CANTON, Ohio -- Another Hall class in the books. This one was a cherry, too. So what's next?
So how about the Class of 2017? Too soon? It will be announced in, oh, about six months. Doesn't mean we can't start Snapchatting, Periscoping and LinkedIning about it now! In fact, my forecast sits just below.
Before we get into it, though, please note: The players listed in the next section of this piece are the guys I think will be voted in, not those whom I would personally recommend. My prognostication spawns from various conversations with Hall of Famers and HOF voters this past weekend in Canton, as well as some good old-fashioned tea-leaf reading.
Ultimately, we all will find out together the Saturday before Super Bowl LI -- and that includes the voters, who acknowledge they are never sure how this deal is gonna go.
The Class of 2017 is more difficult to predict than any I can remember, with at least two of the contemporary spots being completely -- completely -- up for grabs. Only one recent retiree is sure to be inducted. Let's start there ...
Predicted Class of 2017
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, Chargers/Jets: The easiest choice among all the eligibles -- Tomlinson is going to walk right into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next August. There won't be any hesitation among the voters when it comes to a guy who earned league MVP honors, holds the single-season touchdown record (31, in 2006) and once caught 100 balls in a year when he also rushed for 1,645 yards. As it stands right now, Tomlinson is the only running back in the top 10 of career rushing yards who does not have a bronze bust.
Terrell Davis, RB, Broncos: Davis' candidacy amounts to a Hall conundrum for voters and fans who pay close attention to this process, mostly due to the short walk that was his career. He only played seven seasons. So did Gale Sayers, and he's in, right? That's not enough in many people's minds. This debate typically follows a familiar script ...
Yeah, but Sayers was a legend, a true one of a kind.
Sure, man, but what about all those Broncos running backs who ran for 1,000 yards after Davis' prime?
Yep, Olandis Gary (1999), Mike Anderson (2000, 2005), Reuben Droughns (2004) and Tatum Bell (2006) all did. Here's the deal: Davis averaged over 1,600 yards over his first four seasons (when he was healthy). In their years as the leading rushers for the Broncos, Gary, Anderson, Droughns and Bell averaged about 1,100 yards per year. Big difference. Not to mention, Davis put up 142.5 rushing yards per game in the postseason.
Davis made it to the final 10 for the Class of 2016, and I believe there is enough momentum for two fantastic running backs to reside in the same class. It happened in 2010, when Emmitt Smith (who carried massive career numbers on his résumé) and Floyd Little (who did not) both were enshrined. See any symmetry there?
Kurt Warner, QB, Rams/Giants/Cardinals: Like Davis, Warner should get his Hall due in 2017. With Brett Favre out of the way -- and all the Ken Stabler supporters finally receiving their wish -- there are no quarterbacks up for selection who could possibly outshine Warner. In fact, the only other QB who has received any mention is a Seniors Committee candidate: former Bengals great Ken Anderson, who won the league MVP in 1981. Being named Most Valuable Player means you were the top guy in pro football for a season. That brings instant credibility and should not be downplayed in terms of Hall of Fame credentials. Cool. So what do we do with Warner, who owns two MVPs?
"If a guy has the numbers, and it is debatable, then [winning an MVP] should be the closer," Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow told me.
"I think it's a just a matter of time for Kurt Warner -- I really do," said USA Today's Jarrett Bell, a Hall of Fame voter. "In terms of Kurt's case, specifically, I love his story. Who would not like his story? I'm still stuck on the beginning of it -- the supermarket part -- then the Arena League and then to get the opportunity to play in an emergency situation, and then end up being MVP. I mean, who does that? And then the back end, you take another team to a Super Bowl, right? So you've proven it with two organizations that you can get to a Super Bowl, be this elite player."
Bell also pointed out that while people argue that Warner had a "hole in the middle of his career," many players have endured those lows. True that. Who dominates the NFL from stem to stern? Joe Montana, Dan Fouts, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath and the recently enshrined Stabler all had inconsistencies in their careers. It's not a badge of dishonor, folks.
Joe Jacoby, OL, Redskins: Jacoby or Alan Faneca will make the Class of 2017. The former "Hog" was named first-team All-Pro twice, while making four Pro Bowls. The key number here is two -- i.e., Jacoby only has two years of eligibility left before he becomes a senior candidate. Seeing as that he made it to the final cutdown for the Class of 2016, the voting room might see fit to finally say yes.
John Lynch, S, Buccaneers/Broncos: This final spot could go in many, many directions -- including being vacant. Lynch boasts the skins on the wall -- with nine Pro Bowl selections, two first-team All-Pro nods and a Super Bowl ring -- and he was just in the final cutdown to 10 candidates for the Class of 2016. Obviously, five of those '16 finalists were inducted Saturday night. That left five guys behind: Lynch, Davis, Warner, Jacoby and Don Coryell, with Tomlinson crashing their party as the only 2017 shoo-in. These guys being so close in quality could translate to the Class of 2017 being smaller than the usual count of five modern-day-player inductees. Fewer easy choices means more dissension, which leads to someone like Lynch not receiving the requisite number of "yes" votes to be inducted. Still, Coryell, whose innovation truly changed the game, could be the odd man out.
Missing the cut
Terrell Owens, WR, 49ers/Eagles/Cowboys/Bills/Bengals: Owens is, once again, a lightning rod. Sports radio hosts scream and yell about his incredible numbers. Numbers. True. For all the grief Owens absorbed for his "That's my quarterback" days in Dallas, he caught 38 TD passes in three years there. In one three-year span in San Francisco, Owens hauled in a staggering 42 scoring tosses.
Many of the premier players in history had to wait. My sense is that Terrell Owens is going to fall just short, again. I was on the fence coming into this past weekend in Canton. One Hall of Fame voter, Clark Judge, provided an astute observation:
Every team this guy played for couldn't wait to get rid of him -- how can he still be considered a Hall of Fame snub?
It's a fair point. The voters are asked to not factor in off-the-field stuff. Owens never really found himself in trouble off the field. But some of his antics on the field -- and in the locker room -- are the reason he isn't in, and might be enough to keep him out again.
Legendary general manager Bill Polian had this to say on the "Talk of Fame Network": "The Hall of Fame ought to be for people who've made their teams better, not who disrupted their teams and made them worse."
"I told Alan I knew he was going to be good the first time he stepped on the field," Steeler great Dermontti Dawson said told me. "We did not miss a beat when Alan was drafted."
Also ran into former Vikings/Ravens center Matt Birk over the weekend, who emphatically backed Faneca's candidacy: "Alan Faneca should be put in, stat!" Birk talked about how guys like Faneca and Steve Hutchinson dominated opponents and didn't merely "get in front of their guy."
If I were a voter, I would certainly recommend Faneca. That said, with him being newly eligible, and with Jacoby only having a few years left before falling into the Seniors Committee abyss, I think Faneca waits again.
Steve Atwater, S, Broncos/Jets: Former Packers wideout Antonio Freeman put it best: "Steve Atwater was a monster." The former All-Pro safety boasts two Super Bowl rings -- and plenty of respect -- but with Lynch, Brian Dawkins and a slew of qualified seniors available, don't think 2017 is the year for him.
Brian Dawkins, S, Eagles/Broncos: Again, if this were my ballot, Brian Dawkins would be a shoo-in. I might be higher on Dawkins than others, but why should he have to wait? Because all these other safeties have had to? (So keep repeating the same cycle?) Dawkins made nine Pro Bowls, was named first team All-Pro four times and was named to the Hall of Fame's All-2000s Team. Frankly, he was the best safety in the league until around 2004, when Ed Reed took the torch. Dawkins also started a Super Bowl and five NFC Championship Games, making the postseason nine times.
Seniors Committee candidates
Trying to predict who will be nominated as a Seniors Committee candidate is darn near impossible. But I can tell you a few names I heard kicked around by a few voters, Hall of Famers and even a couple of my colleagues:
Jerry Kramer, OG, Packers: Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News -- and a member of both the Seniors and Contributor committees -- thinks 2017 might be the year for Kramer.
Chuck Howley, LB, Bears/Cowboys:Been suggesting this guy on NFL.com and NFL Network for so long that maybe someone is listening. Gosselin thinks he has a strong chance, sooner than later: "Howley had 43 takeaways -- that's second all time among linebackers. The top guy? Jack Ham." Ham, of course, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and legend in Pittsburgh.
Donnie Shell, S, Steelers: I asked Tony Dungy about his presenter on Friday. The coach's response: "Shell, in my opinion, should be in. Shell was the best safety in the league in the late '70s, early '80s. Donnie Shell was John Lynch before John Lynch ... with 50 interceptions."
Cliff Branch, WR, Raiders: In the wake of Stabler's induction, Raider fans have shifted to the "Cliff Branch needs to in the Hall" discussion. There are a large number of Raiders in the Hall already. It's possible Oakland teams of yore had as many (or more) premier players than the Steelers. Perhaps Pittsburgh simply had more Hall of Very Gooders. Either way, Branch came up in a couple of discussions this weekend.
Drew Pearson, WR, Cowboys: "He was the glue of that Dallas team," Jarrett Bell told me. Pearson was a starter on the 1970s All-Decade Team alongside Lynn Swann, who is already in. FYI: Pearson's #s > Swann's #'s.
Cliff Harris, S, Cowboys: I asked Hall of Fame tight end Jackie Smith to name the one guy he thought should be in the Hall. He looked at me and thought for maybe 1.5 seconds. "Cliff." Amen.
Billy Howton, E, Packers/Browns/Cowboys: Saleem Choudhry, the director of museum exhibits and services for the Hall, wonders how Howton has been overlooked. "Just look at the numbers," he implores. The end posted a 1,100-yard and 1,200-yard season in the 1950s, when 700 yards was the gold standard.
Ken Anderson, QB, Bengals: Winslow faced Anderson in the "Freezer Bowl," and he pointed out that the former Bengal quarterback's MVP award (1981) should carry plenty of weight.
Don Doll, DB, Lions/Redskins/Rams: Doll's grandson begged me on Twitter to research his grandfather. Gosselin is also a supporter of the former ballhawk. Doll picked off at least 10 passes three times.
Johnny Robinson, S, Dallas Texans/Chiefs: Robinson has been brought up by commenters on our Hall articles multiple times, and he is considered one of the greatest players in the history of the AFL. Discussed him with voters and his former teammate Bobby Bell in the past, but safety is a tough HOF sell.
A few more names to watch
A few non-Seniors Committee came up in conversations over the weekend, as well -- guys like RBs James Brooks, Edgerrin James and Priest Holmes, who might be the most underrated player ever. Kellen Winslow thinks that, for a time, Brooks was "pound for pound, the best back in the league." James led the NFL in rushing in each of his first two seasons and currently ranks 11th on the all-time list for total rushing yards. Holmes' three-year explosion from 2001 to '03 brings up the age-old debate of what we should value more: being good for a long time or dominating the league in a small window? Where do you stand?
Sports, at their core, are all about debate. And that will certainly be the case with the 2017 Hall of Fame class.