The 15 finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2015 are as follows (presented in alphabetical order): Morten Andersen, Jerome Bettis, Tim Brown, Don Coryell, Terrell Davis, Tony Dungy, Kevin Greene, Charles Haley, Marvin Harrison, Jimmy Johnson, John Lynch, Orlando Pace, Junior Seau, Will Shields and Kurt Warner. NFL Media historian Elliot Harrison breaks down the hopefuls -- and predicts who will ultimately make it in. For more on contributor candidates Ron Wolf and Bill Polian, click here; for more on Mick Tingelhoff, click here.
Lock City:*Junior Seau* is an absolute slam dunk. There's a better chance Ryan Lindley will lead the Cardinals to the Super Bowl next season than there is of Seau not getting in ... heck, there might be a better chance Lindley will take San Diego to the Promised Land in 2015. Arguably the third-greatest Chargers player ever -- behind Lance Alworth and maybe either Dan Fouts or LaDainian Tomlinson -- Seau played 20 seasons in the NFL, spending 13 with the Bolts and splitting seven between the Dolphins and Patriots. The linebacker was a 12-time Pro Bowler and earned six All-Pro nods, all in San Diego.
Not far behind:*Orlando Pace* might not be even with Seau, but if contemporaries Jonathan Ogden and Walter Jones -- not to mention Larry Allen -- were first-ballot Hall of Fame guys, then why not Pace? The dominant left tackle might have been the best player at any position on the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams. He was at least the most consistent.
Biggest surprise name: None of the finalists truly surprised me this year, as I did, in fact, correctly predict this group last month. Still, I was worriedDon Coryell wouldn't make it. The father of the modern passing game (Sid Gillman is the grandfather) deserves a spot in Canton. That he took two franchises (the Cardinals and Chargers) from the depths of losing despair to the playoffs as a coach doesn't hurt.
Should've made the cut: As someone who watched nearly every snap of safety Darren Woodson's career, I can say he was at least as good as some of the guys in the hall. Ty Law was exceptional at cornerback, as well. And offensive tackle Mike Kenn, perhaps the best player in Atlanta Falcons history, deserves recognition. But I don't feel there was anything egregious about the guys who did make it. As I said, this group was expected.
The usual suspects: Guessing you've heard about running back Jerome Bettis, receiver Tim Brown and linebacker Kevin Greene before, as they're all multi-time finalists. Bettis has the numbers, but he's never been perceived as someone who was ever one of the top two or three running backs at any point in his career. Brown retired with over 1,000 catches, mostly with quarterbacks that would make even EJ Manuel blush -- and yet, the lack of a Super Bowl ring and the train of wideouts with numbers coming down the pike combine to form a significant wall to the hall. Greene compiled 160 sacks, but since he played for four teams and also never won a ring, the phone call has been more of a carrot than a reality, unfortunately. A finalist for the second time, safety John Lynch was a fantastic player, but I don't think this is his year.
Uphill, in the snow, walks up the steps of Canton:*Will Shields* is another multi-time finalist who's having a hard time. The fact that he played guard and lacks the wow factor, legendary status and Super Bowl-winning pedigree of Allen has most likely kept him out. Morten Andersen is the NFL's all-time leading scorer, but I'm not sure I can see the kicker getting in over Seau, Pace, the usual finalists we listed above, or even three other names we'll get to in a few paragraphs. (Hint: One works us for us, the second works for NBC and the third played under the second.)
Two cases for the brilliant crescendo: Yes, U2 has been around for decades, but were they really that much better than Guns N' Roses? From the late 1980s to the early '90s, who was more successful? You don't want to know the truthful answer. Was any running back -- Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk -- better than Terrell Davis in the late '90s? Sure, Davis got hurt, but as Pro Football Hall of Fame voter Jim Trotter has pointed out, his 142.5 rushing yards per game in the postseason is so far above what anyone else has accomplished that, well, who cares that his career was cut short? Jimmy Johnson, meanwhile, coached nine seasons, just two more than T.D. played. But he went to the playoffs six times, won two Super Bowls and redefined how draft picks are evaluated. Considering coaches like Bill Belichick have leaned on his sage advice, maybe we shouldn't value other coaches more merely because they worked a few more campaigns.
Plea to the voters (for another consecutive year): I'll make it short and sweet. Charles Haley deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, for crying out loud. The defensive end/outside linebacker has five Super Bowl rings, 100.5 sacks, was the difference-maker on defense for two dynasties ... put him in, already! I know voter Rick Gosselin, who covers the NFL for The Dallas Morning News, has long supported Haley. We all should, too. He was the definition of disruptive. Ask John Madden, if you run into him.
How the chips will fall: Now that we've plowed through the names, here's how I see the final ballot going down:
Yes, Dungy, who serves as an analyst on NBC, Harrison, who played under Dungy with the Colts, and Warner, who serves as an analyst on NFL Network, have stronger cases than anyone save for Seau and Pace. Dungy is popular and still in the public eye. He resurrected one franchise (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and gave another (Indianapolis Colts) a Lombardi Trophy, while his social impact (as the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl) can't be denied. Of course, voters aren't supposed to weigh things outside the lines, but off-the-field troubles must be the only thing keeping Harrison out, considering his incredible career numbers, as well as the fact that not even Antonio Brown -- who racked up 129 receptions in 2014, the second-highest single-season mark in history -- could touch Harrison's 143-catch season of 2002. Warner won both an NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP award with the Rams and, despite a mid-career lull (partially due to injuries and the politics of playing behind first-rounders), led the Cardinals to the brink of a title, which should be enough to push him in this year, if not next year.