Of the ten greatest quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL, only two of them, Peyton Manning and John Elway were selected with the first overall pick in the first round of the NFL Draft. Almost all the great ones were passed on by multiple teams and often times by EVERY team in the NFL before someone decided to take a chance on them. Which means every team regrets missing their opportunity to grab a great quarterback. But what would have happened if those great quarterbacks would not have slipped and slid down the draft boards and a team with some foresight and daring had taken a chance on them earlier. Where would some of the later round gems ended up if teams could have another chance to draft one of these guys? The answer will not always be the first possible team with the first possible pick because different circumstances each year influence any team’s decisions. Our estimations will assume a player that dropped in the draft did so for good reasons and as a result they probably would not have gone in the first round anyway if they slipped all the way to let’s say, the fourth. But based on the needs of the teams at the time, and who else those teams did select, among other factors, we will determine the 15 star QBs who were drafted late and where they shoulda, coulda, woulda went if only front offices were a little bit smarter.
15 Fran Tarkenton, Philadelphia Eagles, Second round
Fran Tarkenton was not drafted until the third round with the 29th pick in the 1961 NFL Draft. He was the third quarterback taken. Despite becoming a star and taking the Vikings to three Super Bowls, it is unlikely any team would have grabbed him in the first round as the majority of that year’s first round picks became Pro-Bowlers or even Hall of Famers. One team that might have grabbed Tarkenton, if they had the chance again, is the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles selected two quarterbacks in 1961, including one just a few picks after Tarkenton. If they were a bit more confident in Tarkenton, they could have gotten their quarterback sooner by using their second round pick, which was number 28 overall, one pick before the one the Vikings used on Tarkenton.
14 Kurt Warner, Buffalo Bills, sixth round
Everyone assumes Tom Brady fell the furthest of all the great quarterbacks when he was not chosen until the 199th pick in the 1999 NFL Draft. But five years earlier another QB dropped even further, and in fact was not even drafted. In 1994 Kurt Warner went undrafted but signed with the Green Bay Packers. He ended up being cut and did not make it back to the NFL for five years. If a team were looking to get the Kurt Warner who ran the Greatest Show on Turf it would need to be a team with a great offense, but a good quarterback who would remain in place while Warner learned and grew over a few years. One team that could have been a great fit was the Buffalo Bills. With Jim Kelly entrenched at QB for a few more years behind a high powered offense, Warner could easily have spent that time developing in Buffalo rather than in the Arena League and Europe. The Bills did not draft a QB in 1994 but they did have 11 selections so they could have easily taken a chance with one of their two sixth round picks by selecting Warner.
13 Russell Wilson, Denver Broncos, third round
It was generally thought that the 2013 NFL Draft was a two quarterback draft. The only question was whether to go with Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III. Luck had been the consensus choice to be the number one pick for a while, and would have gone number one if he had come out a year earlier. But Griffin’s out of the blue Heisman season added some drama to the decision. There were a few other QBs who were considered good enough to take a chance on, and a number of them followed Luck and RGIII in the first round. But Russell Wilson, who had been the most efficient QB in college football while leading the Wisconsin Badgers to the Rose Bowl, was not one of them. His name did not get called in the second round either. It was not until five other QBs had been selected that Wilson was chosen by the Seahawks in the third round with the 75th overall pick. Of the teams that did take QBs in 2013, obviously the Redskins and Colts made pretty good choices. The Dolphins, Browns, and Broncos also grabbed quarterbacks. The Broncos could have done better had they used their second rounder on a non-quarterback and then used their third rounder, which came less than ten slots before the Seahawks, to grab Wilson.
12 Roger Staubach, New York Giants, Sixth Round
There were nine quarterbacks chosen in the 1964 NFL Draft before Roger Staubach was selected in the 10th round with the 129th pick by the Dallas Cowboys. Now it is possible that some teams were hesitant to select Staubach because he was not going to be available to play for four years as a result of his military commitment, which was going to include a one year tour of duty in Viet Nam. The Cowboys decided to take the risk and invest the time for the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner and it certainly paid off in the long run. Of the nine QBs taken in the draft, the New York Giants drafted two of them before Roger Staubach came off the board. If the Giants had been willing to take a bigger risk and have some patience with one of their QB selections, Staubach could have gone to the Giants in the sixth round.
11 Tom Brady, San Francisco 49ers, Third Round
The most well known example of the great QB who was drafted way too late is of course everyone’s favorite sixth round draft pick, Tom Brady. Literally every team in the NFL had multiple chances to pick up Brady in the 2000 NFL Draft and all of them passed on him. Even the Patriots themselves skipped over him six times before pulling the trigger with their seventh selection. But who would have chosen him anyway? For him to become the Tom Brady we know, the ideal team would have a solid starter and a good coach or culture. Of the teams that drafted a QB in 1999 the San Francisco 49ers would have been perfect. They had Jeff Garcia who would play well for a few more years and a great tradition of amazing QBs including Joe Montana who Brady had watched while growing up in Northern California. Instead of drafting a relative unknown out of Hofstra with their third round pick, the 49ers could have gone with the local boy who won a national championship with Michigan, and could have acquired their third multiple Super Bowl winning QB in their history.
10 Warren Moon, San Diego Chargers, Eighth Round
The one great quarterback who probably got overlooked by more teams than any other Hall of Fame QB was Warren Moon. Moon went undrafted out of the University of Washington in the 1978 NFL Draft which at the time went 12 rounds. Even after the draft he was not signed by any teams which meant every team passed on him a dozen times and then still didn’t take him when he was available after that. With no NFL team, Moon went to the Canadian Football League where he led the Edmonton Eskimos to five consecutive Grey Cups. Eventually he returned to the NFL with the Houston Oilers and proceeded to become one of the greatest passers ever. The ideal match for Moon would have been the San Diego Chargers and first year coach, Don “Air” Coryell, with his cutting edge, heavy passing offense similar to the one Moon would have so much success with in Houston. Instead the Chargers selected a punter from Washington State with the 220th overall pick in the eighth round. They could have easily drafted Moon their and gotten their punter elsewhere and we could have had five more years and who knows how many more yards of passing from Warren Moon in the NFL.
9 Dak Prescott, New England Patriots, third round
The newest late round quarterback who looks like he could be a legitimate player in the NFL is currently leading the surprising Dallas Cowboys along with the help of his mauling offensive line and fellow star rookie, running back Ezekiel Elliot. Dak Prescott was not one of the QBs who anyone thought might have some potential in the 2016 NFL Draft and consequently eight teams looking for a quarterback skipped him over. The Dallas Cowboys however decided to grab him in the fourth round as a potential backup to the backup of Tony Romo with the 135th overall pick. Of the teams that may have taken him, Prescott probably would not have had as much success with the Rams, Eagles, or Broncos. One team that did grab a similar quarterback who might have been a good fit however was the Patriots. They used their third round pick to grab Jacoby Brissett, another running QB. Prescott would have been a similar player and they could have quickly seen if he had the goods during the four games where Tom Brady served his suspension.
8 Bart Starr, Chicago Cardinals, Sixteenth round
Everyone always wonders how a multiple Super Bowl winning quarterback like Tom Brady lasted until the 199th pick in the NFL Draft. But it is really nothing new as the very first quarterback to win multiple Super Bowls lasted until the 200th pick in the draft. Bart Starr originally went in the 17th round of the 1956 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers. The reason he went to the Packers was simply because the basketball coach at Alabama knew someone with the Packers and recommended him. A number of other teams drafted QBs in the 1956 NFL Draft however, including the Chicago Cardinals who chose two of them. Chicago could have drafted Starr as their second QB in the 16th round with the 186th selection, 14 picks before the Packers claimed him.
7 Tony Romo, Denver Broncos, sixth round
There is another star quarterback who went undrafted much more recently than one would expect. In the 2003 NFL Draft Tony Romo was ignored by every team in the NFL except for the Cowboys and the Denver Broncos who both liked him but not enough to use a draft pick on him. Eventually the Cowboys signed him as an undrafted free agent. If the Broncos were smarter they could have had him with a draft pick. They would have been a good choice as well because just as he sat and developed over three seasons with the Cowboys behind veterans Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe, he could have done the same in Denver, learning under Jake Plummer who was the starter for the Broncos for the following four years. Ideally the Broncos should have drafted Romo with one of their sixth round picks and brought him along just like the Cowboys had.
6 Johnny Unitas, Cleveland Brown, Sixth Round
Although there were only two other quarterbacks selected before him in the 1955 NFL Draft, it still took nine rounds and 101 other selections to be made before someone chose Johnny Unitas with the 102nd pick. The coach for the team who drafted Unitas, Walt Kiesling of the Pittsburgh Steelers already thought Unitas would not be able to help the team and ended up cutting him without even letting him get any snaps in practice. A year later Unitas had a tryout with the Baltimore Colts which ended up eventually launching his career. The other team that was interested in Unitas was the Cleveland Browns. If they had been more aggressive they could have avoided missing out on the first “greatest quarterback in the NFL" by drafting him in the sixth round of the draft with the 73rd pick.
5 Dan Marino, New England Patriots, First Round
Another first rounder who went later than he should have and was chosen after a lot of other quarterbacks was Dan Marino. The Miami Dolphins drafted Marino with the 27th overall pick in the first round of the legendary 1983 NFL Draft. Somehow Marino was the sixth (!) QB selected. The first QB of course was John Elway. The second was Todd Blackledge from Penn State. Jim Kelly, Tony Eason, and Ken O’Brien were all taken before Marino as well. The team that should have taken Marino and may have been able to do more with him than any of the other teams was the New England Patriots. Imagine if you will, two years later when the Patriots are in Super Bowl XX against the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears. Could the Patriots have won with Marino instead of Eason? Well, the Bears only lost one game in 1985, and that was to the Miami Dolphins lead by... Dan Marino.
4 Brett Favre, New York Jets, Second Round
Although he was just the third QB taken in the 1991 NFL Draft, Brett Favre was passed on by almost all of the teams in the league by the time the Atlanta Falcons selected him with the 33rd overall pick in the second round. One team that did not pass on him was the New York Jets. In fact, they had planned to draft him with the very next pick after the Falcons selection. The Jets were unable to get him however because they did not have a first round draft choice. Ron Wolf, who ultimately brought Favre to the Packers, was working for the Jets at the time and tried to trade up with the St Louis Cardinals to grab him before the Falcons could. Unfortunately for the Jets, and fortunately for the Packers, the deal fell through and the Jets missed out, selecting Browning Nagle instead. The Jets did finally get their hands on Favre over 15 years later though.
3 Joe Montana, Kansas City Chiefs, first round
The fourth quarterback taken in the 1979 NFL Draft became the undisputed greatest quarterback ever until Manning, Favre, and Brady joined the conversation over a decade later. Joe Montana made his name at Notre Dame calmly engineering comeback wins for the Irish. He was not viewed as potentially great quarterback however based on his arm strength which evaluators saw as weaker than most QBs. The San Francisco 49ers grabbed him anyway with their third round pick. One team that drafted another quarterback in 1979, that could have had Montana instead, was the Kansas City Chiefs. If they were smart enough to use their 23rd overall pick in the first round on Montana, then they could have had him 14 years sooner than they ended up with him, and who knows how many more playoff runs that would have meant for the Chiefs.
2 Aaron Rodgers, Chicago Bears, First Round
Although he still went in the first round, Aaron Rodgers sat around in the waiting room at the NFL Draft for a lot longer than anyone thought he would, especially himself. Knowing what they know now, every team in the league would have done anything they could to get their hands on Rodgers, but instead he was left sitting, stewing, and plotting his revenge that he would inflict on the rest of the NFL for skipping him over, with a little extra for the Vikings who overlooked him twice. In looking at who could have taken him and had a reason to, the 49ers are of course the obvious choice, but the Chicago Bears would have loved to have him and would have saved themselves countless stompings from their rivals in Green Bay if they would have grabbed Rodgers with the third overall pick rather than waiting to take Kyle Orton in the fourth round.
1 Dan Fouts, St Louis Cardinals, third round
The sixth quarterback selected in the 1973 NFL Draft was future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. Even after a record setting career at the University of Oregon, Fouts was not on the radar for many teams as a top QB prospect. The San Diego Chargers took a chance on him and grabbed him in the third round however. The first five years in San Diego did not look that special for Fouts but once San Diego hired Don Coryell in 1978, he began putting up his Hall of Fame numbers and soon made six Pro-Bowls and earned the MVP award in 1982. One team that could have selected Fouts in 1973 was the St Louis Cardinals who were one spot in front of the Chargers in the third round. It is a shame too, because their coach at the time was none other than Don Coryell. We can only imagine what it would have been like if the duo had hooked up in St Louis and started lighting up the league five years sooner.