Take a look into your crystal ball and let me know if you see any future Hall of Famers donning gold jackets in Canton, Ohio.
That was the task of NFL columnist Adam Schein, who offers up a list of nine up-and-coming NFL stars who are at age 24 or younger who have the potential to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. None of these players should be fitted for a gold jacket just for being mentioned on the list, but if you want to play the projection game – or simply want to browse through a list of the league’s elite young talent – this list is for you.
Naturally, Ezekiel Elliott tops the list after a remarkable rookie season in which he led the league in rush attempts (322) and yards (1,631) while scoring 15 touchdowns. Elliott is the only running back in the group, but he is joined on the offensive side of the ball by four wide receivers (Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, and Amari Cooper), and quarterbacks (Jameis Winston, Carson Wentz). Only two defensive players make the cut, with Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa and New York Giants safety Landon Collins representing the other side of the ball.
Among Schein’s toughest omissions is a familiar face in Bears running back Jordan Howard, who is one of five offensive players who just missed making the list but is also keeping good company by being mentioned in any capacity.
Howard had a stellar first season in Chicago as he set the team’s all-time rookie rushing record in running for 1,313 yards in 15 games (13 starts), and rushing for a higher per-carry average than Elliott. As an encore, Howard has his sights set on taking Elliott’s rushing crown and leading the league in rushing in his second year, which would definitely put him on the radar of those who might not be paying close attention to him. Of course, Howard has a ways to go to reach that kind of elite level. He’ll need to improve as a pass catcher out of the backfield and as a pass blocker in protection schemes. Those are the types of things that push good players into being viewed as great.
Then again, running back isn’t the easiest position to play if you want to reach the Hall these days. In 2015, Joe Redemann explored the average career length for running backs, looking at the peaks and valleys based on production using Net Expected Points, a signature metric from NumberFire.com.
NEP gives box score stats added context because they don’t necessarily account for the most important piece of value – helping the team score points and win games.
Redemann concludes that the average running back tends to decline between age 28 and 31 – or players in their seventh to ninth years of their career. However, running backs who make it to age 30 with quality production tend to sustain their value into their early 30s – with the caveat that only 20 running backs of the 235-player sample reached this point. It’s simply not a great sample, but it’s there for consumption nevertheless.
For Howard, or any running back for that matter, to make the Hall of Fame, they will need to put up a healthy amount of big numbers early and in their peak seasons and produce into their early 30s. In all honesty, it’s a tough task for a position that can have an average span of four years.
The Bears have been blessed with a stable of stud running backs over the years. Everyone knows the contributions of Walter Payton and Gale Sayers, but Neal Anderson (who is finally starting to get his due) and Matt Forte have since put together solid careers for the franchise as load-carrying backs. Entering his age 32 season, Forte might be a player who could get some Hall of Fame consideration. Forte made it to age 30 and picked up five 1,000-yard rushing seasons en route to gaining 8,602 rushing yards and scoring 45 touchdowns on the ground. He was also a major contributor as a pass catcher, adding 4,116 yards and 19 more touchdowns as a receiver out of the backfield.
Among the Hall of Fame players listed as similar to Forte at Pro Football Reference include Franco Harris, Curtis Martin, John Riggins, Earl Campbell, and Larry Csonka. Martin is the only contemporary on the list, though Eddie George, Adrian Peterson, and Marshawn Lynch are among the modern players who could be destined for Hall of Fame enshrinement whose careers are similar to that of Forte.
There’s really no sugarcoating it. For Howard to head to the hall, it won’t be easy. So enjoy his ride while you can.