Walking through the Pro Football Hall of Fame quickly reminds one of not only the top games and performers in league history, but also the great stories of how prospects slipped through the scouting cracks.
For the bust of every No. 1 overall selection that you marvel in Canton, like top quarterbacks John Elway and Troy Aikman, there are great stories of late-round selections beating the odds by becoming Hall of Famers. For example, two others in the quarterback historical pantheon came into the league as late-round picks in 1956: Johnny Unitas (ninth-round pick, Pittsburgh) and Green Bay's Bart Starr (17th round).
|Tom Brady, a sixth rounder in 2000, has won three Super Bowls. (Getty Images)|
Two others making speeches in Canton this summer ascended from small-school afterthoughts to being memorialized forever-after by the football world. Former Chicago Bears sack-master Richard Dent was picked in the eighth round of the 1983 draft (the NFL reduced the number of rounds to seven in 1994), while Denver's pass-catching tight end extraordinaire, Shannon Sharpe, joined brother and Green Bay Pro Bowl receiver Sterling in the NFL as a seventh-rounder in 1990.
Seeing unheralded prospects like Unitas, Starr, Dent and Sharpe earning enshrinement in Canton led me to contemplate which players suiting up for the 2011 season did not hear their name called in the first round of their respective drafts, but are likely to don the yellow jacket in Canton's annual summer celebration.
Below are two certain first-ballot entrants, three quite likely to earn their way into the Hall after a couple years and six others possibly in for longer waits -- or who may not ever make it despite strong careers:
Tom Brady, 6th Round, New England, 2000
Even the Patriots would admit they would have taken the seemingly-immobile Brady in the first round if they expected him to be named to six Pro Bowls, win three Super Bowls (along with two Super Bowl MVPs) and throw for 34,744 yards (ranking 19th all-time) before reaching the end of his prime. However, it became clear early on that his movement within the pocket was a great strength, and his accuracy and poise in pressure situations helped him and head coach Bill Belichick put together the team of the 2000s.
Terrell Owens, 3rd Round, San Francisco, 1996
Though Owens went under the knife to repair an ACL, there is a chance he could return as soon as August if his rehab goes according to plan and he finds a team. Say what you will about the poisonous locker room presence of T.O., but his combination of strength and speed (through much of his career) puts him at least within sight of Owens' former teammate with the 49ers, Jerry Rice, in the record books. Even considering the proliferation of the passing game over the past 20 years, the former Tennessee-Chattanooga product's 1,078 receptions (fifth all-time), 15,934 pass yards (second) and 153 receiving touchdowns (tie/second with Randy Moss) put him among the elite receivers in the game's history. His five first-team All-Pro nods and return from injury to give great effort (nine catches, 122 yards) in the Eagles' Super Bowl XXXIX loss are also positives in his favor.
Drew Brees, 2nd Round, San Diego, 2001
Though he's not necessarily considered a shoo-in at this point in his career, it's difficult to imagine Brees won't climb into the top five passers of all-time before his career is over. The first pick of the second round in 2001 (whom the Chargers selected after trading the No. 1 pick to Atlanta that year) passed for more than 5,000 yards in 2008 and led the downtrodden Saints franchise to a Super Bowl win the following year -- those two accomplishments alone could gain him favor with the HOF voters.
Brian Dawkins, 3rd Round, Philadelphia, 1996
Jason Taylor, 3rd Round, Miami, 1997
The Jets aren't expected to bring Taylor back, but the Patriots or another team needing pass rush help will certainly sign the 36 year-old for the 2011 season. His 132.5 sacks place him in the top 10 in that category over the past 40 years, and his experience in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes gives him great flexibility. Taylor's long arms and explosive tackling of passers from the back side allowed him to force 45 fumbles during his career. He also has three safeties, something only famed defenders Ted "The Stork" Hendricks and Doug English have bested (each with four).
Antonio Gates, Undrafted, San Diego, 2003
Jason Witten, 3rd Round, Dallas, 2003
Darren Sharper, 2nd Round, Green Bay, 1997
Currently tied for sixth all-time with 63 interceptions and second in NFL history with 11 returned for touchdowns (only one behind certain Hall-of-Famer Rod Woodson), Sharper has long been one of the league's biggest playmakers. Voters familiar with his work in Green Bay, however, may bring up his inability to stop two throws between the hashes constituting the team's recent playoff low-points: the Steve Young-to-Terrell Owens completion in the 1999 loss at San Francisco and the dreaded 4th-and-26 play in the team's disheartening 2004 playoff loss in Philadelphia. But his All-Pro 2009 season (his third year of nine interceptions, three of which were returned for scores) helping Brees and the Saints take home the Lombardi Trophy may overcome those previous postseason failures.
Hines Ward, 3rd Round, Pittsburgh, 1998
Averaging 12.3 yards per reception won't wow Hall of Fame voters, and Ward hasn't been to the Pro Bowl since 2004. But his 954 receptions put him in the top 10 in league history and his 11,702 yards and 83 touchdowns the top 20. Football media will remember him for helping his team win Super Bowls XL and XLIII, however, and he may be known as either the most physical or best-blocking receiver in the modern era or one of the dirtiest players in the league, depending on the evaluator's perspective.
Ronde Barber, 3rd Round, Tampa Bay, 1997
Jeff Saturday, undrafted, Indianapolis, 1999
Finding Hall candidates among active offensive linemen picked outside of the first round is no easy task. Saturday has fewer Pro Bowl appearances (five) than fellow centers Matt Birk (six) and Olin Kreutz (six), but is the only two-time first-team All-Pro and Super Bowl champ among them. Snapping the ball to future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning, being a leader in the NFL Players' Association and working well with league media should help his cause.
Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.