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Thursday, January 29, 2009
Updated: January 31, 11:45 AM ET
Woodson heads Class of '09 candidates

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- By the middle of Saturday afternoon, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will grow by somewhere from four to seven members.

Not much is guaranteed when the 44 voters get together, but it's a pretty safe bet that Rod Woodson and Bruce Smith will gain entry in their first year on the ballot. Let's handicap the field for the Class of 2009.

Rod Woodson

The defensive back spent most of his career with Pittsburgh before finishing up with stints in San Francisco, Baltimore and Oakland. Woodson already is a member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team and the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1990s.

Chances: Put a rubber stamp on Woodson and tell his family to start booking hotel rooms in Canton, Ohio, for this summer.

Bruce Smith

He was as good a pass-rusher as there has ever been, and his 200 career sacks are an NFL record. Nineteen seasons by a defensive end is almost unheard of. Was the anchor of a Buffalo dynasty that did everything but win a Super Bowl.

Chances: Smith is a lock, and the presenters can pretty much speed through their cases for him and Woodson. After that, it gets complicated.

Bob Hayes

This is going to be one of the most interesting decisions. There seems to be growing sentiment that Hayes, who has been eligible for 29 years, should have been elected a long time ago. Hayes is on the ballot courtesy of the Senior Committee this time, and that's a group that basically works to correct oversights. Hayes' career numbers (7,414 yards and 71 touchdowns) might not stack up against those of some of the receivers in the Hall of Fame, but he helped change the game into what it is today. He was billed as the "world's fastest human," and his speed helped open the door for modern offenses.

Chances: Better than ever. Again, there's a sense of growing support for Hayes. The Senior Committee carries a lot of weight.

Cris Carter

There was some mild surprise when Carter didn't make it last year, his first time on the ballot. His numbers speak for themselves. He was the second player to reach 1,000 catches and finished his career with 42 100-yard games and 130 touchdowns.

Chances: Carter's wait should come to a quick end. The competition isn't as strong as last year. Sometimes, there is a reluctance to put someone in during his first year of eligibility, and Carter might have fallen into that category. But he should be past it now.

Shannon Sharpe

This is Sharpe's first year on the ballot, and the fact that he was a tight end creates an interesting decision for the voters. The position has changed through the years, and Sharpe created much of that change. At the time of his retirement, his 815 receptions, 10,060 yards and 62 touchdowns were NFL records for a tight end.

Chances: Sharpe might be on the bubble because of his position and could have to wait a bit. But more players like him will be coming (Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates), and Canton might as well start opening its doors for the new breed of tight ends.

Derrick Thomas

He has been the subject of much debate in recent years. Thomas died in a car accident at age 33 in 2000, and there seems to be some thought that his numbers fall short of the Hall of Fame because his career was limited to 11 seasons.

Chances: Thomas has been right on the cusp since he became eligible, and this might be the year for him to get in. It's time to realize that during his 11 seasons as a linebacker, he was a dominant pass-rusher. In the 1990s, Thomas had 116.5 sacks, the most by any player in that decade.

Richard Dent

He was as versatile a pass-rusher as there has been, and his 137.5 career sacks ranked third in history at the time of his retirement.

Chances: On the bubble. Dent was at the top of his game in the mid-1980s when the Bears were at their best. It could come down to a decision between Thomas and Dent.

Claude Humphrey

He is the other nominee of the Senior Committee, and that means his chances probably are better than before. Humphrey had 122 career sacks, but the fact that he spent much of his career on mediocre Atlanta teams might have dragged him down in the past.

Chances: Middle of the road. The endorsement of the Senior Committee might help, but Humphrey spent much of his career in obscurity. Dent and Thomas played the same position and had higher profiles.

Randall McDaniel

This is the third time on the ballot for McDaniel, who might have been the best guard of his era. He was selected to play in a record 12 consecutive Pro Bowls.

Chances: Could go either way. If the Vikings had won a couple of Super Bowls, McDaniel probably would have gone in on the first ballot. That didn't happen, but the fact is McDaniel was a great offensive lineman on some very good offenses. He'll get in at some point.

Paul Tagliabue

A lot of people assumed the former commissioner would get in on the first try. Turns out, this is going to be the third try for Tagliabue. The NFL made huge strides under his guidance.

Chances: Slim, for now. The voters might have taken the right approach in not rubber-stamping Tagliabue. His legacy still isn't settled. It's probably wise to wait a few more years and look back on labor and other issues before making a final decision.

John Randle

Another first-timer on the ballot and one of the most disruptive defensive tackles ever. Randle had 137.5 sacks and nine seasons with 10-plus sacks.

Chances: A bit of a long shot. Much like McDaniel, Randle's chances are brought down a bit by the fact that the Vikings didn't win -- or get to -- a Super Bowl during his time.

Cortez Kennedy

There has been a strong behind-the-scenes push to raise Kennedy's stock with voters and supporters pointing to his eight Pro Bowl selections.

Chances: A longer shot than Randle. Spending his entire career in Seattle might have hurt Kennedy's chances. He had 14 sacks and was voted the NFL's defensive player of the year in 1992, but the Seahawks went 2-14 that season.

Dermontti Dawson

Followed Hall of Famer Mike Webster in Pittsburgh's line of greatness at center. Ushered in an era of more athletic centers and was exceptionally durable.

Chances: On the bubble. Of the remaining offensive linemen on the ballot, Dawson probably is the best. But it's tough to get excited about offensive linemen.

Russ Grimm

Member of "The Hogs," Washington's legendary offensive line. Played both center and guard at a high level on some dominant Redskins teams.

Chances: Grimm now is an assistant coach with the Arizona Cardinals, and their Super Bowl appearance might raise his profile some. But that probably won't be enough to make a difference.

Ralph Wilson

The Buffalo Bills' owner is one of the most respected men in the NFL. He founded the Bills in 1959. The team had plenty of on-field success with four Super Bowl appearances in the 1990s. Instrumental in the AFL merger with the NFL and a powerful figure in league circles for years.

Chances: Not great. If the Bills had one just one Super Bowl title, voters might have something to hang their hats on when it comes to Wilson.

Bob Kuechenberg

Word is former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula has been lobbying hard behind the scenes to get Kuechenberg into the Hall of Fame. Kuechenberg split his career between guard and tackle, and was a key to the 1972 undefeated season.

Chances: Slim. Even with Shula's support, Kuechenberg is a very long shot. McDaniel, Dawson and Grimm probably rank ahead of him on many ballots.

Andre Reed

Played in seven consecutive Pro Bowls and had 951 career receptions, which ranked third in history at the time of his retirement.

Chances: A long shot. The numbers of wide receivers keep going up, and the fact that Reed is a little short of 1,000 catches probably will work against him.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.