Longtime Miami Herald sports columnist Edwin Pope put it this way: "I always laugh when I see an article calling someone a future Hall of Famer. There's no such thing until the guy gets in the Hall of Fame." It's a fair statement; after all, there exists a number of one-time "future Hall of Famers" who played long ago and are still awaiting their ticket to Canton. Some may never get there.
With all due respect to Pope, who has served on the Hall of Fame selection committee for more than 30 years, some active players can be called future Hall of Famers without hesitation. The rest of the game's finest, however … well, time will tell. At present, there are more than 100 NFL players with an argument for being on the path to Canton (at some point along the way, anyhow).
All of the players considered below entered the league in 2005 or before, giving them at least five years of work to showcase.
LOCKS — Legends that might as well start getting measured for their suit coat.
QB Brett Favre, Minnesota Vikings — Favre's career numbers and Super Bowl title will gain him entrance on the first ballot. All the rest is gravy.
QB Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts — Ditto.
QB Tom Brady, New England Patriots — More Super Bowl wins than either Favre or Manning, and one of the game's most likeable (and marketable) players.
QB Kurt Warner, Arizona Cardinals — It will likely take Warner a few ballots before getting his due, but ultimately voters will not be able to deny his legacy. Without his stint in Arizona he'd be 50-50.
RB LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego Chargers — Although he has started to fade, Tomlinson's body of work speaks for itself.
WR Terrell Owens, Buffalo Bills — The drama, the headaches ... who cares? Owens produced wherever he went.
WR Randy Moss, New England Patriots — Same as Owens, Moss' impact on the game is undeniable. Only Jerry Rice was more dominant at the position.
TE Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta Falcons — Likely to be the first of the "modern" tight ends to be inducted - and the best of the bunch.
LB Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens — The finest linebacker of his era, maybe of all-time.
LB Junior Seau, New England Patriots — Played for so long that voters might forget how dominant he was in his prime. No matter, he's a lock.
CB Champ Bailey, Denver Broncos — One of the best pure athletes ever to play the cornerback position.
ON THEIR WAY — Elite players on pace to finish up in Canton, each with a 75 percent chance or better.
QB Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints — Whether New Orleans ever wins a Super Bowl matters not; voters will remember what Brees did to rebuild the town.
QB Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia Eagles — The Hall of Fame demands that its quarterbacks be winners. McNabb may not have the crown jewel (yet), but he has taken his teams to five conference title games (same number as Favre, more than Manning or Brady).
QB Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers — Only Jim Plunkett has two Super Bowl wins at quarterback without a yellow coat in his closet. Thing is, Roethlisberger's career numbers will be far better than Plunkett's, and he's not done competing for rings yet.
WR Hines Ward, Pittsburgh Steelers — Roethlisberger's favorite target does everything well — possession, big-play — and happens to be one of the league's greatest all-time blocking receivers.
WR Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals — Fitzgerald has another 10 years in him, but he only needs a couple of more big years to enter the "lock" category.
WR Isaac Bruce, San Francisco 49ers — One of the quietest wide receivers to ever play, Bruce's career numbers are where they need to be (second-most receiving yards).
WR Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts — Marvin Harrison is a "lock," and Wayne is close to being the same. Next year he'll likely reach the magical levels of 700 receptions and 10,000 yards.
OT Walter Jones, Seattle Seahawks — A case could be made that Jones has been the finest left tackle of his era, surpassing Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace.
OG Steve Hutchinson, Minnesota Vikings — Jones' counterpart for a number of years in Seattle, Hutchinson has been every bit as dominant in Minnesota.
OG Alan Faneca, New York Jets — From 2001-08 he made the Pro Bowl each year; rivals Hutchinson as the best of this era.
DE Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts — Helped to revolutionize the defensive end position. His career sack total probably will get him in unless something derails his career moving forward.
DE Jason Taylor, Miami Dolphins — Taylor was one of the game's best pass rushers for a period of time, and a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
CB Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers — The last few years have preserved Woodson's legacy. His recent defensive MVP win might just have pushed him into Canton.
S Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens — Beyond the Pro Bowls and notoriety, voters will remember that Reed made big plays on defense.
PK Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis Colts — The Hall of Fame does not care for specialists but Vinatieri is the greatest clutch kicker of all-time.
MAYBE, MAYBE NOT — Stars that have had a splendid career, just maybe not Hall of Fame caliber. Each has a 50-50 shot at best.
QB Kerry Collins, Tennessee Titans — The good news: has more than 38,000 passing yards. The bad news: so does Dave Krieg.
RB Clinton Portis, Washington Redskins — Proved in Washington that he wasn't just another Denver system back. Colorful personality will earn favor but maybe not enough.
RB Thomas Jones, New York Jets — A journeyman who has turned his career around. Likely to eclipse 10,000 rushing yards next season.
RB Fred Taylor, New England Patriots — Ranks No. 15 on the all-time rushing list. Everyone ahead of him is either already in the Hall or soon will be. The case won't be that clear-cut for Taylor, though.
RB Jamal Lewis, Cleveland Browns — His 2,000-yard season aside, Lewis was inconsistent and an average back for much of career.
WR Torry Holt, Jacksonville Jaguars — Ranks 10th all-time in yards and 11th in catches. If he plays long enough to catch 1,000 passes that should be enough.
WR Donald Driver, Green Bay Packers — Don't scoff; Driver will own every career Packers receiving record but one (touchdowns — Don Hutson) when he's done.
WR Chad Ochocinco, Cincinnati Bengals — He will reach 10,000 yards, but many believe he talks a bigger game than he plays.
WR Anquan Boldin, Arizona Cardinals — His catch and yardage totals are great, but voters will consider his constant discontent. Career touchdown numbers are lacking.
WR Steve Smith, Carolina Panthers — Ditto.
OT Orlando Pace, Chicago Bears — Was the cornerstone to St. Louis' memorable offenses of the early 2000s. May have had a better chance before going to Chicago.
C Kevin Mawae, Tennessee Titans — Was a standout for both the Jets and Titans. Seven Pro Bowls.
C Matt Birk, Baltimore Ravens — Has six Pro Bowls under his belt.
DE Julius Peppers, Carolina Panthers — Even with four Pro Bowls and 81 sacks, Peppers' career has been somewhat of a disappointment.
DT Kevin Williams, Minnesota Vikings — It's conceivable that one day Williams could become one of the few tackles with 100 career sacks.
DT Jamal Williams, San Diego Chargers — Not the "numbers" guy that Kevin Williams is, Jamal Williams does the thankless things tackles are supposed to do.
DT Richard Seymour, Oakland Raiders — Was considered the centerpiece to New England's title-winning teams. Moving to Oakland has taken a little of the luster off.
LB Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears — Racks up tackles and creates turnovers just like Dick Butkus, only Butkus' legacy is already cemented; Urlacher has a long way to go yet.
LB Zach Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs — One-time tackling machine who has held onto the game a few years too long.
LB Joey Porter, Miami Dolphins — His mouth gets him in trouble, but he'll likely reach 100 sacks and is someone voters are not going to forget.
LB London Fletcher, Washington Redskins — Not making a Pro Bowl has actually helped his Hall chances as it has brought more attention to his level of consistency at St. Louis, Buffalo and Washington.
LB Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens — Started on a tear, but his sack numbers continue to decline.
S Brian Dawkins, Denver Broncos — Has some of the most diehard supporters of any player. His impact is difficult to measure.
S Darren Sharper, New Orleans Saints — Smells interceptions and ranks high on the career list. The picks alone, though, will not be enough.
S Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers — If he can remain healthy, he has enough respect from around the league to leave the game with Hall of Fame credibility.
DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH — Players that have not been able to sustain a level of success consistent with a Hall of Fame career. Each has a 25 percent chance at best.
QB Jake Delhomme, Carolina Panthers — Was inches away from a Super Bowl ring. Miles away from Canton.
QB Daunte Culpepper, Detroit Lions — Was fantastic when throwing to Randy Moss in Minnesota. Was ugly when throwing everywhere else.
QB Marc Bulger, St. Louis Rams — Will be blamed for the end of the "Greatest Show on Turf" era in St. Louis.
QB Matt Hasselbeck, Seattle Seahawks — Got to a Super Bowl and has six 3,000-plus-yard seasons. That should help him join the infinite number of retired quarterbacks still waiting for their due respect.
QB Chad Pennington, Miami Dolphins — Cerebral quarterback who has made a career of proving others wrong. Maybe he can prove this list wrong. … Nah, doubt it.
RB Willie Parker, Pittsburgh Steelers — Should be focused on earning his starting job back right now, not yellow-colored coats.
RB Brian Westbrook, Philadelphia Eagles — Versatility is a gift to the Eagles' offense, but it doesn't produce the grind-it-out numbers Hall of Fame voters are looking for in running backs.
RB Larry Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals — Two good years does not a Hall of Famer make.
RB Ricky Williams, Miami Dolphins — A great comeback story, but voters will always think of his pot hiatus above anything else.
WR Joey Galloway, ex-New England Patriots — Speed receiver who thrived in Seattle, Dallas and Tampa Bay. Has Cliff Branch syndrome (without the titles to go with it).
WR Braylon Edwards, New York Jets — Big-play receiver that has made little happen since entering the league.
WR Derrick Mason, Baltimore Ravens — Has enough yards (11,089) but will be looked upon as someone who was very good for a long time but never one of the game's very best.
WR Laveranues Coles, Cincinnati Bengals — Peaked in his late 20s, with little to show since that time.
DE Trevor Pryce, Baltimore Ravens — Steady for Denver for many years but never really an elite pass-rushing threat.
DE Jevon Kearse, Tennessee Titans — Ran wild as a rookie with 14½ sacks. Too bad he never reached that level of play again.
LB Julian Peterson, Detroit Lions — A very solid do-it-all linebacker. Not a Hall of Famer, though.
LB Keith Brooking, Dallas Cowboys — A passionate defensive leader that made it to five Pro Bowls but really never earned the national respect a Hall of Famer needs.
LB Takeo Spikes, San Francisco 49ers — Was outstanding at Cincinnati and Buffalo but then tailed off by the age of 30.
LB Mike Vrabel, Kansas City Chiefs — His place on the Patriots' Super Bowl teams will get him on the list of candidates, but beyond that, his imprint was minimal.
LB James Farrior, Pittsburgh Steelers — Found himself later in his career when he went to Pittsburgh — probably too late.
LB Keith Bulluck, Tennessee Titans — Was the defensive leader for Tennessee's best squads but made just one Pro Bowl.
CB Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — His five Pro Bowls and 25 career sacks help the cause, but Barber never reached the level of stardom needed for Canton.
CB Al Harris, Green Bay Packers — Became one of the game's finest cover corners after departing Philadelphia. The presence of Woodson will hurt Harris' chances (probably never a serious candidate).
CB Antoine Winfield, Minnesota Vikings — Has very few interceptions because teams have refused to throw at him during his 11 years. Very solid, just not in the same category as Bailey, Woodson and the other corners that have made the cut.
S Adrian Wilson, Arizona Cardinals — Exists a few notches below former Cardinals standout DB Aeneas Williams, who is a fringe candidate himself.
NEED MORE DATA — Players whose legacy has yet to be decided. Each has Hall of Fame qualities on their incomplete Canton résumé.
QB Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys — Has the most visible job in all of sports and so far has held up. A couple of more years like 2009 and a Super Bowl win could be enough to push Romo in.
QB Carson Palmer, Cincinnati Bengals — Will have good numbers but needs that ring to become relevant.
QB Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers — Ditto.
QB Eli Manning, New York Giants — Has the name and a Super Bowl ring. His numbers are now under a microscope.
QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers — Only NFL quarterback to throw for 4,000-plus yards in his first two years as a starter and he successfully replaced a legend. Of course, Rodgers needs to continue his pace for another half-dozen years before the talk can get serious.
RB Steven Jackson, St. Louis Rams — If voters are fair about it, Jackson has produced as both a receiver and rusher in a failing system. Voters are rarely ever that fair.
RB Cedric Benson, Cincinnati Bengals — All depends on which Benson we see for the rest of his career — the Chicago bust or the back that busted out for the Bengals this year.
RB Ronnie Brown, Miami Dolphins — A versatile terror in Miami's "Wildcat" offense, Brown is too often hurt.
WR Andre Johnson, Houston Texans — More and more it's looking like Johnson is a receiver with rare gifts. He has succeeded on some awful Houston squads.
WR Wes Welker, New England Patriots — The best possession receiver of this era, Welker has caught 100-plus passes in each of the past three seasons. If he returns healthy and continues, he'll warrant attention.
WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Seattle Seahawks — His last six seasons have been on a Hall of Fame pace, but there is reason to doubt he'll continue that pace in Seattle.
TE Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys — Probably the best all-around tight end in the game today, Witten's stock should only continue to rise with Romo and WR Miles Austin to help him.
TE Jeremy Shockey, New Orleans Saints — Lacks Hall of Fame numbers but plays with a bad-boy flair that fans and media somehow find appealing.
TE Antonio Gates, San Diego Chargers — Followed Gonzalez and took it up a notch, making the tight end his team's primary target for a number of years. The additions of WRs Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd could help Gates prolong his productivity.
TE Kellen Winslow, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Maybe the most athletic tight end the game has seen. Too bad fans don't get to see that athleticism produce on a weekly basis.
DE Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings — Through six seasons he has averaged 12 sacks. In today's game, though, he'll need 125-plus career sacks to earn consideration.
DT Albert Haynesworth, Washington Redskins — Attitude, more than anything, could be Haynesworth's downfall.
DT Darnell Dockett, Arizona Cardinals — A game-changing tackle with the potential to be one of the game's all-time greats.
DE Robert Mathis, Indianapolis Colts — Overshadowed by Freeney for much of his career, Mathis is just now starting to get a little attention.
LB James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers — Has the big-game performance (Super Bowl XLIII) that helps get players inducted. All he needs now is to prolong his career in Pittsburgh's linebacker-friendly system.
LB DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys — The most intimidating pass rusher in the game today. If the same can be said in two or three years, Ware will be on his way.
LB Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears — Has shown he can perform without Urlacher. Needs more years of 90-plus tackles before he is a serious candidate.
CB Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland Raiders — As accomplished as Asomugha is, few fans outside of Oakland are aware of him. Needs a new P.R. man.
CB Asante Samuel, Philadelphia Eagles — Great cover corner with a pair of rings. Needs more career interceptions to earn consideration.
S Bob Sanders, Indianapolis Colts — When he plays, he is special. Problem is, he's played just 47 games in six seasons.
Friday: Hall of Fame selection no easy task
PFW has launched its brand-new NFL Draft Newsletter series, with the second issue now ready for mailing and a third issue focusing on underclassmen to be published in the next few weeks. Produced by PFW's player personnel department under the direction of Nolan Nawrocki, the series consists of four information-packed issues. For more info or to subscribe — click here for PDF e-pub or here for print format. You can also find details about other draft-related publications in the PFW store.