Unofficial HOF Finalist Survey: Willis, Peppers unanimous in cutdown to 15

Former 49ers Linebacker a favorite to make Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2024
Former 49ers Linebacker a favorite to make Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2024

In an unofficial, anonymous survey of select football professionals, pass-rushing defensive end Julius Peppers and uber athletic linebacker Patrick Willis were the only two unanimous selections while trimming a list of 25 Modern Era semifinalists to 15 for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2024.

Again, this is an unofficial survey we take twice a year, during cutdowns to semifinalists and then to finalists. 

This is Peppers’ first year of eligibility and he is joined by one more first-ballot nominee, former Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, among the 15. Gates was an undrafted rookie free agent who didn’t play college football. Although he was not a unanimous pick he was in a small group that otherwise had the most votes . 

The official cutdown vote by the Pro Football Hall of Fame will take place later this month and there will be a January, in-person meeting of the 50-person selection committee to pick the Class of 2024, including senior players and a coach.  Already on the official finalist list are coach/Contributor Buddy Parker; and and seniors nominees Randy Gradishar, Steve McMichael and Art Powell.

Our survey polled 36 football people, including past and present coaches, team executives, Hall of Fame members (players, coaches, administrators) and a few veteran members of the selection committee. The goal was to get 30 responses and we received 24. They were given an option of commenting on the record and none did.

The result continued a theme that favors receivers, with six wide receivers and one tight end.

Here is the complete list of the unofficial 15 -- alphabetically by last name:

n  Eric Allen, CB

n  Jared Allen, DE

n  Willie Anderson, OT

n  Dwight Freeney, DE

n  Antonio Gates, TE, first-year eligible

n  Devin Hester, WR-Returner

n  Torry Holt, WR

n  Andre Johnson, WR

n  Julius Peppers, DE – first-year eligible, unanimous

n  Steve Smith, Sr., WR

n  Hines Ward, WR

n  Reggie Wayne, WR

n  Ricky Watters, RB

n  Patrick Willis, LB – Unanimous

n  Daren Woodson, S

Among the 15 listed here, nine were finalists in 2023 — Jared Allen, Anderson, Freeney, Hester, Holt, Johnson, Wayne, Willis and Woodson. The other six are first-time eligibles Peppers and Gates along with Eric Allen, Smith Sr., Ward and Watters. 

In a notable move, Willis all but abdicated his spot last year when, as a finalist, became a vocal advocate for another inside linebacker, Zach Thomas, who was indeed inducted with the class of 2023.

Those among this year’s 25 semifinalists who did not make this unofficial group of 15 are: running backs Tiki Barber, Eddie George and Fred Taylor; wide receiver Anquan Boldin; offensive lineman Jahri Evans; defensive linemen Robert Mathis (also LB), Vince Wilfork; linebackers London Fletcher, James Harrison; defensive back Rodney Harrison.

The top 15 were separated from the others by at least two votes.

Here is an expanded look at the unofficial 15:

Julius Peppers, DE (unanimous pick, first-year of eligibility): 2002–09, 2017–18 Carolina Panthers, 2010–13 Chicago Bears, 2014–15 Green Bay Packers (Times as a Semifinalist: 1 – 2024). First year of eligibility.

Selected by the Carolina Panthers second overall in the 2002 NFL Draft, and also played for the Chicago Bears from 2010 through 2013 and the Green Bay Packers from 2014 to 2016. After rejoining the Panthers for the 2017 season, he retired after the 2018 NFL season.

Peppers was named to the Pro Bowl nine times, and both the First and Second All-Pro teams three times each. In his rookie season, he was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, where he recorded 12 sacks, five forced fumbles, and an interception, all while playing in only 12 games. He was named to the 2000s and NFL 2010s All-Decade Teams. Second most blocked kicks in NFL history: 13; Only player in NFL history to record at least 100 sacks and 10 interceptions; only player in NFL history with 100-plus sacks and four interceptions returned for touchdowns; only player in NFL history to record at least 150 sacks and 10 interceptions; NFL career sack leaders:

RK      PLAYER                SACKS

1        Bruce Smith            200

2        Reggie White          198

3        Kevin Greene          160

4        Julius Peppers        159 1/2

Patrick Willis, LB (unanimous pick): 2007–2014 San Francisco 49ers | (times as a Semifinalist: 5 – 2020-24). Finalist twice.

Selected by the 49ers in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, No. 11 overall. He played college football for the Ole Miss Rebels and received consensus All-American honors.

During Willis' senior season at Ole Miss, he received the Butkus Award and the Jack Lambert Award as the nation's top linebacker. His performance at the Indianapolis Combine was shocking. At 6-21/8, 242 pounds he registered a 4.56 clocking in 40 yards, a 39-inch vertical jump and 22 reps with 225 pounds. As a rookie, Willis led the NFL in tackles, earned first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors while being named the 2007 AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Willis made the Pro Bowl in his first seven seasons in the NFL, and earned All-Pro honors in his first six years. He won the college Butkus Award in 2006 while at Ole Miss, and in 2009, he won the professional Butkus Award while with the 49ers. In 2013, he was impacted by injuries that caused him to miss two games and after struggling through 2014 he retired in March of 2015.

Antonio Gates, TE (first-year eligible): 2003–2018 San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers (times as a Semifinalist: 1 – 2024)

Gates was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2003 after playing college basketball for the Kent State Golden Flashes. He attended college at Kent State University in his junior and senior years, after brief stints at Michigan State University and Eastern Michigan University, but never played football in either location. He did play football at Central High in Detroit. He is the Chargers' career leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. In 2015, he became the second tight end and ninth player overall to record 100 career touchdown receptions. He ranks seventh in career touchdown receptions, with 116, and leads all tight ends in NFL history.

Torry Holt, WR: 1999–2008 St. Louis Rams, 2009 Jacksonville Jaguars (times as a Semifinalist: 10 – 2015–2024). Finalist 4 times.

Devin Hester, PR/KR/WR: 2006–2013 Chicago Bears, 2014–15 Atlanta Falcons, 2016 Baltimore Ravens | (times as a Semifinalist: 3, 2022–24). Finalist twice.

Ricky Watters, RB: 1992–94 San Francisco 49ers, 1995–97 Philadelphia Eagles, 1998–2001 Seattle Seahawks (Times as a Semifinalist: 4, 2020, 2022–24). Never a finalist.

Dwight Freeney, DE: 2002–2012 Indianapolis Colts, 2013–14 San Diego Chargers, 2015 Arizona Cardinals, 2016 Atlanta Falcons, 2017 Seattle Seahawks, 2017 Detroit Lions (times as a Semifinalist: 2, 2023–24). Finalist once.

Andre Johnson, WR: 2003–2014 Houston Texans, 2015 Indianapolis Colts, 2016 Tennessee Titans (times as a Semifinalist: 3, 2022–24). Finalist twice.

Eric Allen, CB: 1988–1994 Philadelphia Eagles, 1995–97 New Orleans Saints, 1998–2001 Oakland Raiders (times as a Semifinalist: 4, 2021–24). Never a finalist.

Jared Allen, DE: 2004–07 Kansas City Chiefs, 2008–2013 Minnesota Vikings, 2014–15 Chicago Bears, 2015 Carolina Panthers  (Times as a Semifinalist: 4, 2021–24). Finalist three times.

Willie Anderson, T: 1996–2007 Cincinnati Bengals, 2008 Baltimore Ravens  (times as a Semifinalist: 4, 2021–24). Finalist twice.

Steve Smith Sr., WR: 2001–2013 Carolina Panthers, 2014–16 Baltimore Ravens  (Times as a Semifinalist: 3, 2022–24). Never a finalist.

Darren Woodson, S: 1992–2003 Dallas Cowboys | (times as a Semifinalist: 8, 2015, 2017, 2019–2024). Finalist once.

Reggie Wayne, WR: 2001–2014 Indianapolis Colts | (times as a Semifinalist: 5, 2020–24). Finalist four times.

Hines Ward, WR: 1998–2011 Pittsburgh Steelers | (Times as a Semifinalist: 8, 2017–2024). Never a finalist.

The Hall of Fame’s 50-person Selection Committee will select the Class of 2024 in advance of Super Bowl LVIII in Las Vegas. The class will be announced live on the “NFL Honors” telecast scheduled to air Feb. 8. While there is no set number for any class of enshrinees, the bylaws for the Selection Committee provide that between four and nine new members will be selected.

The Coach/Contributor and Seniors Finalists are voted “yes” or “no” for election at the annual selection meeting and must receive at least 80 percent support from the Committee to be elected. The Modern-Era Player Finalists will be trimmed during the meeting from 15 to 10, then from 10 to five. The remaining five finalists will be voted on individually, “yes” or “no,” and must receive the same 80 percent-positive vote as the Coach/Contributor and Seniors Finalists to earn election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2024 will be enshrined next August (anticipated date: Aug. 3) in Canton as part of the 2024 Enshrinement Week. Other events include the Hall of Fame Game (teams to be determined) and the Enshrinees’ Gold Jacket Dinner. For more information, visit

—Frank Cooney has been a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee for 32 years and is also on the Seniors Committee. He conducted the survey, but did not vote.


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