BLOOMINGTON, Minn. -- Next to Tom Brady, the closest thing here to a Hall of Famer is Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis. He's one of 15 modern-era finalists for this year's Hall-of-Fame class, and he's all but certain to be elected Saturday.
But then what?
Well, then the field is wide open -- with 14 all-decade choices among the 17 former players (including senior candidates Jerry Kramer and Robert Brazile) and at least seven guaranteed to be excluded. So how will it pan out? That's why we're here.
THE SUREST THING
LINEBACKER RAY LEWIS. He checks all the boxes: 13 Pro Bowls, 10 All-Pro nominations, two-time Super Bowl champ, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Super Bowl MVP and first-team all-decade. Any questions? What about that incident in Miami where ... Stop! Off-the-field incidents -- and by that we mean apart from the stadium and locker room -- cannot and will not be discussed or considered. Check, please.
THE NEXT SUREST THING
A SAFETY. It's either Brian Dawkins or John Lynch. Both are qualified. Both were top-10 finishers a year ago, and one should make the jump -- with Dawkins the favorite. That doesn't mean Lynch couldn't surprise. He's a five-time finalist and two-time Top-10 candidate. He's been in the line longer. But Dawkins was all-decade. Lynch was not. Moreover, Dawkins was part safety, part cornerback and part linebacker -- with 37 career interceptions, 26 sacks and 36 forced fumbles. Of course, Lynch is one of only seven players to make the Pro Bowl with multiple teams (5 with Tampa Bay, four with Denver) and the only eligible member of that group not in the Hall of Fame. Once upon a time, safety was a position not valued by Hall-of-Fame voters, but that seems to have changed. Kenny Easley was the 2017 senior inductee, while Lynch and Dawkins both were top-10 choices. Color one of them gold.
MORE THAN LIKELY
A LEFT TACKLE. Take your pick: Joe Jacoby or Tony Boselli. History tells us one will make it, with left tackles enshrined four of the past six years. Jacoby is the sentimental favorite because he's in his last year of eligibility as a modern-era candidate. If he fails his candidacy moves to the senior pool -- where he joins far too many qualified candidates who have been forgotten or ignored ... or both. But Jacoby lost momentum last year. Where he was a top-10 choice in 2016, he failed to make the cut to 10 last year. Boselli, on the other hand, has the Mo. He was a top-10 finisher last year in his first as a finalist. Prior to 2017, the knock on him had been longevity. But that evaporated with the elections of Terrell Davis and Kenny Easley.
CORNERBACK TY LAW. He was a top-10 choice in 2017, too, so that makes him one of the favorites this time around. Law has competition at the position from Everson Walls, in his first year as a modern-era finalist ... and his last year of eligibility. Honest. So Walls is a sentimental choice, too. Like Jacoby, it's now or never for him. If you think he belongs, you better act now. Or else. He's the only cornerback in NFL history to lead the league three times in interceptions, and that counts for something. So does his Super Bowl ring. But his 57 career interceptions are only four more than Law, and he wasn't an all-decade choice. Law was. Law also was on three Super Bowl champions, and, yes, that counts for something, too.
GUARDS, CENTERAND RANDY MOSS. Alan Faneca and first-time finalist Steve Hutchinson are decorated guards. Kevin Mawae is a decorated center. All were first-team all-decade selections. Faneca won a Super Bowl. Hutchinson went to one. Mawae went to none. But Faneca and Hutchinson could cancel each other out, while Mawae is the only center in this class. Plus, Mawae was a top-10 finalist a year ago. Faneca wasn't. In fact, he hasn't been in his first two years as a finalist. For whatever reason, voters are slow to induct guards. But they're slower with centers -- with one, Dermontti Dawson -- elected in the last 20 years (modern-era only), and that was six years ago.
Moss is a whole different story. He's going to make it, and he could make it Saturday. After all, he was a first-team all-decade choice, and the other wide receiver on that squad -- Marvin Harrison -- is in Canton. But there are enough voters put off by Moss' "I-play-when-I-want-to-play" comment that he night not be a first-ballot selection. All it takes are nine nays, and when I took a head count Thursday I was two-thirds of the way there. Stay tuned.
GUY WHO DESERVES BETTER
LB BRIAN URLACHER. He could be a first-ballot choice and, in another year, probably would be. But there's one problem: Ray Lewis. He stands between Urlacher and Canton, and, yeah, I know we can elect two persons at the same position. It happened a year ago at running back. But before that? The last time two modern-era finalists other than quarterback were chosen for the same position was 1983. That doesn't bode well for Urlacher, and that's unfortunate. He was a multiple-Pro Bowler and All-Pro. He was a Defensive Player of the Year. He was a Defensive Rookie of the Year. He was first-team all-decade with ... who else? ... Ray Lewis. And he went to a Super Bowl. He didn't win it, but don't blame Urlacher. He was the featured player on those Bears' teams. Could he pull the upset and make it this year? Yes. Will he? Probably not. But, guaranteed, if not ... he makes it a year from now.
Someone told me they thought this was the year wide receiver Terrell Owens breaks through, but I don't know why ... not unless four or five voters change their minds from a year ago. Or two years ago. He hasn't been a top-10 finalist either year, and nothing's changed since then except the volume of dissent from his supporters. They're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore. One problem: They don't vote.
Running back Edgerrin James is an intriguing figure, back as a finalist for the second time in three years. James is qualified and, in all likelihood, eventually is elected. But not this year. If voters didn't think enough of him a year ago to make him a finalist, why would they elect him now? Answer: They probably won't.
Then there's wide receiver Isaac Bruce. You gotta feel for the guy. He made an impassioned plea on behalf of himself on a December broadcast of the Talk of Fame Network (http://www.talkoffamenetwork.com/spirt-excellence-qualifies-isaac-bruce-hall/), and he has the credentials. Plus, he doesn't carry the baggage of the two others. But he's in line behind Moss and Owens, who were more productive. I know, Bruce was there first, but there's a feeling that, despite the misgivings with Moss and Owens, either or both goes in ahead of Bruce ... and that until or unless that happens, he's in a holding pattern.