The NFL is a league dominated by quarterbacks. For the first 50 or so years of American Football, teams won by having physical, hard-hitting defenses and grueling running games. But since the early 2000s, teams have transitioned into a pass-happy league where the best teams have a reliable quarterback behind center.
Over the years, we’ve witnessed quarterbacks taken early in every draft. In fact, since 1998, 14 of the first-overall picks have been quarterbacks. Plenty of quarterbacks were selected in the top-10 after that. Prior to Peyton Manning being drafted first in 1998, only nine quarterbacks had been selected first-overall from 1963-1993.
But not all first-overall picks that were quarterbacks became stars. Sometimes, they have been. Sometimes, they’ve been complete busts. Other times, the top quarterback in any given draft class ended up being a late-round gem.
Now, we take a look back at the best and worst quarterback taken each draft year since 2002. When it comes to the worst of each class, we tried to mainly select guys who actually started rather than spend virtually their whole careers on the bench.
Best of 2016: Dak Prescott
Dak Prescott was taken in the fourth round, 135th-overall by the Cowboys. He was supposed to just be nice insurance if Tony Romo went down. Well, Romo hurt his back in the preseason. Prescott impressed in the preseason. Next thing you know, the Cowboys are one of the NFL’s elite teams because of Prescott’s efforts.
In his first 11 games as a starter, he went 10-1. He completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 2,835 yards, 18 touchdowns, and two interceptions. He beat Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau Field, hammered the Cincinnati Bengals, and beat the elite Philadelphia Eagles at home. There’s no denying he’s a future star.
Worst of 2016: Paxton Lynch
Here’s the thing, Paxton Lynch really could blossom into one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. But most guys who were drafted in 2016 have either not played enough or haven’t been bad enough to take this spot on our list. Lynch is playing on the defending Super Bowl champions but looked awful in his only start thus far.
He looked solid coming on in relief of Trevor Siemian, tossing 170 yards with a touchdown pass.. But when it was his turn to start against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 5, one of the NFL’s worst defences made him look awful.
Lynch threw for just 223 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the loss to Atlanta. He had no pocket awareness, forced some errant throws and showed he’s not ready for NFL. With that short of a sample size, he’s on the list. For now.
Best of 2015: Jameis Winston
Jameis Winston was the top of his draft class, and hasn’t disappointed one bit. He won the NFL Rookie of the Year honors after tossing 4,042 yards, 22 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions as a member of one of the NFL’s worst teams. Winston also added an incredible 213 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Without a doubt, he is a superstar in the making.
Winston started out strong in 2016, completing 59.2 percent of his passes for 2,037 yards, 17 touchdowns, and nine interceptions through his first eight games. Winston hasn’t had much help around him this season with injuries to Doug Martin. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defence is also one of the NFL’s worst, giving Winston little room for error. If the team gets better as a whole, he’s one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks.
Worst of 2015: Garrett Grayson
The New Orleans Saints took Garrett Grayson with the 75th-overall pick. They had high hopes that he’d be able to blossom into Drew Brees’ successor. Obviously, he hasn’t had much of a chance to prove his worth with the future Hall of Famer running the show, but the preseason play we saw from Grayson is lackluster. He’s one of the few quarterbacks selected in this draft that has played enough to show he’s not, well, that great.
In a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he tossed 128 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Grayson has more time to learn under Brees and emerge as his successor. But for now, there hasn’t been a lot to celebrate with Grayson. It’s entirely possible he doesn’t even get a chance to start.
Best of 2014: Derek Carr
People seem to forget now how horrible the Raiders were for a decade-and-a-half, but excellent drafting over the years has put them back on the football map. Derek Carr is now in his third NFL season and is on his way to bringing playoff football back to Oakland for the first time in 14 years.
Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree have become one of the NFL’s premier receiving tandems – which has helped turn Carr into a star. He’s on pace to toss 4,000 passing yards for the first time in his young career.
It’s hard to see somebody deserving the MVP right now more than Carr. He’s given the Raiders a legitimate quarterback who will have them compete for years to come. He’s easily the top quarterback of the 2014 class.
Worst of 2014: Johnny Manziel
Johnny Manziel was a Heisman Trophy winner at Texas A&M. Many scouts thought he was the next big thing in the NFL, but others also thought he had bust written all over him. Nonetheless, the Cleveland Browns took a shot on him – hoping he’d be this team’s first relevant quarterback since (insert a good Browns quarterback here after the Otto Graham era).
Manziel didn’t get the starting job until the second half of the 2014 season. However, Manziel not only failed to show his talents on the field, but he also didn’t show much pride in his job. He ignored concussion protocol testing, constantly went out partying despite his team’s curfew rules, and he got into trouble with the law.
Best of 2013: Geno Smith
Yes, the New York Jets third-string quarterback is the best quarterback of 2013. Some draft years are fun. In all honesty, the 2013 NFL Draft was easily one of the worst in recent memory. Bonus points if you can tell us who the first pick was without Googling it.
Even though there were very low expectations for Geno Smith, he actually did have some nice moments with the Jets in his rookie year. The Jets, who were picked by many to be among the NFL’s worst, actually went 8-8 and beat a handful of quality teams like the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints.
Smith tossed 3,046 yards with 12 touchdowns against 21 interceptions. Yes, those stats were horrible. The Jets also didn’t have Brandon Marshall or Eric Decker as their receivers. Smith turned the ball over a lot, but looked like a decent game manager on a mediocre team.
Worst of 2013: E.J. Manuel
We really haven’t been able to see much of the 2013 quarterbacks. For E.J. Manuel, he takes the worst of 2013 simply because he was the first signal-caller taken in the draft that failed to become much of anything.
He started 10 games in 2013, tossing 1,972 passing yards for 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Manuel did show some signs of turning it around, but he was never able to build off of that. He only played give games in 2014 and lost the job to veteran Kyle Orton. In 2015, career-backup Tyrod Taylor became the guy in Buffalo and has held onto the job since.
Best of 2012: Andrew Luck
There were some silly people out there who thought the Indianapolis Colts should have selected Robert Griffin III over Andrew Luck. Thank goodness the Colts gave me a nice birthday present at the time by taking Luck – who scouts considered the best prospect they ever scouted.
I remember Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller telling me (a Colts fan) that it would take ZERO years for the Colts to compete for the playoffs after selecting Luck. He was right, as the Colts went to the playoffs in his first three seasons.
Luck tossed 4,374 yards for 23 touchdowns and 18 picks in his rookie year. He followed it up with 3,822 yards, 23 touchdowns, and nine picks in 2013. In 2014, he led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes (he threw for 4,761 yards).
Terrible management, drafting, and free agent signings held back Luck from reaching his full potential on a mediocre team. But the man quickly helped the world forget that Peyton Manning was the quarterback there for 13 years.
Worst of 2012: Brandon Weeden
Many questioned why the Cleveland Browns wasted the 22nd pick of the 2012 Draft on a quarterback that was already 28-years-old and didn’t have much upside. But in typical Cleveland Browns fashion, they went with Brandon Weeden who has since become a third-string quarterback in the NFL.
Weeden was mediocre in his rookie year: He tossed 3,385 passing yards for 14 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Those stats look great for anyone who has had to play quarterback for the Browns in the past 20 years. He started eight games in 2013 – tossing just 1,731 yards along with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Weeden was a lackluster quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014 and 2015 (just ask my editor here who’s a die-hard fan of the team) and eventually found himself in Houston. On the bright side, Weeden is probably better than Brock Osweiler.
Best of 2011: Cam Newton
This might be the easiest choice I had to make.
There were some naysayers who didn’t think Super Cam had the ability to lead the Carolina Panthers to glory. Some thought he would be a complete bust – but the Panthers took him with the first pick and it was the smartest thing this franchise has ever done.
Cam Newton took a lackluster Panther team in 2011 and completed 60 percent of his passes for 4,051 yards, 21 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. His stats took a major dip in 2012, but he would lead his Panthers to an NFC South crown the following three seasons.
Everyone remembers last season where he tossed 35 touchdowns against 10 picks while rushing for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns. Super Cam won the league MVP and got his Panthers to Super Bowl 50 before Von Miller said no to a championship for Carolina.
Worst of 2011: Christian Ponder
The 2011 NFL Draft is easily one of the best ever. Newton was taken first (as you know) but so were Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Aldon Smith, Tyron Smith, Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Cameron Jordan, Muhammad Wilkerson, Andy Dalton, Justin Houston, and others.
But the first round was loaded with quarterbacks who became busts. Blaine Gabbert at least showed his talents in San Francisco, but he wasn’t worth the 10th pick, just like how Jake Locker wasn’t worth the eighth pick.
Christian Ponder was the 12th pick for the Minnesota Vikings – but he never looked decent at any point in his NFL career. His “best” season was 2012: 2,935 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Yes, he played all 16 games that season. The Vikings reached the playoffs, but that was entirely on Adrian Peterson and his MVP season.
Best of 2010: Sam Bradford
Sam Bradford hasn’t lived up to the hype of being a first-overall pick, but he was certainly far from being a complete bust. Injuries and having to waste his first few years on a lackluster St. Louis Rams team are more to blame, if anything else. He didn’t look that great with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015, either.
But his hot start to 2016 with the Minnesota Vikings went to show how good Bradford really can be if he has the right resources. If it weren’t for a miserable offensive line, he could have put up his most productive season of this fairly young career.
Bradford hasn’t passed for more than 3,725 yards in a season, but his 78 touchdowns and 52 touchdowns on mediocre Rams/Eagles squads just show how solid he really was. You just didn’t get to see it because of how poor the talent around him was.
Worst of 2010: Jimmy Clausen
I really wanted to place Tim Tebow on this list, but it’s hard to ignore that he DID bring back football magic in the Mile High City – for half a season, anyway. Tebow certainly wasn’t a great NFL quarterback, but the man did win games and showed his talents as a running back, if anything else.
But Jimmy Clausen, not Cam Newton, was supposed to be the Panthers’ savior. At least Tebow didn’t have high expectations.
Clausen was taken with the 48th pick and led the Panthers to a mere single win in 13 starts with them in his rookie year. He tossed a terrible three touchdowns and even more awful nine interceptions and posted a 24.2 quarterback rating. The Panthers were quick to move on from the Clausen project by taking Newton first-overall a year later.
Best of 2009: Matthew Stafford
The first pick of the 2009 Draft has certainly been a difference maker for a Detroit Lions squad that has historically been among the NFL’s worst for decades. He and Calvin Johnson ignited an offense that was so exciting to watch that led the Lions to playoff berths in 2011 and 2014.
Matthew Stafford broke out in 2011 with 5,038 passing yards for 41 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He’s tossed no fewer than 4,257 yards since and is off to another blistering start in 2016 that has the Lions right in the driver’s seat for the NFC North Division.
Worst of 2009: Curtis Painter
Please do not ask me what it was like to be a Colts fan in 2011 when this guy was convinced they could win the AFC South even though Peyton Manning was injured for the entire season. You see, this Curtis Painter guy wasn’t supposed to be anything great. He was a sixth-round draft choice by the Colts and if anything was to just provide insurance for Manning.
Entering Week 16 of the 2009 season, the Colts were playing for a perfect season until head coach Jim Caldwell chose to sit his starters in the second half. Painter threw a pick and lost a fumble that resulted in a New York Jets touchdown. Oh, joy.
Painter got to start nine games in 2011: But is a 54.3 completion percentage for six touchdowns and nine interceptions anything to be thrilled about? No. The guy does have nice hair and his last name suggests he can become a painter if anything else.
Best of 2008: Matt Ryan
There have been plenty of critics over the years because this man only has one playoff win in his career. But there’s simply no denying how remarkable of a quarterback Matt Ryan has been on a team that had to move on quickly from the legend of Michael Vick.
The Falcons have made the playoffs four times with Ryan – including the 2012 NFC Championship Game. He’s on pace to easily toss for his sixth-straight 4,000-yard season and is a legitimate MVP candidate in 2016. Matty Ice and Julio Jones have formed a combination like no other since the latter joined the NFL in 2011.
Worst of 2008: Chad Henne
Chad Henne was able to show some flashes every now and then, but he was mediocre at best far too often. The Dolphins took a chance on him with the 57th pick, but they would live to regret it.
He showed promise in 2009 when he started 14 games and completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 2,878 yards for 12 touchdowns…but he threw 14 interceptions. 2010 was his first year as a full-time starter, but he only had 3,301 yards and 15 touchdowns against 19 interceptions. Henne would become a starter again for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012, starting 10 games and throwing 11 touchdowns against 11 picks. But really, Henne was always a turnover machine and just never had the proper mechanics to be a solid quarterback.
Best of 2007: Drew Stanton
Yeah, this is no joke. The best quarterback from 2007 is that guy who’s Bruce Arians’ backup with the Arizona Cardinals. That’s not a knock against Drew Stanton, but a career backup isn’t supposed to be the top quarterback of any given draft class. Well, 2007 was a little bit different.
Just about every quarterback taken in 2007 ended up being a mediocre backup who got only got a handful of starts in their career. Stanton was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the second round, but it wasn’t until he joined the Cardinals where we saw he really wasn’t all that bad.
Stanton started nine games over an injured Carson Palmer in 2014, tossing 1,711 yards, seven touchdowns and five interception. He suffered a season-ending injury and the Stanton run came to an abrupt end.
Worst of 2007: JaMarcus Russell
He was supposed to be the new franchise icon of the Oakland Raiders. They took him with the first pick instead of taking future Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson or annual Pro Bowler Joe Thomas. It would be arguably the worst draft decision ever made by the Raiders.
The 6-foot-6 star was a dual threat in the passing game and in the ground game, but he had a terrible attitude and just couldn’t adjust to the NFL level. His first full season came in 2008, when he tossed 2,423 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions while completing just 53.8 percent of his passes.
2009 would be JaMarcus Russell’s last year in the NFL. He only tossed 1,287 yards in 10 games with three touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Oakland quickly moved on from Russell and it would be five years until they found Derek Carr as their franchise quarterback.
Best of 2006: Jay Cutler
No really, the 2006 NFL Draft Class was so bad for quarterbacks that the best quarterback is the guy who signed the most atrocious contract in NFL history (seven years, $126.7 million). But to Jay Cutler’s credit, he isn’t actually as bad as someone people might think.
The Denver Broncos gave up on him after the 2008 season and his success didn’t translate much to the Windy City – save for a trip to the 2010 NFC Championship Game. Even then, he sprained his MCL and left the game which prompted Bears fans to call Cutler a “quitter.” It was like the poor guy never did anything right.
From 2007-2015, Cutler did reach at least 3,000 yards in seven of nine seasons. Heading into 2016, he did have 204 career touchdowns and 141 interceptions which is pretty sad – but not horrible. If Cutler ever had the right system, he’d honestly be pretty decent. Who’s the best Bears quarterback of the last 20 years anyway?
Worst of 2006: Matt Leinart
He was taken 10th-overall by the Arizona Cardinals. Matt Leinart was never able to replicate the success he had at USC, however. Even the great Larry Fitzgerald simply wasn’t enough to help Leinart become the star Arizona saw in him.
His 2006 rookie season wasn’t too disastrous. He did complete 56.8 percent of his passes for 2,547 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Sadly, injuries derailed Leinart’s career as he would only play in 21 more games through the next five seasons after that. But 4,065 yards, 15 touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and six fumbles in 33 career starts isn’t really that special.
Best of 2005: Aaron Rodgers
He’s already the best quarterback in the NFL and could easily go down as the best quarterback in NFL history. Aaron Rodgers had to sit behind Brett Favre for three years in Green Bay, but it’s been worth it. The two-time league MVP already has the record for best touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Rodgers guided the Packers to a Super Bowl XLVI championship and was the MVP of that game. No quarterback has ever displayed the ideal combination of brains, accuracy, athleticism, ball control, throwing speed and and quickness. Rodgers has everything you ask for in a quarterback.
Worst of 2005: Charlie Frye
Feel free to guess who drafted Charlie Fyre with the 67th-pick in 2005. We’ll give you a hint: It’s a franchise that usually picks in the top-three. They usually draft busts. More specifically, they usually draft quarterbacks who end up being complete busts. Yes, that would be the Cleveland Browns.
Frye was a star at Akron for four years, so the Browns drafted him in hopes that he wouldn’t be the next Tim Couch. Unfortunately, Couch ended up being a better player after all for the Browns than Frye.
His only season as a starter was in 2006 – he started 13 games and completed 64.1 percent of his passes for 2,454 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. The man would go on to be a backup in Seattle and Oakland as well. He was out of the NFL by 2009, finishing with 17 touchdowns, 29 interceptions, and 11 fumbles in his career.
Best of 2004: Ben Roethlisberger
This was a stacked class that also featured Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. Thing is, Rivers hasn’t been able to have much playoff success. Manning is as inconsistent as it gets in the regular season. Big Ben is great in the playoffs (the two Super Bowls and all back it up) plus he’s one of the NFL’s most consistent quarterbacks in the regular season.
He guided the Steelers to 15 wins in his rookie season, then followed it up with a Super Bowl XL victory over the powerhouse Seattle Seahawks. Ben Roethlisberger has become one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks since 2014. That year, he set a career high with 4,952 passing yards and tied a career-best 32 touchdowns.
Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown team up with Big Ben to give him one of the best offences the NFL has ever seen. Roethlisberger has transformed the Steelers into a model organization again and continues to be a joy to watch every game.
Worst of 2004: Jim Sorgi
Pardon the bias here as I did watch a bit of Jim Sorgi. As Peyton Manning’s biggest fan, seeing Sorgi play was never fun – it meant that The Sheriff was either beat up or was taking the day off. And then we had to see a below-average backup. Oh, joy.
The most games Sorgi appeared in was five during the 2005 season. That was because the Colts gave Manning plenty of rest during their 14-2 campaign. Sorgi completed 68.9 percent of his passes for 444 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. But his overall career stats in 14 games weren’t fun: 929 yards, six touchdowns, and one interception.
Sorry again for my bias. I’m sure some people wanted to see Matt Schaub or J.P. Losman in here. But I can’t do it! Sorgi wasn’t horrible, but he really was a major downgrade from Manning. Then again, so is just about every quarterback in NFL history.
Best of 2003: Carson Palmer
The first pick of the 2003 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals has had one heckuva career. He led them to the playoffs in 2005 and 2009, but he never won a game there. After losing the starter’s job to Andy Dalton in 2011, the Raiders did the most Raiders thing ever and gave up a first-round pick for Carson Palmer.
Palmer flopped in Oakland and his career seemed to be on the downside. Then, Bruce Arians decided to bring him to the Arizona Cardinals. Suddenly, Palmer was among the NFL’s top passing quarterbacks. He was enjoying a career year in 2014 before a torn ACL ruined his season.
He led them to the NFC Championship in 2015, tossing five interceptions however.
Worst of 2003: Rex Grossman
Hard to believe that you would see a guy who started in a Super Bowl on this list under the “Worst,” section. But believe us while you can – Rex Grossman was certainly not great. His overall play was really…Gross…man!
The 22nd-overall pick of the 2003 NFL Draft had the luxury of playing on a stacked Chicago Bears defence in 2006 that helped his team reach the Super Bowl. In that game, Grossman only tossed 165 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. His Bears defence kept Peyton Manning in check for much of the game, but Grossman simply lost it for them.
After his 23 touchdowns in 2006, Grossman never tossed more than 16 in a season. He last played for the Washington Redskins in 2011, but never became the star quarterback that the Bears had hoped for.
Best of 2002: Josh McCown
Yeah, most people aren’t really big on Josh McCown as a decent starting quarterback. But as we’ve touched base on in past listings, some of these drafts just didn’t have great quarterbacks. We are sorry.
To be fair to McCown, playing for the Arizona Cardinals, Oakland Raiders, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Cleveland Browns certainly isn’t all that desirable. But in 2013, he did show his potential when he had to replace an injured Jay Cutler.
In eight appearances, McCown tossed for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns, and just one interception. The Bears’ choice to go with Cutler over McCown in the following offseason would be one they’d forever regret. McCown has been a quality backup his whole career, he just never got to be a full-time starter in the right system.
Worst of 2002: David Carr
David Carr is a Super Bowl champion quarterback…
As a backup to Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLVI.
Carr was the top pick by the Houston Texans in the 2002 NFL Draft, but the Texans were an expansion team and simply awful for years. He was sacked an incredible (in a bad way) 76 times in 2002 – an NFL record. His “best” season was in 2004 when he tossed for 3,531 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions.
Carr was out of the NFL by 2012, finishing with 14,452 yards, 65 touchdowns, 71 interceptions, and a terrible 41 fumbles. Those numbers may not sound bad compared to other quarterbacks, but this was a first-overall pick. His brother Derek has sure enjoyed quite a career with the Raiders…so far.
Some scouts even say Carr wasn’t drafted until the second round of 2014 because they were worried he would be as big of a bust as his brother. At least one Carr brother lived up to the hype.
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