Inside the room: How Hall-of-Fame voting went down

Inside the room: How Hall-of-Fame voting went down

After more than 20 years of covering the 49ers, I was one of four rookies in the room on Saturday morning inside Room 350 at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.

My first year as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 48-member Board of Selectors, it was my duty to open the discussion of Terrell Owens as one of the 15 modern-era finalists.

As luck had it, the wide receivers were randomly selected as the final position group to be talked about. And Owens’ presentation followed Isaac Bruce. My presentation was the final one of the day before the ballots were collected and tabulated by the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche.

During the course of the meeting, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue did not receive the required 80-percent vote from the selectors as a contributor nominee. Contributor Jerry Jones and seniors nominee Kenny Easley were voted in.

After three rounds of voting, the modern-era Class of 2017 to emerge consisted of Morten Andersen, Terrell Davis, Jason Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson and Kurt Warner.

Owens did not even make it into the top 10.

It might be a #FlawedProcess, as Owens suggested with his hashtags on Twitter after receiving the call of bad news on Saturday evening, but I do not question the motives of the men and women in that room who set out to “honor the heroes of the game.”

It is an incredibly thorough process that culminates with a discussion that lasted more than eight hours on Saturday.

Each of the selectors with whom I’ve held conversations and who spoke on Saturday take this duty very seriously. And the detailed approaches were evident in the presentations and additional comments in the discussions of the 15 modern-era finalists and the nominees in the contributors and seniors categories.

The media members have tremendous resources available for them to form their opinions. And many of the selectors expressed -- not their personal opinions so much – but the observations, experiences and thoughts of many coaches, executives and players, including Hall of Famers, about the candidates.

Many times those outside-the-room resources were named – with the approval of those respected NFL men. Other times, their identities were withheld at the request of those individuals.

This year is the first time the Hall of Famers had a voice in the room. In fact, they had two voices. Dan Fouts and James Lofton made their debuts on the selection committee after sitting in on the process a year ago as observers. Fouts (CBS) and Lofton (Westwood One) are eligible to vote because of their status as working media.

The Owens Debate
The bylaws for the Selection Committee states:

“The only criteria for election into the Hall of Fame are a nominee’s achievements and contributions as a player, a coach or a contributor in professional football.”

While off-the-field issues are not to be weighed, it is up to each member to determine how literally to consider that guideline. Some consider the sideline and locker room to be an extension of the field.

Peter King of the MMQB explained in his column Monday: “If something factors into how or whether a player plays, and if something factors into a tangible effect on the team’s performance (such as leadership), we can consider it. In other words, we can extend the on-field factors to the locker room and practice field if we think that had a bearing on his team and his own play.”

(The voting takes place via secret ballot, but King disclosed he voted for Owens, as did I.)

My presentation of Terrell Owens included an acknowledgement he had uneasy relationships with his quarterbacks but those same quarterbacks – Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb and Tony Romo – also thrived with Owens as their top pass-catcher.

Garcia, McNabb and Romo each posted his best win-loss record in single seasons in which Owens averaged more than 1,300 yards receiving and 15 touchdowns.

The discussion lasted 32 minutes. Some in the room supported Owens’ induction as one of the top receivers in NFL history. But others raised concerns about his role in locker-room dramas that led to the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys parting ways with him while he was in the prime of his career.

As a result, Owens did not make the cut from 15 to 10 for the second time in his two years of eligibility into the Hall of Fame.

The Final Five
There is a good chance the three remaining defensive backs – John Lynch, Brian Dawkins and Ty Law – and offensive linemen Tony Boselli and Kevin Mawae split the vote and, in essence, canceled each other out.

That left the modern-era top-five vote-getters as Tomlinson, Davis, Andersen, Warner and Taylor.

Tomlinson was such a lock for the Hall of Fame, that he was probably considered in a completely separate class. Therefore, it would seem, he did not have any kind of canceling-out impact on Davis.

Davis’ career consisted of three remarkable years in a row, including a 2,000-yard, 21-touchdown performance in 1998. He was the driving force that led the way to John Elway’s back-to-back Super Bowls before he retired.

What pushed Davis over the top were his performances in the playoffs. In those eight games – half an NFL regular season – Davis rushed for 1,140 yards and 12 touchdowns.

With Davis now out of the way, that could open the door for other running backs to get into the conversation, such as Roger Craig, in future years.

Next year, will be a big year for the safeties. Lynch and Dawkins should be expected to advance far in the process once again. But after next year, things could get difficult for the safety position with likely first-ballot Hall of Famers Ed Reed and Troy Palomalu becoming eligible for induction in 2019 and ’20, respectively.

Class of 2018?
The first five out from this year were those who advanced to the top 10 but were not inducted. That list is comprised of Lynch, Dawkins, Law, Boselli and Mawae.

The next five were Owens, Isaac Bruce, Joe Jacoby, Alan Faneca and Don Coryell.

Linebacker Ray Lewis and wide receiver Randy Moss are eligible for the first time. They are certain to be in the top 15. Linebacker Brian Urlacher is a strong candidate to advance as a finalist, too.

There are a lot of Hall-of-Fame worthy candidates who were left out this year, no doubt. And that’s not going to change any time soon. Next year will be the same. It’s unavoidable.

And that’s what makes the entire process is so agonizing for some and so rewarding for others.

Notable First-Time Eligibles
Class of 2018
Ronde Barber
Ray Lewis
Jeff Saturday
Donald Driver
Matt Birk
Steve Hutchinson
Brian Urlacher
Randy Moss

Class of 2019
Dallas Clark
Tony Gonzalez
Ed Reed
Champ Bailey

Class of 2020
Troy Polamalu
Reggie Wayne
Patrick Willis

Class of 2021
Peyton Manning
Charles Woodson
Calvin Johnson
Jerod Mayo
Justin Tuck
Jared Allen
Heath Miller
Marshawn Lynch
Logan Mankins
Source: The Pro Football Hall of Fame

49ers set aside cap space with an eye to the future


49ers set aside cap space with an eye to the future

The first wave of free agency is over, and the 49ers struck quickly.

The club identified two players coach Kyle Shanahan tabbed as fits for his offense and they paid the money it took to get them.

General manager John Lynch said there were five teams seriously interested in free-agent running back Jerick McKinnon. Even more teams were going after center Weston Richburg, he said.

That drove up the prices on McKinnon and Richburg to the point that they rank behind only quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo ($37 million) as taking up the most cap space among the 72 players currently under contract to the 49ers.

McKinnon and Richburg account for $10.5 million and $9.26 million, respectively, on the 49ers' salary cap. Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman's deal takes up $6.175 million on the 49ers' cap this season.

The big spending to attract free agents to the team is likely over. The 49ers have $45.1 million in cap space, according to the NFL Players Association. That figure does not include a projected $8.3 million to sign their 2018 rookie class, according to overthecap.com.

The major spending for this offseason is over because the 49ers have apparently looked to the future and set aside cap space with the idea of retaining some of their own players whose contracts are winding down.

The first decisions for the future must occur by May 3, the deadline for picking up the fifth-year options on first-round picks from the 2015 draft. The 49ers have decisions to make on defensive lineman Arik Armstread and left guard Laken Tomlinson, who was acquired from Detroit in a trade just prior to the start of the 2017 regular season.

It is still unclear how or if Armstead’s skills fit into the 49ers’ defense. He opened last season at the team's pass-rush end before moving to the "big end," which also appears to be first-round pick Solomon Thomas' best position.

Tomlinson showed reasons for the 49ers to be optimistic about his future as his play got better as he acclimated to the offense. Among the guards already on the 49ers’ roster, Tomlinson appears to be the most likely to be a starter in 2018.

Presumptive starting safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next offseason. Ward’s fifth-year option deal of one-year, $8.526 million became fully guaranteed last Wednesday. But in order for the 49ers to make a multi-year commitment, Ward would likely have to prove he can remain healthy and available for a full season.

DeForest Buckner is likely the target for the next blockbuster contract extension. Buckner has emerged as one of the top young defensive linemen in the league. Next offseason will be the first time the 49ers are permitted to negotiate a multi-year extension with him.

With a scarcity of offensive linemen available in the draft and free agency, right tackle Trent Brown could be set to cash in with an enormous deal next offseason – either with the 49ers or some other team.

DL Arik Armstead
FS Jimmie Ward
SS Jaquiski Tartt
RT Trent Brown
LB Eli Harold
LG Laken Tomlinson
K Robbie Gould
P Bradley Pinion

DL DeForest Buckner
LT Joe Staley
OG Joshua Garnett
DL Ronald Blair
TE Garrett Celek
RB Matt Breida (RFA)
WR Kendrick Bourne (RFA)

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”