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With Bears great Brian Urlacher up for debate, here’s what HOF voters look for

On Saturday, longtime NFL/Bears writer Dan Pompei will stand in front of his colleagues and state Brian Urlacher’s case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Pompei will share a brochure he made about the former Bears linebacker. Endorsements, anecdotes and statistics will be part of his presentation. It’s all part of the selection process.

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The list of 15 finalists will be whittled down to 10 and then finally to five for this year’s Hall of Fame class. The discussion can last hours. The final five players must each receive an affirmative vote of 80 percent from the 48 voters.

Brian Urlacher will be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. | Sun-Times

Pompei — who worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune and the Sporting News before joining the Bleacher Report and The Athletic — represents Chicago. In 2013, he was honored by the Hall of Fame after being named the Dick McCann Award winner.

Urlacher’s résumé is impressive: defensive rookie of the year in 2000, defensive player of the year in 2005, five All-Pro selections and eight Pro Bowl selections. He is the Bears’ all-time leading tackler and also was voted to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 2000’s.

But what do voters look for in Hall of Fame players? With Urlacher up for debate for the first time, the Sun-Times reached out to six voters, and they were asked the same questions:

“What do you look for when considering candidates and what makes a player a first-ballot Hall of Famer?”

Longevity matters

Armando Salguero, Miami Herald: “When I’m voting, I look for the best of the best. The greatest, or one of the greatest, at his position at the time he played. Did the guy change games, or better yet, did he change the game? That doesn’t mean he has to be a playmaker scoring touchdowns. I think we all agree left tackles, and increasingly right tackles now, change the dynamics of a game when they don’t need help in pass protection or erase the edge defender on run plays. I want rare, special guys who consistently left an indelible mark on games over a number of seasons.”

Jeff Duncan, The Times-Picayune (New Orleans): “In general, I look for players who were dominant at their positions for an extended period of time. In my opinion, the most difficult part of the selection process is distinguishing between players at different positions from different eras. How do you know if a wide receiver was greater or more dominant at this position in his generation than a cornerback was at his during his time?”

Dave Birkett, Detroit Free Press: “I want to see greatness in a player, to the point that you could argue he was the best at his position in the NFL for a period of time. And the longer the better. That supersedes Pro Bowls or Super Bowls, various awards, though all that stuff obviously helps.”

Analyzing accolades

Bob Glauber, Newsday (New York): “You start with a player’s level of performance. Where does he rank among the greatest at his position? Did he make the players around him better? Did he excel despite adverse circumstances, especially if his team might not have been great around him. Statistical achievements can be important, although not the ultimate determining factor. A question that’s often helpful: Can you write the history of the game without him? If the answer is no, you can’t write the history of the game without him, chances are he’s a Hall of Famer.”

Duncan: “Obviously, the criteria for induction is more varied than simply making All-Pro and/or All-Decade teams, but they are often a good starting point for me, since they were compiled by members of the Hall of Fame selection committee. I rely heavily on the expertise and judgment of my fellow presenters.”

Charean Williams, Pro Football Talk (formerly Fort Worth Star Telegram): “Linebackers are probably tougher to judge than other positions because it’s a lot about tackles, and as we all know, tackles are not an official statistic. So you can’t compare those numbers. At his position, it’s more about longevity, leadership, number of Pro Bowls and All-Pros, championships. But it usually comes back to your eyes: When you watched him play did you think Hall of Fame? I think you did with [Urlacher]. I’m not predicting he’s going to go in this year, but I don’t think there’s much doubt he will enter the Hall of Fame one day.”

Terez Paylor, Kansas City Star: “Honestly, the only thing anyone can ding Urlacher for is no Super Bowl titles. But there are a lot of great players and first-ballot guys who are missing that. So I think Urlacher has a strong case.”

First-ballot decisions

Salguero: “As to the first ballot issue, I can honestly tell you I’ve never considered whether a guy is on his first ballot or 10th ballot. I vote relative to the strength of the class and whether the finalist is worthy of being in the Hall of Fame, regardless of how many or few times he’s been his candidacy has been considered.”

Paylor: “Generally, if you have to think about whether a guy should be a first-ballot inductee, he’s typically not. But there are so many deserving guys and only five spots per year, so if a guy isn’t a first-ballot inductee, it really shouldn’t be considered a black mark.”

Birkett: “I think the five most worthy should get in regardless of year.”

Duncan: “First-ballot inductees have to be no-brainers. They must have exhibited true greatness and dominance at their positions over the court of lengthy careers.”

Williams: “There are only a handful of no-brainer, first-ballot Hall of Famers. Those are the guys who need no presentation and no debate. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Jerry Rice. That doesn’t mean that guys who are debated won’t go in on the first ballot. LaDainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor did last year, and their cases were debated. But it’s that guy that was the greatest of the great, one of the all-time bests at his position. Dick Butkus, Walter Payton, those kinds of guys.”

Glauber: “I guess the best way to describe a first-ballot Hall of Famer is you just know. Barry Sanders? You know. Walter Payton? You know. Lawrence Taylor? You know. John Elway, Jerry Rice, Dan Marino? You just know. There’s not even a hint of doubt over his greatness. You don’t need stats. You don’t need comparisons. You just need your eyes.”