CHARLOTTE — In their 25th year of existence, the Panthers significantly increased the population of the Hall, which previously had housed just one player — linebacker Sam Mills, the heart and soul of the early Panther teams and inspiration for the team’s Keep Pounding mantra.
On Sunday, the Panthers added tight end Wesley Walls, offensive tackle Jordan Gross, quarterback Jake Delhomme and wide receiver Steve Smith.
Smith is the team’s career and single-season receiving leader, while Walls is fourth on the team’s career list. Delhomme is No. 2 on most of the team’s career passing lists. Gross played all 167 of his career games for the Panthers.
Hopefully, it won’t take another 25 years for the Hall of Honor to open its doors again, because there are already plenty of Panthers players worthy of consideration. Here’s a look at who would be on the short list for the next induction class:
Julius Peppers: Perhaps the biggest no-brainer on the list. Peppers likely would have been included in this year’s class, except he was still playing at the end of last season, and the team didn’t want to risk him deciding on one more year with another club. Peppers is the team’s all-time sack leader and was one of the stars of Carolina’s first Super Bowl team. He’s fully deserving of the chance to be the next Panthers’ defensive player in the Hall, joining Mills.
Jonathan Stewart: Carolina’s all-time rushing leader and a mainstay in the offense from 2008 to 2017, he also played too recently for strong consideration in this year’s class, but he seems like a lock to make it on the next go-round. He shared top billing at running back with DeAngelo Williams for much of both players’ Panthers tenure, but Stewart deserves to go in first.
Muhsin Muhammad: He was Steve Smith before Smitty arrived on the scene. Most of the receiving records Smith broke had been set by Muhammad, who had 696 catches, 9,255 yards and 50 touchdowns in two stints with the team.
Mike Minter: The 10-year safety is third in Panthers history with 17 interceptions. His four touchdowns on pick-sixes are a Panther record, however.
Other old-school Panthers worth considering for the next class include Williams, cornerback Chris Gamble (the team’s interceptions leader), longtime kicker John Kasay and five-time Pro Bowler Michael Bates.
Then we get into the next generation of Hall of Honor candidates — the ones who helped lead the team to the second Super Bowl. That induction class — the one on double deck — could include:
Thomas Davis: Probably the biggest no-brainer from this group. The linebacker bounced back from multiple knee surgeries and was the driving force on the defense, even if he wasn’t always the best player — although he was usually close to it. His name isn’t at the top of many team lists, but it’s on the lips of most of his teammates when they list team MVP candidates.
Ryan Kalil: The longtime center and five-time Pro Bowler took the mantle from Gross as the leader of the offense.
Greg Olsen: The Pro Bowl tight end has been the top target in the post-Steve Smith era. He’s also a low-key leader on the offense and one of the first players to meet with the media crowd after each game.
Charles Johnson: There’s no shame in being second to Julius Peppers, and that’s where the 11-year fixture at defensive end sits on the team’s all-time career sacks list.
After that class of four comes the in-their-prime Panthers, the ones who will need to wait a couple inductions down the road until their careers are in the books.
Cam Newton: Yet another no-brainer. He was an MVP, a multiple Pro Bowler, the top passer in team history and one of the top runners. He was also the biggest name in the NFL for several seasons. And that doesn’t even mention his achievements in postgame fashion and press conference quotes.
Luke Kuechly: Not quite as big a no brainer as Newton, but still a no-doubter. He’ll challenge Peppers for the title of the best defensive Panther in history.
Christian McCaffrey: He’s got some work to do, but three years into his career, he’s off to about as good a start as possible.
Ron Rivera: He’s now the team’s winningest coach and led the Panthers to one of their two Super Bowl appearances. Riverboat Ron may not always be the most popular guy in town, but he’s been the team’s best coach.