When the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2018 is announced, Ray Lewis and Randy Moss have a chance to join a relatively exclusive club: first-ballot inductees. Over the past 10 classes, there have been 16 first-ballot modern-era inductees, or less than two per year. And that's fitting, because to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer -- to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame without waiting more than the minimum five years after retirement -- means, to me, having a seminal impact on the game.
To put this in perspective, I thought it would be interesting to scan the ranks of currently active players to find those I would list as first-ballot Hall of Famers if they were to retire today, right now. To be clear, I'm not trying to project who is likely to get enough votes to become a first-ballot Hall of Famer -- that's more about reading tea leaves, predicting voter tendencies and biases and putting players in line based on when they retired and which position they played. The 11 players listed below are the 11 that, to me and me alone, are worthy of going into the Hall of Fame as soon as possible, based solely on what these players have accomplished to this point in their respective careers. In other words, I'm not predicting certain players will be Hall of Famers if their careers proceed as expected; these players are all Hall of Famers no matter what happens going forward.
Note: To be considered, players must have been active for at least one game in the 2017 season.
1) Tom Brady, quarterback
Brady's Hall of Fame bona fides might seem blindingly obvious, but I want to take a moment to appreciate just how special he is. Brady is a once-in-a-lifetime type of person. You can rattle off the career marks that will likely never be matched: he has the most playoff wins ever for a quarterback (26 and counting), is the all-time leader in playoff passing yards (9,431), playoff passing touchdowns (66) and playoff completions (866) and is the oldest player (40 years old) to ever lead the NFL in passing yards. And, of course, there are the five Super Bowl rings and seven Super Bowl appearances. He's a grinder. I remember when I brought him to the East-West Shrine Game in Palo Alto, California, before he was drafted; he really stood out, but there were also clear areas for improvement. So for him to develop into the force that he's become, despite not being the most talented guy, athletically speaking, shows you just how determined he was. He works so hard to understand the defense and maximize his opportunities, and that's what has led to his greatness.
2) Adrian Peterson, running back
Putting aside the off-field trouble that cast a shadow over his legacy, on the field, Peterson is in the same class as legends like Barry Sanders, Jim Brown and Walter Payton. After all, Hall of Famers Sanders, Brown and Payton are the only other backs to ever rush for 150-plus yards in 19-plus games. His placement on the all-time rushing lists might be a bit higher if he'd stayed healthy and on the field more, but you just cannot ignore the kind of production he put up with the Vikings, often serving as that team's only offensive weapon during his time there. He's also just one of seven players in the 2,000-yard club -- four of whom are in Canton.
3) Drew Brees, quarterback
Brees is the first player I know of to have gotten into the NFL Scouting Combine to watch the workouts a year before he entered the draft. I got him in, and I remember him sitting there at the starting line of the 40-yard dash with myself and Bill Parcells, Al Davis and Jerry Jones. I was astonished at how much poise and class Brees showed in the company of those three gods of the NFL. I don't think Brees gets enough credit for being on the leading edge of the league's offensive evolution. He is the all-time leader in both career completion percentage (66.9) and single-season completion percentage (72.0, set this season). He's second all-time in completions (6,222), third in attempts (9,294), third in passing yards (70,445) and third in passing touchdowns (488). He's also racked up five 5,000-yard seasons, four more than anyone else in NFL history. People have doubted him ever since he came out of high school, largely because of his height, and he was driven to overcome those doubts and become a truly transcendent quarterback.
4) Larry Fitzgerald, wide receiver
Fitzgerald seems slightly underrated, probably because he's spent his career on a team that does not often make its way into the national limelight. He's also been held back by quarterback play that could charitably be termed "spotty." And yet, he's third all-time in receptions (1,234) and third in receiving yards (15,545). He's caught passes in 211 consecutive games, second in history only to Jerry Rice's 274. When he was a kid growing up in Minneapolis, Fitzgerald had access to Vikings training camp, thanks to his sportswriter father, and current Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter took the younger Fitzgerald under his wing. It's crazy to think about, but there was some question as to whether Fitzgerald had the speed to succeed coming out of college. Now 34, Fitzgerald has shifted more to the slot -- and he's still performing at a Pro Bowl level, thanks to his impeccable work habits.
5) Aaron Rodgers, quarterback
Rodgers' claim to fame is his mental toughness, which was there from Day 1. After inviting him to attend the 2005 NFL Draft, I found out he was going to fall. I went to Rodgers before the draft and told him he was going to drop, and then I asked him if he wanted to go home. He said he wasn't going to quit on anything, and so he stayed, enduring that famous plummet on the broadcast of the draft. That showed significant mental toughness of the kind you still see from him on an every-game basis. He has meant everything to the Packers since becoming their starter in 2008. Think of his ability to marshal a win in Dallas this season with that amazing last-second touchdown strike to Davante Adams -- you can find any number of similar moments in his star-studded career. And while his career totals might not rank especially high (with the exception of career passer rating, where his mark of 103.8 is No. 1), consider the speed with which he's compiled them; he's the 11th quarterback to reach 300 touchdown passes, but he has by far the least career attempts of anyone to ever do it (4,895).
6) Joe Thomas, offensive tackle
When he arrived in the NFL, Thomas was kind of a raw guy, a former defensive lineman who didn't really have a great feel for hand placement. Then he went on to become one of the best offensive linemen of all time. His amazing longevity -- before going down with an injury this season, Thomas had participated in a jaw-dropping 10,000-plus consecutive NFL snaps -- is clearly part of his Hall of Fame case. But I think you also have to consider the way he simply controls the opposition. No matter who he's blocking against, his man never gets near the passer. Plus, you can run behind him on third-and-2 and know you're getting the first down. Simply put, Thomas is one of a kind.
7) J.J. Watt, defensive end
Injuries have kept Watt off the NFL stage over the past two seasons, but that doesn't diminish these facts: He's a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who's recorded 20-plus sacks in two separate seasons. He's also just the fifth player ever to notch 50 sacks in his first four NFL seasons, joining Reggie White, Derrick Thomas, DeMarcus Ware and Dwight Freeney. You talk about a guy who has overcome adversity -- Watt turned himself from a walk-on at Wisconsin into the premier defensive player of his time. To see his true impact, look beyond sacks: Opponents try to double- and triple-team him, but Watt is a disruptive force who turns the ball over and is the most dominant player in the league when healthy.
8) Antonio Brown, wide receiver
In my mind, a first-ballot Hall of Famer has to be a no-doubt game-changer. While Brown is still relatively early into his career, that's precisely what he's been, especially over the last five seasons. From 2013 to '17, Brown caught 582 passes for 7,848 yards -- the most catches and receiving yards in any five-season stretch in NFL history. Yes, that means Brown has been more prolific in that period than Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison were in any five-year span of their illustrious careers. Brown also became the first player to post 100-plus catches in five straight seasons. Wherever Brown lines up, the Steelers can throw him the ball and basically know he's going to catch it. He routinely makes plays that are seemingly impossible, including several in 2017. He boasts amazing speed and quickness, plus great hands and work habits. When you combine his statistical dominance over the past half-decade with the fact that he can more or less win games by himself, his worthiness becomes obvious.
9) Eli Manning, quarterback
Manning is much better than he often gets credit for being. Comparing him to his brother, Peyton, is unfair. On its own merits, Eli's career has included years of clutch play and two Super Bowl rings captured with good-but-not-great teams. He's sixth all-time in passing yards (51,682) and eighth in passing touchdowns (339), and his consecutive start streak of 210 was the second-longest for a quarterback, behind only Brett Favre. He might not get visibly fired up during games, but don't let that fool you. He's as competitive as they come; he just doesn't rub people the wrong way when he expresses that competitiveness. He's also a better athlete than people think -- just think back to the Helmet Catch in Super Bowl XLII, where he was only able to get the ball off after escaping certain doom in the pocket.
10) Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback
When you're good enough to win two Super Bowls, as Roethlisberger has, you're pretty special, and worthy of being a first-ballot Hall of Famer. After all, only 11 quarterbacks in history have won multiple Super Bowl titles. Roethlisberger is below Manning on the all-time passing yards (eighth, with 51,065) and touchdown passes (ninth with 329) lists, but his won-loss record is markedly better (135-63 for Roethlisberger and 111-103 for Manning). Still, they're about at the same level: quarterbacks who know how to win, especially when it counts, recent playoff disappointments aside.
11) Julius Peppers, defensive end
Peppers is fourth on the all-time sacks list with 154.5 -- and all three players ahead of him (Bruce Smith, Reggie White and Kevin Greene) are in the Hall of Fame. Peppers added 11 sacks in 2017 at the age of 37, giving him 10 total seasons of 10-plus sacks, the same number as Greene, with just White (12) and Smith (13) ahead of him. He's a dominant defensive player and an athletic freak who has played at a high level for a long period of time, continuing to serve as an extremely productive piece even as the Panthers shifted his role.