With a rare lean toward defense, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2023 features two of the best cornerbacks in league history, one of the all-time sack leaders and a linebacker who frustrated some of the game’s best quarterbacks on his way to multiple 100-tackle seasons.
Cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Darrelle Revis, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and linebacker Zach Thomas were all selected for enshrinement, as was tackle Joe Thomas, a 10-time Pro Bowl selection with the Cleveland Browns.
It marks the first time since the league’s AFL-NFL merger in 1970 that four of the maximum five slots in a modern-era class have been defensive players. In 2021, three of the modern-era enshrinees were defensive players (LeRoy Butler, Richard Seymour and Bryant Young) and the fourth defensive player in the class — Sam Mills — had been a seniors committee finalist.
Also selected for enshrinement this year were coach Don Coryell, defensive tackle/end Joe Klecko, linebacker Chuck Howley and cornerback Ken Riley. Klecko, Howley and Riley were seniors committee finalists and Coryell was a coach/contributor committee finalist.
The nine-member class will be formally enshrined in early August in Canton, Ohio.
The Hall, which included slightly over 64% of its enshrinees on offense before this class, has been a difficult road for defensive players at times, especially for those who did not play for Super Bowl winners or championship teams in the pre-Super Bowl era.
Joe Thomas is the most decorated player among this year’s finalists despite playing for Browns teams that finished with a winning record just once in his 11 seasons — his rookie year — and never playing in a postseason game. His 10 Pro Bowl selections are the eighth-most for an offensive lineman.
“It’s really special for me because the franchise has endured some really tough times,” Thomas said. “But those fans are so loyal and passionate, and they still show up and it still is their identity that they’re Browns fans. It’s great for all of Browns Nation.”
Joe Thomas and Revis were in their first year of eligibility, each last playing in 2017. Revis, who launched the phrase “Revis Island” for his willingness to match up on the league’s best receivers throughout his career, was a seven-time Pro Bowl selection and a first-team All-Pro four times.
Revis played eight of his seasons in two stints with the New York Jets and was part of the New England Patriots‘ Super Bowl XLIX champion team.
His best stretch came during his first stint in New York, where he was a first-team All-Pro from 2009 to 2011 and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2009 when he repeatedly shut down top receivers by sending them to “Revis Island.”
“I was probably the most nervous of anybody on the field,” Revis said. “You look at yourself in the mirror and say to yourself: ‘It’s either me or him.’ I had to stand up to the challenge. I took that responsibility to take on that assignment and shut them down.”
Assembled for the first time, it’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023! pic.twitter.com/Fs6inPrOpo
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) February 10, 2023
Barber was one of the league’s most productive and durable players in his career. He didn’t miss a game over his final 15 years and was a five-time Pro Bowl selection with 47 interceptions and five 90-tackle seasons.
“I didn’t set out to be a Hall of Famer,” Barber said. “I was trying to make the team. I was trying to get on the field. All you can do is take your opportunity and run with it. And we all took our opportunities and ran with it.”
Zach Thomas was named first-team All-Pro five times, had 10 100-tackle seasons and throughout his career was lauded by opposing quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning, as one of the most difficult players to fool and get out of position.
Thomas said he “broke down” when his coach with the Dolphins, Jimmy Johnson, informed him that he had been elected into the Hall of Fame.
“I’ll remember that for the rest of my life,” he said. “And for my family to be there too, cause my kids didn’t get to see me play unless it’s old tape. But for them to be there for that moment, it’s special.”
Jimmy Johnson breaking the news to Zach Thomas that he is going into the @ProFootballHOF pic.twitter.com/hVLCSdOQDM
— DolphinsTalk.com (@DolphinsTalk) February 10, 2023
Ware is ninth all time in sacks (138.5), led the league in that category twice and won a Super Bowl with the Denver Broncos to close out the 2015 season.
Howley, who was named first-team All-Pro five times, is still the only player from the losing team to be named a Super Bowl MVP. He had two interceptions in the Dallas Cowboys‘ loss in Super Bowl V.
Klecko was named to the Pro Bowl at three different positions and is credited with a league-leading 20.5 sacks in 1981, the year before sacks became an official statistic.
Riley, who died in 2020, had one of the most productive and underappreciated careers in the group. He is tied for fifth in interceptions — only Hall of Famer Dick “Night Train” Lane had more as a player who spent his career entirely at cornerback — and yet was never named to a Pro Bowl.
Coryell, who died in 2010, is considered a central figure in the development of the modern passing game with a long list of innovations that include his route concepts, his playcall numbering system still in use today throughout the league and his use of tight ends in far more impactful ways. The “Air Coryell” offenses led the league in passing in seven of his eight seasons with the San Diego Chargers.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.