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Hall of Fame Class of 2015 forecast: Kurt Warner makes the cut

CANTON, Ohio -- Standing in Fawcett Stadium on Saturday night, I wondered if this is what it feels like to be a Dolphins fan vacationing in Western New York. My aqua-checked button-down stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of Bills jerseys. They were everywhere.

Andre Reed's speech came across like Billy Graham Sunday morning gospel to these folks, some of the truest fans in the country. And when it was over, I thought it apropos to head toward the NFL Network stage for a different vantage point, hoping to view Michael Strahan's address through a clear prism, unfettered by ardent Reed-Levy-Kelly fandom.

That's where I saw Kurt Warner -- and where I started thinking about the Class of 2015.

I mentioned he could very well be here -- as a gold-jacket-wearing guest of honor -- next year. Gracious as always, Warner said, "Well, I don't know -- there are some good guys out there ..." At least that sounded like what he said, his voice drowned out by the loud ovation for Strahan, who was coming to the podium.

On the subject of his former teammate Orlando Pace, Warner mentioned that offensive linemen have been treated well by the Hall in recent years -- Jonathan Ogden and Larry Allen were enshrined last year, Walter Jones over the weekend -- which bodes well for the left tackle who went first overall in the 1997 NFL Draft. And that's precisely where I start my forecast for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2015:

ORLANDO PACE
St. Louis Rams (1997-2008), Chicago Bears (2009)
First year of eligibility

Sometime in the late 1980s, the left tackle position began to receive substantial recognition for its importance on the field -- and, ultimately, its worthiness of a large financial investment. In the years that followed, three LTs truly dominated the position (and opposing pass rushers): Ogden, Jones and Pace.

Simply put, Warner doesn't win a pair of MVPs -- in 1999 and 2001 -- without Pace protecting his blind side. And Marshall Faulk doesn't take home the hardware in 2000 without Pace leading a lot of those stretch runs to the left. Yes, the big guy played a crucial role in his franchise nabbing three straight MVP trophies. When you think of "The Greatest Show on Turf," you don't immediately envision a 325-pounder, but make no mistake: Pace's presence was a driving force behind St. Louis' success.

JUNIOR SEAU
San Diego Chargers (1990-2002), Miami Dolphins (2003-05), New England Patriots (2006-09)
First year of eligibility

I think Seau -- like Pace -- is a slam dunk for enshrinement in 2015. Seems like every person I have broached this topic with -- whether league observer or fan -- feels this is as easy as it gets (perhaps even more so than with respect to Pace). Seau's 20 years in the league, six first-team All-Pro nods and overall reputation as a leader scream Canton. He never won a Super Bowl, but he played in two of them. And when Seau made his first -- in the 1994 campaign -- he might've been the best overall defensive player in the league.

Seau was a tackling machine who created plenty of disruption while also being viable in coverage. And although he wasn't routinely asked to rush the passer, Seau still racked up 56.5 sacks, with three seven-sack campaigns. Talk to anyone who played with (or against) Seau in his prime, and the phrase "Hall of Fame" is sure to crop up.

CHARLES HALEY
San Francisco 49ers (1986-1991, 1998-99), Dallas Cowboys (1992-96)
Five-time finalist

What more can be said about this guy? I am putting myself out there. Again. Every year, I think, This is the time for the only player with five rings, and every year, his candidacy goes up in flames.

"Oh yeah, Charles deserves to be in there," Jay Novacek told me in the lobby of the McKinley Grand Hotel on Saturday afternoon. "But what about Jimmy Johnson?"

Good point. My colleague Adam Rank pointed out over the weekend that the Cowboys absolutely demolished the Bills in back-to-back Super Bowls (winning by a combined score of 82-30), yet the Hall features more Bills from those games than Cowboys. Hmmm.

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Well, either way, Haley won five Super Bowls, played in seven NFC Championship Games and racked up 100.5 sacks -- more than Hall of Famers Howie Long and Andre Tippett.

"I think Michael Strahan's enshrinement this year opens things up for (Haley)," colleague Judy Battista said, only moments after eating half of my cookie in the Fawcett Stadium Press Box on Sunday evening.

MARVIN HARRISON
Indianapolis Colts (1996-2008)
Finalist in 2014

This continues to be a difficult prediction to make, given the off-field questions spawning from a Philadelphia gunfight in 2008. However, voters are supposed to consider what happened on the field. (Not to mention, the facts of the incident in question remain vague.)

How does a man who ranks third all time in career receptions (1,102), fifth in receiving touchdowns (128) and seventh in receiving yards (14,580), and who still holds the record for most catches in a season (143), not get to Canton soon?

KURT WARNER
St. Louis Rams (1998-2003), New York Giants (2004), Arizona Cardinals (2005-09)
First year of eligibility

This is a very tough call. Warner's humility aside, he played with spectacular confidence and toughness, always standing in the pocket and scanning the field until the last possible moment. Moreover, he won a pair of MVPs and a Super Bowl MVP with the Rams ... before guiding the Cardinals on a thrilling run to the Super Bowl at age 37. Remarkably, St. Louis has been to the playoffs only once since Warner departed -- and Arizona hasn't even managed that.

What more do you need to be a Hall of Famer? It's enough in my book. Watching him compete at the end of his career, I felt like I was seeing a Hall of Famer play. No, his career numbers don't jump off the page, thanks to a late start in the NFL and a mid-career lull. But raw counting stats aren't the only way to measure a quarterback. Otherwise, Troy Aikman wouldn't have sniffed the Hall of Fame.

Other Hall thoughts

Player who should get in but won't: Terrell Davis seems to be facing an uphill battle, and it's a shame. In the late 1990s, Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk were all playing -- and Terrell Davis was better than all of them. Who cares if he didn't play 10 years? Earl Campbell played eight. Gale Sayers played seven. Doak Walker played six. They all have busts in Canton.

Who will be the dark horse? This year, it was Aeneas Williams. Could it be John Lynch or kicker Morten Andersen in 2015? It's a fun, appropriate question, as no one other than Deion Sanders said Williams would get in last year. My guess: Andersen, especially after the immensely positive reaction to punter Ray Guy's enshrinement this year.

And on to the seniors: I spoke with several old Hall of Famers over the weekend, and heard a few names thrown around. Paul Hornung wondered aloud how Billy Howton -- who had one of the best rookie seasons in NFL history -- isn't enshrined.

Meanwhile, Hall of Fame defensive end Elvin Bethea said, "Leon Gray was the best tackle I ever played against." Yet, the former Patriot/Oiler/Saint is not in the Hall, nor is he even mentioned much for consideration. Interesting side note: Bethea played against Hall of Famer tackles Art Shell and Anthony Muñoz plenty of times.

Predicting a senior nominee is nearly impossible, but here is a not-so-subtle request for the panel: How about taking a look at Chuck Howley?

Howley doesn't have much of a case ... other than being a five-time first-team All-Pro, playing until age 37 and being the only player from a losing team to win a Super Bowl MVP. Howley picked off two passes for the Cowboys that day, then made another big interception in the following Super Bowl, which Dallas won. He was inducted into the Cowboys Ring of Honor in 1977. It's time he makes the Canton club.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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