ahead and quibble with Martin and Bettis and Thomas and Davis and say they don’t deserve to be in. But there’s no reasonable Hall of Fame standard that would exclude one of Smith, Sanders, or Faulk. So that’s three in five years, compared to the three-in-eleven-years of Lewis/Urlacher/Willis.

    • Kibbles

      What are “soft” HoF justifications? And what’s wrong with Willis’ “hard” justifications? Here’s a complete list of players with 7 pro bowls and 5 first team AP All Pros who are eligible for Canton but not yet enshrined: Johnny Robinson (6 time finalist, hurt by anti-AFL bias), Jim Tyrer (murdered someone), and Zach Thomas. Get rid of the Pro Bowl requirement, and here’s the list of guys with 5 first-team AP All Pros since 1960 who haven’t been voted into the Hall: Robinson, Tyrer, Thomas, Jerry Kramer (9 time finalist, one of the Hall’s biggest snubs, and hurt by Packer Fatigue), Larry Grantham (anti-AFL bias again; he made his All Pros back in the earliest years of the league when it still sucked), and Chuck Howley.

      Now, one could point out that the only two members on that list without extenuating circumstances were both LBs (Howley and Thomas), so if the Hall is going to exclude another 5-time AP All Pro, it’ll probably be another LB. That’s possible. You could add Randy Gradishar to the list of no-brainer Hall of Famers who have been kept out because he’s a linebacker and the Hall hates linebackers.

      To your latter point, though, that the Hall has simply been too generous with linebackers… no. Just no. See the earlier point about the only 5-time All Pros excluded from the Hall being LBs. There have been 26 LBs who have played since 1960 who made the Hall of Fame. There have been 30 such running backs, despite RB being the offensive analogue to LB and teams starting 3x as many LBs as RBs.

    • When you say Willis is an obvious ‘no’ for the Hall, what does that mean for the players I identified above, like Stephenson, Campbell, Casper, etc.?

      BTW, what are “soft” HOF justifications?

      • sn0mm1s

        I don’t think any of those guys get in the HOF if their careers were played out in the 1990s or later. There is definitely a longevity bias or minimum career length requirement to get into the HOF for players within the last 25 years or so. I think the issue stems that we see a lot of players with high peaks or great seasons and enough of those guys play ~10 years that that length of career is more or less expected.

  • sacramento gold miners

    Willis does have a couple issues which will affect how his career is viewed, the early retirement, and he didn’t stand out in the Super Bowl loss to Baltimore, as the Niners did not play well defensively. Players like Butkus, Winslow, and Stephenson were sensational, and knee injuries drove them from the game early. I wouldn’t put Willis at the same level as a Willie Lanier, but he may eventually reach the HOF.

  • Brandon Magner

    Sadly enough, Willis may be the rare generational talent that never makes an All-Decade team. Came along too late in the 2000s to earn serious consideration for that list, and he will likely be surpassed by several others this decade by the time writers decide the 2010s team. Keuchly, Wagner, and Bowman are all likely bets to earn honors.

  • Justin Scaife

    I’m not sure why this was even a debate. If being the best in the league at your position for seven straight seasons isn’t enough to get you into the Hall of Fame, then what is?

    For those of you who think Willis shouldn’t be in, I just have a question for consistency’s sake. Calvin Johnson, Joe Thomas, Adrian Peterson, and Darrelle Revis all entered the league the same year as Willis (Hell of a draft class, right?) If every one of these players retired tomorrow, would you similarly be opposed to each and every one of them being held out of the Hall of Fame?

    • Brandon Magner

      Great point. All five are no-doubters.

    • sunrise089

      It’s very unclear to me Willis was the best player at his position for seven straight years.

      That aside, of the four you mentioned I lean yes on Revis, no on Thomas but assume he will end up deserving entry, no on Peterson, and strong no on Johnson. Johnson might not even be in the top five at his position among active players!

      • Daniel Menezes

        Unless you are factoring in his off-the-field issues, if Peterson is a ‘no’ for you, you might as well say that a RB is never going to get into the HOF again.

      • Pierre NyGaard

        That’s insane to me. The last person to dominate the league at WR the way Calvin Johnson did in his prime was Randy Moss. If the rest of his career follows a relatively standard curve in terms of drop-off in production, he’ll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

    • Bryan Frye

      Personally, I’d say yes to all but Johnson, to whom I’d say maybe. Also, I’m not a voter, and my opinion matters very little.

    • Peterson and Thomas to me are shoo-ins; I guess Revis and Johnson are, too, but Revis wasn’t great as a rookie and missed a whole year, so his resume is a little thinner than Willis’ creds. I have a tough time grading Megatron because of the insane DET attempts numbers, but yeah, he’s probably in if he never played another down (though he has “only” 3 All-Pro seasons, and I think cases could be made that Marshall/Andre Johnson and Antonio Brown/Gordon deserved it over him in 2012/2013).

    • Justin, every one of the guys you mentioned has been better than Patrick Willis. That said, Peterson is the only no-doubter for me.

    • Justin Scaife

      Something interesting I noticed while looking at the career AV for the 2007 draft class. Of the top six, five are the players I mentioned above, with Willis first, Revis second, Peterson third, and Johnson and Thomas tied for fifth. In fourth place however, as a bit of a surprise, was David Harris. Lawrence Timmons and Jon Beason were also higher on the list than I expected. It doesn’t affect the analysis done above, but I have to wonder if there is some disconnect between the way AV rates inside linebackers and the way they are commonly perceived.

  • So, on average, over the first 7 seasons, Willis played like the third best ILB of all time every season. I think that should do it.

    • One would think.

    • frank sabados

      no Willis will not make Hall of Fame

  • Daniel Menezes

    To me he’s a pretty clear yes.

    Another alternative, if he played 5 more season at average production, maybe getting hurt and missing 5-6 games two or three times, and then retired, wouldn’t he go in?

    He was a Barry Sanders level talent at the LB position. He was a 1st team All-Pro as a rookie, and then only got better. He’ll also get a lot of credit for this mini-renaissance in San Francisco from 2011-13.

    Then again, I think I’m a big hall guy (I also think Justin Smith deserves to be a HOFer).

    • I’m sort of a big hall guy, too, especially when it comes to defensive players.

  • There has to be a way to develop a ‘defensive’ ANY/Play. Developing that metric will go a long way towards settling these defensive player arguements. I have been dabbling in it a tad. The only hole in finalizing a defensive ANY/Play is the yardage value of a tackle and missed tackle. We have everything else from a yardage perspective.

    • Hmm. I’m not so sure about that, but even if we could come up with something, we probably are still out in the cold with respect to just about every defensive player in NFL history.

  • Topher Doll

    I do think Willis is HoF worthy, even with shorter career. I am sad that Zach Thomas doesn’t get much HoF love despite have the resume needed.

  • I’m grateful for the five-year HOF waiting period. Right now I lean no on Willis. I believe AV gives extra credit for Pro Bowls and All-Pro selections, by which Willis is incredibly overrated. He officially made seven Pro Bowls, with five first-team all-pro selections. That’s not an accurate portrayal of his value.

    I looked back at my own votes and counted three Pro Bowls with one all-pro year. Perhaps the fairest count is somewhere in between, but I’m sure it’s closer to my evaluation. Willis was a first-round draft pick who played well as a rookie, and he benefitted from that reputation for years. In 2013, the media finally caught on that he was the second-best inside linebacker on his own team.

    I would also posit that Willis was one of the best ILBs in an era with very few outstanding ILBs. He was never a serious DPOY contender (3 votes in 8 years); it never occurred to me that he might be the best defensive player in the NFL. He was very good, but I’m not sure I’d consider him great.

  • Chase, you compare Willis to 4 tight ends, 3 running backs, a center. Linebackers usually have long careers; recently, most great LBs play about 15 seasons. Willis had a very short career at a position where that is not common. It’s a significant strike against him in a way that might not apply to a running back.

    • sn0mm1s

      I am pretty sure that LBs have the shortest expected career out of all positions.

      • Recent-ish HOF LBs:

        Derrick Brooks 1995-2008
        Rickey Jackson 1981-1995
        Junior Seau 1990-2009
        Mike Singletary 1981-1992
        Lawrence Taylor 1981-1993
        Derrick Thomas 1989-1999
        Andre Tippett 1982-1993

        and let’s assume

        Ray Lewis 1996-2012
        Brian Urlacher 2000-2012

        Derrick Thomas played almost 50% longer than Willis, I would argue he was more dominant, and I’m ambivalent about Thomas being in the HOF to begin with. We could also consider Lance Briggs (2003-14), London Fletcher (1999-2013), Kevin Greene (1985-99), and Zach Thomas (1996-2008). The best LBs play longer than the best RBs.

        • Well, outside linebackers are different than inside linebackers. Fletcher is kind of a unique case, no doubt about that. Urlacher played 13 years. Lewis is in his own class. So I’m not all that convinced by this line of thinking.

          I think of it this way: since 2000, a lot of young ILBs were great early, and then got injured or declined quickly. Jon Beason, Kendrell Bell, DeMeco Ryans, Jeremiah Trotter, Al Wilson, Lofa Tatupu, and perhaps Jero Mayo is next. All of those players had success early or great success at some point and then were injured/faded away. ILB is a brutal position, and very different than OLB.

          • I see your point, Chase, and if you really believe Willis deserved to make the Pro Bowl every year and get 5 first-team all-pro selections, I can understand why you’d see him as a HOFer. I don’t get hung up on longevity. But there’s simply not a precedent (in the last 40 years) for LBs with
            short careers to be considered among the all-time greats.

            Lewis (17 seasons), Fletcher (15), James Farrior (15), Keith Brooking (15), Tedy Bruschi (14), Zach Thomas (13), Urlacher (13), Donnie Edwards (13) … all those guys played careers that outlasted Willis’ by over 50%. I think it’s too early to bury several of the guys you mention, and none of the others (except maybe Wilson) ever looked like they might be HOFers.

            I regard Willis more highly than say, Tedy Bruschi. But I would argue that we expect the best LBs — including ILBs — to play for a pretty long time. That doesn’t apply to a position like RB, and it didn’t apply to the older TEs you mentioned. Dwight Stephenson, as I know you’re aware, was pretty unanimously regarded as the most dominant center of all time. I don’t think any objective analyst would regard Willis as the most dominant ILB in history.

            This is an unconscionably long comment about a peripheral issue, but I don’t think we should compare Willis’ short career to those of Gale Sayers and Earl Campbell.

            • I think it’s worth studying the idea of ILBs vs. RBs and how they age. I’m not sure there’s a perfectly fair way to do that, but I am not convinced that it’s more acceptable to give RBs a pass than ILBs. I welcome any ideas on how to conduct such a study.

              • My first idea on how to conduct such a study would be to compare contemporaries as much as possible. Half the guys you compared to Willis retired before he was born.

                You could also compare PB/AP selections for RBs and LBs older than 30, though that would unfairly favor LBs, who are chosen over and over based on reputation, in a way that RBs usually are not. But beyond that, I think it will be very obvious, in the course of your study, that many more LBs perform at a high level in their 30s than RBs. When I did a study on RB ages in 2012, I found that with very rare outliers, no RB has a great season after he turns 32, and no one has a good season after 33. Our three most recent HOF RBs (Faulk, Martin, LT) each retired after their age-32 season.

                I’m sure that wouldn’t apply to linebackers, and I can offer two easy examples off the top of my head. London Fletcher made his first Pro Bowl — and eventually four Pro Bowls — after turning 34. Ray Lewis was first-team all-pro at 33 and 34. Riggins is the only RB who’s been effective at that age, and that was more than 30 years ago. Junior Seau played ’til he was 40. No RB has come near that.

                I welcome the research, but I’m not sure it’s a great use of your time; it seems obvious what you’ll find.

              • Bryan Frye

                How much of this do you think has to do with how these players age versus how their contributions are measured? When a running back declines, it is evident on the stat sheet. His yards, YPA, TDs, and touches decrease, generally. When a linebacker is no longer that good, he can still make the Pro Bowl on reputation.

                London Fletcher hung around for about four more years than he should have, and he actually got so much press for being underrated that he eventually became super overrated. He may have deserved some Pro Bowls hen he didn’t get them, but he definitely didn’t earn the ones he got.

                This doesn’t work the same for a guy like Steven Jackson. You see five games missed and about 1600 scrimmage yards over the last two seasons and know he is in decline. Sure, he could hang around as a backup for a while (and still be a better runner than Kevin Faulk ever was), but most premiere backs don’t want to do that. You think Brady/Manning would hang around as a backup for two years after they were no longer starter material? There’s no doubt in my mind that Frank Gore could have a Faulk-like role for a team till he is 40, but I doubt he would want to continue after he became a palpably less effective runner.

                There’s also a mental aspect of the game that helps linebacker longevity in a way that it doesn’t usually help RB longevity. A guy like Fletcher could still be useful by reading offenses pre-play and getting his guys into position, even if he couldn’t personally make half the plays he once did. A halfback doesn’t get that opportunity, at least not at that level. A great third down back may utilize his awareness to pick up blitzes in pass pro or break off his route on a check-with-me, but the pre-play adjustments are on the QB and center.

  • bachslunch

    One might argue that linebackers tend to get short shrift depending on the position and era. It’s still true for OLBs from the 50s-70s despite some attempts to address the problem (would argue in favor of Chuck Howley, Maxie Baughan, and Robert Brazile for sure, perhaps Joe Fortunato, Larry Grantham, and Bill Forester as well), and am in favor of Randy Gradishar from this period. From the 80s-90s, it’s the reverse — MLBs-ILBs get little love (only Mike Singletary and Harry Carson are in) and there’s sufficient room to induct at least Karl Mecklenburg and Sam Mills; OLBs (mostly the sacking type) are represented about right. From the 00s and 10s, we’re talking Ray Lewis, Zach Thomas, Brian Urlacher, and Patrick Willis at MLB/ILB and Derrick Brooks, Demarcus Ware, Terrell Suggs, John Abraham, and Lance Briggs at OLB — not unreasonable depth for two decades at the position. Unless there’s some reason to go “tiny hall” here.