Class of 2014
Many league observers were surprised that one of Big Blue's best players of the past 25 years missed the cut this year. My sense is that no player is more of a lock in 2014 than Strahan, an opinion shared by colleague Gil Brandt. Strahan racked up 141.5 sacks over his 15-year career, setting the single-season record with 22.5 in 2001. And you can bet your G-Men (or X-Men) underoos that the magical title run in Strahan's final season sealed the deal for his inclusion in the Hall of Fame.
No way Haley doesn't get in next year -- at least, that's my sense. When you look at the potential Class of 2014, no one is more deserving than Haley. Besides being one of the preeminent pass rushers of his era, Haley is also the only football player walking the face of the Earth with five Super Bowl rings.
Feeling a defensive vibe yet? The Class of 2014 should be dominated by impact players on the less popular side of the ball. Brooks boasts 11 Pro Bowl nods, a very impressive five first-team All-Pro selections and, of course, a Super Bowl ring. Not to mention, the linebacker played his entire career with one team. While some say this doesn't matter, it a) makes him more identifiable with a franchise and b) doesn't allow anyone to potentially wonder why the Bucs traded Brooks or let him walk in free agency.
Will a mysterious and allegedly sordid off-the-field life derail Harrison's prospects to be a first-ballot inductee come next Super Bowl weekend? This has to be the Hall of Fame voters' most interesting dilemma, although off-the-field stuff is supposed to be checked at the door of the voters' room. If you go by the numbers, Harrison belongs in Canton ASAP. Forget the bloated passing numbers of this era; Harrison eclipsed his contemporaries. His stunning achievement of notching 143 catches in 2002 still stands as the NFL record. Meanwhile, his career numbers of 1,102 catches (third) and 14,580 yards (sixth) rank him among the all-time greats. Harrison was a more reliable receiver than Terrell Owens or Randy Moss.
There's been some confusion as to when exactly Jones becomes eligible for the Hall. Although he played his last down in 2008, Jones spent the 2009 season on injured reserve. That's OK -- we confirmed over enshrinement weekend that he's still eligible for 2014. Another one of the great tackles from the Y2K era will walk into Canton, joining Jonathan Ogden and Willie Roaf. Jones made nine Pro Bowls and was a huge reason -- literally and figuratively -- that the Seahawks' offense soared in the mid-2000s.
Guy will always be known for getting selected in the first round by Al Davis' Raiders -- no small feat for a punter. When the subject of punters/kickers surfaces in Hall of Fame discussions, Guy's name is always the first one mentioned. Is he a Hall of Famer? Tough call. But he was considered the best punter in football three times by The Associated Press, and his booming kicks certainly gave the Raiders' defense an advantage. Three Super Bowl rings (XI, XV, XVIII) don't hurt the cause.
Class of 2015
What used to be considered a "maybe" has solidified into a "definitely". Everyone I've spoken with feels Warner belongs in Canton, especially given the prolific late-career surge he enjoyed in 2008 and '09, when he brought the Cardinals back from the dead in Michael Myers-esque fashion. Question is, will he be a first-ballot guy? With no competition at quarterback -- and zero QB inductees since Troy Aikman and Warren Moon in 2006 -- I'll say yes.
The best at his position for many years, Seau, who played football to the age of 40, also had that Jim Marshall/Brett Favre quality to his career: extreme longevity. Really, though, Seau sealed his Hall status in the period stretching from about 1991 to 1998, when he was the best overall defensive player in the AFC. The six-time first-team All-Pro tragically took his own life in 2012, but Canton is for immortals. In a football sense, Seau will always be that.
It's almost impossible to leave Tony Dungy off the early part of this list. For starters, he's been an inspiration to players and young adults outside of the game; his reputation is as solid as Harrison's is up in the air. On that note, Dungy and Harrison won a Super Bowl with the Colts -- and this came after Dungy's outstanding work in Tampa Bay. The coach went 6-10 in his first year with the Bucs -- extending Tampa Bay's run of consecutive losing seasons to 14 -- but then he guided Tampa to the playoffs in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2001. His Bucs outfit nearly upended "The Greatest Show on Turf" in the 1999 NFC Championship Game. While Tampa lost that game, 11-6, it was a premium defensive performance behind the leadership of a defensive-minded head coach who, prior to his Tampa stop, had accrued over a decade of experience as one of the top assistants on that side of the ball in the NFL.
Bettis figures to be a finalist for the fourth time in 2014, but that'll be another tough final cut to make. Here's to the fifth time being the charm in 2015. Bettis' output is on par with 2012 enshrinee Curtis Martin. While Martin has 439 rushing yards and six total touchdowns on Bettis, the latter has one more Pro Bowl berth, one more first-team All-Pro nod and one more Super Bowl ring.