Peppers, Freeney, Hester highlight '24 HOF class

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The 2024 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement class will honor defense as well as a player many consider the best kickoff/punt returner ever.

The seven-member Class of 2024 will include defensive end Julius Peppers, defensive end Dwight Freeney and linebacker Patrick Willis. Devin Hester, the league’s record holder for kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns, and wide receiver Andre Johnson will also be enshrined as modern-era selections.

Linebacker Randy Gradishar, who played in his last game in 1983, and defensive tackle Steve McMichael, who retired after 1994 season, were senior finalists selected to be enshrined.

It is the second consecutive year at least three modern-era defensive players are in an enshrinement class. In 2023, other than the Hall’s 15-member Centennial Class, it was the first time four modern-era defensive players had been enshrined in the same year.

This year’s class was chosen by the Hall’s board of selectors in a virtual meeting. The seven Hall of Famers will be officially enshrined on Aug. 3, in Canton, Ohio.

Peppers was a two-sport athlete at North Carolina, having also played two seasons for the Tar Heels basketball team in addition to his All-American status with the football squad. He went on to become one of the league’s most prolific pass-rushers and is fourth on the official sack list with 159.5 since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

The nine-time Pro Bowl selection finished with at least 10 sacks 10 times in 17 seasons and had at least 12 sacks three times. He also had 11 career interceptions, forced 52 fumbles and knocked down 82 passes.

Hester will be considered the first player who was primarily a returner to be selected for enshrinement. He had two 50-catch seasons in his 12-year career as a receiver and three seasons with at least 100 snaps on defense, but many consider Hester to be the best returner to have played in the NFL.

Hester’s 19 career regular-season touchdown returns are a league record — 14 punt return scores, five kickoff returns — and he returned the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI for a touchdown. Hester is on a short list of players who was selected to two all-decade teams in his career — the 2000s and the 2010s — and was selected as one of the returners for the NFL’s all-century team as part of the league’s 100th anniversary.

He is also the only returner ever to lead the league in both kickoff and punt returns twice.

Freeney is 18th all time in sacks, with 125.5, and was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection with his signature spin move. Freeney had seven seasons with at least 10 sacks and eight campaigns with at least four forced fumbles.

Johnson, who was among three wide receivers (Reggie Wayne, Torry Holt) who were finalists for the Class of 2024, had seven Pro Bowl selections, 14,185 career receiving yards and 70 receiving touchdowns. He played all but two of his 14 seasons with the Houston Texans.

Johnson led the league in receptions and receiving yards twice, respectively, and had 21 games in his career with at least 10 receptions and at least 100 yards receiving.

Many players had longer careers than Willis, who retired after eight seasons because of a painful toe injury that wouldn’t heal, but few have been more productive or had decorated years. He was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection in his eight seasons as well as a five-time first-team All-Pro selection.

Willis was also selected to the all-decade team of the 2010s, led the league in tackles twice and had six 100-tackle seasons.

Gradishar, the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1978 and a seven-time Pro Bowl selection, might have been the most decorated player in the Hall’s senior pool. With Gradishar as the anchor in the middle of the fabled “Orange Crush” defense, the Broncos were in the league’s top 10 in rushing defense, pass defense, total defense, scoring defense and interceptions during his career.

Gradishar was the first inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense to finish among the top three in voting for the league Defensive Player of the Year award when he was third in 1977 and then the first inside linebacker in a 3-4 to win it in 1978.

McMichael was part of the Chicago Bears defense some in the league consider the best of the Super Bowl era. Released by the New England Patriots after a back injury limited him to six games as a rookie, McMichael went on to become one of the NFL’s best interior pass rushers with 95 career sacks.

McMichael had seven seasons with at least eight sacks and there are just four defensive tackles since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 to have more seasons with at least eight sacks — Hall of Famers John Randle, Alan Page and Alex Karras to go with Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

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