London Fletcher and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2019

London Fletcher is one of the 300 best players to play pro football.

His remarkable career spanned 16 seasons, 256 games (with the final 240 of them starts), and another 9 postseason starts — more postseason games than the average 10 year career.  He won a world championship with the 1999 St. Louis Rams.

The record will say Fletcher was a four time pro-bowler, but for the first 13 years of his career, no one thought of Fletcher as a deserving pro-bowler.  Fletcher famously referred to himself as the 'Susan Lucci fo the NFL,' as someone who always would get the nomination, but never the end of season honors.

Fletcher performed at the level of an all-pro linebacker for more than a decade.  But his time in Buffalo (he signed in Buffalo as a free agent following the Super Bowl in 2002 to play for head coach Gregg Williams) was the most uneven time of his career.  Fletcher was the captain and best player on one of the league's best defensive units in 2004, but the 2004 Buffalo Bills became one of the all-time "what-if' teams when they missed the postseason by losing on the last week of the season to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were resting their starters (including rookie QB Ben Roethlisberger).  Fletcher may have been the best linebacker in pro football that season at age 29.  He was not elected to the pro bowl.  He would not be elected to the pro bowl in any of the next four season either.

As the pro-bowl rules started to relax and the honor was given to more, and more players every year, Fletcher started to be recognized as one of the very best linebackers in the game.  He went to the pro bowl in 2009 for the first time, and then was elected three consecutive years from 2010-12, an honor he shared with Patrick Willis each season.  Fletcher signed with Washington as a 32 year old linebacker with a nice 9 year career, but no real shot at Canton.  He retired seven years later as one of the four best linebackers in the history of the franchise, and a strong case for the Hall of Fame.

The most recent Redskins Hall of Famer was also a four time pro bowler.  Russ Grimm was a ten year starter on the Redskins offensive line, but he had just a six year stretch where he played in every game but one.  Grimm may have been the best guard in football between the 1982 strike and the 1987 strike.  Grimm, who never played for any other franchise, and Fletcher had similar Washington careers in terms of length and impact.  But Fletcher has another decade as an underappreciated linebacker to add to his hall of fame case.

There are 23 linebackers currently in the pro football hall of fame.  Derrick Brooks will be added to that list in a couple of weeks. Ray Lewis will be added to that list in 2018.  Patrick Willis will also be hall of fame bound, and likely Brian Urlacher as well.  Fletcher is not going to beat Lewis in, and he may not get in before Urlacher, meaning that by the time he is eligible, there will be at least 25 linebackers in the pro football hall of fame, and if Fletcher is going to the Hall, he's going to need to be able to have his argument as a top 20 player at his position of all-time.

Here's what London Fletcher may run into: the Hall voters have been incredibly stingy about electing linebackers.  Only receivers and specialists have been held to a higher standard by the electoral body.  Do you know when the last current HOF linebacker stopped playing?  It was Derrick Thomas, voted in a decade ago (Thomas died in a car accident).  On the last ballot, Kevin Greene was a finalist.  Clay Matthews (Sr.) and Karl Mecklenburg were semi-finalists.  No one else was even on the radar.

Among other active veterans and recent retirees, I think Fletcher has a better case than Tedy Bruschi and Lance Briggs.  Bruschi essentially had the pre-Washington part of Fletcher's career, but not the post-age 31 part.  Briggs peaked right around Fletcher's level as a near all-pro (he was elected all pro in 2005, a spot that could have easily gone to Fletcher).  He's a Bears linebacker, which is basically like being an honorary Steeler, as far as the Hall is concerned.  On the other hand, he played most of his career in the shadow of Urlacher.

James Harrison peaked higher than Fletcher did, twice an all-pro, and won defensive player of the year in 2008, an award that Fletcher was never a true candidate for.  But Harrison is going to fall below most hall of fame standards, and even by the HOF standards of former Steelers (which are much more attainable than for players who didn't play in Pittsburgh), Harrison's case is too borderline to be taken seriously.  Terrell Suggs has a great case, but also is going to be treated closer to a DE type than a LB for HOF purposes.

The most problematic case for Fletcher — the guy who may ultimately block him from getting in — is Zach Thomas, eligible for the first time this year.  Thomas was pretty much the same type of player Fletcher was, but played the first part of his career in a larger media market, and thus was given the pro-bowls and all-pro honors Fletcher couldn't get.  It's hard to remember now, but Thomas acutally got some of the all-pro honors that were typically reserved for Ray Lewis.

If Fletcher had played his whole career in Washington, he's a no doubt Hall of Famer.  But because he wasn't recognized for the great player he was early in his career, there's going to be some doubt.  It's going to be tough to get him into the hall of fame in 2019, the first year he's eligible.  But of all the players who have had pro careers at the LB position and are not yet in the Hall, Fletcher is one of the five most deserving players for the honor.  I can't yet say if voters will see his case the same way, but seven years as a Washington Redskin may have been just enough to get Fletcher over the threshold and into the Hall of Fame.

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