There always seems to be an endless supply of great college quarterbacks who never amount to anything in the NFL, mainly because barely anyone is actually qualified to be an NFL starting quarterback. Of the great college QBs who flop in the NFL, there are a number of familiar archetypes. One is of course, the system quarterback; the guy who has produced eye-popping stats by playing in a high-scoring offensive scheme, that you can plug any QB into and achieve success. Then there are the dual threat quarterbacks who are often more of a threat as a runner than a passer and do not really have the arm for the next level. There are also the QBs that look good on paper, drop-back passers with the cannon arm and measurables that fit the mold of your conventional quarterback, but who might not have the accuracy or decision making ability necessary to perform as well on the field as they look on the scouting report. Finally there are the guys who don’t look good on paper, the players who may make great decisions, may throw for tons of yards, and may win all the time, but are just too short, or too small, or just don’t fit the image of your traditional quarterback. This glut of great QBs who look so promising leads to a lot of excitement and hope on draft day, but it usually ends up as disappointment and regret a season or two later when yet another college star fails to cut it in the big leagues. Here are 15 great college QBs who failed once they tried their luck with the NFL.
15. Jason White: Oklahoma Sooners
Despite tearing both of his ACLs in consecutive seasons at Oklahoma, Jason White still managed to come back for his junior year and win the Heisman Trophy, while leading the Sooners to the National Championship game where they lost to LSU. Coming back again for his senior season, White was again a finalist for the Heisman, and again took the team to the national championship game, where they lost to USC. By the time White left Oklahoma he held the school’s all time records for passing yards and touchdowns. When the 2009 NFL Draft arrived, White became only the third Heisman Trophy winner to NOT get drafted. He had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs and was signed by the Tennessee Titans for two years but never ended up playing in the NFL.
14. Graham Harrell: Texas Tech Red Raiders
The Texas Tech legend was the last in a long line of stat-sheet stuffing quarterbacks who played in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense at Texas Tech. During his senior year he led the Red Raiders to an 11-1 record and #7 ranking in the BCS poll. The highlight of the year was a huge, home game against the #1 ranked Texas Longhorns that he won with touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree with one second remaining. Over his career at Texas Tech, Harrell set eight NCAA records including most 400 yard games in a season and in a career. He is also in the top 10 in 13 other passing categories. Seen as a system quarterback, Harrell was not drafted in the 2009 NFL Draft and played in the CFL for a year instead. He did catch on with the Green Bay Packers in 2010 and was a backup with them for two years before he played a year for the New York Jets as well. He only played in four games in the NFL however, throwing for 20 total yards.
13. Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M Aggies
Johnny ‘Football’ burst onto the scene in 2012 with big numbers and electrifying play for Texas A&M. His biggest moment was leading the Aggies to a huge upset of top ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa. From there he continued to make highlight reel plays and break records, becoming only the fifth player in NCAA history to pass for over 3000 yards and rush for over 1000 yards in a single season. Johnny Manziel and the Aggies finished the year ranked #5 with an 11-2 record and a win in the Cotton Bowl over Oklahoma. He returned the following year and upped his passing production to over 4000 yards although his rushing dipped under 1000 while finishing 9-4 and ranked #18 in the nation. In the 2014 NFL Draft the Cleveland Browns selected Manziel with the 22nd overall pick. Injuries and off the field drama have limited Johnny ‘Football’ to only 15 games in his two seasons and he was cut by the Browns in 2016 and has yet to land with another team.
12. Ryan Leaf: Washington State Cougars
One of the biggest quarterback busts of all time was a star QB from Washington State University who was drafted with the number two overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft, right after Peyton Manning went number one. Ryan Leaf had a great career for the Cougars. His best year was as a junior when he led Washington State to their first Rose Bowl in over 50 years. They lost to the eventual National Champion Michigan, but Leaf’s performance made him look good enough that some believed he could be the number one pick over Manning. Leaf also finished third in the Heisman voting that year behind Manning and the winner, Charles Woodson. Leaf went to the San Diego Chargers but his two touchdowns to 15 interception ratio as a rookie, injury issues, and off the field problems ultimately doomed him, and he was out of the league in three years.
11. Kellen Moore: Boise State Broncos
The winningest quarterback in college football history is Kellen Moore who went 50-3 over four seasons as the starting QB for the Boise State Broncos. Over his career, he dominated the Mountain West Conference but also beat the big boys when he had an opportunity, notching victories against #12 Oregon in 2008, #6 Virginia Tech and #19 Utah in 2010, #14 Oregon and undefeated #3 TCU in 2009, and #19 Georgia in 2011. He threw for over 3400 yards and 25 touchdowns every season, including 3800 yards, 43 touchdowns, and nine interceptions his senior year. As an undersized prospect, Moore was not drafted in the 2012 NFL Draft but was signed as a free agent by the Detroit Lions where he rode the bench for three years before signing with the Dallas Cowboys. Over four years he has played in three games with two starts and thrown for 779 yards, four touchdown, and six interceptions.
10. Andre Ware: Houston Cougars
One of the first big run and shoot quarterbacks in college football, who stormed onto the scene in the late ’80s with the Houston Cougars was Andre Ware. In his junior year, Ware set 26 NCAA records, including throwing for 4699 yards and 44 touchdowns. Ware also became the first African American quarterback to ever win the Heisman Trophy in 1989. After skipping his senior season, Ware was drafted by the Detroit Lions with the seventh overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft. Ware spent four seasons with the Lions playing 14 games and throwing for just 1112 total yards with five touchdowns and eight interceptions as the third stringer. Ultimately Ware ended up in the CFL where he played for three teams and won a Canadian Grey Cup.
9. Florida Gators QBs
There should be a special category just for Florida Gators quarterbacks. Florida has always had great QBs who dominated college football, including three Heisman Trophy winners and two other Heisman finalists. But for some reason none of the Gator greats ever did anything much in the NFL. The best NFL Gators were Tim Tebow, who took the Broncos to the playoffs but was out of the league two years later. Rex Grossman went to the Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears but only had two good seasons out of nine. Steve Spurrier was a Gator Heisman winner who threw for over 1000 yards only three times in 10 seasons while throwing 60 career interceptions. Another Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel, played for six seasons in the NFL, throwing for just over 2100 yards total. Chris Leak, who led the Gators to a national championship, did not even play in the NFL. Finally, 1991 Heisman finalist Shane Matthews played six NFL seasons with only two seasons of passing for over 1000 yards.
8. Colt McCoy: Texas Longhorns
The guy who was the winningest quarterback in college football with 45 wins before Kellen Moore surpassed him is still the winningest QB in Texas history and also the last great QB to play for the Longhorns. McCoy was a Heisman Trophy runner up in 2008 and just missed out on a trip to the National Championship when the Longhorns lost a late season game in the waning seconds to Texas Tech. The following year, Colt McCoy did lead Texas to an undefeated season and a spot in the 2009 National Championship game against Alabama. He barely had an opportunity to play however, as he was knocked out with a shoulder injury on the Longhorns’ first drive. After passing for over 13,000 yards and 112 touchdowns in his career McCoy was drafted by the Cleveland Browns with the 85th pick in the third round. He played two seasons in Cleveland, starting 21 games and throwing for over 4200 yards before spending one year with the 49ers and then signing with the Redskins where he is the backup to Kirk Cousins.
7. Robbie Bosco: BYU Cougars
Another team that could earn its own category is the BYU Cougars… except for the fact that most of their great college QBs actually ended up performing decently, if not extremely well in the NFL. Marc Wilson had a handful of good seasons, Ty Detmer had two decent seasons and was a solid backup for the rest of his career, Jim McMahon had a good career and a Super Bowl victory with the 85 Bears, and Steve Young won two MVPs and was part of three Super Bowl winning teams. One big name BYU Cougar who did not make it was Robbie Bosco. Bosco lead the Cougars to a 13-0 record and a National Championship in 1984, he also finished third in the Heisman voting two times, and he finished his career holding 10 NCAA passing records. Despite being drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1985, Bosco did not play over his two years in the NFL.
6. Gino Torretta: Miami Hurricanes
The early to mid ’80s Miami Hurricanes had some great college quarterbacks who went on to have great NFL careers as well, such as Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, and Vinny Testeverde. When the Hurricanes returned to prominence in the 90s they still had great college QBs, but they did not find the same success in the pro game. One of those guys was Gino Torretta who starred for the ‘Canes in the early ’90s, led them to a Co-National Championship in 1991, and won the Heisman Trophy in 1992. Torretta threw for over 6000 yards and 39 touchdowns in his two seasons under center for the Hurricanes. When the 1993 NFL Draft came around he was not selected until the seventh round with the 192nd overall pick by the Minnesota Vikings. Torretta spent a year on the bench for the Vikings, and then the Lions, and it was not until 1995 that he got into an NFL game for the Seattle Seahawks. His career line in the one game he played ended up being 5-16 passing for 41 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
5. Case Keenum: Houston Cougars
The only player in NCAA history to ever throw for over 5000 yards in three different seasons is Case Keenum for the Houston Cougars. Keenum is also the NCAA all time leader in career passing yards with 19,217, which means he is the only player in college football to throw for over 10 miles. If you are wondering who the all time career leader for touchdowns is you can stop wondering, that too is Keenum with 155. After six years with the Cougars; a redshirt freshman year which he did not play, and his junior year during which he injured his ACL in his third game and was granted a medical redshirt for; Keenum finally left the Cougars and moved across town half the distance of his career passing yards (five miles) to the Houston Texans, who signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Over five years in the NFL Keenum has bounced back and forth between the Rams (St Louis & LA versions) and the Texans, starting nine games for the Los Angeles Rams this year and throwing for over 2000 yards.
4. Colt Brennan: Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
The University of Hawaii is another one of those schools where the offensive system produced some of the most prolific passers of all time. Timmy Chang is second all time in passing yards with over 17,000 but was never on an NFL team beyond the preseason. Colt Brennan however did make it to the NFL for a few preseason games. In college, Brennan played three years for Hawaii, throwing for over 4300 yards twice, and over 5000 yards once, for 14,193 total passing yards in his career. Upon finishing his career with Hawaii, he was drafted in the sixth und with the 186th overall pick of the 2008 NFL Draft by the Washington Redskins. After a solid preseason Brennan injured his hip and hamstring, ending his season. He was subsequently signed and released by the Raiders, and then by a team from the UFL, then the CFL, and even the Arena League.
3. Matt Barkley: USC Trojans
Of all of the legendary, Heisman winning, highly drafted, star prospect quarterbacks to play for the University of Southern California, the first four year starter, and the all time career leader in passing yardage and passing touchdowns is Matt Barkley. During his career, Barkley led the Trojans to a #22 ranking in his freshman year and a #6 ranking during his junior year. Despite being a Heisman candidate and USC opening the season ranked #1, Barkley’s senior year was disappointing as they only went 7-6 finishing out of the top 25 in year end polls. In the 2013 NFL Draft, Barkley was selected in the fourth round with the 98th overall pick by the Philadelphia Eagles. Barkley played four games over two seasons with the Eagles in 2013 and 2014. In 2016 he signed with the Chicago Bears and started six games for them when Brian Hoyer and Jay Cutler suffered injuries. He threw for almost 2000 yards with the Bears in 2016 with eight touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
2. Eric Crouch: Nebraska Cornhuskers
One of those so called dual threat quarterbacks whose running talents are oftentimes more advanced than their passing skills was Eric Crouch who led the Nebraska Cornhuskers for three seasons, including a trip to the national championship game in 2001. Crouch set numerous records over his time with the ‘Huskers including single game, single season, and career total offense records, in addition to winning the Heisman Trophy in 2001. Crouch was drafted in the third round of the 2002 NFL Draft by the St Louis Rams with the 95th overall pick. Despite his desire to play QB, the Rams were looking at him as a receiver. An injury ended his time with the Rams before playing a game and he never played in the NFL, although he did play some in the CFL.
1. Major Harris: West Virginia Mountaineers
One of the most thrilling quarterbacks in college football, who failed to play in the NFL, was West Virginia’s Major Harris. A three year starter, Harris really burst onto the scene in his sophomore year when he led the Mountaineers to an undefeated 11-0 season and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl and a chance at the national championship against Notre Dame. Despite separating his shoulder early in the game, Harris kept playing, but it was not enough to top the Fighting Irish. Harris was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy in 1988 as well as in his junior year of 1989. At the end of his career, he held the West Virginia record for total yards with 7334 (which has since been broken), and he was also the first quarterback in Division I history to pass for over 5000 yards and rush for over 2000 yards in his career. In the 1990 NFL Draft, Harris was selected by the Los Angeles Raiders in the 12th round but he never played a game for them and ended up in the CFL, Arena Football, and National Minor Football League.
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