Heading into Wednesday's meeting of the Patriots Hall of Fame committee there was a feeling that this year would be the most difficult in terms of finalizing the nominations for the 2016 class. After about two hours of deliberations among the panel, that feeling became a reality.
With the committee getting some additional help from Hall of Famers Stanley Morgan, Andre Tippett, Steve Grogan, Troy Brown and Gino Cappelletti, there were several individuals who received strong support from a variety of voices.
The conversations that take place in the room are private so I won't be sharing them, but with the influx of "modern day" stars who were vital parts of Super Bowl winning teams joining some past nominees the voting process was a tough one.
Rodney Harrison and Mike Vrabel have been discussed in past years and once again received consideration. They were joined by two strong candidates in their first year of eligibility – Kevin Faulk and Matt Light. If it were limited to just those four it would have been tough to whittle my choice down, but when you add in Leon Gray and Raymond Clayborn, two standouts from some very talented Patriots teams from the 1970s and 1980s, the task seemed almost impossible.
There are a couple of factors to keep in mind in this process. Our job is to come up with three nominees and then it's up to the fans to vote for one winner. Since the "modern era" players started to become eligible, they've won the fan vote each time. Starting in 2011 with Drew Bledsoe, it's been Troy Brown (2012), Tedy Bruschi (2013), Ty Law (2014) and Willie McGinest (2015). In each of those years, the other two candidates were both from the pre-championship era.
It's clear that it will be a difficult task for Clayborn, Gray or any other deserving star from the pre-title days to gain entrance to the Hall. So, with that in mind I came up with the following nominations based on the fact that I strongly believe that all six of the above-mentioned players fully deserve to don red jackets in the near future.
Clayborn – Still tied for the franchise lead in interceptions with 36 and one of the most dangerous kick returners in football as a rookie. Listening to some of his teammates discuss his credentials was eye-opening.
Gray – A prototypical left tackle that joined John Hannah to create the game's most physical-dominant offensive line in an era where running the football was prevalent.
Harrison – Instantly became the emotional leader of the defense and helped guide young DBs like Eugene Wilson, Asante Samuel and Randall Gay in their formative years. Harrison's physical presence and ability to match up with any tight end made him the kind of versatile performer Bill Belichick loves.
Clayborn and Gray have been finalists on two occasions while Harrison has yet to make the cut. Based on the spirited conversations in the room I wouldn't be surprised if there were many different combinations presented, and regardless of who emerges as this year's finalists it will be fascinating to see which direction the fans take.