Patrick Willis, Justin Smith eligible nominees for Pro Football Hall of Fame

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AP

Patrick Willis, Justin Smith eligible nominees for Pro Football Hall of Fame

Former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive lineman Justin Smith are among the first-time eligible players nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020.

The Hall of Fame on Thursday released a total of 122 players who comprise the list of modern-era nominees. In order for a player to be eligible as a modern-era candidate, he must have played his final NFL season from five to 25 years ago.

Willis and Smith both retired as 49ers after the 2014 season.

Willis was selected to the Pro Bowl team in each of his seven full seasons in the NFL. In 2014, he played in only six games after experiencing foot issues that led to his retirement. Willis was the 2007 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and a five-time All-Pro selection. He led the league in tackles in 2007 and 2009.

Smith played 14 NFL seasons. He played his final seven seasons with the 49ers after spending his first seven seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and a one-time All-Pro pick.

Among the other notable first-time eligible Hall of Fame candidates are safety Troy Polamalu, defensive end John Abraham and wide receiver Reggie Wayne.

San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch, who earned nine trips to the Pro Bowl as a safety for Tampa Bay and Denver, returns as a nominee after being a finalist in each of the past six years.

The list of former 49ers who are nominees for the 2020 class includes Jeff Garcia, Ricky Watters, Brent Jones, Bryant Young, Merton Hanks and Tim McDonald.

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The modern-era player list will be reduced to 25 semifinalists in November. The field will be trimmed to 15 finalists in early January. The 48-member Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee will hold its annual meeting on Saturday, Feb. 1, in Miami.

In conjunction with the 100th season of the NFL, the Hall of Fame Board recently passed a measure to expand the 2020 Hall of Fame class to 20 members, including five modern-era inductees. The class will include 10 seniors, three contributors and two coaches. A 25-person centennial “blue ribbon” panel will lead the selection of the senior, coaches and contributors.

Modern-era nominees

Quarterbacks
(7) – Randall Cunningham, Jake Delhomme, Boomer Esiason, Jeff Garcia, Jeff Hostetler, Dave Krieg, Donovan McNabb

Running Backs
(19) – Shaun Alexander, Mike Alstott (FB), Tiki Barber, Earnest Byner, Larry Centers, Corey Dillon, Eddie George, Priest Holmes, *Edgerrin James, Daryl Johnston (FB), Thomas Jones, Maurice Jones-Drew, Eric Metcalf (also WR/KR/PR), Lorenzo Neal (FB), Clinton Portis, Fred Taylor, Herschel Walker (also KR), Chris Warren, Ricky Watters

Wide Receivers
(12) – *Isaac Bruce, Gary Clark, Donald Driver, Henry Ellard (also PR), Torry Holt, Chad Johnson, Derrick Mason, Muhsin Muhammad, Jimmy Smith, Rod Smith, Hines Ward, Reggie Wayne

Tight Ends
(6) – Dallas Clark, Ben Coates, Keith Jackson, Brent Jones, Jeremy Shockey, Wesley Walls

Offensive Linemen
(19) – Willie Anderson (T), Matt Birk (C), *Tony Boselli (T), Lomas Brown (T), Ray Donaldson (C), *Alan Faneca (G), Kevin Gogan (G/T), Jordan Gross (T), Chris Hinton (G/T), Kent Hull (C), *Steve Hutchinson (G), Lincoln Kennedy (T/G), Olin Kreutz (C), Chris Samuels (T), Jeff Saturday (C), Brian Waters (G), Richmond Webb (T), Erik Williams (T), Steve Wisniewski (G)

Defensive Linemen
(11) – John Abraham (DE also LB), La’Roi Glover (DT/NT), Casey Hampton (DT/NT), Chester McGlockton (DT), Leslie O’Neal (DE), Simeon Rice (DE), *Richard Seymour (DT), Justin Smith (DE), Neil Smith (DE), Greg Townsend (DT/NT), Bryant Young (DT)

Linebackers
(17) – Carl Banks, Cornelius Bennett, Lance Briggs, Tedy Bruschi, James Farrior, London Fletcher, Seth Joyner, Wilber Marshall, Clay Matthews, Willie McGinest (also DE), Sam Mills, Chris Spielman, Takeo Spikes, Darryl Talley, Zach Thomas, Jessie Tuggle, Patrick Willis

Defensive Backs
(15) – Eric Allen (CB), *Steve Atwater (S), Ronde Barber (CB/S), LeRoy Butler (S), Nick Collins (S), Merton Hanks (S), Rodney Harrison (S), Albert Lewis (CB), *John Lynch (S), Terry McDaniel (CB), Tim McDonald (S), Troy Polamalu (SS), Bob Sanders (S), Troy Vincent (CB), Darren Woodson (S)

Punters/Kickers
(11) – David Akers (K), Gary Anderson (K), Jason Elam (K), Jeff Feagles (P), Jason Hanson (K), Sean Landeta (P), Ryan Longwell (K), Nick Lowery (K), Reggie Roby (P), Rohn Stark (P), Matt Turk (P)

Special Teams
(5) – Johnny Bailey (PR/KR also RB), Josh Cribbs (KR/PR also WR), Mel Gray (PR/KR also WR), Brian Mitchell (KR/PR also RB), Steve Tasker (ST also WR)

*-Finalist in 2019

Ex-49ers star Terrell Owens always welcomed at Pro Football Hall of Fame

Ex-49ers star Terrell Owens always welcomed at Pro Football Hall of Fame

CANTON, Ohio – The Pro Football Hall of Fame will always have its doors open to Terrell Owens, who did not take part in the annual induction ceremony last summer.

David Baker, the president of the Hall of Fame, said on The 49ers Insider Podcast that he only wishes Owens had an opportunity to experience the grandeur and the appreciation with which inductees are showered when their bronze bust is unveiled. Owens participated in his own ceremony in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he played college football at UT-Chattanooga.

“It was a hard call to receive when he said he didn’t want to come,” Baker said. “He’s a complex guy and it’s not for me to judge what’s inside of him.”

Baker said he was not disappointed by Owens’ decision.

“I was really disappointed for him,” he said.

Baker added, “He is always welcomed here. Whether he comes or not, he is always welcomed here. His bronze bust is here, and we will guard his legacy here. If he would’ve come, the irony is he would’ve gotten the adulation and the love that he thought was being denied by not being a first-ballot Hall of Famer.”

Owens, who ranks No. 3 all-time with 15,934 receiving yards, was unhappy he was not among the five-person modern-era induction classes in his first two years of Hall of Fame eligibility. Baker pointed out that Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer, who was named to the NFL’s all-50th anniversary team in 1969, waited 45 years to go into the Hall of Fame in that same class of 2018.

Owens, who played his first eight NFL seasons with the 49ers, is part of a new team of 326 players, coaches and contributors elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, as the NFL begins its 100th season. Baker presented Owens with his Hall of Fame ring in a ceremony at Levi's Stadium last season.

Owens will be inducted into the 49ers Hall of Fame  in Week 3 after the club returns home to face the Pittsburgh Steelers. Owens remains a part of the 49ers family. Last year, he attended Dwight Clark's memorial service and the dedication of the statues outside Levi's Stadium that commemorates The Catch.

Baker reflected on how he believes the 49ers fit into the fabric of pro football -- and into the larger picture of what he wants to shine through at the Hall of Fame. He credits former owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. and former team president Carmen Policy for instilling the values of family within the organization.

“When I think of the 49ers, I think of family. A lot of teams talk about family, but this is a family,” Baker said. “And a lot of that goes to Eddie DeBartolo. He treated it as a family, and to this day, he takes care of players that played for him. That is an enormous statement of how people then want to turn around and play for you.

“What happened to Dwight Clark, they getting together, they’re laughing, they’re getting together one more time. They’re family.”

As Clark battled ALS, many of his former 49ers teammates and many staff members, reunited with him. Nearly every member of the 49ers’ first Super Bowl team attended Dwight Clark Day at Levi’s Stadium during the 2017 season. Clark passed away on June 4, 2018.

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“We lost Dwight way too young,” Baker said. “All of us hated to see him go. But it was also a wonderful lesson of a life well=lived. This guy loved, laughed, lived well. And everybody who knows him knows that tinkle in his eye and how he got such a kick out of other people laughing, too.

“And I think the game itself, the competition, the fight, the battle for excellence, there are so many things we can learn. The game itself is bigger than football. It teaches us how to be a part of a family.”

Cliff Branch leaves lasting NFL legacy, earned Hall of Fame induction

Cliff Branch leaves lasting NFL legacy, earned Hall of Fame induction

The Raiders mounted a massive marketing and promotional campaign a few years back aimed at one overdue objective.

Get Cliff to Canton.

It quickly became a hashtag, with #clifftocanton representing a full-scale push to get the legendary Raiders receiver inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Many believe he deserves a gold jacket -- and that he should've received one years ago.

The Raiders wanted one on his shoulders, and decided to launch an offensive. They produced videos extolling Branch’s virtues during an illustrious 14-year NFL career, with testimonials from teammates and opponents alike. Raiders representatives stumped for him. They pitched voters, reminding them of his dominance and one inarguable point.

Cliff Branch changed the game.

The world-class sprinter could out-run anyone, and he was at times unstoppable pushing the vertical Raiders offense downfield.

“When you were across from him, there was fear there,” former 49ers and Raiders safety Ronnie Lott said in a video promoting Branch’s candidacy.

The "Cliff to Canton" movement gained steam, but ultimately didn’t get him in the Hall of Fame despite an argument that’s as persuasive now as ever.

If it wins out next year or at any time after that, Branch won’t be around for enshrinement. He died at the age of 71 on Saturday, the Raiders announced.

That’s an unfortunate turn, considering how deserving he seems to be. He has a real shot at getting in next year, with an expanded Hall of Fame class honoring the NFL’s 100th anniversary that will include 10 seniors, or players who have been retired for over 25 seasons. Branch falls into that senior category, and typically only one or two are inducted each year. 

Branch was an active part of all three Raiders Super Bowl championships. He was a three-time First-Team All Pro. He went to four Pro Bowls while representing the Silver and Black from 1972 through 1985.

Branch recorded 501 catches for 8,685 yards and 67 touchdowns, with a whopping 17.3 yards per reception.

His speed and outgoing personality fit the Raiders perfectly, especially with how late owner Al Davis preferred his offenses push the ball down the field.

“He changed the way the game, and the way the game was played as a wide receiver,” Hall-of-Fame Steelers cornerback Mel Blount said in a Raiders video production. “People started going out looking for speed, and looking for guys like Cliff Branch.”

[RELATED: Branch on Raiders' golden era, Hall of Fame candidacy]

Branch was a constant throughout different chapters of a true Raiders golden era, where they won three Super Bowl titles. He was a feature player in all of those championship runs, and always was at his best in the postseason.

He leaves a lasting legacy with the Raiders organization and the NFL as a whole that is certainly deserving of enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.