The sudden retirement of San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis caught us all by surprise. One of the best inside linebackers to play the game, Willis looked to have plenty of time left playing at a high level in the NFL. Instead, he's choosing a different path, and the 49ers are forced to try and replace the best linebacker in the league. As it happens, the 49ers are well-prepared for this, as we've already discussed, which should be a feat all on its own.
But one thing people have discussed to this point that we haven't really touched up on: is Willis a Hall of Famer?
Let's get one thing out of the way right now: Willis absolutely played at a Hall of Fame level and was indisputably one of the best players in the league for multiple seasons. He's been frequently called a "future Hall of Famer," but most who said this didn't think Willis would be calling it a career so soon.
Now, I'm not so sure he ever makes it. He certainly won't be a first-ballot guy, despite his impressive accolades. He's been named to seven Pro Bowls, was a first-team All-Pro five times, a second-team All-Pro once and was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2007. That's all well and good, but I have to wonder if those will always be secondary to "he retired early."
Nobody will ever doubt his skill on the football field or what he meant to the 49ers. But there are just 12 middle linebackers in the Hall of Fame, and two of them were senior selections. There are plenty of guys who have accolades similar to those of Willis but haven't got in, as noted by the folks over at the Talk of Fame Network. They mention guys like Randy Gradishar, Lee Roy Jordan and Tommy Nobis.
Looking at the numbers those guys put up, it's hard to imagine Willis making it in on his first attempt. Him making it at all wouldn't be the most shocking thing, but I think it's hardly something we can make a definitive statement on. Thoughts?