Ed Reed is guaranteed to make it into the Hall of Fame.
Only 280 people have been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 91 years. Enshrinement is only for the best of the best, and it can take years for even great players to receive the honor.
As far as which active players deserve to have their likeness cast in bronze, each one must be considered carefully. Far too often, the label "Future Hall of Famer" is thrown around recklessly when history shows that some great players may not make it.
When we are talking about which players are "guaranteed" to make it into the Hall of Fame, there is another layer of scrutiny. There are plenty of players who are well on their way or on the cusp, but an argument could be made—based on players who haven’t made it in the past—that they don’t deserve the honor.
Since a maximum of seven candidates can be elected into the Hall of Fame each year, there will be a backlog of candidates if we go over that number significantly. There is already a backlog of worthy candidates trying to get in.
The game has also changed over the years, and certain positions are no longer as valuable. There is a reason there isn’t a punter in the Hall of Fame; certain positions just don’t have the required impact on the game to be inducted.
Changes in the value of positions must be taken into consideration, which makes it much harder to guarantee players at certain positions are worthy of the honor.
Peyton Manning will go down as one of the best to ever play the game.
Right now, Peyton Manning has won just one Super Bowl, but that won't have any impact on his Hall of Fame status. Manning is guaranteed to a first-ballot Hall of Famer, regardless of how many Super Bowl rings are on his fingers.
At some point before the end of the 2013, Manning will likely pass Dan Marino for the second-most passing yards of all time (Manning has 59,487, Marino has 61,361, Brett Favre has 71,838). Manning is already second in passing touchdowns and completions.
According to Pro-Football-Reference, Manning already has the most fourth-quarter comebacks, and he’s just three game-winning drives from passing Marino for the most ever. Manning had three game-winning drives last year, so the record is certainly within reach.
When Manning finally decides to hang up his cleats, he’ll be either first or second in just about every passing statistic. Not only will Manning be in the Hall of Fame, he’ll probably be considered one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game.
Manning has been a first-team All-Pro six times, led the league in passing twice and led the league in passing touchdowns three times. Manning’s 164-70 record is one of the reasons why people try to judge quarterbacks based on wins and losses.
This Tom Brady fella is pretty good.
Quarterback Tom Brady has been to five of the last 12 Super Bowls and won three of them. The two losses to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl were by a combined seven points.
Brady has won an amazing 78 percent of the time in the regular season, and the Patriots haven’t had a losing record since he became the starting quarterback. Wins may not be the only way to judge a quarterback, but a good quarterback is obviously a major contributor.
Outside of Super Bowls and winning games, Brady also compares statistically with the best that ever played the position. Brady is ninth all time in passing yards (44,806), fifth in passing touchdowns (334) and eighth in completions (3,798).
Brady has been a first-team All-Pro twice, led the league in passing yards twice and led the league in touchdown passes three times. Brady’s 2007 performance may be the best single-season performance by a quarterback ever.
It’s impossible to leave quarterback Drew Brees out of the Hall of Fame conversation. In four of the last seven years, Brees has led the league in passing yards, passing touchdowns or both.
In 2009, Brees won a Super Bowl, beating Manning head-to-head. Unlike Manning and Brady, Brees has a bigger window to win another ring because he’s younger.
Brees is fifth on the all-time list in completions (4,035), eighth in yards (45,919) and sixth in touchdowns (324), despite being just 34 years old. Brees actually has an outside chance—depending on how much his performance declines over the next few years—to catch Brett Favre for the most career passing yards (71,838).
One area where Brees hasn’t received the recognition is when it comes to being voted first-team All-Pro. Brees has been first-team just once—in 2006—and has otherwise been voted second-team All-Pro three times.
There’s only one way to describe safety Ed Reed: playmaker.
Reed ranks 10th on the all-time list in interceptions with 61, which is just two fewer than Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott. Reed has actually led the league in interceptions three times, including the one year he only played in 10 games (2010).
Reed has scored nine career touchdowns, forced 11 fumbles and recovered 13 fumbles in his career. Perhaps even more spectacularly, Reed has defended 137 passes in his 160-game career.
In 11 years in the NFL, Reed has been a first-team All-Pro five times and a second-team All-Pro three times. Reed may not be the player he once was, but his body of work is easily worthy of enshrinement in Canton.
Charles Woodson did most of his damage after leaving the Raiders.
Charles Woodson may be one of the most talented defensive backs of all time, but it wasn’t until he went to the Green Bay Packers at age 30 that he really started to unlock his talent. For a defensive back to accomplish what Woodson did at the end of his career is remarkable.
Of Woodson’s 55 career interceptions, 38 of them came after he turned 30—only Rod Woodson has more (39). Woodson’s 55 career interceptions ranks 19th all time, one more than Hall of Famers Darrell Green and Willie Brown, and two more than Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.
Woodson has also forced 29 fumbles and scored 12 touchdowns in his career to go along with 135 passes defended (even though the latter wasn’t an official statistic during his first three years in the league).
Like Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey has been a two-team player through his 14-year career.
Drafted by the Washington Redskins in the first round of the 1999 draft, he put together five very productive seasons before being dealt to the Denver Broncos along with a second-round pick for running back Clinton Portis.
In addition to being a 12-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro, Bailey was named to the all-decade 2000s team. At 35, he's still going strong, and he's started all 16 games in a season nine times, including last season.
Along the way, he's racked up 52 interceptions, nine forced fumbles and 800 tackles. When you think of shutdown corners, Bailey has defined that term for the last decade-plus.
Defensive end Jared Allen is a great pass-rusher, but he probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves for it. Unlike a lot of the pass-rushers in the NFL today, Allen is a 4-3 right defensive end.
Translation: Allen goes up against the opposing team’s left tackle, who is typically the best pass-blocker. Additionally, he doesn’t get much schematic help getting to the quarterback.
Behind Michael Strahan’s 22.5 sacks, Allen shares the record of 22.0 sacks in a season with Mark Gastineau. Allen also has 117 career sacks, good for 16th on the all-time list.
With 11 or more sacks in 2013, Allen can move up to 11th. At 31, Allen also has the chance to move up on the all-time sacks list significantly if he can stay productive over the next few years.
He also isn’t bad against the run like a lot of other pass-rushers, making him significantly more valuable. Sacks alone may not be enough to get a player into the Hall of Fame going forward, so the fact that Allen can do it all makes him a very strong candidate.
Even if Allen doesn’t record another sack, his pass-rushing prowess and four first-team All-Pro selections make him an easy choice for enshrinement.
From a pure talent perspective, Julius Peppers is a freak of nature. Not only has Peppers been able to stay healthy, but he’s a good bet for 11 sacks every year. Like Allen, Peppers is 4-3 right defensive end who goes against left tackles.
At age 33, you would think Peppers would start to slow down, but 2012 was one of the best seasons of his career. His 111.5 career sacks put him 18th on the all-time list and third among active players.
In 2010, Peppers had one of his best years despite posting a lower sack total. He swatted down nine passes, had two interceptions and was also great against the run, proving he is not just a pass-rusher.
Peppers is also a prolific kick-blocker and has 13 in his career, making him one of the best special teams players in the league in addition to his work at defensive end. Peppers has been able to knock down 59 passes in his career thanks to his size (6'7'', 287 lbs) and athleticism.
When you look at Peppers’ career, he has been extremely consistent from year to year, which is the sign of a truly dominant player. Don’t be surprised if Peppers has several good years left, but even if he retired today, he would be a Hall of Famer.
DeMarcus Ware is the prototypical 3-4 pass-rushing outside linebacker, even though he’s transitioning to a 4-3 defensive end in 2013. When teams look for pass-rushing outside linebackers, they are looking for the next Ware.
Ware actually compares favorably to Hall of Fame outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor. By comparison, Ware has 111 sacks in 128 games through age 30 compared to Taylor, who had 113.5 sacks in 129 games through age 30—if you include the 9.5 unofficial sacks he had as a rookie.
Ware has been a first-team All-Pro four times, indicating just how dominant he’s been in his career. He has also threatened the all-time record for sacks in a season twice, and he’s never missed a game in his eight-year career.
Inside linebacker Patrick Willis is by far the youngest and least experienced player on this list at age 28 and entering his seventh season. Even if Willis were to retire abruptly, he’d still be considered the best inside linebacker since Ray Lewis.
Willis has been a first-team All-Pro five times in his six-year career. In the one year he wasn’t named first-team All-Pro (2008), he was voted second-team All-Pro. Basically, Willis has been the best at his position or close to it since entering the league in 2007.
Willis isn’t getting votes just based on reputation, either. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Willis as the best or the second-best inside linebacker in the league for each of the past five seasons.
Over the first six years of his career, Willis has recorded more than 800 combined tackles and more than 600 solo tackles. While the tackle statistic can be skewed, he is one of the most consistent tacklers in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Willis has missed just 24 tackles over the past five years.
Of course, it’s a passing league now, and Willis has to be able to cover. That hasn't been a problem. He has defended 50 passes and intercepted seven over the past six years as well as done some damage as a blitzer with 17.5 total sacks.
You could make a case that the first six years of Willis’ career have been ever so slightly better than the first six years of Lewis’ career. The only thing Willis needs now is longevity, but I don’t know how you could keep him out of the Hall of Fame if you consider how great he’s been over the first six years of his career.
Tony Gonzalez is an absolute lock to make the Hall of Fame. Revolutionary players always have a better case to get in, and Gonzalez certainly revolutionized the tight end position.
Gonzalez also put up statistics that rival the best wide receivers ever to play the game, which is crazy considering he weighs around 250 pounds.
With 103 touchdowns, Gonzalez sits firmly in sixth place all time. His 1,242 receptions trail only Jerry Rice’s 1,549 receptions on the career receptions list.
Not only did Gonzalez produce, but you could count on him. In his 16-year career, Gonzalez only missed two games.
If you look at rate stats instead of totals, tight end Antonio Gates’ career actually compares favorably to Tony Gonzalez's. For example, Gonzalez has produced 56.2 receiving yards per game and a touchdown every 0.41 games in his career. Gates has produced 56.6 yards per game and touchdown every .56 games.
The biggest difference between Gates and Gonzalez is simply how long they have been playing. Gonzalez broke into the league at 21 and is entering his 17th season, while Gates broke into the league at 23 and is entering just his 11th season.
Despite totals that don’t look as impressive as Gonzalez's, Gates was easily the most feared tight end in the league for a few years.
Gates’ 8,341 receiving yards and 83 touchdowns are still phenomenal for a tight end, though. In fact, Gates’ 83 touchdowns put him 20th on the all-time list, and 10 more touchdowns would put him into the top 10.