Unlike what we saw recently in voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame, pro football’s Hall of Fame will be welcoming at least four new members to Canton this year. The rules dictate that somewhere between four and seven candidates enter with each class, including four to five players from the modern era. As with many past lists of finalists, this year offers no shortage of worthy holdovers like Cris Carter, Jerome Bettis, Will Shields and Bill Parcells. What might be the more intriguing storyline this year is that all four first-time nominees seem like eventual locks for induction. The odds may be heavily against all of them being first-ballot selections, but each presents a strong case for inclusion sooner rather than later.
Larry Allen – Even those of us who spent much of the 1990s rooting against those powerhouse Cowboys teams recognized quickly that Dallas got a steal when they drafted Allen in the second round of the 1994 draft. This is a player who was named All-Pro twice as a guard in his first three seasons, switched to tackle in his fourth season, and took the same All-Pro honors during the two seasons in which he played that position. Even while the Cowboys’ luster faded later in the decade, Allen continued his dominance. It isn’t just the awards including the 11 Pro Bowls and being named to All-Decade teams for both the 1990s and 2000s, though, that makes Allen an easy choice. He also gets credit for being the best player on dominant offensive lines both in Dallas, as well as in San Francisco blocking for Frank Gore at the end of his career. Offensive guard may be the most underappreciated position on the field, but Allen still managed to stand out enough that only John Hannah and Gene Upshaw would be obvious choices to place ahead of him on an all-time list. Allen stands a good chance of joining former teammates Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith as first-year inductees, becoming the fourth player from that Cowboys dynasty (Michael Irvin being the other) to reach Canton.
Jonathan Ogden – It’s difficult to compared Ogden with players from a half-century ago, but when it comes to the best left tackles of the past 40 years Ogden deserves a spot just behind Anthony Munoz, alongside Willie Roaf and Walter Jones. Along with a Super Bowl win and being named to an All-Decade team, Ogden also deserves a significant chunk of credit for helping to lead an almost unstoppable running attack in Baltimore for a decade. Ogden won the Outland during his final year in college, and he didn’t miss a beat stepping into the pros. He was also part of an incredible trio of left tackles, along with Roaf and Jones, whose careers overlapped within the same conference for the first half of the 2000s. Ogden is one of those players who went quietly about his job, allowing Lewis and the Ravens’ defense to get the glory. Roaf was inducted in 2012, his second year of eligibility, and Jones will likely be a first-year selection in 2014. Given his consistently dominant play for more than a decade, Ogden stands a good chance of being inducted in 2013.
Warren Sapp – Known to many younger fans as an NFL Network personality, and to reality TV fans as a Dancing with the Stars contestant, Sapp may have been the greatest three-technique defensive tackle of all time. He was loud and brash on the field, and he backed it up with almost a hundred sacks from his interior position while leading an often dominant Tampa defense. Like Allen, Sapp was named to two All-Decade teams (1990s, 2000s), and his 1999 season that included 16.5 sacks and the Defensive Player of the Year award is almost legendary. Sapp’s personality and sometimes confrontational nature may have worked against him at times, but it’s unlikely to keep him from a deserved spot in Canton. Two of his contemporaries who were frankly better at their position, John Randle and Cortez Kennedy, had to wait two and four years respectively so Sapp is likely to have to bide his time for a few years. However, it’s difficult to imagine him staying out for long.
Michael Strahan – Perhaps best-known for holding the single-season sack record, Strahan was a terror in the pass rush and a solid defender against the run. He’s also a former Defensive Player of the Year, a two-time sacks leader, and a five-time first-team all-Pro. Strahan wasn’t the greatest defensive end of his era, having played during the same period as the incomparable Reggie White and the legendary Bruce Smith, but that should not preclude him from consideration. Strahan was the leader of a Giants defense that won a Super Bowl, and he still ranks fifth all-time in career sacks. It’s unlikely that Strahan makes it in his first year, but not inconceivable given his high-profile post-NFL career, the association with the sacks record, and the fact that his final game was a huge Super Bowl upset. It would be surprising to see him make it in 2013, but even more surprising if he wasn’t elected over the next few years. He’d be hard-pressed to crack the top-10 all-time at his position, but Strahan’s list of accomplishments should merit his eventual inclusion. The high-profile media gigs won’t hurt, either.
Handicapping who among these four nominees is elected in 2013 is difficult. Allen and Ogden are both among the best ever at their positions and should merit the most consideration, but Hall voting can be unpredictable. Cris Carter and Tim Brown can attest to that, having been held out this long despite ranking top-10 in yardage all-time. Expect to see Carter finally get the call, along with either Brown and/or Jerome Bettis. Bettis lost out the past couple of years to Marshall Faulk and Curtis Martin, but with no other running backs to compete with he should make the cut. There are many deserving nominees, and it will tough to criticize any of the choices. The four first-timers have no real chance of going in together, but at least one should be inducted this year and all of them will eventually get their yellow jackets.1019428