*Last year, Gregg Rosenthal examined which active players are on the Hall of Fame bubble. The list below revisits some of those names and adds four new players to the mix. *
Surefire Hall of Famers like Tom Brady, Adrian Peterson, Antonio Gates and Larry Fitzgerald aren't listed. Players younger than 30 were also ignored. This exercise is intended to focus on the long shots and players on the bubble who could still improve their Hall of Fame prospects with some late-career magic.
Helped their case
Frank Gore, RB, Indianapolis Colts: The numbers are getting hard to ignore. Last season, he became the oldest player since John Riggins in 1984 to top 1,000 rushing yards. He's topped 1,200 yards from scrimmage for 11 straight seasons, the longest streak in NFL history. He needs just 620 rushing yards to climb to No. 5 all time, passing LaDainian Tomlinson, Jerome Bettis and Eric Dickerson. My modest career goal has long been to get fired by the NFL and then worm my way into the Hall of Fame selectors room in time to campaign for Gore, which once felt like an impossible task. Now losing my job and Gore's candidacy both feel very realistic. Originally nicknamed the Inconvenient Truth by Rich Eisen, Gore's productive run has spanned the entire gap between both Al Gore documentaries!
James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Admittedly the longest shot on last year's list, Harrison's 2016 season should be remembered when he's eventually considered for induction. His playoff performance against Miami was one of the best games authored by a defender all of last season. At the age of 38 -- and despite the Steelers' 17 or so different attempts to replace him in recent years -- he was as valuable as any defender on a Pittsburgh squad that went to the AFC Championship Game. A slow start to his career has been balanced out by a long tail end. I almost hesitated to include Harrison here because he may only be at the midpoint of his career.
Now over the top
Dwight Freeney, DE: Last year's Super Bowl performance should have been Freeney's storybook ending. He had six pressures, one sack and one tackle for loss against the Patriots, repeatedly beating left tackle Nate Solder and forcing Tom Brady to throw the ball early. Freeney was the most consistent pass rusher on a defense that played well enough to win a Super Bowl. That's one reason why Freeney should be back in the NFL this season, as a final piece to help put a playoff contender over the top.
He was the third most-productive pass rusher in the playoffs on a per-snap basis, according to Pro Football Focus. Accomplishing all this at 36 is the stuff of legend, and legends end up in Canton.
Still best bets
Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Julius Peppers: Nothing that occurred during the 2016 season should change the credentials of this trio. Peppers' difference-making contributions to another Packers playoff run only made him a bigger slam dunk than he already was. Rivers' resume could use one more playoff run to assuage doubting voters, but I believe he's already done enough to warrant inclusion. Manning shouldn't be a no-brainer, but it's hard to imagine the voters keeping him out for long.
Ndamukong Suh, DT, Miami Dolphins: Suh's career is paradoxical. He followed up one of the great collegiate football seasons in recent memory with one of the best defensive rookie seasons of the century, a combination that created outsized expectations that only a first-ballot Hall of Famer could live up to.
Suh was in headlines throughout the early portion of his career for dirty play, yet he's widely recognized as one of the most intelligent players in the league. His level of play can be ferocious in its intensity for months on end, but even his biggest fans can recognize there are inexplicable dry spells for such a great player. Some Lions fans may feel that he didn't fulfill all of his potential in Detroit, but he played well enough to earn a record-breaking contract that the Miami Dolphins would do all over again.
Suh is not an easy player to evaluate, and it won't help his case that he's played for two organizations that have lacked consistent leadership. Still only 30 years old, however, it's not too early to consider Suh on pace for the Hall of Fame.
In seven NFL seasons, he's earned three first-team All-Pro nods and two second-team honors. 2011 is the only season of his career he didn't make an All-Pro or All-PFF first or second team. When the All-Decade team comes out in a few years, Suh should be there. His raw strength in the running game and ability to push the pocket backward on passing downs is a truly rare combination. Suh may only need to avoid injuries or a precipitous decline from here on out. He's finished the hard part of the journey.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons: Don't dismiss this one out of hand. Ryan is now the author of an MVP season that ranks among the great quarterback seasons in a great quarterback era. That signature season carries weight, as will the counting stats Ryan is sure to pile up if he stays healthy. A 16-game starter as a rookie, Ryan has missed only two games in his entire career. That durability has helped him climb to No. 21 in all-time passing yardage and No. 25 in touchdowns. These stats are skewed by a pass-happy era, but Ryan could make it difficult for voters to ignore if he climbs near top-five in both categories. These are attainable goals.
Ryan is listed as a long shot here because he hasn't been one of the NFL's best five quarterbacks at any point in his career before 2016. His four Pro Bowls are nice, but he will need a few more years close to his breakout season under Kyle Shanahan. In this Brady/Brees/Manning era of dominant play by quarterbacks in their mid-to-late 30s, it's time to reconsider the traditional shape of a quarterback's career. Ryan could just be getting rolling.
Brandon Marshall, WR, New York Giants: Now on his fifth team, Marshall's messy exits and lack of a playoff appearance will work against him. The postseason drought is hardly his fault, but it points out how much his Hall of Fame argument could be helped by a long Giants playoff run highlighted by a few clutch Marshall grabs.
One of the toughest receivers of his era, Marshall made the transition from an athletic freak to a player who withstood surgeries to win with guile, physicality and smarts. He only has one first-team All-Pro nod and one second-team honor, although PFF awarded him another first-team honor for his 2013 season in Chicago. Still just 33 years old, Marshall will likely need a strong closing statement for a real chance at induction. Two thousand more yards and 15 more touchdowns, reasonable goals to compile over the next two seasons combined, would place him in the top-12 all time in both categories. He still wouldn't have my hypothetical vote -- Anquan Boldin is a similar player that is more worthy -- but it would give him a chance.
Terrell Suggs, LB, Baltimore Ravens: The last true connection to thoseRavens defenses, Suggs has longevity and notable hardware in his back pocket. The 2003 Defensive Rookie of the Year at the age of 21 was followed by a Defensive Player of the Year nod eight seasons later, with six Pro Bowls sprinkled throughout his career. The problem for Suggs is that he didn't produce enough superlative seasons in between.
Currently just outside the top 20 on the all-time career sack list, Suggs supporters will point to his terrific run-stopping ability and the overall consistency to his career. I believe he'll need a James Harrison-like end to his career or something dramatic to put him over the top.
Jamaal Charles, RB, Denver Broncos: I included Charles a season ago, noting that his bountiful peak seasons could provide a base for a Hall of Fame candidacy if he didn't fall off too quickly. He proceeded to have just 12 carries a season ago and is not even a lock to make the Broncos' roster this season. Sadly, the NFL's all-time leader in yards per carry will likely need a major career revival in Denver to have a chance at induction.