How many players should be first-ballot Hall of Famers?
The question surrounding the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2019 is whether or not voters will be inclined to induct three former greats in their first year of eligibility. Tony Gonzalez, Ed Reed and Champ Bailey all carry the requisite resumes to achieve pro football's highest honor sooner rather than later. But, come on ... three dudes on their first ballot?
There are those -- including voters -- who follow the Hall process and feel first-ballot status should be reserved for only the most obvious, the pantheon of the elite. Not to mention, inducting three-first ballot guys means that, at most, only two other modern-era candidates will get the knock on the door from Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker. That's not a whole heck of a lot of wiggle room.
With that said, we will know soon who makes the cut, with the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2019 set to be announced during the CBS broadcast of "NFL Honors" on Saturday, Feb. 2 at 9 p.m. ET/PT. In the meantime, here is my prediction as to which of the 15 modern-era finalists will be included in the Class of 2019 (plus some thoughts on the Senior and Contributor candidates).
My predicted Class of 2019
Tony Gonzalez, tight end. Gonzalez is going to walk right into Canton as a Hall of Famer and not look back. He is the all-time leader in catches (1,325) and receiving yards (15,127) among tight ends, and most league observers consider him the top player ever at his position. Old-timers will stump for John Mackey, while one could also consider Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski; while he might end up with a shorter career than Gonzalez, who was better than Gronk when healthy? (Answer: nobody.) It doesn't matter that Gonzo never won a ring.
Ed Reed, safety. Rings do matter for defensive players, unfortunately. Thankfully, Reed won his in 2012 with the Baltimore Ravens. He also owns 64 career picks and is the only player other than Everson Walls to lead the league three times in that category. (Walls should have made it last year, but whatever. Please explain to me how Jason Taylor is superior to Everson Walls sometime.)
Champ Bailey, cornerback. Bailey owns no hardware, but, like Reed, was a dominant player during his prime, boasting a boatload of interceptions (52). Even though Walls and others have more, read the room (the voters' room, that is). Many voters are 35 or under, so Bailey was the first great corner they became familiar with. (Which, by the way, means many are too young to have even watched Deion Sanders in this prime. Eek.) Thus, Bailey makes it.
Edgerrin James, running back. So, with three spots gone-zo, going to Gonzalez, Reed and Bailey, there are two more openings for modern-era candidates. James is the top running back not in the Hall of Fame. He owns the requisite numbers; he's one of only four running backs ever to rush for 1,500 yards or more four or more times in his career. The other three are Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders. His teams won, too. Don't say his success is simply a product of being on Peyton Manning's Colts, either, because he started many games for the Cardinals team that reached Super Bowl XLIII; plus, in the one year of his Colts tenure that James missed significant time, Indy sucked (2001, when he played in six games and the team finished 6-10).
Tony Boselli, offensive tackle. Boselli's story is simple: He was considered the top player at his position for three to four years. He was the Terrell Davis of linemen. And, like James, Boselli's Jags teams won a lot of football games, even making two appearances in the AFC title game.
What about everyone else?
Here are some quick thoughts on each of the 10 remaining modern-era candidates:
Don Coryell, coach. Coryell should be a strong contender every year. Or the voters could just save us all the trouble and put him in already. He was an innovator whose fingerprints are all over the passing game, and you can't write the story of pro football without him. Kind of important, huh?
Tom Flores, coach. There aren't many head coaches who won two Super Bowls. There are even fewer from that group who have retired and yet aren't in the Hall of Fame: We're talking Mike Shanahan and Flores. He was the first Hispanic coach to win it all, and the second to coach in the NFL. He's a dark-horse pick this year.
Steve Hutchinson, guard. Like Faneca over in the AFC, Hutchinson played at an All-Pro level every year in the NFC. Remember when Shaun Alexander was scoring 140 touchdowns every year in Seattle? Who do you think he was running behind? Alas, Hutch must wait, for now.
John Lynch, safety. Not enough voters have felt compelled to write Lynch's name down at this point. What will change? With Reed an (almost) automatic and Atwater having waited longer, safety is a tough road. Lynch was a smart, physical and great player.
Kevin Mawae, center. If playing safety doesn't exactly put you on the fast track to Canton, I'm not sure playing center does it, either. Mawae was solid while playing for multiple franchises over 16 years. There is no one more eligible at his position in terms of postseason accolades and service. But not seeing it this year.
Richard Seymour, defensive lineman. Like Flores, Seymour is a sneaky pick. This is his first year as a finalist. Sacks aren't the sell here, although that is where many voters focus their gaze. He could play outside and inside, and the Pats don't win three of their Super Bowls without him.
A note on the Senior and Contributor finalists
Former safety Johnny Robinson had better receive the appropriate number of votes. He was an incredibly accomplished player, and along with Chuck Howley, the most deserving name in the Senior pool. He started his career as a productive flanker (that is, a wide receiver who played closer to the line) and finished as a Hall of Fame-caliber safety. He actually led both the AFL and the NFL in interceptions. Wow.
Pat Bowlen, Broncos owner and Gil Brandt, former Cowboys vice president of personnel will realize the culmination of wonderful football lives on the Saturday before the Super Bowl. Bowlen's leadership helped the Broncos go from decent team to consistent Super Bowl contenders, while his work in league committees pushed the NFL's growth forward as entertainment. There should be more Broncos in the Hall of Fame.
There aren't enough Cowboys in Canton. Sure, everybody seems to hate that franchise. Why do you think that is? Probably because Dallas posted 20 consecutive winning seasons under Tom Landry, becoming TV darlings in the process. Organizations don't manufacture that kind of success without nuts-and-bolts scouting. Brandt unearthed so many of Landry's core players while altering the scouting process with I.T. innovation. This is an easy call.