Are Jason Kelce, Fletcher Cox Hall of Famers?

Welcome back to Walkthrough’s summer series of Pro Football Hall of Fame debates! This week, we’re discussing center Jason Kelce and other members of the Philadelphia Eagles team that won Super Bowl LII. If Hall of Fame arguments are your bag, check out last week’s installment on Kansas City Chiefs/Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill! 

Before we assume that Jason Kelce is a slam dunk for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, let’s consider the cases of some centers who are currently not enshrined and may never be:

Jeff Saturday: Peyton Manning’s center during his Indianapolis Colts peak. Two-time All-Pro. Six-time Pro Bowler. Saturday was responsible for adjusting the protections when Manning called plays at the line of scrimmage, making him instrumental to his quarterback’s/team’s success.

Tom Nalen: John Elway’s center when the Denver Broncos won Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII. Two-time All-Pro. Six-time Pro Bowler. Anchor of an offensive line that made Alex Gibbs’ zone-blocking scheme the NFL standard and helped Terrell Davis rush for over 2,000 yards. Both the Shanahan coaching tree and the “running backs don’t matter” movement can trace their origins to Nalen’s Broncos offensive lines.

Mark Stepnoski: Center for the Troy Aikman/Emmitt Smith Dallas Cowboys who won Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII. Five-time Pro Bowler for the Cowboys and Titans. Anchor for one of the greatest offensive lines of the modern era.

Kent Hull: Jim Kelly’s center through four AFC Championships for the Buffalo Bills. Two-time All-Pro. Three-time Pro Bowler. The first NFL center to operate frequently out of a no-huddle offense in neutral situations, making him an innovator of how the modern position is played.

Jay Hilgenberg: Center for Mike Ditka’s Super Bowl Shuffle Chicago Bears. Two-time All-Pro. Seven-time Pro Bowler.

Bart Oates: Center for two Bill Parcells-led New York Giants Super Bowl champions and another with George Seifert and Steve Young in San Francisco. Five-time Pro Bowler.

Olin Kreutz: Center for Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears teams, whose offenses would have circled the drain without strong blocking. One-time All-Pro. Six-time Pro Bowler.

Jeff Van Note: Starting center for the Atlanta Falcons for 16 years in the 1970s and ’80s. Six-time Pro Bowler.

Forrest Blue: Three-time All-Pro and four-time Pro Bowler for the San Francisco 49ers of the early 1970s. The best center in the NFL from the merger until Jim Langer and Mike Webster established themselves.

Not only are none of these centers in the Hall of Fame, but most have never even reached the semi-finalist category. You would think Saturday or Nalen at least would have clawed into the top 25, but neither has.

As a final illustration of how absurdly high the bar is set for centers: Mick Tingelhoff was a five-time All-Pro who started for four NFC Champion Minnesota Vikings teams. Tingelhoff was passed over for 37 years until the Seniors Committee inducted him in 2015. Tingelhoff’s sin was that he played poorly against a Kansas City Chiefs defense full of Hall of Famers in Super Bowl IV, which was all it took for the old-school committees of the 1980s and 1990s to bury a guy.

Not all of the centers above are legit Hall of Fame candidates, though I would cape pretty hard for Nalen. 

As for Kelce, he probably has a better case than all of them. Kelce is a four-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler. Because those accolades don’t precisely line up, Kelce can lay claim to seven different “all-star” seasons, and also to the title of Best Center of his Era.

Kelce helped the Eagles win Super Bowl LII, and neither his nor that team’s legacy is tied to a Hall of Fame quarterback or coach. You surely noticed that most of the famous centers in the list above were introduced as “Peyton’s center” or “Aikman’s center,” or they were tied to Ditka or Parcells. Tingelhoff was Fran Tarkenton’s center on Bud Grant’s not-quite champions. You can see how that can diminish a center’s legacy, not just by making him look like a wingman but by placing him behind several ring-bearing teammates in the Hall of Fame priority queue.

Kelce’s career starts in the Andy Reid era and spans the Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson tenures before landing in the Nick Sirianni present. He anchored playoff-caliber lines for Carson Wentz, Jalen Hurts, and two different iterations of Nick Foles, for Eagles teams with wildly different offensive philosophies. He’s also a much more colorful character than most centers, meaning he will likely stay in the public eye after retirement. Kelce Mummer-strutting up the Ben Franklin Parkway during the Eagles Super Bowl parade is one of the most iconic images in the history of Philly sports. He will be Hall of Fame priority numero uno for the Philly contingent of the committee when he becomes eligible.

Kelce has an extremely strong Pro Football Hall of Fame case. But it bears mentioning that Pittsburgh Steelers great Dermontti Dawson—a six-time All-Pro, the greatest center of the 1990s, the reason why guys like Stepnoski and Nalen have scant All-Pro selections, and the top-ranked center on the Pro Football Reference Hall of Fame monitor—spent three years as a semifinalist and three more as a finalist before enshrinement. So be sure to slow any “first ballot” rolls. Kelce will face tough competition once he becomes eligible. He may be forced to wait until his brother arrives on the ballot and the committee decides (to the Hall brass’ delight) that a Kelce Brothers class would both be fair and engage national fan interest.

Let’s examine a few other Eagles from the Super Bowl LII roster:

Is Jason Peters a Hall of Famer?

Jason Peters, Kelce’s linemate on that 2017 Eagles team, may be among that tough competition Kelce will face when he reaches the ballot. Peters is currently a free agent but could end up playing one more season, meaning he and Kelce could retire in the same year. Even if Peters retires tomorrow, he’s an extremely unlikely first-ballot selection, especially since he would then hit the ballot at the exact same time as Andrew Whitworth.

Peters was a two-time All-Pro and nine-time Pro Bowler. The Hall of Fame monitor places him on the same tier as Orlando Pace and Tony Boselli. AFL great Jim Tyrer and Joe Thomas are the only tackles above Peters on the monitor who are not in the Hall of Fame, and Thomas will soon waltz in on the first ballot. Peters is in great company. And he will get support from both the Philly and Buffalo voting blocs.

Now, the problems with Peters’ candidacy:

  • The Philly voter/voters (there are typically one or two Philly-based at-large selectors), as mentioned earlier, will prioritize Kelce.
     
  • Whitworth’s case may not be as superficially strong as Peters’ (two All-Pros, four Pro Bowl berths), but Whitworth has a well-earned iron-man reputation. He will also get attention from both the Los Angeles and Cincinnati blocs, with Cincy voters arguing (with merit) that Whitworth should have earned more early-career accolades.
     
  • Peters was injured for most of the Eagles’ Super Bowl LII run, so his “contribution to a champion” argument is not as strong as Whitworth’s, Kelce’s, or those of others who may be seeking enshrinement in five to seven years.
     
  • Peters developed a bit of a reputation in his final seasons in Philly as a perpetually gimpy and dissatisfied vet who might not make it out of the second quarter. That’s another thing that will get held against him in direct comparison to Whitworth and Kelce, the two players most likely to split Peters’ ticket and trap him on a semifinalist/finalist treadmill.

All of that said, Peters will probably reach the Hall of Fame. Whether it takes three years as a finalist or 13 will likely be determined by the testimonials of defenders he faced (my gut is that they will be glowing, especially from the early 2010s) and of the coaches who relied upon him.

Is Fletcher Cox a Hall of Famer?

Cox’s first problem is Aaron Donald, of course: it’s hard to start a Pro Football Hall of Fame argument with “second-best player at his position in his conference during his peak.”

Cox’s second problem may be Cameron Heyward, a three-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowler who is building a late-career Hall of Fame resume just as Cox is in steep decline. Heyward isn’t mentioned as a PFHoF candidate often outside of Steelers fan circles, but he could mount a serious case if, say, he helps the Steelers remain competitive through the post-Roethlisberger transition.

Cox has other problems. There’s Ndamukong Suh, whose candidacy is going to be complicated. Suh has all the pieces of a Hall of Fame portfolio, but they don’t fit together properly. He’s exactly the type of player who reaches the finalist stage and spurs intense debates which last for years. Suh could clog the gears for years for defensive tackles (with Donald waved through on a VIP pass), making things harder for someone like Cox.

And then there is Kevin Williams, with his five All-Pro selections and “Williams Wall” fame, slowly moving along in the semifinalist queue. If Williams is on the slow freight track, Cox might end up on the siding. And before you answer with “Cox has a ring:” that’s more of an added value than a trump card for a defensive lineman.

Finally, there’s Kelce. Regional presenters find it difficult to make multiple cases at the same time. The committee as a whole is unlikely to choose multiple players from the same franchise unless it’s a Brady/Gronk level situation. Cox may bypass Peters in the Eagles queue, but Kelce passed both of them over the last two years or so.

Cox’s Hall of Fame case is rather weak. My guess is he will struggle to crack the finalist list unless something unexpected happens during his final NFL seasons. That’s yet another sobering reminder of just how high the bar to the PFHoF is set.

Is Malcolm Jenkins a Hall of Famer?

Let’s wrap with a player I admire personally, both for his on-field and off-field contributions.

Jenkins has some elements of a Pro Football Hall of Fame portfolio. He earned Super Bowl rings for two different organizations. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler. He received the NFLPA’s community service award in 2016, which helps frame his social activism as a football activity and not an off-the-field (and therefore, off-limits to the selection committee) activity.

That’s very thin soup, unfortunately, and Jenkins will have a hard time garnering attention on nominee lists likely to include Eric Weddle and Kam Chancellor. (Earl Thomas will already be enshrined when all of this goes down.)

Jenkins may well also emerge as a polarizing, outspoken sociopolitical voice by the time he reaches the nominee list, and his activism was just football-related enough to seep into conversations about his impact on the game. Many Hall of Fame voters may agree with Jenkins, but others will not. The Hall itself, based on its geographic location and financial straits, would probably prefer future classes to be as apolitical as possible. But Jenkins’ portfolio may be too far south of borderline for politics to play any sort of role. If Jenkins earned more Pro Bowl berths, earned a Walter Payton Man of the Year Award or helped guide the Saints to more success in his final seasons, he could probably have squeezed his case into the finalist stage. As it stands, he’s the sort of player whose candidacy stalls at the semifinalist stage at best.

Jenkins has the opportunity to do much more for society over the next decade than don a gold jacket and make the Super Bowl Radio Row rounds telling tall pigskin tales. I’m sure he will seize it.



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