Predicting the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2018

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Gratitude.

It was the theme of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's 55th class. A theme that we should all embrace, frankly, but one that is especially poignant for the men who were enshrined in Canton on Saturday. Nearly every member of the class was forced to wait years -- and in some cases, decades -- to hear his name called. Yet, there was a no griping, groveling or complaining this weekend. Instead, there was a message of thanks to all those who helped along the way.

While everyone knows the museum in the Ohio city is the pinnacle of the sport, what you see when you are up close and personal with the new enshrinees over the weekend is the joy they feel from the acceptance of their fellow (elite) peers. It's awesome.

LaDainian Tomlinson is still in awe of Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett. Kenny Easley gushes about Ronnie Lott, both during his speech and when the lights shut off during the meet-and-greet on Friday. Easley kept on rapping, with much of it about his contemporary.

All this is to say, the Hall of Fame is a big deal. It's why people speculate about the coming classes in the ultimate lookahead sport, and why some players publicly lament their lack of inclusion. Well, 2018 is no different. With Randy Moss eligible for the first time and Terrell Owens entering Year 3 of the process, attention has already shifted to the announcement of next year's class in February. Or, put another way, we're on to "T.O. Watch '18."

So who's in, who's out for the Hall's 56th class? After talking to former players, voters and quite a few interested parties in our business, here's who I think will comprise the Class of 2018:

Randy Moss, WR, Vikings/Raiders/Patriots/Titans/49ers: I think he has a better than 50-50 shot of making it into Canton, after speaking with a few voters this past weekend, and factoring in the fact that he ranks second all-time in receiving touchdowns and had the wow factor. As dominant as T.O. could be, Randy Moss has more spectacular highlights than anyone this side of Barry Sanders. Fair or unfair, he's not looked at as the team-killer that Terrell Owens is viewed as. Given Hall of Famer (and voter) James Lofton's shock at T.O. not earning a spot in this year's class, methinks he will support Moss (and Owens) next year. All that said, can you imagine the social media reaction if Moss finds his way into Canton and T.O. is left standing on the sideline?

Ray Lewis, LB, Ravens: Seventeen seasons, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and one Super Bowl MVP should carry Ray Lewis into the Hall on the first ballot. The off-the-field court case in 2000 will certainly come up for some folks ... especially when contrasted with the reasons that Owens has been waiting. Hall voters are supposed to only consider the on-field work of candidates, and Lewis' seven first-team All-Pros certainly shows a worthy body of work between the lines. Outside of those prospective complaints, nothing is keeping Lewis out of Canton in 2018.

Tony Boselli, T, Jaguars: This is the year for Tony Boselli. He came awfully close to joining the Class of 2017, making the finalist list. The premier left tackle in pro football during the late 1990s has support from both voters and Hall of Fame players, especially after seeing the outpouring of warmth and acceptance of Terrell Davis as a Canton-worthy player. In fact, Davis' entry might pave the way for guys like Boselli, Priest Holmes and Patrick Willis in the future.

Fun fact: Boselli and Davis played the exact same seasons in the NFL: 1995-2001

Brian Dawkins, S, Eagles/Broncos: Brian Dawkins should be the strongest candidate among the guys who've waited at least one year. A member of the All-Decade team of the 2000s, Dawkins was the top safety in pro football during the early part of the millennium. After succeeding Steve Atwater, Darren Woodson and John Lynch as the premier player at the position, he handed the mantle to Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu in the mid-2000s. Dawkins wanted to pattern his game after Woodson, who could tackle in space, play centerfield and cover straight-up, but went on to be, in all honesty, an even better player. Dawkins made a profound impact each time he took the field and was no question the best defensive performer on Andy Reid's five NFC championship teams in Philly.

Ty Law, CB, Patriots/Jets/Chiefs/Broncos: Far and away the most difficult Hall of Famer to predict. This spot will go to either Ty Law, John Lynch, Alan Faneca, Owens or Kevin Mawae. Of all those, Mawae will give Law the biggest run for his money. The reason I feel Mawae has a better chance than Owens or even the uber-popular Lynch is that he came quite close last year, and only two centers have been enshrined since Y2K. One of those was a senior nominee. Why go with Law, then? Because voters know they are waaaaaaaay behind on defensive players. Of the 310 enshrinees, only 88 are pure defensive players (there are a handful of guys who played both sides of the ball). Law can boast 53 career picks, with six more in the postseason. How many corners are coming down the pike with 59 interceptions and three Super Bowl rings? To quote the Hall of Very Good Keith Sweat: "Nobody."

Assorted notes on other possible Hall of Fame candidates ...

Terrell Owens, WR, 49ers/Eagles/Cowboys/Bills/Bengals: I spoke to one voter who said, "T.O. Isn't getting in next year." There you go. The main argument against him seems to be that five teams were more than willing to let him walk out the door. Meh. Not really down with that argument. In reverse order:

5) Bengals. Owens' 15th and final season was on a Bengals team that was blown up after the season. Carson Palmer got traded to Oakland, Chad Ochocinco was traded to New England and Owens was at the end of the line.
4) Bills. Come on, Owens signed a one-year deal that many people thought was partially just to put fans in the seats. He didn't play poorly in Buffalo.
3) Cowboys. Dallas was ready to move on from T.O., especially after the wideout reportedly criticized the Romo-Witten connection. He dropped many passes while in Dallas. He also caught 38 touchdown passes in three years.
2) Eagles. Although the Eagles were definitely ready to see Owens walk out that door, guess who got them over the NFC championship hump? And we all learned what a hyperbaric chamber was, too. So there's that.
1) 49ers. Ask yourself this: How many star players these days stay with one team more than the eight years that Owens spent with the 49ers?

Edgerrin James, RB, Colts/Cardinals/Seahawks: "Didn't he lead the NFL in rushing his first two years? I think he did." -- LaDainian Tomlinson to me on Friday. Tomlinson said Edgerrin James could do it all, "including catch the football." Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore are the only two running backs who seem to carry any weight in the near future. Check the numbers -- and number of 1,500-yard seasons -- and see if you think James belongs. I think Edge is slowly picking up momentum.

Priest Holmes, RB, Ravens/Chiefs: "Priest Holmes was nice. You look at the numbers ... he was nice ... nobody talks about him ... he had injuries that shortened his career like me. I think his numbers were comparable to mine. Not necessarily the postseason numbers, but his regular-season numbers were awesome." -- Terrell Davis

After mentioning Edge as a guy who he had admired, Tomlinson spoke with great respect about Priest Holmes.

"I know he didn't have a long career ... but he was in our division, so I watched him a lot. And we had a lot of battles, competing for rushing titles and whatnot."

It's time to at least consider Holmes' candidacy.

Joe Jacoby, T, Redskins: There will be a push for Joe Jacoby, who will enter his 20th and final year of eligibility in 2018. That means if the former Redskins Pro Bowl left tackle, and famed member of the Hogs, doesn't make it this coming year, he will enter the seniors pool. There will be a push, but not a surge. I just don't see Jacoby beating out the above candidates for a spot. As successful as the Joe Gibbs Redskins of the '80s and early '90s were, I don't see any more of their players being inducted.

Senior inductees for 2018: Even guys on the Seniors Committee, like the unflappable Ron Borges, who hammered me on Stanley Morgan's candidacy, don't know the answer to this Canton Rubik's Cube. After sitting with three long-time voters, spending time in Canton, reading tea leaves and using a tiny speck of intuition ...

1a) Drew Pearson, WR, Cowboys
1b) Alex Karras, DT, Lions

Next year, the Seniors Committee will be able to nominate two players, instead of one, which means there is room for Pearson and Karras. An anti-Cowboys bias existed among voters in the '90s and early 2000s. That push against Dallas revolved around the '70s teams that couldn't get past the Steelers, and perhaps the whole "America's Team" label. It hurt Pearson, Cliff Harris and Chuck Howley, to name a few. Pearson is the only skill-position player who made first-team All-Decade from the '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s teams to not be in the Hall of Fame. Borges mentioned Karras as a strong possibility. The former Lions defensive tackle was a fantastic player whose career is marred by being suspended for gambling in 1963. While Paul Hornung, who has been in the Hall for decades and was also suspended due to gambling, is partly considered a lovable maverick, Karras' name barely comes up. That may, and should, change.

Contributor inductee for 2018: Boy are there several strong candidates in line ... Bob Kraft, Bobby Beathard, Pat Bowlen, Gil Brandt, Paul Tagliabue and George Young. My colleague Brandt will hear his name called soon. Yet, pushing Brandt the year after another Cowboy, Jerry Jones, emerged from this category would be a tough sell. Bowlen's name has been mentioned often, including by his former player, Terrell Davis, on enshrinement night. Kraft is another strong possibility, but his enshrinement would mean three owners in three years (Eddie DeBartolo Sr. was enshrined in 2016). Thus, I feel Beathard will be the choice. He's a former GM, not an owner, who enjoyed incredible success with the Chiefs, Dolphins, Redskins (as GM) and Chargers (as GM), ultimately helping his teams play in seven Super Bowls. Contributor Committee member Rick Gosselin is a big supporter of Beathard's, and feels he is as viable a candidate as anyone for 2018.

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