The struggles of E.J. Manuel, Christian Ponder and Johnny Manziel along with the unexpected retirement of Jake Locker, have all left NFL fans and scouts alike wondering why teams continue to reach for risky quarterbacks using their first round picks. Even Geno Smith has had his struggles after being selected in the early part of the second round. On the other hand, Tom Brady was selected in the 6th round, Russell Wilson went in the 3rd round, and even Aaron Rodgers lasted until the 24th pick of the 1st round. Throughout history, there have been a large number of quarterbacks who were gobbled up with first round picks only to fail at becoming franchise quarterbacks.
Ryan Leaf might have had all the tools a quarterback might need to succeed in the league, but his mind and attitude were not quite up to task. JaMarcus Russell was an intimidating presence in the pocket, but his preparation and waistline were not up to NFL standards. Dan McGwire stood tall at 6-foot-8, but that never helped him release the ball or even get it down the field. Heath Shuler had mad skills that enticed many scouts, but he struggled to complete passes in the NFL. Tim Tebow was one of the most decorated college quarterbacks of the modern era, but his lack of arm strength has prevented him from landing a permanent job. Despite plenty of promise, these quarterbacks were all far from being franchise quarterbacks, instead being considered casualties of the first round.
If the following list of underachievers proves one thing, it might even be that there are even more first round misses at quarterback than the 20 who made this list. These quarterbacks were all highly touted selections in the modern era (starting in 1980s) who never played up to their hype. In an irony of sorts, the Seattle Seahawks have three players on this list and have finally found their franchise quarterback, after selecting him (Russell Wilson) in the 3rd round. For various reasons, these 20 players stand as some of the most well-known misuses of extremely valuable first round picks.
20. Blaine Gabbert – 10th overall pick, 2011 Draft
Only time will really tell how much of a bad pick Blaine Gabbert will end up being. He does possesses the big NFL frame, 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, that so many NFL scouts and executives covet, but his performance has been drab up to this point. Gabbert was a 5-star recruit out of high school and was at one time considered the number one pro-style quarterback in the nation. He went to Missouri, where he passed for well over 3,000 yards in both his sophomore and junior seasons. He was projected to be a solid NFL prospect, leading him to declare early for the draft and get rewarded with the 10th overall pick.
Scouts were left drooling when he ran a 4.61 second 40-yard dash, broad jumped 10 feet, and scored a 42 on his Wonderlic at the 2011 Combine. He now has four years of experience in the league and has seen his production decline each season. In his rookie year, Gabbert managed to pass for 2,214 yards and 12 touchdowns, but the Jags gave up on him after the 2013 season. He joined the 49ers as a backup in 2014.
19. Tim Tebow – 25th overall pick, 2010 Draft
Tim Tebow was a legend in college at the University of Florida. The 2007 Heisman Trophy winner was decorated with a slew of NCAA Awards, thanks in large part to his athleticism, leadership and competitive fire. He passed for 9,286 yards at Florida, and rushed for just under 3,000 yards (2,947 yards). Tebow accounted for 145 touchdowns, doing a good job at protecting the ball well when he couldn’t get it in the end zone (only 15 career interceptions). He entered the 2010 Draft with questions about his arm strength and ability to be a pocket passer, but he did have those intangibles.
Tebow was selected by the Denver Broncos, leading them on a nice playoff run in 2011, but has struggled to find a spot on an NFL roster since that time. He currently has 2,422 passing yards and a quarterback rating of 75.3, and even has 17 touchdown passes versus only 9 interceptions, yet he has been unable to break back into the league. His arm strength and tendency to leave the pocket prematurely, have both been knocks on his overall game. His 12 rushing touchdowns and 989 rushing yards on 197 attempts left many in the league thinking that there were other positions he could play.
18. Rick Mirer – 2nd overall pick, 1993 Draft
Rick Mirer was such a prolific passer that he posted a mark of 3,873 passing yards for a season, while he was still in high school. He ended up attending Notre Dame, where he led the Fighting Irish a 29-7-1 record as a starter. He led Notre Dame to the Orange Bowl in 1991, then to a victory over Florida in the 1992 Sugar Bowl, finishing those bowl games up with a victory in the 1993 Cotton Bowl. He was the leader that reminded people of Joe Montana, with the arm and big play ability that generated plenty of buzz.
Mirer was drafted by Seattle with the 2nd overall pick, and was quickly billed as their quarterback of the future. He did manage to have a future in the league, as a back-up, passing for 11,969 yards in a career that spanned 12 seasons and was spent with seven different NFL teams. He finished with a quarterback rating of only 63.5, due in large part to his 76 career interceptions that overshadowed his 50 career touchdown passes.
17. Tim Couch – 1st overall pick, 1999 Draft
Tim Couch was quite the prolific passer in college, passing for 4,611 yards and 38 touchdowns in his final junior season at the University of Kentucky. That season (1998), Couch was the SEC Player of the Year and a first-team consensus All-American, while leading the Wildcats to a bowl berth in the Outback Bowl. In his combined sophomore and junior seasons, Couch passed for over 8,000 yards (8,495, to be exact), and threw 75 touchdown passes. He came into the 1999 NFL Draft as a can’t miss prospect.
Despite being battle tested in the SEC with Kentucky, Couch did not quite live up to all the hype. He finished his career with statistics which were not all bad, highlighted by a 75.1 career passer rating and 59.8% completion percentage. The problem was that Couch always seemed to be injured or play with great inconsistency. He finished his five-year NFL career with 11,131 yards of passing and 64 touchdown passes, but did throw 67 picks and got sacked 166 times. The physical nature of the NFL played a big role in his lack of productivity and overall success.
16. Vince Young – 3rd overall pick, 2006 NFL Draft
Vince Young was a dynamic college quarterback when he played for the University of Texas. He led the Longhorns to a dramatic 41-38 victory in the 2006 Rose Bowl, triumphing over the highly touted USC Trojans who had a backfield of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush. Young had a strong arm, good pocket presence, prototypical NFL size, and great mobility. In his 2005 senior season, he passed for 3,036 yards and rushed for 1,050 yards, scoring a combined total of 38 touchdowns. Young finished his college career with many awards under his belt, seemingly ready for the NFL.
Young couldn’t quite achieve the same level of success in the NFL. The speed of the game, speed of the secondaries and outside pass rushers, and demanding preparation, were all difficult adjustments for Young. He finished with 8,964 yards passing and a quarterback rating of 74.4, but also has 51 interceptions and 40 fumbles in his six-year NFL career. He did have a respectable 1,459 yards of rushing with 12 touchdowns, to highlight his career. Young had his moments, but didn’t live up to the hype that surrounded him following his Rose Bowl conquest of USC.
15. Brady Quinn – 22nd overall pick, 2007 Draft
Brady Quinn is still out there doing whatever he can to get another shot at playing in the NFL, but the odds are stacked mightily against him for having more success than he did as an amateur. In college, Quinn was a highly decorated leader of the Nortre Dame Fighting Irish, finishing in the top-4 in Heisman Trophy voting in both 2005 and 2006. He won the Sammy Baugh Trophy in 2005, and the Maxwell Award and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award in 2006. He has a good arm, good size, and a fiery disposition.
Quinn has struggled to have the same kind of success in the NFL, despite getting a good number of shots at securing a starting role. He has had 20 NFL starts with two different teams, and has secured some kind of roster spot on five different NFL teams. Quinn has 3,043 yards passing, with 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, in 550 pass attempts. Quinn carries a quarterback rating of 64.4, and a completion percentage of 53.8%, but should have been able to do much better. He is still in good shape and is making another run at playing in the league, but he will need a miracle comeback to shed the label of being a disappointment.
14. David Klingler – 6th overall pick, 1992 Draft
David Klingler was one of the most prolific college passers of all time at the University of Houston, with 9,430 yards of passing and 91 touchdowns. He was third in balloting for the 1990 Heisman Trophy, following a junior campaign where he passed for 54 touchdowns and even had 11 touchdown passes in a single game. The 1990 Sammy Baugh Trophy winner had a strong enough arm, decent size and good mobility, making him one of the top quarterback prospects of the 1992 NFL Draft.
The Cincinnati Bengals were looking to draft the next Boomer Esiason, and reached out to grab Klingler with the 6th overall pick. The speed of the NFL and more traditional offensive schemes both contributed to make Klingler very uncomfortable. He finished his NFL career with 3,994 passing yards and 16 touchdowns in six seasons of play. Klingler also had a modest career quarterback rating of 65.1, hindered by his 22 interceptions and average of only 5.6 yards per pass attempt. He wasn’t exactly Boomer Esiason and was never really worth the sixth overall pick.
13. Matt Leinart – 10th overall pick, 2006 NFL Draft
Matt Leinart was the Heisman Trophy winner, first-team All-American, Quarterback of the Year and BCS National Champion in 2004. He finished his career having passed for over 10,000 yards with 99 touchdowns. He was the 2005 Walter Camp Award winner adding that to his Johnny Unitas and Maxwell Awards that he won in 2004. Leinart was the quarterback of the era and had a resume that was stuffed so full of accolades that he seemed to have everything necessary to succeed at the next level.
Instead, Leinart managed to be nothing more than a career back-up, passing for only 4,065 yards in seven seasons of play. He has had 18 career starts with a quarterback rating of 70.2, completion percentage of 57.1%, and 15 touchdown passes to his credit. He has, however, thrown 21 interceptions and hasn’t been able to make career changing plays. Leinart became an NFL champion in 2008 when he carried a clipboard while Kurt Warner was carrying the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
12. Cade McNown – 12th overall pick, 1999 Draft
Cade McNown was a highly decorated college quarterback who carried UCLA to a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M in his junior year, and followed that up with a 31-point offensive effort in the Rose Bowl in his senior campaign. McNown came in third place for Heisman Trophy balloting in 1998, winning the Johnny Unitas Award and Pop Warner Trophy, that same season. McNown seemed to have all those intangibles that make good quarterbacks great, despite his lack of prototypical NFL size (6-foot-1 and 210 pounds).
The Chicago Bears were sold, selecting McNown with their 12th overall pick in the first round. Looking to find the next Jim McMahon, the Bears instead selected a quarterback who ended his four-year career with only 3,111 yards of passing, 16 touchdown passes, and 19 interceptions. He ended up playing for three different teams, never finding that lightning in a bottle. His career quarterback rating of 67.7 is rather lofty, considering the other members on this list. It still does little to warrant a 12th overall pick.
11. Todd Blackledge – 7th overall pick, 1983 Draft
Todd Blackledge was considered to be the perfect prototypical NFL passer with his nice size, 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, strong arm, solid leadership skills and football smarts. He led the Penn State Nittany Lions to a National Championship in 1982, winning the Davey O’Brien Award for the best college quarterback in the process. In his three years at Penn State, Blackledge led them to a 31-5 record while passing for just under 5,000 yards with 41 touchdowns.
His NFL experience started differently. Blackledge was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs, ahead of Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, in the 1983 NFL draft. He was able to work his way into the huddle, playing in 46 games throughout his career, but had his troubles identifying his own receivers. He struggled with completion percentage (48.1% for career) and interceptions (38 picks versus 29 touchdowns), limiting him to a career quarterback rating of 60.2. Blackledge did manage to pass for 5,289 yards, which is at least more than a good number of the players on this list.
10. Andre Ware – 7th overall pick, 1990 Draft
Few quarterbacks have received all the hype that Andre Ware had in 1990. Coming off a college career that was spent slinging the ball all over the field at the University of Houston, Ware capped it off by winning the Heisman Trophy in 1989. That year, Ware passed for 4,699 yards with 44 touchdowns, setting 26 NCAA records in the process. His ability to put up big numbers and move his feet were supposed to give him more than just a leg up on his competition coming out of college.
Despite all his obvious talent, Ware became just another Detroit Lions high pick bust at the quarterback position. Ware’s career lasted four seasons, in which he played in only 11 games. He finished with 1,112 yards of passing, five touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in only 161 passing attempts. Despite his powerful arm and good speed, Ware clearly had his difficulties adjusting to the speed of the NFL game.
9. Kelly Stouffer – 6th overall pick, 1987 Draft
Kelly Stouffer played high school football in Nebraska, managing to get enough attention to play college football at Colorado State. He had a solid career at Colorado State, establishing a mark for passing yardage, while also earning All-WAC honors as a senior. In the 1987 NFL Draft, the Cardinals (in St. Louis at the time) took a chance by selecting him with the sixth overall pick. Stouffer ended up missing what would have been his rookie season due to a contract dispute, and was promptly traded to the Seattle Seahawks.
Stouffer’s NFL career lasted for five years, with one statistic defining each of his seasons. Each year he played, he was very consistent at having more interceptions than touchdowns. At the end of his career, Stouffer had 19 interceptions versus only seven touchdowns in only 437 passing attempts, good for a quarterback rating of 54.5. He managed to also get sacked 50 times, losing 431 yards despite passing for only 2,333 yards. Holding out his rookie year only moved him higher on this list.
8. Akili Smith – 3rd overall pick, 1999 Draft
Two years before NFL fans watched Michael Vick come into the league as the NFL Draft’s first overall pick, Akili Smith was supposed to be like an opening act. Smith was a star at the University of Oregon, passing for 3,763 yards and 30 touchdowns during the regular season his senior year. He wasn’t an explosive runner but did run a 4.66 second 40-yard dash at the 1999 Combine. Smith had a solid 6-foot-3, 225 pound frame, a great arm, and mobility that was going to redefine the quarterback position.
After getting selected by Cincinnati, Smith floundered during the four starts he had in his rookie season. He managed to get sacked as many times as he was able to take off running (19 times), while also throwing six interceptions and only two touchdown passes. Things did not go much better his second year, with Smith getting sacked 36 times, while completing only 44.2% of his passes for 1,253 yards in only 11 starts. He finished his four year career with a quarterback rating of 52.8 with 21 turnovers and only five touchdown passes.
7. Heath Shuler – 3rd overall pick, 1994 Draft
Before Peyton Manning came to Tennessee, Heath Shuler had already established most of the Volunteers passing records. Shuler came to Tennessee as the North Carolina High School Player of the Year. While at Tennessee, Shuler became one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC, coming in second place in the 1993 Heisman Trophy voting to Florida State’s Charlie Ward following his senior season. Although he excelled while playing in the rugged SEC, the NFL was a different matter.
Shuler was drafted by the Washington Redskins in the 1994 Draft with the hopes that he would be able someday get them back to the Super Bowl. He started his NFL career by holding out before seeing any action. He then went on to complete only 45.3% of his passes with 12 interceptions in eight starts. He managed to remain in the NFL for five years, passing for 3,691 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions. His play, however, was so poor that he ended up losing his starting job to Gus Frerotte, a seventh round pick. Finishing with a quarterback rating of 54.3, Shuler has been recognized as one of the NFL’s biggest draft flops.
6. Art Schlichter – 4th overall pick, 1982 Draft
Art Schlichter might have been more famous for his gambling and legal problems that became his downfall, but he was expected to have the talent to become a star in the NFL. He was a four year starter at Ohio State University, with the ability to take off and run as well as he could throw. Schlichter finished his Ohio State career with 7,547 passing yards and 50 touchdowns, while also gaining 1,303 yards with 35 touchdowns on the ground. Picked by the Baltimore Colts, he was was expected to be their quarterback of the future.
Schlichter’s only future included a stint in the Arena Football League, where he passed for over 6,000 yards with 105 touchdowns and only 28 interceptions. In the NFL, he did not fare so well. Schlichter finished his 3-year NFL career with a quarterback rating of 42.6, throwing 11 interceptions and only three touchdown passes. He managed to average more yards per rush (7.3) than pass (5,0). Schlichter was such a bust, that he has become known more for getting legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes fired that what he did on the field.
5. Jim Druckenmiller – 26th overall pick, 1997 Draft
Jim Druckenmiller was not one of the biggest quarterback prospects in the 1997 NFL Draft, but he slipped to the 26th selection of the first round. Druckenmiller was a 2-year starter at Virginia Tech where he earned All-Big East honors in his senior year, and led the Hokies to a Sugar Bowl victory over the Texas Longhorns (1995). He was far from a prolific passer, finishing with 2,071 yards and 17 touchdowns his senior year. He did, however, manage to lead Virginia Tech to two consecutive Big East championships, making a case for himself in the 1997 NFL Draft.
Druckenmiller was drafted by a team that had a rich history of solid quarterbacks, the San Francisco 49ers. He was unable to contribute anything to that storied history, starting in just one game during his three-year NFL career. Druckenmiller finished with 239 passing yards, completing just 40.4% of his passes with four interceptions and a quarterback rating of 29.2. His production was probably worse than any quarterback on this list, but he gets a small break because he was close to being drafted by a second round pick.
4. Dan McGwire – 16th overall pick, 1991 Draft
Dan McGwire was the perfect physical specimen at the quarterback position during his time. He stood 6-foot-8, weighed 240 pounds, and had good mechanics and a strong release. McGwire was a prolific passer in high school, earning the California State Offensive Player of the Year honors in 1985. He started his collegiate career at Iowa and transferred to San Diego State University, after receiving limited playing time. He passed for 3,883 yards and 27 touchdowns as a senior at San Diego State.
McGwire never really seemed to break through in the NFL, despite playing for five seasons after getting drafted with the 16th pick in the draft by the Seattle Seahawks. He completed 50% of his passes, only throwing for 745 yards in his 13 appearances. In 13 games played and five starts, McGwire was sacked 21 times, accounting for almost as many fumbles lost (5) as interceptions (6). As the 16th overall pick, McGwire was never able to realize his potential, even though he had his chances to prove his worth.
3. Rich Campbell – 6th overall pick, 1981 Draft
Rich Campbell gained notoriety by completing a record 43 passes in 53 attempts for the University of California Berkeley Bears in a game against the Florida Gators. Campbell was an All-American his senior season at Cal and was a prolific passer who had good 6-foot-4, 225 pound, NFL size, and a good arm as well. It seemed like Campbell would be a perfect fit for the passing game that was constantly evolving in the NFL.
Campbell did not have much of a successful transition to the NFL. He appeared in two games with the Green Bay Packers his rookie year, completing 50% of his passes for 168 yards, no touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He finished his four-year NFL career with nine interceptions, only three touchdowns, and a quarterback rating of 38.8. He was even sacked seven times in his 68 career passing attempts. For being the sixth overall pick, Campbell had no starts, played in only five games and had only 68 attempts. It might seem that he didn’t get much of a chance, except for the fact that he had almost twice as many interceptions as games played.
2. JaMarcus Russell – 1st overall pick, 2007 Draft
JaMarcus Russell had all the assets you would want in an NFL quarterback. He stood 6-foor-6, weighed 265 pounds, and could throw the ball effectively to all parts of the field. Russell led LSU to a victory in the 2007 Sugar Bowl and was named the Sugar Bowl MVP. He had a record of 21-4 as a starter at LSU, and was battle tested in the rugged SEC. Russell might have been big and strong, but he struggled to keep up with the speed and audibles in the NFL game.
Russell did have a three year NFL career, finishing with an anemic quarterback rating of 65.2. He passed for 4,083 yards, with 18 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions, while completing 52.1% of his passes. He appeared to have a breakout season in his sophomore campaign, finishing with more touchdowns (13) than interceptions (8) and a quarterback rating of 77.1. From that point, Russell’s preparation and conditioning came under fire, contributing to his demise and play that certainly didn’t warrant the 1st overall pick.
1. Ryan Leaf – 2nd overall pick, 1998 Draft
Who could forget Ryan Leaf? Leaf was a gunslinger at Washington State University where he led the Cougars to the 1998 Rose Bowl, a losing effort against Michigan (21-16). He was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy voting, and had the size and command of the offense that made him seem like a can’t miss pick. Many draft experts were torn between the cerebral Peyton Manning and the raw potential of Leaf. Little did they know, it was the attitude and work habits that should have been more of a consideration. The San Diego Chargers found that out the hard way when they picked Leaf with the second overall pick.
In a career that spanned four seasons, Leaf passed for 3,666 yards with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions for a scintillating quarterback rating of 50.0. He managed to complete just 48.4% of his passes, while fumbling the ball 24 times, only to lose 12 of them. Thanks to Peyton Manning’s success, Leaf is the headliner on this list. Despite many question marks surrounding his mental approach to the game, the experts were too enamored with potential that didn’t exist.
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