The players being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this month comprise one of the most talented classes ever. Unfortunately, it's also among the least known, missing the sort of marquee name that might garner the praise and recognition these unsung heroes deserve. That said, I think that if the six players in this class were entering the league today, five would be taken in the first round of the draft and three within the first five picks.
This class doesn't have the star wattage that someone like, say, a John Elway or Dan Marino would have brought. But I watched all six players produce in a big way during their careers, and I know they were all very special, both on and off the field. They might not have been bankable, but they were plenty durable, notching at least nine seasons each.
Each of the following men is entering the Hall for a reason. Moreover, each of them would stand out in the modern game, buoyed by talents that transcend changing trends.
Jack Butler, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers (1951-1959)
Butler became one of the most dominant defensive backs of his era, but he was initially among the greenest players when he started playing football at St. Bonaventure. Talked into attending an open tryout, Butler was asked what position he wanted to play. Not knowing anything about football, Butler simply repeated what he'd heard the player next to him say, and volunteered to play guard. The coaches straightened him out, telling him to join the receivers.
He played a little bit at wide receiver for the Steelers, but eventually found his home in the defensive backfield, picking off nine passes in his second season and 10 in his third.
Why he'd thrive today: I don't think he'd be able to play cornerback right now, but he could be a star at safety. To say that he had a nose for the ball would be an understatement; he racked up 52 interceptions over 103 games, or around one pick every other game. He was an unbelievable force in the secondary, the kind of ball-hawk who gave opposing quarterbacks nightmares.
Dermontti Dawson, C/OG, Pittsburgh Steelers (1988-2000)
Dawson quit football in high school, frustrated with being what he called a "blocking dummy" after spending most of his time at the tight end position. He eventually found his way back to the game and more than made his mark, helping the Pittsburgh Steelers build a dominant rushing attack. In fact, between him and his predecessor, Mike Webster (inducted in 1997), the Steelers enjoyed a 26-year stretch with a future member of the Hall of Fame at the position. Dawson brought a cheerful presence to the locker room; always early to work and prone to singing silly ditties, he was nicknamed "Ned Flanders" by teammate Levon Kirkland. He was the sixth offensive lineman selected in the 1988 NFL Draft (second round, No. 44 overall), and the second from that draft to make the Hall of Fame (joining Randall McDaniel).
Why he'd thrive today: He was strong and fast, if a bit light (around 275 pounds) for the current era. He excelled at pulling and scoop-blocking, which might not be as useful against head-on defensive linemen like Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions. But he was very smart, and he'd be able to compensate. As coaches often say, players can add weight, but it's tough to make them taller or faster. Plus, he was durable, starting 170 consecutive games (and playing in 184 total). That kind of reliability was -- and still is -- rare.
Chris Doleman, DE/LB, Minnesota Vikings (1985-1993, 1999), Atlanta Falcons (1994-1995), San Francisco 49ers (1996-1998)
Doleman, for one, recognized his status as an unsung hero and wanted to do something to change it. When he was with the Vikings, he invented a statistical achievement that he called "the trifecta," which involved sacking the quarterback, forcing a fumble and scoring a touchdown -- all in the same play. Though Doleman accomplished this just once in his career, his 150 sacks and 44 forced fumbles were nothing to sneeze at.
Why he'd thrive today: He was a great player, plain and simple. With his size, speed and athleticism, he'd be one of those guys who averages 15 to 20 sacks per season. He did most of his damage working as an end in 4-3 defenses, which seemed to have fallen out of favor. But I think that scheme is making a comeback in terms of popularity, and he'd find a home somewhere.
Cortez Kennedy, DT, Seattle Seahawks (1990-2000)
Kennedy was told by his coach at Northwest Mississippi Community College that he had to lose weight if he wanted to stay on the team. Despite spending the subsequent summer working a job at a fast-food pizzeria, Kennedy managed to drop around 40 pounds. On the day he was supposed to report, Kennedy pulled up in a pickup truck, clad in tight-fitting jeans that showed off his slimmer frame. Kennedy clearly had the drive to play and the character and discipline to succeed.
Much later, after Kennedy retired from the NFL, he was approached by the Dallas Cowboys, who offered him $1 million to play the last five games of the 2001 season. Kennedy turned them down, explaining that to accept the offer would be "stealing money."
Why he'd thrive today: Kennedy had outstanding strength, which is important for modern defensive tackles. He also had great first-step quickness, which is crucial when it comes to beating the pass protector. Kennedy had a unique ability to get to the quarterback, especially for someone who played inside. Like a golfer who can putt with instinctive accuracy, pass rushing just came naturally to Kennedy. It had to for him to collect 14 sacks from the tackle position in 1992.
Curtis Martin, RB, New England Patriots (1995-1997) and New York Jets (1998-2005)
Martin didn't like organized team sports growing up, and even briefly quit football during his junior year in high school. He showed promise at Pittsburgh -- former Texas media relations man Bill Little recently told me that he never saw the Longhorns play a better opposing running back. But if it hadn't been for Bill Parcells, Martin might never have become one of the best professional backs of his era.
Before Martin's rookie season, Parcells, who was coaching the Patriots at the time, asked "Boy Wonder" (as Parcells had nicknamed Martin) if he knew the difference between routine and commitment. Parcells explained what he'd need to do to turn himself from a good football player into a great one. Martin rushed for 1,487 yards and 14 touchdowns as a rookie and never looked back, becoming one of four players to rush for more than 14,000 career yards (a group that includes Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders).
Why he'd thrive today: He was a complete running back. I don't think there's any question he'd be a top-10 draft pick. In this age of committees and split carries, he'd be a dominant, featured ball carrier capable of doing everything, on par with (and maybe even a little bit better than) Houston Texans star Arian Foster. He was very versatile, excelling as a receiver, runner and blocker.
Willie Roaf, OT, New Orleans Saints (1993-2001), Kansas City Chiefs (2002-2005)
Roaf, who was a big fan of Chicago Bulls star (and fellow Arkansas native) Scottie Pippen, wanted to be a basketball player in high school. While taking part in two-a-days with his school's football team, Roaf would shoot hoops between practices. It took him some time to fully commit to football; playing for Louisiana Tech, he essentially quit in a game against Florida in 1989, leaving the field and taking off his pads. But his destiny was to dominate on the gridiron, and dominate he did. He became the first New Orleans Saints offensive tackle ever to make the Pro Bowl after the 1994 season and went on to make the Pro Bowl 10 more times.
Why he'd thrive today: A great pass protector, Roaf would be extremely valuable in today's air-oriented game -- an instant starter, for sure. He was huge and had amazing feet. He carried a lot of weight on oddly shaped legs, and one wouldn't think he'd enjoy the success he did, but he was just outstanding at protecting the quarterback.