Drafting a quarterback is one of the most stressful things that a team can do. While football is unquestionably a team sport, there’s a very good reason why some of the greatest teams of all-time – or even just Super Bowl winners – had a great quarterback at the helm. A quarterback is more than just the leader of the offense; he’s more often than not the leader of the team. How can even the best scouts be expected to look into the world of college football and find that one quarterback that will be able to lead an NFL team to glory?
As understandably difficult as it is to find the perfect quarterback in the draft, it’s often impossible to ease the pain of fans who have to watch as their team makes the wrong quarterback pick. Of course, the real pain doesn’t come on draft day. The real pain comes months down the line when it becomes painfully obvious which quarterbacks these teams should have picked. While there’s nothing that those fans can do to wind back time and help their team make the right quarterback pick, we can still rub a little salt in those draft day wounds by looking at the top 15 NFL quarterbacks who were drafted in the wrong spot and where they should have gone.
15 2003 – Tony Romo to the Jacksonville Jaguars
While Tony Romo’s legacy is more often than not tied to his lack of post-season success, there is no denying that he has been one of the most impressive quarterbacks of his era from a pure statistics standpoint. When Romo took over the Dallas Cowboys, they were a shell of their former selves. The franchise was clinging on to its glory days before Romo took the field and kept them in contention. Part of the reason he’s so highly thought of is because nobody even thought to draft him in 2003, but we feel confident that the Jacksonville Jaguars would have gotten full value out of Romo had they taken him with the 7th overall pick that year instead of Byron Leftwich. Of course, it’s hard to fault them for not seeing Romo’s full potential.
14 1999 – Donovan McNabb to the Cleveland Browns
Much like Tony Romo, the career of Donovan McNabb will always have an asterisk attached to it. As brilliant as McNabb was, he was never quite able to get over that hump and lead the Eagles to Super Bowl glory. Because of this, some people forget just how great McNabb was in his prime. He was a do it all quarterback that was always reliable and often great. Compare that to the career of Tim Couch who the Cleveland Browns selected one pick ahead of Donovan McNabb during the 1999 NFL Draft. Despite actually leading the Browns to the postseason for the first time in years, Couch had a serious interception problem that he did not offset with brilliant plays and high-yardage seasons. In hindsight, McNabb was the obvious pick here.
13 2012 – Kirk Cousins to the Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos fans will remember 2012 as the year that Peyton Manning became the leader of the team. Manning may have joined the Broncos with the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he was able to eventually lead Denver to a Super Bowl while turning in a few spectacular performances along the way. While Manning deservedly captured all the headlines in 2012, the Broncos did select another quarterback that year. With the 57th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Broncos selected Brock Osweiler when, in hindsight, they probably would have been better off with Kirk Cousins.
Ignoring the fallout between Osweiler and the Broncos, the fact of the matter is that Cousins currently appears to be the more complete of the two quarterbacks and may very well be leading the Broncos today had Denver picked him.
12 2011 – Andy Dalton to the Tennessee Titans
Andy Dalton is too often denied the respect he deserves. While some are hesitant to call him an elite quarterback, the fact of the matter is that Dalton has been helping the Bengals overachieve ever since he joined the team in 2011. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has A.J. Green to throw to, but Dalton is still a truly great NFL quarterback. He’s the exact kind of quarterback that the Tennessee Titans wish they could go back in time and draft. The Titans selected Jake Locker 8th overall in 2011, which many folks saw as a reach, considering Locker's stock had fallen significantly heading into the draft.
Tennessee soon learned that Locker would have difficulty staying healthy and never found consistency in his game. While the Titans eventually righted their wrong somewhat by drafting Marcus Mariota, you have to believe they would have loved to get a franchise quarterback a few years earlier.
11 2014 – Derek Carr to the Houston Texans
It’s always fun to look back at undervalued quarterbacks and try to see why it was that teams did not believe they would be as great as they eventually were. Derek Carr seemingly fell victim to the “who did you beat?” syndrome. This is what happens when a college quarterback puts up gaudy numbers but does so without playing on one of the top teams in the nation. Carr’s college career at Fresno State led to him falling victim to this syndrome. While a few teams missed out on the Carr, the Houston Texans are the most notable name on that list.
Houston was in a position to snag both Jadeveon Clowney and Derek Carr in the 2014 Draft but missed their chance. The fact that they eventually took Tom Savage in the fourth round just adds salt to this wound.
10 1979 – Joe Montana to the Cincinnati Bengals
It’s funny to see how rarely all-time great quarterbacks are actually selected with the top picks of any given NFL Draft. There’s just something about the position that eludes even the greatest scouts in the world. For instance, in 1979, an astonishing 81 picks rolled by before anyone thought to take Joe Montana. How did that happen? Well, Montana was mostly known for leading some spectacular comebacks in college which some NFL scouts didn’t think really made him worthy of a high draft pick. Little did they know that Montana would make a Hall of Fame career out of such performances.
While many teams would love to go back in time and take Montana, the Cincinnati Bengals stand as the biggest victim of that oversight. Instead of Montana, they selected the very forgettable Jack Thompson with the third overall pick.
9 2006 – Jay Cutler to the Arizona Cardinals
This is a bit of a tricky one given that an argument for Jay Cutler going higher in the draft means that you must also somehow justify spending a higher draft pick on Jay Cutler. Cutler’s career thus far has featured a pretty even mix of spectacular and underwhelming. Depending on which Bears fan you ask, he’s either the guy that’s helped Chicago stay relevant or the reason that team can never seem to get ahead. Still, when you compare him to the guy that was selected just one spot ahead in the 2006 Draft – Matt Leinart – it’s clear that that Arizona would have much rather have taken Jay Cutler. Would Cutler have led the Cardinals to a Super Bowl? Maybe not, but he certainly would have done more than Leinart.
8 1973 – Ron Jaworski to the Chicago Bears
Before he became a talking head for ESPN, Ron Jaworski was a pretty great NFL quarterback. Granted, there’s a reason that he isn’t in the NFL Hall of Fame, but Jaws earned the respect of longtime Eagles fans everywhere through his surprising on the field maturity and his toughness. He made the Eagles a perennial playoff contender, if not quite a Super Bowl team.
In any case, he was certainly a better quarterback than Gary Huff. Who was Gary Huff? He was the quarterback that the Bears selected the same year that Jaworski went to the Eagles. If you’re wondering how good Huff was, just know that half of the man’s Wikipedia page is dedicated to his post-football career. He only lasted three years on the Bears and failed to make nearly the same impact that Jaws once did.
7 2012 – Russell Wilson to the Washington Redskins
Some people say that the reason so many great NFL quarterbacks come from the late rounds of the draft is because they so happen to be drafted by teams that are in a far better position than those who take their quarterbacks in the first round of the draft. This argument has been made to justify Russell Wilson’s success, but it feels a bit thin in the case of this particular Super Bowl winning signal caller. Wilson isn’t the type of quarterback that will light up scoreboards on a regular basis, but he’s a true leader that just about any team would love to have.
Few teams, however, would love to have him more than the Redskins. Washington could have avoided making that horrible RG III trade, kept their draft picks, and snagged Wilson in the second round had they known what he would turn out to be.
6 1998 – Matt Hasselbeck to the San Diego Chargers
Speaking of Seattle quarterbacks, let’s talk about Matt Hasselbeck. Hasselbeck was not the kind of quarterback that you wanted on your team if you were expecting your team’s quarterback to put the game on his shoulders and run away with it. He was, however, a pretty good leader and a great game manager that helped the Seahawks reach a Super Bowl. He’s the exact kind of quarterback that the San Diego Chargers would have loved to have had once upon a time. Having missed out on the privilege of drafting Peyton Manning in 1998, the Chargers infamously drafted Ryan Leaf with the second overall pick.
What they should have done was avoid that dumpster fire, picked up some skill players, and let Hasselbeck come in and serve as their leader for several years.
5 2005 – Aaron Rodgers to the San Francisco 49ers
For years, Green Bay Packers fans patiently waited to see whether or not they were going to get the chance to mock the Green Bay scout team for selecting Aaron Rodgers in the first round in 2005. While those fans were ready to believe that the Packers had drafted Brett Favre’s eventual replacement, they were also concerned that the team had jumped the gun on selecting the next Green Bay quarterback when they could have filled some other need.
Now, of course, we know that the team most certainly made the right move. In fact, they made the move that the San Francisco 49ers should have made when they took Alex Smith with the first overall pick that year. It’s frightening to imagine what kind of dynasty the 49ers might have had if they had Aaron Rodgers at the helm.
4 1991 – Brett Favre to the Seattle Seahawks
Sticking with Green Bay quarterbacks, we move on to Brett Favre. Brett Favre’s college career is interesting to go back and look at now that we know the type of quarterback he would become. While Favre’s college days were filled with great performances, he was most notable for his miraculous comeback from a surgery that required doctors to remove 30 inches of his small intestine. He wasn’t quite the gunslinger that would define his legacy.
While the Packers kind of backed into Favre following a trade with Atlanta, it’s the Seattle Seahawks that should have taken him in the first place. Instead, they took Dan McGwire with the 16th overall pick in 1991. McGwire’s best season as an NFL player saw him go off for 578 yards and one touchdown.
3 2016 – Dak Prescott to the Los Angeles Rams
Is it too early to make this call considering that the quarterbacks involved have barely had the chance to show how they can perform at the NFL level? Maybe, but based on the sample size we’ve seen so far, it feels like it’s time to discuss the possibility that the Los Angeles Rams may have picked the wrong quarterback. In one NFL season, Dak Prescott showcased the kind of leadership and maturity that is so often associated with the greatest to ever play the game.
In one NFL season, Jared Goff has showcased an uninspiring style of play that is so often associated with true busts. For all we know, Prescott could end up becoming a huge bust/one-year wonder and Goff could go on to have a Hall of Fame career. At the moment, however, it certainly looks like Los Angeles would have been better off going with Prescott.
2 1983 – Dan Marino to the Kansas City Chiefs
Ah, the infamous 1983 draft. ESPN produced a 30 for 30 documentary special titled From Elway to Marino all about how two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game were selected on the opposite ends of one of the most quarterback heavy first rounds in NFL Draft history. The underlying message of the story is that many teams missed out by not taking Dan Marino when they had the chance, just as the Colts messed up by burning their relationship with Elway to the ground.
The biggest victim of the Marino oversight was certainly the Kansas City Chiefs. Instead of Marino, they took young Todd Blackledge with the 7th overall pick. Blackledge ended up having an unspectacular career and later expressed surprise that a team took him above Marino.
1 2000 – Tom Brady to the New York Jets
As the years go on, it becomes more and more difficult to deny Tom Brady his place atop the list of all-time great NFL quarterbacks. No matter how you judge a great quarterback, you have to consider Tom Brady to be – at the very least – on the short list of the best to ever play the game. Brady’s tremendous NFL career started when the Patriots selected him in the 6th round of the 2000 NFL Draft with the 199th overall pick, which has led many fans to wonder what would have happened if their team had been the one to put their faith in Brady.
Given that the New York Jets were the only team to select a quarterback in the first round that year, we'll go with them. They used that pick on the good, but not great, Chad Pennington, and later had to endure years playing in the same division as Brady. We feel safe in saying that they regret this missed opportunity more than most.