Back in September, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced its 173 modern-era nominees for the Class of 2024. That list will get whittled down to just 25 semifinalists later this month.
First and foremost, all of those men are clearly deserving of the nomination; their illustrious careers speak for themselves. But I wonder: What’s a guy gotta do to get an invite to the party? Your boy was a league rushing champion (2011) and a top player at the running back position for a multi-year span. I have much more to tack on here, but I digress. It’s not about me this time around.
Before the semifinalists are announced, I’m taking a closer look at the 33 nominated running backs. And for me, there are five benchmarks that I routinely use to decide whether a running back is worthy of a spot in Canton:
Below are the players who, in my opinion, are most deserving of a gold jacket this year — and in the future. All 33 nominees were special players, obviously, but I limited my rundown to seven truly transcendent backs. These guys (listed in alphabetical order within each subsection) check a number — if not all — of my benchmark boxes. Let’s get to it.
Deserving of a gold jacket NOW
Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans (1996-2003), Dallas Cowboys (2004)
This guy has to get in this year. George has been HOF-eligible for more than a decade, inexplicably only achieving semifinalist status once. In a long list of great Oilers/Titans running backs — a group that includes Earl Campbell, Chris Johnson and Derrick Henry — George is arguably the best, with 10,441 career rushing yards. Much like those players, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder made opponents game plan around him and used his size and physicality to wear down defenses throughout his nine-year career. He played a major role in Tennessee reaching the franchise’s first and only Super Bowl, but it was George’s individual success that stands out most. The Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1996, he continued to get better and build toward his best season, the 2000 campaign. George finished third in MVP voting that year after rushing for 1,509 yards and 14 touchdowns on a league-most 403 carries. The four-time Pro Bowler also rushed for more than 1,200 yards in each of his first five seasons, joining Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson and LaDainian Tomlinson as the only players to do so in NFL history.
Tennessee Titans (2008-2013), New York Jets (2014), Arizona Cardinals (2015-17)
Johnson is part of an elite fraternity of eight players who surpassed 2,000 rushing yards in a season. The Titans’ first-round pick in 2008, Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards in the 2009 campaign (the seventh-highest single-season total) and finished atop the NFL in carries (358), rush yards per game (125.4), touches (408) and scrimmage yards (2,509) — that last mark still ranks first all time for a single season. He was named the 2009 Offensive Player of the Year for his efforts, a season after his impressive rookie campaign landed him second in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting and seventh in the MVP race. Those two seasons were very impressive, no doubt, but Johnson wasn’t just a flash in the pan. He rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first six seasons — and during that span, CJ2K had six touchdown runs of at least 80 yards.
Jacksonville Jaguars (1998-2008), New England Patriots (2009-2010)
Taylor has been a semifinalist for four straight years, but has yet to be named a finalist. I am putting good energy into the universe for 2024. I watched this guy work firsthand in Jacksonville over my first three seasons in the NFL (2006-08) and learned so much under his tutelage. Taylor ranks 17th all time in rushing yards with 11,695. Playing 11 of his 13 seasons with the Jaguars, he owns franchise records in carries (2,428), rushing yards (11,271) most rushing yards in a single game (234) and consecutive 100-yard games (nine in 2000). Leading the NFL with an average of 107.6 rush yards per game in that 2000 campaign, Taylor set the bar high — constantly challenging me in the film room, weight room and on the field — and though he was named to only one Pro Bowl, he was undoubtedly one of the best of his era, with the ability to steamroll defenses.
Deserving of a gold jacket in the future
Kansas City Chiefs (2008-2016), Denver Broncos (2017), Jacksonville Jaguars (2018)
Charles was hampered by a pair of ACL tears (2011 and 2015), but he was an outstanding (and electric!) model of consistency when healthy. From 2009 through 2014, Charles earned four Pro Bowl selections and two first-team All-Pro nods while compiling five 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He also tied Marshawn Lynch for the league lead in rushing touchdowns (12) in 2013. What’s most impressive about the third-round pick’s career, though, is the fact that he is the NFL’s all-time leader in yards per carry at 5.4 (min. 1,000 attempts). That figure puts him above Hall of Famers like Jim Brown, Joe Perry and Barry Sanders in one of the position’s most straightforward/crucial statistics.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1997-2001, 2008), Atlanta Falcons (2002-07)
Dunn was a dual-threat playmaker who consistently produced throughout his 12-year career, racking up at least 1,000 scrimmage yards in every season but one (958 in 2007). In his first pro season, Dunn recorded 1,440 scrimmage yards and seven total touchdowns on his way to earning a Pro Bowl nod and the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. The three-time Pro Bowler finished his career with five 1,000-yard rushing seasons — his best being 1,416 with the Bucs in 2005 — and a total of 64 touchdowns (49 rushing, 15 receiving). Though he finished his career with 10,967 yards rushing and 4,339 receiving, perhaps his greatest accomplishment was being named the 2004 Walter Payton Man of the Year for his work in the community.
St. Louis Rams (2004-2012), Atlanta Falcons (2013-14), New England Patriots (2015)
Nearly two years ago, I made a Canton case for Corey Dillon, and while I still believe he should get the Hall knock, I’m pivoting to another 11,000-yard rusher in Steven Jackson. This is Jackson’s fourth year of eligibility, and though he has yet to be named a semifinalist, he checks most of the boxes to don a gold jacket. The 24th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Jackson was an absolute force — a 6-2, 240-pounder nobody wanted to tackle. Jackson benefited from playing alongside Torry Holt and Hall of Famers Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce, who pushed the multi-talented back to reach his full potential. Jackson ranks 18th all time in rushing yards (11,438) and registered eight straight seasons of 1,000-plus from 2005 to 2012 — the fourth-longest streak in NFL history. The three-time Pro Bowler was the definition of consistency.
Baltimore Ravens (2000-06), Cleveland Browns (2007-09)
The fifth overall pick in the 2000 draft, Lewis hit the ground running in Baltimore as a dual-threat back. That first season, he compiled over 1,660 scrimmage yards to help the Ravens reach — and win — the Super Bowl. He is still just one of two rookies to rush for 100 yards in the Super Bowl, picking up 102 yards on 27 attempts on the game’s biggest stage. After missing the entire next season due to an ACL tear, Lewis came back in 2002 and didn’t miss a beat, piling up 1,769 scrimmage yards. Then, in 2003, he posted a historic 2,000-yard rushing campaign. Finishing with 2,066 rush yards (third-most ever), Lewis was named the Offensive Player of the Year and finished fourth in MVP voting. Lewis eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing in seven of the nine seasons in which he played at least one game.
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