Who are the first-ballot Hall of Famers playing in the NFL right now?
We start with some ground rules, because we'd never want a serious exercise like this to come off as nebulous or ill-considered. I've chosen not to include any player with less than six years of NFL experience. Call this The Shaun Alexander Clause. So, if you're ready to pepper @danhanzus with outrage over the absence of Shady, Gronk, Sherman, J.J., etc., please blame the former Seahawks workhorse.
(And yes, I went third person to drop my Twitter handle into that last paragraph. I do not argue that I'm the worst.)
Also: To crack the definite first-ballot tier, I won't extrapolate. Your numbers and achievements entering 2014 must be good enough to stand on their own. Ask yourself this: If Player X gave up his earthly possessions and wandered into the wilderness tomorrow, would a Canton-based search crew be sent out to fetch him in five years?
Lastly, you won't see Ed Reed here because it's unclear if the old safety is active or retired. Just know he's a first-ballot guy once he leaves pigskin purgatory.
Let's do this thing.
FIRST BALLOTPeyton Manning
Five iconic guys right there. If you argue against Manning and Brady, you should be institutionalized. I suppose you could make a case to remove All Day from this tier if he falls off a statistical cliff, but I still don't think it would matter. Drew Brees is a mortal lock thanks to his monster numbers, memorable Super Bowl triumph and Certified Good Guy rep.
As for Belichick? There perhaps could be a contingent that will try to hold Spygate over his head (get over it, guys), but we'll give the final word to Peyton Manning: "Coach Belichick is the best coach that I've ever competed against and I think it's safe to say he'll go down as the greatest NFL coach of all time."
Good enough for me.
Polamalu is one of the most iconic players of his generation, has two rings and has remained an impact player into his thirties. Roethlisberger moves into the top tier if he adds a third Super Bowl ring to his resume. Rodgers just needs to stay healthy. Fitzgerald is an all-time talent who could use a couple more years of Pro Bowl-level production.
Ware is in a similar boat as Fitz. He's in very good position to put up numbers if he can stay on the field in Denver. Bailey and Woodson were elite corners for a long period. That gift of unusual longevity should sit well with Hall voters.
ON THE RIGHT PATHCalvin Johnson
A good case can be made for Megatron being moved way up, though I'm mildly concerned an accumulation of aches and pains could sap his superhuman ability in the back half of his career.
Andre Johnson has been the face of the Texans for a decade. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment. I'll say this: If Johnson can grind out another 115 catches with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum this season, Canton should give him his own wing. Willis has played seven seasons, made seven Pro Bowls and been first-team All-Pro five times. That's good.
Allen could end up in the top three on the NFL's all-time sack list. Of course, Kevin Greene can tell you that doesn't guarantee you anything.
I added Clipboard Jesus just to make sure you're still paying attention. Good job by you.
OH RIGHT, ELI MANNINGEli Manning
If 2013 was the start of a sharp decline, he might have to settle for the Big Blue Ring of Honor. If he bounces back, has 2-3 more productive seasons and makes another deep playoff run, he's a virtual lock. Which way will the wind blow?