Former Colts star Dwight Freeney part of defensive-focused Pro Football Hall of Fame class

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Dwight Freeney (IBJ photo/Mickey Shuey)

The Pro Football Hall of Fame now has a roster featuring every NFL franchise.

Defensive end Julius Peppers became the first player drafted by the Carolina Panthers to make it to the Hall and receiver Andre Johnson became the first for the Houston Texans as part of the 2024 class announced Thursday night at NFL Honors.

The Panthers and Texans had been the last two franchises who hadn’t had a player they drafted get voted into the Hall.

“Any time you can be the first player to do something, it’s an amazing feeling,” Johnson said. “It just adds more to your legacy. You’ll aways be remembered.”

The class had a distinctive defensive feel with Johnson the only offensive player to make it. Peppers was joined by another elite pass rusher in former Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney and do-everything linebacker Patrick Willis in the modern era category.

Dynamic returner Devin Hester also got voted into the Hall from the group of 15 finalists as the first player to get in primarily as a returner.

“I’m just happy to show people special teams does matter,” Hester said. “That’s my No. 1 pride to get into the Hall of Fame. Now you can’t overlook special teams.”

Two more defensive players got in on the senior category, with linebacker Randy Gradishar of the Denver Broncos and defensive tackle Steve McMichael of the Chicago Bears getting the needed 80% support from the panel.

Freeney was the defensive star on the stellar Colts teams led by Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. Indianapolis hadn’t won a playoff game in Manning’s first four seasons before Freeney arrived but won nine in his first nine seasons, including Super Bowl 41 and another AFC title game in the 2009 season.

Known best for his devastating spin move, Freeney was a first-team All-Pro three times, led the NFL with 16 sacks in 2004 and finished his career with 125-½ sacks and 47 forced fumbles. He played for the Colts from 2002 to 2012 and for five other teams before retiring in 2017.

“I love defense obviously,” Freeney said. “We understand the game. I know how the game is sold. I understand the other side of it. But I will take a defensive player all day.”

Former AFL receiver Art Powell and coach Buddy Parker fell short of the threshold and missed out.

Peppers was one of the league’s most dominant linemen after being picked second overall by Carolina in 2002 and got the honor in his first year of eligibility.

“It’s a surreal moment,” he said. “It’s kind of still unbelievable.”

Peppers had 12 sacks as a rookie and never really slowed down in a 17-year career that included stops in Chicago and Green Bay before ending with the Panthers. He was an All-Pro in 2004, 2006 and 2010.

Peppers finished his career with 159 1/2 sacks—the fourth most since they became official in 1982—and had 10 seasons with double-digit sacks. Only Hall of Famers Bruce Smith (13) and Reggie White (12) had more.

Willis’ career was brief but impactful.

A first-round pick by San Francisco in 2007, Willis immediately became a star with 174 tackles, four sacks, seven QB hits and eight tackles for loss on the way to winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

He was a first-team All-Pro five times in eight seasons and helped San Francisco reach three straight conference title games and one Super Bowl.

Hester was one of the most feared players in the game despite his small stature at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds. While he played both receiver and cornerback, he excelled as a returner for Chicago.

He scored six TDs on returns in each of his first two regular seasons, including a 108-yarder following a missed field goal as a rookie in 2006 when he helped the Bears make the Super Bowl.

He then took the opening kick in that game against Indianapolis back 92 yards for a touchdown for the only opening kick TD return in Super Bowl history.

“That was a great opportunity for me,” Hester said. “Any time I could get my hands on the ball, it was a great opportunity to make plays. Not only Tony Dungy, but I thank all the coaches who kicked to me.”

Hester was a first-team All-Pro three times and finished his career with a record 14 punt return TDs and five more on kickoffs.

Johnson became the first player to spend the bulk of his career with the Texans to make the Hall of Fame.

A first-round pick in Houston’s second season in 2003, Johnson led the league in receiving yards twice, was a two-time All-Pro and had seven 1,000-yard seasons despite spending most of his career without an elite quarterback.

Gradishar was a key part of Denver’s “Orange Crush” defense in the 1970s, making the Pro Bowl seven times in 10 seasons, being selected as an All-Pro in 1977 and ’78 and winning Defensive Player of the Year in 1978.

A tackling machine at inside linebacker, Gradishar also intercepted 20 passes and recovered 13 fumbles in a 10-year career and never missed a single game. He was a modern era finalist for the Hall in 2003 and ’08 but didn’t get elected.

While the Broncos fell one game short of winning it all in 1977 when they allowed only 10.6 points per game, McMichael was part of an even more dominant defense that won the Super Bowl in the 1985 season.

McMichael controlled the interior of the line on the Bears’ famed “46 defense” that is considered by many to be the best ever after leading Chicago to an 18-1 record and allowing only 10 points in three playoff wins.

McMichael, who is now in the late stages of ALS, had 95 career sacks as a defensive tackle, was selected as an All-Pro in 1985 and ’87 and was a second-teamer two other times.

The other finalists from the modern era category who didn’t advance to the final five were former Colts receiver Reggie Wayne; tight end Antonio Gates; receiver Torry Holt; offensive linemen Willie Anderson and Jahri Evans; defensive backs Darren Woodson, Eric Allen and Rodney Harrison; running back Fred Taylor and defensive end Jared Allen.

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