Predicting the 2024 Hall of Fame class: Which active players will be the next Julius Peppers or Andre Johnson 2.0?

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It will be a seven-man 2024 Pro Football Hall of Fame class, as the likes of Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney, and Steve McMichael got the call from Canton at NFL Honors on Thursday night

Before they were new HOF honorees, they were NFL superstars. Which got me thinking. 

Which active NFL players have stylistic and production similarities to the next members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

(As the impact of kickoffs has been drastically reduced over the past five-ish years in the NFL, you will not see a comparison for Devin Hester below. No active player is anywhere close to matching Hester’s return production.)

Julius Peppers –> Browns EDGE Myles Garrett

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Myles Garrett

CLE • DE • #95

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Peppers famously moonlighted on the North Carolina basketball team, demonstrated how freaky of an athlete he was for the Tar Heels football team, went No. 2 overall in the 2002 NFL Draft and finished with 159.5 career sacks in the NFL. At his peak, Peppers was probably the scariest specimen on the outside of either the Panthers or Bears defensive lines. 

The same can be said about the 6-foot-4, 275ish-pound Garrett, who had an unforgettable combine performance — including a 41-inch vertical — in 2017 and will enter the 2024 campaign with 88.5 sacks and three first-team All-Pro distinctions. There’s burst, bend and explosion to the quarterback with Garrett that harkens back to the way Peppers did it with his enormous frame during the earlier portions of the 2000s. 

Given the track Garrett is on, he can eclipse Peppers’ career sack total after Year 13. Either way, like we kinda-sorta knew seven years into Peppers’ NFL tenure, Garrett is a future Hall of Famer. 

Andre Johnson –> Buccaneers WR Mike Evans

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Mike Evans

TB • WR • #13
TAR136
REC79
REC YDs1255
REC TD13
FL0

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Johnson eclipsed the magical 1,000-yard mark as a receiver seven times in his NFL career despite spending most of it catching passes from mediocre (at best) quarterbacks — outside of a few efficient years from Matt Schaub. 

Evans has famously “started” his NFL career with 10-consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns with a menagerie of quarterbacks. Three years with Tom Brady certainly didn’t hurt as he exited the prime of his illustrious Buccaneers tenure. How about his 2023, though? With new journeyman quarterback Baker Mayfield, Evans posted his highest receiving-yard total (1,255) since 2018 and led the league in receiving touchdowns (somehow it was the first time he’s done that despite four other double-digit receiving touchdown seasons). Very Johnsonian from Evans. 

Like Johnson, who was as physically intimidating as any receiver in his era, Evans is a tall, thick and sculpted dominator with stallion-like strides in the open field and the mentality of an All-NBA forward when “rebounding” the football deep. He’ll eventually be enshrined in Canton, too. 

Dwight Freeney –> Steelers EDGE T.J. Watt

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T.J. Watt

PIT • OLB • #90

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Freeney was a sight to behold flying feverishly around the corner for over a decade with the Colts during the golden years with Peyton Manning, and he might have the finest spin move in NFL history. After Indianapolis picked him with the 11th pick in the same draft as Peppers, the former Syracuse All-American had 125.5 sacks in a studly 16-year pro career. 

Watt is taller than Freeney but plays with comparable authority when bending the edge for the Steelers. He wins with burst, power and a constantly growing collection of pass-rush moves. In his seven-year career to date, Watt already has 96.5 sacks and has led the league in that category three times. 

When teams played the Colts during the early 2000s, they knew Freeney was the game-wrecker on the outside, but rarely was he limited as a quarterback agitator. The same is true for Watt now in Pittsburgh. 

Randy Gradishar –> 49ers LB Fred Warner 

Gradishar was the anchor of the Orange Crush defense in Denver from the mid-1970s and well into the 80s, a formidable force in the middle who thumped against the run, blitzed effectively and made plays in coverage routine. During a time when most linebackers were downhill players, Gradishar also excelled on pass plays. He finished his NFL career with 20 interceptions in the regular season, which when adjusted for “inflation” today feels like 30 or 40. 

Warner is also a rocket to the football against the run. He’s rarely out of position nor is it often that a running back slips out of his grasp. But as today’s NFL has become a passing renaissance, Warner stands out due to his exceptional coverage capability. Set to finish his sixth professional season in Super Bowl 58 on Sunday, Warner already has eight interceptions and 46 pass breakups. He’s tracking toward a Hall of Fame bust.

Steve McMichael –> Chiefs DT Chris Jones

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Chris Jones

KC • DE • #95

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During an era where rushing, not passing, was the focal point of most offenses — and much of the passing was futile — McMichael was a uniquely productive pass-rusher from the inside. On some of the league’s best defenses of all-time, including the 1985 Bears, McMichael finished with 95 career sacks in the regular season as an interior rusher who was usually aligned darn close to the football. Incredible. He earned four-time All-Pro (two first-team, two second-team) distinctions.

Built differently than McMichael at 6-foot-6, Jones is tracking toward a career with close to 100 career sacks as mostly an interior rusher. Already with 75.5 sacks in his regular season career to date, Jones has been named to an All-Pro team five times now (two first-team, three second-team), and even at 29 years old, he’s shown zero signs of slowing down. 

Patrick Willis –> Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner

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Bobby Wagner

SEA • MLB • #54

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Willis did it all fom the jump in San Francisco. One of the last “classic” middle linebackers who first demolished the run with speed and power and then was a net in the middle of the defense on passing downs, the former Ole Miss superstar looked like a future Hall of Famer from his rookie season on in the NFL. That year, Willis led the NFL with 174 total tackles, won Defensive Rookie of the Year and was a first-team All-Pro. 

Wagner can relate. As a rookie with the Seahawks in 2012, Wagner registered 140 tackles, snagged three picks, defended four other passes and had two sacks. After that, he quickly asserted himself as an elite linebacker and hasn’t looked back. He’s had the most tackles in football three separate times, including 2023 (!). Wagner has 10 All-Pro honors to his name (six first-team, four second-team). He’s a future first-ballot HOFer. 

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