There seems to be a rush to enshrine first ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame candidates. There were three such inductees in the Class of 2018 and buzz for three more – Champ Bailey, Ed Reed and Tony Gonzalez in the Class of 2019.
There’s already a queue forming for the Class of 2023 with the players who retired this offseason – edge rusher Dwight Freeney, tight end Antonio Gates, offensive tackle Joe Thomas and tight end Jason Witten. But according to last week’s Talk of Fame Network poll, you can put Thomas at the head of that line.
We asked our listeners and readers to identify the best first-ballot candidate for the Class of 2023 and Thomas won in a landslide with 52 percent of the vote, easily outdistancing the two tight ends. Witten was next at 20 percent, followed by Gates at 17 percent and Freeney at 10 percent.
The three Talk of Fame Network hosts, for once, were in agreement. Ron Borges, Clark Judge and Rick Gosselin all voted for Thomas.
“It's about time Joe Thomas won something after all those years of greatness amidst the chaos in Cleveland,” Borges said.
Indeed. Thomas was the third overall pick of the 2007 NFL draft by the Browns. As a walk-in starter at left tackle, Thomas went to the Pro Bowl each of his first 10 seasons even though Cleveland didn’t have a winning season in any of them. He also was voted first-team all-pro seven times. He didn’t miss a game or a practice in those first 10 seasons.
But his streak off more than 10,000 consecutive snaps in Cleveland’s offense came to an end in his 11th season last October when he suffered a torn triceps and was placed on injured reserve. He announced his retirement in March, which makes him eligible for the Hall in 2023.
“Thomas was a great player on a bad team,” Judge said. “He was the next best thing in Cleveland to LeBron and the corned beef at Slyman's.”
Witten ranks fourth all-time in NFL history in receptions, setting league records for catches by a tight end in a game (18) and season (110). Gates set a league record for touchdown receptions by a tight end with 114. Freeney was a member of the NFL’s 2000s all-decade team and leaves the game ranking 17th on the all-time sack list with 125 ½.