One of the changes they made this year that I like was creating a separate "Contributor" category. Previously, contributors were lumped in with everyone else and ended up not getting in as a result. Now they're considered separately, which could have the opposite effect, since it's become almost a formality that whoever makes it to this stage will end up getting inducted. They also reduced the number of senior candidates from two to one to make room for the contributors. So, I'll look at those three first, since their chances of getting in are far better.
Senior nominee Mick Tingelhoff seems like a lock. Tingelhoff played 17 seasons for the Vikings and never missed a game, starting all 240 games at center from 1962-78. He was on all four of Minnesota's Super Bowl teams and was an All-Pro seven times.
Of the two contributors, I'm more inclined to think Bill Polian will get in than Ron Wolf. Polian was the architect of the Bills teams that went to four straight Super Bowls in the early 90s, then built the expansion Panthers, who reached the NFC Championship Game in just their second year of existence. In 1998, he went to the Colts, drafted a quarterback you might've heard of and turned Indianapolis into one of the dominant franchises in the NFL. They won eight division titles and went to the playoffs 11 times in 12 years, winning at least 10 games each time, and played in two Super Bowls, including a Super Bowl XLI win.
Now moving on to the players. Again, your guess is as good as mine. It's impossible to handicap who's going to get in from this field. Junior Seau is a lock, but that's it. If I had to guess, I'd say Kurt Warner gets in, too, along with one of the wide receivers (Tim Brown, Marvin Harrison), one of the offensive linemen (Orlando Pace, Will Shields) and another defensive player, probably John Lynch.
So, since it's tough to predict who's actually going to get in, I'll instead reveal the five players I'd vote for if I was sitting in that room in Phoenix...
- Junior Seau, Linebacker (1990-2002 Chargers, 2002-05 Dolphins, 2006-09 Patriots): Next question please. Seau is a lock for induction in his first year on the ballot. I could go through all of the reasons why he's one of the best linebackers of his generation, but what's the point? If you saw Junior Seau during his career and didn't know you were watching a future Hall of Famer, I'm not sure you know what a Hall of Famer is. It's such a shame that Seau took his own life in 2012 and won't be able to enjoy the culmination of his brilliant 20-year career.
- Kurt Warner, Quarterback (1998-2003 Rams, 2004 Giants, 2005-09 Cardinals): The Warner narrative, from grocery store stock boy to the Arena league to NFL Europe to the Hall of Fame, seems to be too much of a fairy tale for him to be kept out. It's also been a while since they've elected a quarterback, so that works in his favor, too. It's not like Warner would be an undeserving choice, though. He made the Greatest Show on Turf go and was MVP when the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV. He was also a two-time NFL MVP. Oh, yeah, then he went to the Giants and tutored Eli for a season before moving on to the Cardinals and taking them to a Super Bowl.
- Charles Haley, Defensive End/Linebacker (1988-91, 1999 49ers, 1992-96 Cowboys): He's a finalist every year, yet he still hasn't gotten the call to Canton, mainly because Haley had a notoriously frosty relationship with the media throughout his career. And that to me is completely insane. Because Charley Haley was the defensive anchor on the 49ers dynasty, then was the defensive anchor when he switched over to the Dallas side of the rivalry. He's the only player in NFL history to win five Super Bowls, and it's not just because he was on the 49ers and Cowboys dynasties. He's a big reason why those two teams were dynasties.
- John Lynch, Safety (1993-2003 Buccaneers, 2004-07 Broncos): There aren't many safeties in Canton. Lynch would be just the 11th, but three of them also played cornerback. But as the members of that dominant Bucs defense that won Super Bowl XXXVII become eligible, they're going to start collecting Hall of Fame busts. Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks are already in. Lynch should be next, with Ronde Barber to follow in a few years. Lynch probably isn't going to get in this year, but he'd get my vote.
- Tim Brown, Wide Receiver (1988-2003 Raiders, 2004 Buccaneers): This final selection was the toughest one. I wanted to vote for both offensive linemen, both wide receivers and Jerome Bettis, but could only choose one of the five. So I went with Tim Brown because he's been waiting the longest. Something needed to be done about the wide receiver backlog. They've finally started to induct the wide receivers, electing Cris Carter two years ago and Andre Reed last year, but we've still got Brown and Marvin Harrison sitting there with others coming through the pipeline soon enough. If they're making these guys wait their turn, Brown should get in over Harrison. It's mind-boggling that he isn't in yet. Because, again, as you watched him throughout his career, you figured Tim Brown was a future Hall of Famer. A dual threat as a receiver and returner, he was second all-time in receiving yards, third in catches and third in touchdowns at the time of his retirement. The only two guys ahead of him? Jerry Rice and Cris Carter. Not bad company. And Brown did all this without a great quarterback. Hewas better than Andre Reed, who got the nod last year.