Scott Fowler

Great eight: The next 8 Panthers who should join team’s Hall of Honor are ...

Steve Smith spent 13 seasons with the Carolina Panthers and set a bunch of team receiving records that may never be broken.
Steve Smith spent 13 seasons with the Carolina Panthers and set a bunch of team receiving records that may never be broken. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Carolina Panthers’ Hall of Honor is more like a walk-in closet. It honors exactly one man who ever played a snap for the team.

That man is Sam Mills, who was inducted in 1998 – before he was diagnosed with the cancer that ultimately killed him and before his iconic “Keep Pounding” speech that organically turned into the franchise’s motto.

Mills was inducted shortly after his retirement by team owner Jerry Richardson – the ultimate authority as to who gets the honor. Mills got in simply because he played very well for Carolina for the first three years of the team’s existence and set an extremely high bar as to how a Panther should act on the field and in the community.

I knew Mills pretty well, and I can tell you without question that he wouldn’t want to stick out like this. Mills was all about the team, not the individual, and he would have wished for a lot of current and future Panthers teammates to join him in the Hall of Honor.

The other two Hall of Honor members are former Carolina team president Mike McCormack, who lent the team credibility and gravitas during its expansion effort and was inducted in 1997; and the team’s PSL holders, who helped build Bank of America Stadium and were inducted as a group in 2004.

There is no real “Hall” in the Panthers’ Hall of Honor, incidentally. Individual inductees have previously gotten a statue outside the stadium and had their name printed on the ring that encircles the stadium atop the upper deck.

Eventually, the Hall of Honor will include many more men who wore black and blue. The Panthers are well aware that their 25th season is coming up in 2019, and that will be an ideal time to celebrate the team’s past and make several inductions.

But let’s not wait that long. Here is my “Who Should Get In” list – broken down into current and former players – as to who is a slam dunk to make it and who else is a possibility.

I have eight players on my “slam dunk” list – five from the current Panthers team and three from past Carolina squads. See how it compares with yours.

Former Panthers

SLAM DUNKS (3)

Steve Smith: He spent 13 seasons with the Panthers and set a bunch of team receiving records that may never be broken. It also helps that while the volatile Smith has publicly ripped Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman a number of times over his release in 2014, he has maintained a strong relationship with Richardson.

Smith, who is supposedly retired for good, will be a strong candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day. He certainly should make the Panthers’ version. If Smith stays true to this retirement, he will be eligible to make the Panthers’ hall in 2021.

Jake Delhomme: He came along at exactly the right time for a franchise that badly needed a jolt. Delhomme got the Panthers to the playoffs three times and would have been the Super Bowl MVP following the 2003 season if Carolina had only been able to stop Tom Brady. Delhomme is now eligible for the Hall of Honor, and in my mind he is the logical choice to be inducted next.

Julius Peppers: He had eight years that ranged from good to great for Carolina from 2002-09 and then bolted, first for Chicago and then Green Bay. Time heals most wounds, though, and I think Peppers – a strong candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame – will eventually have his own statue in Charlotte. Peppers, 37, has not said for sure whether he will play the 2017 season – but there is a chance he will return to Carolina to do so.

POSSIBILITIES (9)

John Kasay: The placekicker, who is eligible next year, will probably be the Panthers’ all-time scoring leader forever and he has long been a leader in the community. Given Kasay’s humble nature, Christian beliefs and inherent desire to avoid the spotlight, however, I wonder if he would actually permit a statue of himself to be made.

Jordan Gross: A former mainstay at left tackle for Panthers, Gross played 11 years for Carolina and protected the blind side beautifully for quarterbacks such as Delhomme, Cam Newton and Vinny Testaverde.

Muhsin Muhammad: When “Moose” retired in 2009, his old quarterback Delhomme said: “When I think of what a picture of a pro football player would look like, I think of Muhsin Muhammad.” Richardson, a former NFL receiver himself, always appreciated the relentless way Muhammad blocked on every play in which he wasn’t a target. Moose ranks No. 2 to Smith in almost every Carolina receiving category.

Wesley Walls: Carolina has been fortunate to have two great pass-catching tight ends in a 22-year history. Walls was the first, making the Pro Bowl five times for the Panthers. Near the goal line he was lethal.

Mike Minter: A durable and classy safety, Minter retired as Carolina’s all-time leading tackler by a wide margin. Minter is now a collegiate head coach at Campbell.

Mike Rucker: The Panthers’ No. 3 all-time sack leader after Peppers and Charles Johnson, “Ruck” played all nine of his NFL seasons in Charlotte and has been a high-profile Panthers ambassador ever since.

Michael Bates: The best special-teams player the Panthers have ever had, Bates was both the best kickoff return man in the league for awhile and one of the best gunners, too. Like Walls, he made the Pro Bowl five times with Carolina.

Kevin Greene: The incessant rusher is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame so he should be in the Panthers’ version, right? The problem: Greene played only three of his 15 seasons with Carolina.

DeAngelo Williams: The running back had a productive career for the Panthers, but he burned all sorts of bridges by ripping Richardson on his way out of town.

Current Panthers

SLAM DUNKS (5)

Thomas Davis: The Panthers linebacker is beloved by just about everyone, including Richardson. Davis also came back from three ACL surgeries, won the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and just finished his 12th year as a Panther. An absolute lock.

Cam Newton: The Panthers have had only one NFL Most Valuable Player in their history, and it’s this guy. The quarterback may make the NFL’s Hall of Fame one day and will absolutely make the Panthers’ version barring some high-profile, off-field flameout.

Luke Kuechly: The linebacker has done plenty enough already to merit inclusion. As long as Kuechly comes back from his scary concussion in 2016, he will do much more.

Greg Olsen: The tight end not only has broken most of Walls’ records, he has also set some NFL marks, too, all while becoming incredibly active in the community.

Ryan Kalil: Long considered one of the best centers in the game, Kalil is also artful, intelligent and a fine leader.

POSSIBILITIES (2)

Jonathan Stewart: A bruising running back who is also a fine piano player, Stewart’s numbers would be much better if he hadn’t spent all those years playing second fiddle to DeAngelo Williams.

Charles Johnson: A consistent presence at defensive end, Johnson has played 10 seasons for Carolina and is No. 2 all-time behind Peppers in sacks.

Conclusion: My Great Eight

If I had my way, the Mills statue would be getting some company before too long. Remember, a player must be retired for at least five years before he is considered. (This rule purposely mimics the Pro Football Hall of Fame rule, but was not instituted by the Panthers until after Mills was inducted.)

The eight players I feel who will be most worthy of induction: Smith, Delhomme, Peppers, Newton, Kuechly, Olsen, Kalil and Davis.

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