For the second consecutive year, defense will be a hallmark of an enshrinement class for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Five of the seven-member Class of 2024, announced Thursday night at the NFL Honors show in Las Vegas, are defensive players. It comes a year after the Hall’s Class of 2023, which (other than the Hall’s 15-member Centennial class) was the first time four modern-era defensive players were honored in the same class.
Defensive ends Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney and linebacker Patrick Willis were named to the Class of ’24, as were Devin Hester, the league’s record-holder for kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns, and wide receiver Andre Johnson. Linebacker Randy Gradishar, who played in his last game in 1983, and defensive tackle Steve McMichael, who retired after the 1994 season, were senior finalists selected to be enshrined in the Class of ’24 as well.
This year’s class was chosen by the Hall’s board of selectors in a virtual meeting. The new Hall of Famers will be enshrined on Aug. 3 in Canton, Ohio.
Here is a closer look at the Class of 2024:
Dwight Freeney, defensive end
Indianapolis Colts, 2002-12; San Diego Chargers, 2013-14; Arizona Cardinals, 2015; Atlanta Falcons, 2016; Detroit Lions, 2017; Seattle Seahawks, 2017
Though some initially questioned if Freeney was too short to play (6-foot-1) at defensive end, he was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection as well as a three-time first-team All Pro during his 11 years with the Colts. Freeney was the No. 11 pick of the 2002 draft and made an immediate impact for the Colts — 13 sacks as a rookie and a second-place finish in the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year voting — on the way to being one of the most consistent, impactful pass-rushers of the Super Bowl era. Why he was elected: Freeney, an all-decade selection for the 2000s, finished 18th in career sacks (it officially became a statistic in 1982) with 125.5. His spin move was routinely cited by opposing linemen as one of the most difficult pass-rush moves to deal with against any player. His 47 forced fumbles, including a staggering league-leading nine as a rookie, are believed to tie him for third-most in the Super Bowl era. Freeney had seven seasons with at least 10 sacks, and he forced at least four fumbles in eight seasons.
Signature moment: It’s really a signature move. There are all-time pass-rush moves — the now illegal Deacon Jones head slap, Reggie White’s hump move, Jumpy Geathers’ forklift, Von Miller’s ghost shoulder — and Freeney’s spin move is on the list. A testament to his study of opponents, quickness, leverage, explosiveness and timing, the move worked season after season no matter how many linemen had seen him do it.
Quotable: “I’m spinning when I get off the bus, I’m spinning when I get out of the locker room. That’s just me.” — Freeney in 2015
Randy Gradishar, linebacker
Denver Broncos, 1974-83
Gradishar is the first player from the fabled Orange Crush defense who will have a bust in Canton. In an era of Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain, Dallas’ Doomsday and Minnesota’s Purple People Eaters, Gradishar anchored the Broncos’ storied group. Over the decade of Gradishar’s career, the Broncos were in the top 10 in rushing defense, pass defense, total defense, scoring defense and interceptions. From 1977 to 1981, the Broncos were first in fewest yards allowed as well as fewest passing touchdowns allowed.
Why he was elected: Gradishar, credited with a franchise-record 2,049 tackles, may have been the most decorated player in the Hall’s seniors pool. He never missed a game and was named to seven Pro Bowls as well as a first- or second-team All Pro selection four times. He was the first inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense to finish in the top three in voting for the league Defensive Player of the Year award (1977) and then the first inside linebacker in a 3-4 to win DPOY (1978).
Signature moment: Gradishar finished with eight tackles and knocked down two Ken Stabler passes in the 1977 AFC Championship Game win over the Oakland Raiders, putting the Broncos in their first Super Bowl.
Quotable: “The best player I ever coached.” — former Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier
Devin Hester, wide receiver, kick returner, punt returner
Chicago Bears, 2006-13; Atlanta Falcons, 2014-15; Baltimore Ravens, 2016; Seattle Seahawks, 2016
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. That was despite most opponents trying to keep the ball away from him after he brought three punts and two kickoffs back for touchdowns in his rookie season. Hester was a rare selection to two all-decade teams — 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.
Why he was elected: Many personnel executives, former opponents and teammates consider him the best returner to have ever played. Before kickoffs were made from the 35-yard line, teams often elected to send kickoffs out of bounds — giving the Bears the ball at the 40-yard line — rather than put it in Hester’s hands. He once returned a kickoff for a touchdown when Chicago had the hands team on the field instead of the usual allotment of blockers. He is the only player in history with at least five special teams touchdowns in a season — and he did it twice. He is also the only returner to ever lead the league in both kickoff and punt returns twice. At age 34, in the final game of his career, he had a career high in postseason kickoff return yards (194).
Signature moment: Hester had many, but at Super Bowl XLI he showed his dominance in the span of 92 yards. Tony Dungy, who was the Indianapolis Colts’ coach at the time, had said the plan for the week leading up to the Super Bowl was to keep the ball away from Hester “and then after a team meeting I felt like that was playing scared, so I told our team ‘I hope we lose the toss so we can kick it right down the middle to him and we can pound him.’ So we did, and 13 seconds later he was in the end zone.”
Quotable: “The guy is the greatest returner ever. Ever.” — Deion Sanders when Hester was named to the NFL’s 100th anniversary team
Andre Johnson, wide receiver
Houston Texans, 2003-14; Indianapolis Colts, 2015; Tennessee Titans, 2016
Andre Johnson’s combination of size, strength, speed and fearlessness made him the rarest of receivers. Before the 2003 draft, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound Johnson ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the University of Miami’s pro day, with a 41-inch vertical jump. It was just a preview of the seven-time Pro Bowler’s career: 14,185 receiving yards and 70 receiving touchdowns. He played 12 of his 14 NFL seasons with the expansion Texans, who drafted him at No. 3.
Why he was elected: Johnson led the league twice both in receptions and receiving yards. He had 21 games in his career with at least 10 receptions and at least 100 yards receiving — most all time — and his eight career games with at least 10 receptions, 150 yards receiving and one touchdown are also most all time. Johnson and Hall of Famer Jerry Rice are also the only players to have multiple 1,400-yard seasons after age 30.
Signature moment: Coaches and teammates point to Nov. 18, 2012. In the Texans’ 43-37 overtime win over the Jaguars, 31-year-old Johnson finished with 14 receptions, 273 yards and the winning touchdown. It was one of three 200-yard games in Johnson’s career.
Quotable: “When you line up and the guy is bigger than you like he is, and he might be as fast, or a little faster than a lot of guys, like he is, that’s a problem. And the ball hasn’t even been snapped yet.” —Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey
Steve McMichael, defensive tackle
New England Patriots, 1980; Chicago Bears, 1981-93; Green Bay Packers, 1994
McMichael, who has ALS, didn’t break out onto the NFL scene as some do on their way to Canton. He was released by the Patriots after a back injury that limited him to six games as a rookie. He didn’t play all 16 games in a season until his fourth season while with the Bears. But that’s where he carved out a gold-jacket career as part of one of the best defenses in league history. From 1983 to 1993, McMichael was a foundational player who became one of the best interior pass-rushers with 95 career sacks.
Why he was elected: McMichael had seven seasons with at least eight sacks. There are just four defensive tackles since sacks became an official statistic to have more seasons with at least eight: Hall of Famers John Randle, Alan Page and Alex Karras, along with current Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. In the 11-year span McMichael was a starting defensive tackle for the Bears, Chicago allowed the second-fewest rushing yards and led the league in sacks. He had 53 sacks in a six-season span — 1983-1988 — when the Bears defense was at its peak. He was named first-team All Pro twice, second-team once and to two Pro Bowls in those six years.
Signature moment: There were plenty on the field, but many teammates said McMichael’s fiery personality flashed in the Bears’ defensive team meeting the night before they were to face the Patriots in Super Bowl XX. Then-defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan announced it would be his last game with the Bears, given he was going to be hired as the Eagles’ coach. In the emotional reaction from the group, teammates have said McMichael tossed a chair with so much force that its legs impaled a chalkboard. The chair was left that way, and the Bears’ 46-10 win over the Patriots the next day was one of the best defensive performances in Super Bowl history. The Bears had seven sacks and allowed 123 net yards, including seven yards rushing.
Quotable: “I don’t use the word ‘great’ for many players, but it applies to Steve. All the guys I know talk about him … He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.” —Hall of Famer Joe DeLamielleure
Julius Peppers, defensive end
Carolina Panthers, 2002-09, 2017-18; Chicago Bears, 2010-13; Green Bay Packers, 2014-16
At 6-foot-6 ¼ inches and 283 pounds at the 2002 NFL scouting combine, Peppers intrigued talent evaluators as a potential pass-rusher given his football resume at North Carolina. But he also had played 56 games over two seasons for the Tar Heels basketball team, averaging 5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. That propelled Peppers to a career as one of the league’s best all-time pass-rushers. He is fourth on the official sack list with 159.5, one of four players on the list who finished his career with more than 155. He also scored six career touchdowns: four interception returns and two fumble returns.
Why he was elected: Only Jim Marshall and Hall of Famer Bruce Smith played more games at defensive end than Peppers’ 266. Though he never led the league in sacks in a season, he 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. At age 38, he finished the 2018 season with five sacks and knocked down six passes. He was a nine-time Pro Bowl selection, a three-time first-team All Pro and named to the all-decade team for the 2000s.
Signature moment: He had perhaps the best “hump” move – the one-armed toss of 300-pounders when transitioning from speed to power – since Reggie White. But the play that may have summed up his skills came in 2004, and it wasn’t even a sack. In Week 4 against the Broncos, Peppers smoothly dropped into coverage and snared a Jake Plummer throw at the goal line. Peppers, at almost 300 pounds, then rocketed up the left sideline 97 yards before he was tackled at the Broncos’ 3-yard line.
Quotable: “As a kid, I never thought I saw myself as unusual, I always thought that lots of people could do what I did. More and more I realized I was wrong.” —Peppers
Patrick Willis, linebacker
San Francisco 49ers, 2007-14
Willis packed more quality into an eight-year career than almost any player could have. He retired, much like Hall of Famer Jack Lambert, because of a painful toe injury that wouldn’t heal and severely hampered his mobility. He played in six games his final season, had surgery and retired the following spring. But a seven-time Pro Bowl selection as well as a five-time first-team All-Pro selection give him the rarest of resumes. He was also selected to the all-decade team of the 2010s despite playing in only half of the decade considered.
Why he was elected: Willis was elite as soon as he set foot on an NFL field. He led the league in tackles his rookie season with 174 on the way to being named the Defensive Rookie of the Year, first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl selection. He was the first rookie inside linebacker named first-team All-Pro since Dick Butkus. He led the league in tackles again in 2009, had six 100-tackle seasons and five 120-tackle seasons in the middle of the 49ers’ defense. In his eight seasons, he was tied for the league in forced fumbles over that period, second in passes knocked down and made the most solo tackles.
Signature moment: He had a long list of moments that found their way to highlight videos, but a postseason game showcased it all. In Super Bowl XLVII — a 34-31 loss to the Ravens — Willis had 10 tackles in what was a 29-tackle postseason overall.
Quotable: “I don’t think there were many linebackers, or will be many linebackers, in the history of the game who were or will be as fast as Patrick. Put that with how smart he was, the way he tackled, the way he wanted to improve all the time, the way he did all the hard jobs in our defense (with the 49ers), of course he’s a Hall of Famer.” —Former 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio