The Pro Football Hall of Fame is for winners and the elite, and even those players sometimes have to wait. Cris Carter has 1,101 receptions and 130 touchdown catches; Charles Haley has more Super Bowl rings than anyone (five) — both are still waiting for the call.
What does it take to make the Hall? Only voters can answer that question, but what we do know is that the 44-person Selection Committee inducts no more than five each year (not counting the two Senior Committee candidates) and rarely more than one at each position.
Who is on the right track among today's active players? It changes year to year, with all of them able to be grouped into varying levels of probability. The 100 players considered below entered the league in 2007 or before, giving them at least five years of work to showcase. Players are listed with their position, 2011 team and draft year.
LOCKS — Legends that might as well start getting measured for their suit coat.
Tom Brady, QB, New England Patriots (2000) — Five Super Bowls, four seasons with 4,000-plus yards, three rings, two MVPs … sounds like a fit for No. 1 on this list.
Peyton Manning, QB, Indianapolis Colts (1998) — With him, the Colts were consistent 10-game winners; without him, they were awful.
Ray Lewis, LB, Baltimore Ravens (1996) — Probably the best defensive player of the past two decades.
Tony Gonzalez, TE, Atlanta Falcons (1997) — Changed the position (and at age 35 still caught 80 balls).
Champ Bailey, DB, Denver Broncos (1999) — Another year, another Pro Bowl — that makes 11 in 13 seasons.
LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, New York Jets (2001) — His late-career decline could keep him out on his first try, but L.T. won't wait long.
Ed Reed, DB, Baltimore Ravens (2002) — His 57 interceptions are not as important as his eight career interception or fumble returns for scores.
Charles Woodson, DB, Green Bay Packers (1998) — Imagine if he had played in Dom Capers' system his entire career.
Antonio Gates, TE, San Diego Chargers (2003) — Eight consecutive Pro Bowl invites and no signs of slowing down (well, when healthy).
ON THEIR WAY — Elite players on pace to finish up in Canton, each with a 75 percent chance or better.
Troy Polamalu, DB, Pittsburgh Steelers (2003) — Voters will want to reward the great Steelers defenses of this era. Polamalu gives them a face.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints (2001) — Has passed for 4,300 or more yards in six consecutive seasons (including two years with more than 5,000). His strong character will help his candidacy just as much.
Brian Urlacher, LB, Chicago Bears (2000) — His performance the past two seasons has solidified his campaign. Plus, it helps that he follows Butkus and Singletary in the line of outstanding Chicago middle linebackers.
Adam Vinatieri, PK, Indianapolis Colts (1996) — The Hall of Fame doesn't care for kickers, but it will make an exception for the most celebrated big-game kicker of them all.
Brian Dawkins, DB, Denver Broncos (1996) — A locker-room leader who has played well into his late 30s. That packaged with eight Pro Bowls (four All-Pro selections) should be enough.
DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas Cowboys (2005) — Outside of Reggie White, no sack artist has had a run to match what Ware has accomplished these past five seasons.
Richard Seymour, DL, Oakland Raiders (2001) — Has rings from his time in New England, and has a pair of Pro Bowls from his last two seasons in Oakland. Underappreciated but he won't go unnoticed by voters.
Jason Witten, TE, Dallas Cowboys (2003) — Of the tight ends currently in the Hall of Fame, only one (Shannon Sharpe) has been invited to more Pro Bowls than Witten.
Dwight Freeney, DL, Indianapolis Colts (2002) — Partially responsible for teams shifting to small, quick edge rushers. Has a better sack-per-game average than 2012 HOF inductee Chris Doleman.
Steve Hutchinson, OL, Minnesota Vikings (2001) — Even though he is one of the most celebrated guards of his era (five All-Pro selections) his body of work places him on the low end of the guards already in Canton.
Hines Ward, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (1998) — The numbers (1,000 catches, 12,083 yards) won't mean as much to voters as his role in Pittsburgh's last three Super Bowl appearances, including two wins.
Larry Fitzgerald, WR, Arizona Cardinals (2004) — The youngest player not in the "On their way" category. His 2011 numbers (notably his 17.6-yard average) showed he can produce in bad times as well as good.
Julius Peppers, DL, Chicago Bears (2002) — Has seven seasons with 10-plus sacks to his credit and six Pro Bowls. Probably more disruptive than his numbers indicate, but he also has been inconsistent at times throughout his career.
Eli Manning, QB, New York Giants (2004) — Jim Plunkett and Ben Roethlisberger (see below) are the only other quarterbacks to have won two Super Bowls who are not in Canton — and Eli's numbers rate him well above Plunkett and Big Ben.
Andre Johnson, WR, Houston Texans (2003) — Will reach 10,000 yards in 2012 (in only his 10th NFL season). Has made nearly six catches per game over his career.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (2004) — Like Eli, has two rings (and played in a third Super Bowl). Roethlisberger has been a consistent winner, but his passing numbers (specifically touchdowns) are lacking.
London Fletcher, LB, Washington Redskins (1998) — Years from now, well into Fletcher's candidacy, someone will remind voters just how consistently good he was. After years of being overlooked, Canton could be his reward.
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.
Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (2001) — Will voters see hiim as the most exceptional athlete ever to suit up, or as a quarterback who was merely good on as many Sundays as he was elite?
Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts (2001) — Without Peyton Manning in the pocket, Wayne's 2011 catch and yardage numbers dropped approximately 30 percent from the previous season — calculations voters will make note of.
Jared Allen, DL, Minnesota Vikings (2004) — This season's 22 sacks give Allen's candidacy a major boost.
Matt Light, OL, New England Patriots (2001) — Voters like to reward great teams. Light has been with Tom Brady for all five Super Bowl runs, and has enough name recognition and Pro Bowls (three) to stay in the conversation.
Kevin Williams, DL, Minnesota Vikings (2003) — Plays the run and pass well, arguably one of the best interior defensive linemen of his era. Will need a few more Pro Bowls (or a ring) to jump up a category on this list.
John Abraham, DL, Atlanta Falcons (2000) — Would you believe Abraham's sack-per-game numbers are better than Dwight Freeney's? Neither will voters, but it's true.
Adrian Wilson, DB, Arizona Cardinals (2001) — Not a big turnover producer, just a very smart and solid safety.
James Harrison, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers (2002) — Has helped Pittsburgh remain a force in the AFC. A late bloomer (probably a little too late).
Terrell Suggs, LB, Baltimore Ravens (2003) — Reached new ground in 2011. Can he hold that level for two or three more years? He'll need to for Canton to come calling.
Lance Briggs, LB, Chicago Bears (2003) — Seven consecutive Pro Bowl invites helps; Brian Urlacher's shadow hurts.
Chad Ochocinco, WR, New England Patriots (2001) — A rare case where panache might appeal to voters more than substance.
Steve Smith, WR, Carolina Panthers (2001) — The real question is how many yards will a receiver need to gain entrance 10 years from now? Smith won't have enough touchdowns or receptions, that's for certain.
Ronde Barber, DB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1997) — Right now, there does not appear to be enough on Barber's résumé. He has contributed in many ways, but probably has not stood out enough in any one area (turnovers, tackles, defensive scores, sacks) to earn strong consideration.
Matt Birk, OL, Baltimore Ravens (1998) — Six Pro Bowls and the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award will highlight a splendid career for a center who doesn't quite meet the mark.
Donovan McNabb, QB (1999) — There was a time when McNabb appeared destined for Canton. Now he appears destined for Canada.
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.
Thomas Jones, RB, Kansas City Chiefs (2000) — One of the NFL's all-time great career turnaround stories, Jones comes up just short.
Shane Lechler, P, Oakland Raiders (2000) — Quiet down, boo birds; Lechler is special. He will not gain entrance for two reasons: voter bias toward punters and the fact that Ray Guy must get in first.
Joey Porter, LB, Arizona Cardinals (1999) — His career has been filled with high and low points. After 13 seasons he's still two sacks shy of the 100-sack mark.
Takeo Spikes, LB, San Diego Chargers (1998) — Spikes has had a respectable career, just not one Canton will review.
Andre Gurode, OL, Baltimore Ravens (2002) — Ditto.
Osi Umenyiora, DL, New York Giants (2003) — Loses points because of the number of exceptional pass rushers who have surrounded him in the Big Apple.
Dallas Clark, TE, Indianapolis Colts (2003) — Has only one season in which he has received Pro Bowl/All-Pro recognition. That ain't gonna cut it.
Casey Hampton, DL, Pittsburgh Steelers (2001) — An unheralded piece in the Steelers' defenses of the past decade. Unheralded is not a good word for Hall of Fame candidates to be identified with.
Donald Driver, WR, Green Bay Packers (1999) — A Packer legend; a really good NFL receiver.
James Farrior, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers (1997) — Hmmm, how many ways can you write a guy is really good, just not good enough …
Keith Brooking, LB, Dallas Cowboys (1998) — Remember when Brooking played football instead of giving pep talks?
Antoine Winfield, DB, Minnesota Vikings (1999) — Has grabbed less than two interceptions per season since joining the league. If he were elite — like Nnamdi Asomugha or Darrelle Revis — that might be acceptable, but he's not.
Jordan Gross, OL, Carolina Panthers (2003) — Gross might be one of the NFC's best tackles, but he's not one of the game's elite bookends (and certainly not one of the best of all time).
Anquan Boldin, WR, Baltimore Ravens (2003) — The move to Baltimore has killed the two-time 100-catch receiver in more ways than one.
Asante Samuel, DB, Philadelphia Eagles (2003) — Probably would have a stronger résumé had he stayed in New England.
Robert Mathis, DL, Indianapolis Colts (2003) — Voters will see him only as the benefactor of the attention Dwight Freeney draws on the opposite side of the field.
Jeremy Shockey, TE, Carolina Panthers (2002) — Attitude has overshadowed his on-the-field accomplishments.
Darnell Dockett, DL, Arizona Cardinals (2004) — Probably a better defensive lineman than most fans and NFL analysts know. Not so good, though, that he belongs in Canton conversation.
Carson Palmer, QB, Oakland Raiders (2003) — Do you really see a rebirth of Palmer in Oakland?
Willis McGahee, RB, Denver Broncos (2003) — Just when you count McGahee out, he proves you wrong. Not enough time left in his career to prove this argument wrong, however.
Plaxico Burress, WR, New York Jets (2000) — Doesn't have a shot.
Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Tennessee Titans (1998) — The 78-69 career record probably isn't going to jump off the page for voters. Just a hunch.
Albert Haynesworth, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2002) — Belongs in another kind of Hall, where young players with immense talent can be reminded what path not to take.
NEED MORE DATA — Players whose legacy has yet to be decided. Each has Hall of Fame qualities on his incomplete Canton résumé.
Justin Smith, DL, San Francisco 49ers (2001) — Odd for someone this "old" to be in the yet-to-be-determined bin. Smith showed in 2011 that he still can be one of the league's most disruptive forces (probably too late, though).
Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys (2003) — The Cowboys used to be known as "next year's champion." Now they own "next year's quarterback."
Nnamdi Asomugha, DB, Philadelphia Eagles (2003) — Last year's big-name free agent didn't make much of a splash. Expect a bounce-back campaign in 2012.
Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers (2004) — Has averaged 4,023 yards over the past six seasons and has never guided the Chargers to a losing season … and yet he doesn't stand out for some reason.
Jonathan Vilma, LB, New Orleans Saints (2004) — Might not have enough tackles or big plays to earn favorable consideration when his day of judgment arrives.
Vince Wilfork, DL, New England Patriots (2004) — His playoff push this January is memorable, but Wilfork has a long way to go to measure up to the dozen or so defensive tackles in Canton.
Steven Jackson, RB, St. Louis Rams (2004) — Good backs gain yards and score touchdowns; special backs put up numbers for losing teams that have little supporting talent.
Jason Babin, DL, Philadelphia Eagles (2004) — Players are not supposed to make the jump to elite status after the age of 30. Can Babin keep up the pace? Eh, probably not long enough.
Chris Snee, OL, New York Giants (2004) — Enough with the son-in-law talk; Snee is one of the best interior blockers in the game.
Michael Turner, RB, Atlanta Falcons (2004) — We all keep waiting for him to wear down but it hasn't happened yet.
Wes Welker, WR, New England Patriots (2004) — How many teams began shopping for quick, slashing-type slot receivers after Welker took flight in New England? A telling sign of his impact.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers (2005) — Greatest season ever by a QB? Big deal. To earn a yellow coat Rodgers will need three or four more great passing seasons (and possibly another Super Bowl appearance).
Dwayne Bowe, WR, Kansas City Chiefs (2007) — Size and ability are not the obstacles, only environment.
Logan Mankins, OL, New England Patriots (2005) — Just missed the Patriots' Super Bowl ride (the winning version, anyhow). Mankins' style of play resembles throwback guards.
Roddy White, WR, Atlanta Falcons (2005) — Julio Jones could cut into his production eventually, but White still caught 100 balls this past season.
Nick Collins, DB, Green Bay Packers (2005) — If he can return to where he left off before last season's injury, Collins could stay in the conversation.
Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers (2005) — No longer much of a threat in the passing game, but still one of the best rushers in pro football. A guy you root for.
Justin Tuck, DL, New York Giants (2005) — Injuries impacted his production this year. Tuck must return to 2008 form to have a shot at Canton. Big-time performances in two Super Bowl wins helps his cause.
Jay Ratliff, DL, Dallas Cowboys (2005) — His size makes him difficult for guards and centers to handle. Four consecutive Pro Bowls has Ratliff on his way.
D'Brickashaw Ferguson, OL, New York Jets (2006) — Continues to get better after a so-so start to his career.
Haloti Ngata, DL, Baltimore Ravens (2006) — Might be the most reliable interior defensive lineman in the game right now.
Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers (2006) — Needs a strong (read: more consistent) second half to his career. Could happen with Jim Harbaugh on the sideline.
Nick Mangold, OL, New York Jets (2006) — A four-time Pro Bowler who protects his quarterback from pass rushers and clubhouse critics — you couldn't dream up a better center.
Devin Hester, RS, Chicago Bears (2006)— Canton has shown no love for kickoff-/punt-return legends like Mel Gray and Brian Mitchell … good thing for Hester he sits on a shelf above Gray and Mitchell.
Greg Jennings, WR, Green Bay Packers (2006) — Has shown the past two seasons that he is the best weapon for one of the league's most potent passing games. Will too much surrounding talent hurt him?
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (2006) — Running backs who stand 5-foot-8 are not supposed to approach 2,000 yards from scrimmage for teams with a 5-11 record. Think about that.
Brandon Marshall, WR, Miami Dolphins (2006) — Talented, but troubled.
Jahri Evans, OL, New Orleans Saints (2006) — His three consecutive All-Pro nods deserves attention.
Marques Colston, WR, New Orleans Saints (2006) — Comparable numbers to Greg Jennings and Brandon Marshall, two receivers from his draft class.
Calvin Johnson, WR, Detroit Lions (2007) — Like Larry Fitzgerald, Johnson should earn an early pass to the top of this list. He is far too talented (and big) for opposing teams to contend with.
Joe Thomas, OL, Cleveland Browns (2007) — Five NFL seasons, five Pro Bowls.
Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers (2007) — See Joe Thomas.
Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota Vikings (2007) — The fact that he has gained 4.8 yards per carry in his first five seasons says a whole lot about Peterson's early chances.
Darrelle Revis, CB, New York Jets (2007) — His supporters believe he belongs in the "On Their Way" category already. Maybe in a year or two …
Jon Beason, LB, Carolina Panthers (2007) — The league's richest MLB must recover from Achilles surgery if he is to climb this list.
Ryan Kalil, OL, Carolina Panthers (2007) — Three consecutive Pro Bowls has him headed in the right direction.
MORE ABOUT THIS LIST …
By draft class:
1996 - 3
1997 - 3
1998 - 8
1999 - 5
2000 - 6
2001 - 12
2002 - 6
2003 - 17
2004 - 13
2005 - 9
2006 - 10
2007 - 8
By 2011 team:
Arizona Cardinals - 4
Atlanta Falcons - 4
Baltimore Ravens - 7
Buffalo Bills - 0
Carolina Panthers - 5
Chicago Bears - 4
Cincinnati Bengals - 0
Cleveland Browns - 1
Dallas Cowboys - 5
Denver Broncos - 3
Detroit Lions - 1
Green Bay Packers - 5
Houston Texans - 1
Indianapolis Colts - 6
Jacksonville Jaguars - 1
Kansas City Chiefs - 2
Miami Dolphins - 1
Minnesota Vikings - 5
New England Patriots - 6
New Orleans Saints - 4
New York Giants - 4
New York Jets - 5
Oakland Raiders - 3
Philadelphia Eagles - 4
Pittsburgh Steelers - 6
San Diego Chargers - 3
San Francisco 49ers - 4
Seattle Seahawks - 0
St. Louis Rams - 1
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - 2
Tennessee Titans - 1
Washington Redskins - 1
No team - 1
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac