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15 Successful NFL Players You Won't Believe Started Off As Quarterbacks

As of this writing, the New England Patriots have two injured quarterbacks, and one who’s still serving a four-game suspension. And since Jacoby Brissett injured his thumb during the Pats’ Week 3 drub

As of this writing, the New England Patriots have two injured quarterbacks, and one who’s still serving a four-game suspension. And since Jacoby Brissett injured his thumb during the Pats’ Week 3 drubbing of the Houston Texans, it was a surprise for some that wide receiver Julian Edelman, who was listed as the No. 2 quarterback for that game, didn’t end up throwing any passes.

It's happened before — non-quarterbacks can be listed as emergency QBs if the occasion calls for it. And former college quarterbacks like Edelman can be shifted to another position once they make it to the pros. If an NFL coach sees that a college standout is better suited elsewhere on the field, they try these players out at new positions, and see if they can stick.

Do these players succeed after the position change? A lot of times, they don’t. But in the case of Edelman and the 14 other players in this list, they sometimes become much better than they might have been had they not changed positions in the NFL.

NOTE – This list only includes players who played quarterback for most of their college career, therefore disqualifying players such as Hines Ward, who was only a full-time quarterback as a sophomore.

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15 DENARD ROBINSON

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

As a Michigan quarterback, Robinson had a highly successful career, setting a Big Ten record in total offense as a sophomore. He also did extremely well as a junior (20 passing TDs, 16 rushing TDs) before suffering through an injury-plagued senior year. And while he graduated as one of the Wolverines’ most versatile offensive players ever, a poor Senior Bowl at wide receiver (which he hardly played in college) tanked his draft stock, and he fell to the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft, going to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

So far, the Jags have used him as a running back and occasional wide receiver, and he hasn’t disappointed so far as a valuable off-the-bench player. As the youngest player in this list, has the potential to move up a few notches in a couple seasons.

14 MATT JONES

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike most of the players in this list, Arkansas quarterback Jones had great size for a potential NFL signal-caller, at 6’6” and 242 pounds. And when time came for the pre-draft combine in 2005, Jones registered a 4.37 time in the 40-yard dash, and leapt a 39.5-inch vertical, both stellar numbers for a would-be receiver in the pros. As such, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who already had the then-effective Byron Leftwich and David Garrard at QB, drafted Jones in the first round as a wide receiver, thinking he’d do well at the position with his elite size and athleticism.

Jones was a top backup receiver in his first three years with the Jaguars, and had some solid numbers as a starter in 2008 – 65 catches, 761 yards, two touchdowns. (The 11.7 yards per reception are another story.) But due to substance abuse issues, he was out of the Jaguars by 2009, and out of the NFL by 2010. Who knows how good he could have been if not for his personal demons?

13 BRAD SMITH

via vtdcraze.blogspot.com

A four-year starter at quarterback for Missouri, Brad Smith had an illustrious run with the Tigers, becoming the first Division 1-A player to pass for at least 8,000 yards and rush for at least 4,000 yards over his career. But as an option quarterback with below-average size (6’2”-210) for the position, he dropped to the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft, with New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini calling him a "bona fide quarterback."

That may have been a stretch, as Smith ended up attempting just ten passes in nine NFL seasons, with one touchdown pass and two interceptions. But he did turn out to be a key reserve at wide receiver and running back, and a skilled kick returner in the pros.

12 RONALD CURRY

via goldengatesports.com

Back in high school, the question wasn’t whether Ronald Curry could be a star in professional sports, but which professional sport. He was a McDonald’s All-American in basketball and football, and he eventually ended up playing both sports for North Carolina.

It wasn’t quite much ado about nothing, but Curry wasn’t the can’t-miss prospect he was hyped up to be in high school. Due to that and his below-average size of 6’2”-210, he was picked late in the 2002 draft, going 235th overall to the Oakland Raiders and getting switched to wide receiver. As a receiver, Curry hardly played in his first two seasons, but he had a decent NFL career overall, compiling 2,347 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns in seven pro seasons, all with the Raiders.

11 MICHAEL ROBINSON

via post-gazette.com

Michael Robinson (no relation to Denard) had a sensational senior season in 2005, where he passed for 2,350 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and added another 11 touchdowns on the ground, accumulating 806 yards rushing. Those stats, combined with another successful year for Penn State, helped Robinson rank fifth in Heisman Trophy voting in 2005.

The San Francisco 49ers, who drafted Robinson in the fourth round in 2006, first tried him out as Frank Gore’s backup at running back, then gave him a shot as fullback, where he eventually thrived. He also made the Pro Bowl in the 2011 season as an alternate, but retired a couple seasons later, right after he contributed to Seattle’s Super Bowl XLVIII win.

Yes, it’s true that modern fullbacks don’t do much on the stat sheet, but one can argue Robinson did very well for himself lead-blocking for Gore in the 49ers and Marshawn Lynch in the Seahawks

10 JULIAN EDELMAN

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The man who inspired this very list barely made it to the top 10, and that’s mainly on account of his being a late-bloomer who's still in the prime of his career. At Kent State, Edelman passed for 1,820 yards and rushed for 1,370 yards as a senior, breaking Josh Cribbs' single-season record for total offense. But his diminutive height of 5’10” doomed his pro prospects at QB (as it did for many other QBs in this list), and he was projected by many to be a role player in the Wildcat formation when the New England Patriots picked him in the 7th round of the 2009 draft.

As we’ve seen since his breakout season in 2013, Edelman has become more than a mere role player in unorthodox formations. And we’re still waiting for him to throw a pass in the regular season, much less one for a touchdown like the one against the Ravens in the 2014 playoffs.

9 DALE HACKBART

via host.madison.com

Despite an unimpressive two touchdown passes and seven interceptions, Wisconsin quarterback Hackbart was a Heisman Trophy candidate in 1959, finishing seventh in the voting. That was because he could also run and play defensive back in an era where specialization was, for many, a foreign word in college football. He was drafted in the fifth round by the Green Bay Packers in 1960, but since they already had Bart Starr and old-school scrambler Lamar McHan sharing time at QB, he was shifted to safety as a pro.

Hackbart was never a superstar in the NFL, but he did play 14 pro seasons; 12 for various NFL teams, and two in the CFL. He’s probably best-known for filing a lawsuit against the Cincinnati Bengals for their fullback Boobie Clark allegedly ending his career with a late hit, and getting the head slap banned by the NFL as a result.

8 DREW BENNETT

via yardbarker.com

Bennett is an interesting case – in UCLA, he was a walk-on who never progressed beyond a backup role in three seasons at quarterback, and when he switched to wide receiver as a senior, he only caught six passes for zero touchdowns. It wasn’t surprising at all when nobody called his name in the 2001 NFL draft, but what came as a big surprise was how he developed into a very productive wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans, who signed him as a free agent that same year.

Given the fact he was very tall (6’5”) for the wide receiver position, Bennett was able to leverage that into mismatches against much smaller defensive backs, and he had his best season in 2004, catching 80 passes for 1,247 yards and 11 touchdowns. He would play six seasons with the Titans and two with the St. Louis Rams before retiring in 2009 due to a knee injury.

7 BILLY LOTHRIDGE

via wikipedia.org

Lothridge was one of college football’s best quarterbacks in the early-‘60s. Playing for Georgia Tech, he finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1962 and second in 1963, where he was runner-up to future NFL legend Roger Staubach. A sixth-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 1964, Lothridge was originally selected as a third-string quarterback and punter, but since the Cowboys had Don Meredith at QB, Lothridge would focus his energies instead on punting, where he emerged as one of the NFL’s best.

Lothridge put up his best numbers as an original Atlanta Falcon, and in 1968, he led the league with a 44.3 yards per punt average. He also suited up as a reserve safety, picking three passes that season. After a brief retirement in the 1971 off-season, he finally called it a career after winning a Super Bowl ring with the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins.

6 MARLIN BRISCOE

via theundefeated.com

Even by late-‘60s standards, Briscoe was tiny for a pro quarterback, at just 5’10” and 178 pounds. He was originally slated to play defensive back as a Denver Broncos rookie in the 1968 AFL season, but when the Broncos had quarterback problems that season, they went with the former Nebraska-Omaha signal-caller, who became the first African-American in the AFL to start at quarterback. He threw 14 TDs and 13 interceptions, but completed only 41.5 percent of his passes and finished with a 62.9 QB rating.

Briscoe was determined to keep playing quarterback for the Broncos, but when Denver declared the Marlin Briscoe experiment to be over, he asked to be released, and ended up with the Buffalo Bills in 1969. Switching to wide receiver with the Bills, Briscoe proved to be a better fit at that position, and even ended up making the Pro Bowl in 1970. He retired after the 1976 season with 3,537 receiving yards and 30 touchdown receptions.

5 ANTWAAN RANDLE EL

via slate.com

Randle El was a college star from his first game, as he broke the NCAA total offense record for freshmen by passing for 385 yards and rushing for 82, totaling 467 for the game. And when his career at Indiana was over, he became the first NCAA Division I player to pass for, and rush for at least 40 career touchdowns each. And if that wasn’t enough proof of his athletic ability, he had also suited up for the Hoosiers’ basketball and baseball teams.

Randle El wasn’t Bo Jackson, as football was his only professional sport, but he was a pretty good wide receiver in the NFL. Way undersized for QB at 5’10”, Randle El used his speed to put up decent numbers at WR, though he was more effective on special teams, as he returned two punts for touchdowns in both the 2003 and 2005 seasons. He also turned out to be a pinpoint passer in the pros, albeit only on trick plays – in his nine-year NFL career, he completed 22 of 27 passes for 323 yards, and connected for six TD passes with no interceptions.

4 JOSH CRIBBS

via cleveland.com

Before Julian Edelman made his name at Kent State, they had Cribbs putting up some gaudy numbers as their starting quarterback. As a junior, he compiled 14 passing and rushing touchdowns apiece, and after an even more brilliant senior season, he graduated as the Golden Flashes’ career leader in passing yardage and rushing touchdowns. But as a 6’1”-192 college quarterback, he was overlooked in the 2005 NFL draft, signing with the Cleveland Browns that season as an undrafted free agent.

Cribbs proved to be far more gifted as a kick returner, as he set a Browns franchise record in return yards as a rookie. In 10 NFL seasons, he returned eight kickoffs for touchdowns, all in his first five years, and that was good enough to tie him for the league record. He also finished his tenure with the Browns at second-place in all-purpose yards, ranking right behind the legendary Jim Brown.

3 FREDDIE SOLOMON

via archives.sfexaminer.com

Solomon was the University of Tampa’s last starting quarterback before the school shut down its football program, but even then, his blazing speed made it clear he had better potential elsewhere on the offense. And like a lot of the ex-quarterbacks you’ve seen on this list, he was small – very small – at only 5’11”-185.

The Miami Dolphins, who drafted Solomon in the second round of the 1975 draft, had no plans of playing him at QB, as they already had Bob Griese, Don Strock, and Earl Morrall at the position. He was promptly converted to wide receiver, and also excelled as a return specialist during his three-year run with the Dolphins. But he’s best-known for his eight seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, where he became one of Joe Montana’s favorite targets and, in his final season, a veteran mentor for a rookie wideout by the name of Jerry Rice. He ended his career in 1985 with 5,846 yards and 48 touchdowns, with five more TDs via kickoff and punt returns.

2 BRIAN MITCHELL

via sportingnews.com

Forgive us if you’ve heard this before, but Mitchell was, at 5’11”-225, simply too short to be seriously considered as a top NFL quarterback. That’s despite the fact he was the first college player to pass for at least 5,000 yards and rush for at least 3,000 yards. His running ability was what the Washington Redskins saw when they took him in the fifth round of the 1990 draft, but that’s not even what made him a standout in the pros.

As it turned out, it was Mitchell’s ability as a return specialist that took him to the Pro Bowl in 1995, and when he ended his 14-year career after the 2003 season, he was the NFL’s career leader in kick and punt return yards. And believe it or not, he’s less than 250 yards short of Jerry Rice’s career record in all-purpose yardage.

1 PAUL HORNUNG

via alchetron.com

It’s ironic to note that Hornung, who achieved great NFL success as a running back, receiver, and kicker, was mediocre at best at the position he mainly played in college – quarterback. To be fair, the 1956 Heisman Trophy winner didn’t really have good passing numbers at Notre Dame, throwing only three touchdown passes and getting picked 13 times. But he was a skilled athlete who could do it all on the football field, and that’s what won him the Heisman and convinced the Green Bay Packers to make him the top pick of the 1957 draft.

As a pro, Hornung thrived when Vince Lombardi took over as Green Bay’s head coach in the 1959 season. In 1960, he made All-Pro honors at halfback/kicker, rushing for 13 touchdowns and 671 yards, and adding two receiving TDs and 257 yards on 28 receptions. He also made 15 of 28 field goals, and made all 41 of his extra point attempts. If you’re doing the math with us, that’s good for 176 points, an NFL record that stood till LaDainian Tomlinson broke it in 2006 with 186.

Hornung was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, and it definitely wasn’t because of his passing – in nine NFL seasons, all with the Packers, he completed only 24 of 55 passes, with five TDs and four interceptions.

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15 Successful NFL Players You Won't Believe Started Off As Quarterbacks