This year's class of finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame is one of the best we've ever seen.
But of the 17 total names on the ballot, only seven can be elected this year, and only five of those can be chosen from the 15 modern candidates. Complicating matters is the fact that there are five new candidates who all have strong cases. That's going to leave a lot of worthy players on the outside looking in for at least one more year.
As we anticipate tomorrow night's official announcement of the Hall's Class of 2011, here's my analysis of exactly who will be in that class and why.
The two players on the senior ballot are easier, since they are given two election slots to themselves, so I'll start with them.
Hanburger was a mainstay as a linebacker for the Washington Redskins from 1965 to 1978. He was a nine-time Pro Bowler, and was selected first team All-Pro four times.
Even though the Redskins' teams and players of that era sometimes get overlooked since they never won a Super Bowl, and the one season they made it, all the attention was focused on the undefeated Miami Dolphins, they deserve to be recognized.
Hanburger was nicknamed 'The Hangman' for delivering brutal clothesline hits, and was trusted enough by control freak coach George Allen, who trusted so few, that he was given the honor of quarterbacking the defense, calling their plays at the line. One of the best linebackers of his era, Hanburger should be in the Hall.
Les Richter is the other player on the senior ballot, and he also deserves election.
Richter was also a linebacker, starring for the Los Angeles Rams for nine seasons, from 1954 through 1962. In those nine seasons, he was voted to the Pro Bowl eight times, and was twice an All-Pro. He also served as the Rams' place kicker during his first three seasons, showcasing his unique and versatile skill set.
Outside of football, he served in the US Army for two years in Korea, and after retiring from the game, he turned his attentions to auto racing, and eventually became an executive with NASCAR.
In addition, he was traded for 11 players as a rookie. 11! It's a shame he wasn't elected earlier while he was still alive, but it's better late than never.
Cris Carter gets one of my nods for the five modern players to be enshrined this year.
He beats out the other receivers on the ballot, Tim Brown and Andre Reed, as well as Shannon Sharpe, who was essentially a receiver as well. I personally think each of these other guys deserves strong consideration as well, but when you're forced to narrow things down from 15 to five, you have to make some tough calls.
This is Carter's fourth year on the ballot, and he shouldn't have had to wait this long, so I give him a little extra credit for that over the first timers. Carter was one of the most prolific and reliable wideouts of all-time, being voted into the Pro Bowl eight times.
He led the league in receiving touchdowns three times, and in 1994 set what was then the single-season record for receptions, with 122, a number he matched the next year as well. His 1,101 career receptions are third most all-time, and his 130 career receiving touchdowns are fourth.
He brought the athleticism and big play abilities of a Terrell Owens or Randy Moss while those guys were still in high school, and he left his baggage at the door. He's a worthy pick for Hall selection.
With all due respect to Mike Singletary, Richard Dent was every much the heart and soul of the great Chicago Bears' defensive squads of the 80's as the Samurai.
This is Dent's seventh time as a Hall of Fame finalist, and his extended wait continues to be perplexing. He was a four time Pro Bowler and was named first team All-Pro in 1985. During that Super Bowl season, he was the leader of what remains the most dominant defensive unit in a generation.
He led the league that year with 17 sacks, was named MVP of Super Bowl XX, and recorded double-digit sack totals in seven other seasons. He retired in 1997 with 137.5 sacks, which at the time was ranked third all-time.
His fearless attitude and violent style made offensive linemen and opposing quarterbacks fear him, which was exactly the point. He shouldn't be snubbed again. Would you want to look in his face and tell him he's not good enough? Didn't think so.
Playing on the offensive line is often a thankless job, but Willie Roaf deserves all the thanks we can give him.
Roaf was one of the best left tackles in NFL history, protecting quarterbacks on the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs from 1993 through 2005. He was an 11-time Pro Bowler and an All-Pro selection seven times.
As a lineman, he doesn't have the sexy stats of other players, but ask around the league, talk to any of the players he played with or against, and they'll have nothing but good things to say about this gentle giant. Playing at 6'5", 320 pounds, he was quite the load to try to move or get around for any pass rusher.
Roaf made the NFL's all-decade teams of both the 1990's and 2000's, and is a no-brainer as a first ballot selection to the Hall of Fame.
Marshall Faulk is another no brainer choice, even in just his first year on the ballot.
Faulk was one of the best all around backs in NFL history, and was an equal threat rushing the ball and catching passes out of the backfield. In a 12 year career split between the Indianapolis Colts and St. Louis Rams from 1994 to 2005, he was voted to the Pro Bowl seven times, and three times was named first team All-Pro.
He rushed for more than 1,000 yards in seven of his first eight seasons, and led the league in yards per carry three straight years during his prime. He also caught 80 or more passes five straight years, and led the league in total yards twice.
He was a key member of the Greatest Show on Turf Rams' teams of the late 90's and early 2000's, helping lead them to a win in Super Bowl XXXIV, and retired with 12,279 rushing yards (10th all-time), 136 total touchdowns (7th all-time), and 19,172 all-purpose yards (6th all-time).
Finally, we reach Prime Time.
'Neon' Deion is widely recognized as one of the best defensive backs in NFL history. In a 14 season career that spanned from 1989 to 2005, he was voted to the Pro Bowl eight times, and was named first team All-Pro six times.
His 19 career defensive and return touchdowns are an NFL record. They include nine interception return TD's, six punt return scores, three kickoffs brought back to the house, and one fumble recovery. He picked off 53 passes in his career, a total which would've been far higher had quarterbacks actually thrown the ball in his direction more than once in a blue moon.
Obviously his accomplishments in baseball don't hold the same weight, but it's impossible to ignore that he was able to maintain his singularly high level of play on the gridiron while also spending significant time away from the game, playing another sport at a professional level.
Deion Sanders will go into the Hall this year without a hitch. With apologies to those other excellent players I left off, since there just isn't room for everyone, this would complete my ballot for 2011 if I had a vote.