ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the final vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2021 approaches, voter Jason Cole believes a "very difficult" debate on former Broncos safety John Lynch lies ahead.
Lynch, whose nine Pro Bowl nods trail only Hall of Famer Ken Houston among safeties in NFL history, is a finalist for the eighth time in 2021.
"Look, there's a personal side for me," Cole said. "I went to Stanford, and so did John. I have some personal issues here where they probably create a little bit of undue bias that I try to limit. Do I think he's one of the top five candidates? It's debatable. We've argued through the case a lot, and the question is going to be how many people view other [finalists] ahead of him. I think the case can be made that he makes it. I can also see him missing [it]."
Lynch is one of just 10 players to be named a Hall of Fame finalist in at least eight consecutive years. Of those other nine men, only Bob Kuechenberg did not gain admission to the Hall.
"I think we've tortured him," Cole said. "What are we doing to this man? It's hard. It's really, really hard, because he's a safety and he's not Ed Reed as a safety or Troy Polamalu as a safety. He's in that next group down, which Brian Dawkins was in. You would currently say that Leroy Butler and John Lynch are in that. There's some other guys that people would argue for like a Darren Woodson, maybe a Rodney Harrison. [There are] a lot of really good safeties in this history of the league."
There could be reason to believe, though, that Lynch could finally be elected in 2021. Cole completes an annual survey of coaches, executives and former players to determine which players have the best chance to gain admission to the Hall. A year ago, Steve Atwater gained the second-most votes in Cole's survey and was elected to the Hall of Fame's Class of 2020.
In this year's survey, for which Cole surveyed 340 individuals, Lynch ranks ahead of Butler and within the top 10 vote-getters.
"The one thing I would say is Lynch has a lot more support than Butler," Cole said. "Does Lynch have enough support to obviously be one of the top five? It's close, but it's not simple. And just because you're not in the top five doesn't mean you're not going to make it in the survey. The survey is not empirical."
And despite what history may suggest about an eight-time finalist eventually making the Hall, Cole said he's unsure if and when Lynch will join a Hall of Fame class.
"It's hard to predict," Cole said. "There are people who regard him as a very good player, and there are people who clearly say, 'Look, that's a Hall of Fame defender.' He played 15 years, he made nine Pro Bowl teams. He was on one of the most dominant, consistent defenses in the league for a four or five-year stretch, and they won a Super Bowl. If they had any kind of an offense, they might've won two or three, but they didn't. They won one. I think he's deserving, but again I have a little bit of personal bias, and I try to be very careful of that."
There will be far less consternation around the conversation about the other finalist with Broncos ties, according to Cole. With five MVP awards among many other honors, Peyton Manning is as much of a lock as Hall of Fame candidates can be.
"It's a two-word process," Cole said. "You stand up and you say Peyton Manning and you sit down. Literally.
"… There's nothing to talk about. You can quote me on that. There's nothing to talk about."
Cole said "for all intents and purposes," Manning was on every ballot on his survey and will join a rare group of players, even among first-ballot selections.
"There are a handful of guys in the history of the league that have been a two-word discussion," Cole said. "[Brett] Favre is one of them, [John] Elway was one of them, Dan Marino was one of them. Walter Payton is the first of them. The guy who presented Walter Payton stood up and said, 'I present Walter Payton' and sat back down. We're wasting time if we talk about Peyton Manning."
The discussions around Lynch and the other candidates for this year's class will drag on far longer. And if previous discussions have taught Cole anything, it's that anyone has a chance to earn pro football's highest honor.
"My survey, sometime the guy who's been in 14th or even 15th on this survey has gotten in," Cole said. "A lot of that is because they're all deserving. They all have good cases. … It's very much an eye of the beholder kind of thing."