Congratulations to the 15 men selected as modern-era finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2021. It's an incredible honor, and each of them is among the greatest players in NFL history. Which makes the task of selecting five modern-era candidates for enshrinement seemingly impossible. Especially when you consider two spots have already been spoken for (yes, we'll get to them soon, but you know who they are).
Before we dissect my picks for the Hall of Fame's Class of 2021, I'd like to note that this isn't a prediction piece. Because it appears Hall of Fame voters and I have very different definitions when it comes to who should be in the Hall of Fame.
Let's get into it.
THE MORTALEST OF MORTAL LOCKS: Peyton Manning (QB, Colts 1998-2011; Broncos 2012-15) and Charles Woodson (CB/S, Raiders, 1998-2005, 2013-15; Packers, 2006-2012) are both getting in. Manning is considered by some to be the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and he retired with numerous passing records after winning Super Bowl championships with two different franchises. There is no need to even discuss his candidacy further. Same goes for Woodson, who will add a gold jacket to a personal checklist that already includes a college national championship, a Heisman Trophy and a Super Bowl title. The only man on this planet who can even try to top that collection of accolades is Roger Staubach, who has a Super Bowl MVP over Woodson but whose Navy team lost to Texas in the national championship. (These two can argue about this after Woodson gets his automatic bid. Oh, and I guess Marcus Allen can jump into this convo, too.)
Let's move on.
GUYS WHO SHOULD BE LOCKS: I slotted Calvin Johnson (WR, Lions, 2007-2015) over Charles Woodson when I was ranking the Hall of Fame semifinalists in November, but while I still am confident in Woodson's chances as a great player who went into television (which never hurts), I'm starting to wonder about Megatron's standing in the eyes of voters who get weird about shorter careers. Johnson played nine seasons, choosing to retire on top rather than sticking around longer to pad his stats. But he was a dominant player, a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro who holds the single-season receiving-yards record (1,964). Plus, he played for the Lions, which should give him extra consideration. I mean, imagine him catching passes on a Manning-led team throughout his career. We might still be talking about Megatron as the best receiver in NFL history.
Jared Allen (DE, Chiefs, 2004-07; Vikings, 2008-2013; Bears, 2014-15; Panthers, 2015) should be a lock, too. But again, we have to account for the weirdness of those voters who seem to love to make these guys earn it. All that aside, let's not pretend that Allen wasn't one of the best to ever do it. He was a four-time All-Pro who led the NFL in sacks twice. I mean, unless you really don't like mullets, it's tough to think of a real reason to deny him a spot in Canton.
MY FIFTH VOTE WOULD GO TO: I'm still kind of surprised Alan Faneca (G, Steelers, 1998-2007; Jets, 2008-09; Cardinals, 2010) didn't get in last year, given that he was a great player who also played for the Steelers. No disrespect to the Steelers, but playing for that organization seems to help pave the way to Canton. (And if you think I'm talking about Jerome Bettis, you would be absolutely correct.) The voters love their Steelers. So they should do the right thing and get Faneca into the Hall. The Steelers had enough great running backs over the years to merit rewarding the guys up front.
GUY WHO SHOUD BE A LOCK BUT ISN'T EVEN A FINALIST: I really want whomever is keeping Patrick Willis (LB, 49ers, 2007-2014) from being a finalist to explain themselves. Willis was a FIVE-TIME All-Pro during his eight years. He was also the Defensive Rookie of the Year in '07. There is no reasonable explanation for why he's not already in the Hall, let alone being snubbed here.
ONE OTHER NON-FINALIST I'M NOT GIVING UP ON: Steve Tasker (ST/WR, Oilers, 1985-86; Bills, 1986-1997). Here is the deal. Either people need to stop talking about winning all three phases of the game, or Tasker needs to get into the Hall of Fame. I mean, if special teams isn't that significant, then it's fine to just say that. Actually, it's not fine, but that would at least make Tasker's exclusion a bit more honest. Otherwise, let's honor a dude who was in the Pro Bowl seemingly every year he played.
I'M NOT GOING TO BE MAD IF THEY GET IN: Zach Thomas (LB, Dolphins, 1996-2007; Cowboys, 2008) was a five-time All-Pro during his time in the NFL. He kind of gets overlooked, considering his contemporaries are Derrick Brooks, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher. It's kind of like being the Jim Neidhart of middle linebackers when guys like Bret and Owen Hart were getting more attention. Like Neidhart, Thomas was one of the best to ever do it, and he should receive more attention.
I would love to see the late Sam Mills (LB, Saints, 1986-1994; Panthers, 1995-97) get in at some point, too. He was a great player. He went from undrafted free agent to the USFL to the Dome Patrol of the New Orleans Saints. And don't scoff at that USFL service time. I don't want to play the semantics game, but when considering entry to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, all pro football accomplishments should be included. Hell, Hall of Fame president David Baker was the commissioner of the Arena Football League at one point. He's got to feel me on this.
I WILL HEAR ARGUMENTS FOR: My guy Reggie Wayne (WR, Colts, 2001-2014). I mean, if you wanted to do the thing where you put in Reggie with his quarterback, that would be pretty cool. It's not like Reggie isn't worthy. I know he might not have the gaudiest stats of any Hall of Fame candidate. But he was one of the most clutch receivers in the game, and he always seemed to come up with that killer, back-breaking reception. As a Bears fan, I should know.
Richard Seymour (DE/DT, Patriots, 2001-08; Raiders, 2009-12) was also pretty fantastic. A key figure in the early part of the Patriots dynasty. He was like the Mark Brendanawicz of the early Patriots. (And if you don't know that reference, use this as an excuse to stream Parks and Recreation. Such a great show.) But at some point, we need to start getting in more representatives from the greatest dynasty in NFL history.
John Lynch (FS, Buccaneers, 1993-2003; Broncos, 2004-07) is another guy who I think could get in. I'm kind of surprised he didn't make it a year ago, when the 49ers made their run to the Super Bowl. And maybe if it doesn't happen this year, he's just never going to get it. How many times can he keep getting passed over?
AND THE REST: Look, there isn't anybody on this list who isn't at least qualified. They all should be added to their team's rings of honor or maybe get a halftime ceremony with a commemorative towel giveaway to the first 20,000 fans in the stands. (Eventually.) Ronde Barber (CB/S, Buccaneers, 1997-2012), Tony Boselli (T, Jaguars, 1995-2001; Texans 2002), LeRoy Butler (S, Packers, 1990-2001), Torry Holt (WR, Rams, 1999-2008; Jaguars, 2009) and Clay Matthews (LB, Browns, 1978-1993; Falcons, 1994-96) were all great players, and the only shame is that they can't all get into Canton at the same time.
(Seriously. I know that's corny, but what can I say? I'm a lover, not a fighter!)