No. 17: Colts DE Dwight Freeney

Would Hall of Famer Joe Namath have a chance against Dwight Freeney's speed? MATCHUP GALLERY ESPN.com Illustration


ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine sought a list of the 20 current players who a 20-member Pro Football Hall of Fame panel and ESPN's John Clayton believe could excel in any era of the NFL.

Or, to put a finer point on it -- when Mike Ditka looks at today's player, whom does he want lining up next to him ... or across from him?

Which of today's players did our group of Hall of Famers deem really old school?

The playing days for our 20-member Hall of Fame panel spanned the '60s (Jim Brown) to the turn of the century (John Randle).

We'll present four players a day, culminating with our top four on Friday, Jan. 27.

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FLOYD LITTLE: Dwight Freeney is absolutely relentless. When he was hurt two years ago before the Super Bowl, he played hurt because his team needed him there. The fact that players want to play when they are hurt demonstrates that they could play in any era because in my day you had to literally hide a guy's uniform to keep them from playing. Because when it was time to play, we went out and played. I think he's the greatest defensive end of his era. He's not only fast but proficient; he wreaks havoc on the offensive line. When he gets off that ball, he is relentless to get toward the QB. I've never seen someone that focused.


JOHN RANDLE: He has a style similar to what I played, so I have to respect it. Would I line up next to the guy? Of course. He gets to the quarterback like Lawrence Taylor did and he does it from the outside. And he wears that No. 93, which is an exceptional number. (Editor's note: Randle wore No. 93.) He's an exceptional player. He has a spin move, he has a bull rush, he has an outside move. When you play against Dwight Freeney, you better be ready. He's bringing it every play.


MIKE DITKA: When I look at Freeney, I see a guy who developed some moves, like the spin move. He's a little unorthodox. He does things that you didn't see a lot. He does it well. This is an era in which you get paid to get to the quarterback, and that's what he does. When you line up against most tackles, you know what they're going to do. He's going to bull rush me. With Freeney, he'll start outside and then spin inside. He has more moves than anyone I've seen play that position. He's a lot like John Randle.



FREENEY ON HIS TOUGHEST NFL MOMENT: Freeney severely sprained his ankle against the New York Jets trying not to hit Jets QB Mark Sanchez and avoid a personal foul penalty in the AFC Championship Game. "I got my ankle rolled up under him and it just popped. I heard it. I knew it was done."

To have his ankle fully heal, Freeney would have needed 4-6 weeks of rest and rehab. The Super Bowl against New Orleans was two weeks away.

My toughest moment in the NFL was the preparation going into the Super Bowl in 2009 against the Saints. I had a third-degree high ankle sprain, which means my ligaments were completely blown in my ankle, completely torn in my ankle. I was supposed to be out 4-6 weeks and I basically only had two weeks to get ready for the Super Bowl.

It was a lot of training, rehab, making sure throughout the week I was in the hyperbaric chamber, making sure I was eating the
right stuff, doing all types of rehab 24 hours a day. The preparation to try and get ready to play in the biggest moment, the
biggest game of the year, so it was 24 hours of something, whether I was sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber or some type of treatment day in and day out to get my ankle good enough where I can go out and perform. The game itself was a very tough moment because as well as I could get it, it was only about 65 percent, yet I was able to go out and still perform.

I got a sack, so I was actually effective. The result of the game wasn't good, obviously we lost, but it was probably the toughest moment in the NFL that I could think of, for me, in terms of preparation, being ready for the Super Bowl, playing on an ankle that probably most people wouldn't have played on -- jeopardizing whatever just to go out and play a game, and being effective.



His low-leverage style of rushing the quarterback would have made him a great pass-rusher in any era. Freeney started a recent trend of teams acquiring pass-rushers who aren't as tall and could destroy tall offensive tackles. His spin moves are legendary. But what makes him old-school is how quick he comes back from injuries. Freeney has recovered in weeks from leg injuries that sidelined other players months. He has the same nastiness and intensity that Hall of Famer John Randle showed with the Vikings.

CLAYTON ON HALL OF FAME CHANCES: Great pass-rushers usually draw strong consideration, and he was one of the best of his era.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN



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Additional reporting by ESPN The Magazine's Morty Ain, Louise Cornetta, Amy Parlapiano and Alyssa Roenigk.