CANTON — Last February, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted three first-year candidates.
It could do the same this year.
Tony Gonzalez, Ed Reed and Champ Bailey -- who are all in their first year of eligibility -- were among the 15 modern-era finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2019. The finalists were announced Thursday night on NFL Network.
"There's always that opportunity when you make it as a finalist in your first year of eligibility ... but you never really know for sure," said Hall of Fame historian Joe Horrigan, who administers the selection process. "But I can't tell you how many times I've been in that (voting) room and thought I knew which nominees were highly likely to make it and was totally wrong.
"I firmly believe you could look at the list of 15 and take any five and present that to the public as a great class. The number of combinations out there are amazing."
This year's other modern-era finalists are St. Louis Rams WR Isaac Bruce, Indianapolis Colts RB Edgerrin James, Denver Broncos S Steve Atwater, Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Broncos S John Lynch, New England Patriots CB Ty Law, Jacksonville Jaguars OT Tony Boselli, Seattle Seahawks/New York Jets/Tennessee Titans OL Kevin Mawae, Pittsburgh Steelers OL Alan Faneca, Seahawks/Minnesota Vikings/Titans OL Steve Hutchinson, New England Patriots DL Richard Seymour, San Diego Chargers coach Don Coryell and Oakland Raiders coach Tom Flores.
Eight of those players were finalists last year -- Boselli, Bruce, Faneca, Hutchinson, James, Law, Lynch and Mawae -- while Coryell (a five-time finalist) and Atwater (a two-time finalist) are back in the round of 15 after not advancing last year.
The final class will be determined in a vote Feb. 2 on the eve of the Super Bowl in Atlanta
"There are guys back in the room for the second, third, fourth or fifth time and they have a lot of steam behind them," Horrigan said. "They could sneak in and bump guys who look like they're a slam dunk. It's always unpredictable."
That wasn't quite true last year, when Randy Moss, Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher were all elected in their first year of eligibility, joining Brian Dawkins and Terrell Owens in one of the most star-studded classes in Hall of Fame history.
This year's class doesn't have a headliner on the scale of, say, Brett Favre, but the three first-year players have strong resumes.
Gonzalez, who spent most of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, was a 14-time Pro Bowler. His 1,325 catches rank second all-time to Jerry Rice (1,549) and his 15,127 yards are sixth. He also had 111 career touchdown receptions, which are eighth all-time.
Reed went to nine Pro Bowls as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, recording 64 interceptions, seven touchdowns and six sacks.
Bailey went to 12 Pro Bowls with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, piling up 52 interceptions and 908 tackles.
Gonzalez, Bailey and Reed were all members of the 2000s All-Decade Team, as were James, Mawae, Faneca, Hutchinson and Seymour.
Atwater and Boselli were members of the 1990s All-Decade Team.
This year's finalists include seven players on offense (four linemen, one running back, one wide receiver and one tight end), six on defense (three safeties, two cornerbacks and a defensive lineman) and two coaches.
"You could see a class with two offensive linemen and there's a very good chance with all those defensive backs that we could get two or three of those," Horrigan said. "But, again, it's very, very hard to predict what will happen."
The list of finalists includes contributor finalists Pat Bowlen, owner of the Denver Broncos, and Gil Brandt, a longtime executive for the Dallas Cowboys. The senior finalist is former Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs safety Johnny Robinson.
The 10 modern-era semifinalists who didn't make the cut are longtime Cleveland Browns LB Clay Matthews, CB Ronde Barber (Buccaneers), S LeRoy Butler (Green Bay Packers), WR Torry Holt (Rams, Jaguars), Coach Jimmy Johnson (Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins), LB Karl Mecklenburg (Broncos), LB Sam Mills (New Orleans Saints, Carolina Panthers), LB Zach Thomas (Dolphins, Cowboys), WR Hines Ward (Steelers) and S Darren Woodson (Cowboys).
"Here's the challenge for the guys who were on the list of 25," Horrigan said. "Eight of the guys on the list returned from last year, so that doesn't leave many more spaces available. The fact that they didn't make the 15 this year should be no message about their future. Most of the guys on that list of 25 will eventually at least get in the room and get their shot.
"It's easy for me to say you have to be patient -- I'm not waiting on pins and needles -- but I say this all the time: Sometimes it's a matter of when, not if."