The Heisman Trophy is the ultimate symbol of success in college football, and winning it means you have taken your place among the gods of the second most popular sports league in America (NCAA Division I football). However, it doesn’t mean that you will have guaranteed success in the country’s most popular sports league, the NFL.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there were a lot of Heisman winners that found NFL success and got themselves into both the pro football and college football halls of fame. Some of these guys include Barry Sanders, Tim Brown, Bo Jackson, Tony Dorsett and Earl Campbell. Throughout the last 20 years, though, Heisman winners have had a bit of a tough time trying to establish great NFL careers.
Between 1994 and 2004, there is only one player that appears that he is headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. As for the 19 others, there were some good careers, but a lot of have been pretty uninspiring. If you were to take the last 20 Heisman trophy winners and rank them by their NFL accomplishments, how would it work out? We assembled the top 20 (more like the top 18, and you’ll see why). This list features some names that you might have forgotten about along the way.
The first two picks in this year's NFL Draft were both Heisman winners and there are already people questioning whether the two will have a successful career at the next level. The track record of recent Heisman winners have forced fans to be skeptical of those who had great college success.
20 *20. Incomplete - Marcus Mariota (2014)
Coming from Oregon, the most recent recipient of the Heisman trophy was just selected second overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, so it’s impossible to tell where he will fall on this list. If he throws just one pass, though, he can end up moving ahead of a few guys on our list. It will be interesting to see how Marcus Mariota works with the Tennessee Titans, and how long his leash will be as the starting quarterback. That is, if he wins the job from incumbent Zach Mettenberger.
19 *19. Incomplete - Jameis Winston (2013)
Just like Mariota, Jameis Winston has not seen a snap in the NFL, but is expected to take the reigns as the starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after winning the Heisman trophy for Florida State in 2013. Winston also won a national championship with the Seminoles, and now will be trusted to lead the Bucs franchise after being selected first overall in the 2015 NFL Draft. What will be very interesting is the Bucs' Week 1 matchup, where we could potentially see a battle of the past two Heisman trophy winners, both in their NFL debuts, with Winston's Bucs taking on Mariota's Titans.
18 Jason White (2003)
Jason White was a highly regarded quarterback coming out of high school, and landed a scholarship with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. White was on the sidelines when the Sooners won the 2001 National Championship and earned the starting job in the 2002 season. In his 2003 season, White was the Heisman winner in what was a weak class, and ended up losing to LSU in the BCS Championship. White went undrafted, and never showed up on an NFL roster, making his pro career the worst for any Heisman winner.
17 Eric Crouch
Just like White, Eric Crouch had to watch his team win a national title from the sidelines when he was an underclassman. Crouch would end up as the starting quarterback in the 2001 season for the Nebraska Cornhuskers, and won the Heisman despite losing to Colorado in the last week of the season. His Cornhuskers then got blown out by the Miami Hurricanes 37-14 in the Rose Bowl, arguably the best college team of all time. Crouch was drafted by the Rams to play receiver, but wanted to be a quarterback. After a short stint in NFL Europe, Crouch floated around semi-pro teams before retiring from football.
16 Johnny Manziel (2012)
It’s too early to tell how the 2012 Heisman winner from Texas A&M will do in his career, but it’s not off to a good start. Manziel was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns, and started two games in his rookie season, throwing for just 175 total yards and two interceptions with no touchdowns. Questions are now surrounding Manziel’s future, and an offseason stint in rehab might hinder any progress that he was making. There’s a chance that we might not see him start another game in the NFL, which would be a quick and sad ending to a promising career.
15 Troy Smith (2006)
Troy Smith helped lead the 2006 Ohio State Buckeyes to a BCS Championship appearance before being drubbed by Florida. Still, Smith won the Heisman trophy, but wasn’t drafted until the fifth round in 2007 by the Baltimore Ravens. After spending a few years as a backup quarterback, Smith went on to start six games for the 49ers in 2010. Smith went 3-3 as a starter, but was ousted and never played in the league again after throwing for a total of 1,734 career yards with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. He signed with the CFL's Montreal Alouettes in 2013, but was released just over a year later.
14 Rashaan Salaam (1994)
Before Matt Forte, the Bears had been trying for decades to find their next answer at running back after the retirement of Walter Payton. One of the most notable blunders was drafting 1994 Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam out of Colorado. Salaam had a nice start to his career with a rookie season that eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards and touchdowns before running into injury concerns and production levels dropping. Salaam only produced another 610 yards over the last three years of his career that ended after the 1999 season with Cleveland.
13 Danny Wuerffel (1996)
Danny Wuerffel signed on happily with the Florida Gators after seeing what Steve Spurrier can do for a quarterback. In the 1996 season, Wuerffel led his team to a national title and earned himself the Heisman trophy. NFL expectations were low for Wuerffel as he was drafted 99th overall by the Saints in 1997. Wuerffel started just six games for the Saints, going 2-4 with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Wuerffel floated around a few teams as a backup before Spurrier was named the head coach of the Washington Redskins. In his first year, Spurrier trusted Wuerffel to start four games, in which he went 2-2.
12 Chris Weinke (2000)
Chris Weinke delayed his college football career because he was playing baseball at the time. When Weinke won the starting quarterback job with the Seminoles, and led the team to a BCS Championship appearance and Heisman trophy in 2000 (they lost 13-2 to Oklahoma). Weinke was drafted in the fourth round by the Panthers in 2001, and started 15 games in his rookie season, losing 14 of them. Weinke was already 29 at the time, so his career was short, and most of it came from a backup role, finishing with 3,904 career passing yards. Weinke is now working with the St. Louis Rams as their quarterback coach, being named to the position in 2015.
11 Matt Leinart (2004)
The 2004 season was a good one for USC, as they were number one in both the preseason polls and postseason, as Matt Leinart led the team to a national championship and won the Heisman trophy. Had he declared for the draft after that season, he might have been the top overall pick, but stayed for a senior season that ended with a loss to Vince Young and Texas in the Rose Bowl. Leinart was drafted 10th overall by Arizona, and was the starter on and off for four years before being shipped to Houston. Leinart never lived up to the hype, and was done by age 30. Leinart finished with 4,065 career passing yards to go along with 15 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.
10 Tim Tebow (2007)
Tim Tebow won two national titles with Florida, but won the Heisman trophy in the one season in between, 2007. Tebow was never really expected to be a great NFL quarterback, but the Broncos rolled the dice and drafted him in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Tebow would come in and out of games, and revolutionized both “Tebow Time” and “Tebowing”. Tebow’s stats weren’t tremendous, but he did have a winning record as a starter that included a memorable playoff win over the Steelers. The book hasn’t been closed on Tebow just yet as he is now on the Philadelphia Eagles' roster.
9 Ron Dayne (1999)
If there is one thing that you can count on, it’s a Wisconsin running back’s ability to rack up a lot of stats in college. Dayne set the career rushing record (which is still held) by amassing 6,397 yards and led the 1999 Wisconsin Badgers to the Rose Bowl, winning the Heisman along the way. The Giants selected Dayne 11th overall in 1999, but he was never the star they wanted him to be. Still, Dayne was serviceable in a committee style of rushers in the NFL, but he only averaged around 500 yards per season. Still, Dayne had 3,722 career rushing yards and 28 touchdowns. Unmemorable, but it could have been worse.
8 Mark Ingram (2009)
It’s weird to think that there had never been an Alabama player to win the Heisman before Mark Ingram, but that was the case when he won in 2009 as a sophomore and won a national title. Ingram was drafted 28th overall by the Saints in 2011, and is showing signs of improvement. Ingram has been injury prone, and didn’t show his potential in his first three years before having a Pro Bowl season in 2014 by rushing for 964 yards and nine touchdowns in just nine games. Ingram has a chance to climb up this list if he keeps having years like that.
7 Robert Griffin III
For as much criticism as Griffin gets now as the quarterback of the Washington Redskins, the Heisman pool is so shallow that he is still the seventh best in the last 20 years in the pros. Griffin was the surprise winner in 2011 out of Baylor, and the Redskins traded multiple first round picks to draft him in 2012 at number two overall. Griffin’s rookie year was amazing, but it ended with an ACL tear in the playoffs. Griffin hasn’t really rebounded to his form of that year, but actually threw for more yards in his injury shortened sophomore season. So far, Griffin has produced 8,097 passing yards to go with 40 touchdowns and 23 interceptions, and even 1,480 more rushing yards.
6 Sam Bradford
Sam Bradford replaced Rhett Bomar of all people to take over the starting job in Oklahoma, and won the Heisman trophy in his sophomore season in 2008, where the team lost to Florida in the BCS Championship. Bradford skipped the draft to play his junior season, but tore his AC joint in the first game of the year. Still, the Rams drafted Bradford first overall in 2010 and the injury concerns still haven’t ended. Bradford has started all 16 games just twice, and was traded to the Eagles in 2015. Bradford has thrown for 11,065 yards with 59 touchdowns and 38 interceptions so far in his career.
5 Ricky Williams
Ricky Williams smashed just about every rushing record at the University of Texas, ending his senior season with 2,327 rushing yards and 29 touchdowns in 1998 to win the Heisman. This got then Saints coach Mike Ditka excited, and he traded his entire draft to the Redskins to move up to number five overall in 1999. Williams got off to a rocky start, and only lasted for three years with the Saints, missing games with injuries and having trouble staying away from marijuana. Williams then went to the Dolphins and had his best season with 1,853 yards and 16 touchdowns. He wouldn’t get back up to those stats, but Williams ended with 10,009 rushing yards and 66 touchdowns in the NFL.
4 Cam Newton
Cam Newton only played one season as a starter in college football, and it was one in which Auburn won the 2010 National Championship and Newton won himself a Heisman. In 2011, the Panthers surprisingly took him first overall, which had some people scratching their heads. The decision was a good one in the end, as Newton threw for more than 4,000 yards and 21 touchdowns in his rookie season. So far, Newton seems to be the answer for Carolina, and he has 14,426 passing yards with 82 touchdowns, along with 2,571 rushing yards. Newton has a chance to get to the top of the list when it’s all said and done.
3 Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer struggled for his first three seasons at USC, but broke out in his senior season to win the Heisman and lead the Trojans to an Orange Bowl win over Brad Banks and the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2002. Palmer was selected first overall in 2003 by the Bengals and sat behind Jon Kitna for much of his rookie season. Palmer got the starting job for the Bengals the next year, and would hold it from 2005 to 2010 before being traded to Oakland. Palmer spent two years with the Raiders and is now a member of the Cardinals. Without injury problems, Palmer might be talked about a lot more. As it stands, Palmer has 35,365 passing yards with 224 touchdowns and 155 interceptions in his career.
2 Eddie George
Eddie George racked up nearly 2,000 rushing yards in his senior season with Ohio State, winning the Heisman trophy in 1995. The Houston Oilers then selected him 14th overall in 1996 before moving to Tennessee and becoming the Titans. George had at least 1,294 rushing yards for each of his first five seasons, topping out at 1,509 yards. George struggled a little bit toward the end of his career, but he was still very productive. George eclipsed the 10,000 yard mark in less than 140 games, scoring 68 rushing touchdowns along the way.
1 Charles Woodson
Charles Woodson was a rare defensive selection for Heisman when he helped the Michigan Wolverines earn a share of the national title after the 1997 season. Woodson was noted for his athleticism because he was able to play on both sides of the ball, in addition to returning kicks and punts. Woodson was selected fourth overall by the Raiders in the 1998 NFL Draft, and is the only other active player besides Peyton Manning from that class.
Woodson has been named to eight Pro Bowls, seven All-Pro teams and was the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year. As a member of the 2000s All-Decade Team, Woodson added a Super Bowl ring to his legacy by helping the Packers win Super Bowl XLV. It’s hard to debate that his pro career is the best for a Heisman winner in the last 20 years.