Ranking the top quarterback draft classes of the last 10 years

Wednesday April 9th, 2014

Eli Manning headlines a 2004 quarterback class that has combined to go 4-1 in Super Bowls.
Bill Kostroun/AP

While Buffalo's EJ Manuel was the lone quarterback selected in the first round last year -- the NFL's lowest total since 2001 -- the top of this year's draft figures to be much more typically quarterback-centric, with as many as four and possibly five potential first-round selections at the game's most pivotal position.

Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo all are first-round possibilities of varying degrees, and if each of them went in the top 32 it would be the most QBs picked in the first round since the celebrated but ultimately underwhelming 1999 class that featured Tim Couch, Donovan McNabb and Akili Smith going 1-2-3.

If four quarterbacks are deemed first-round worthy, it would still mark the third time in four years that the NFL took that many passers (matching 2011 and '12) in the opening round. And if a quarterback leads off the festivities on the night of May 8 at New York's Radio City Music Hall, it would be the 11th time in the past 14 drafts the league has opted for a QB first overall. Not since 1996-97 has the NFL had consecutive drafts topped by a non-quarterback, with Manuel being taken surprisingly high but still mid-round at No. 16 last year.

Braced as we are for another quarterback-driven draft next month, let's take a look back at the league's past 10 quarterback classes (from 2004-'13), ranking them in terms of impact and achievement, or of course, more noticeably, lack thereof:

1. Class of 2004

The Highlights: The nostalgia and fond 30th anniversary remembrances last year for the legendary Class of 1983 (led by Hall of Famers John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino) were great and richly deserved. But let's not forget that group went just 2-11 in its Super Bowl starts, with both of those wins being logged by Elway in the last two seasons of his epic career. Compare that to the accomplishment of the perhaps underrated 2004 class, with No. 1 pick Eli Manning and No. 11 selection Ben Roethlisberger combining to go 4-1 in Super Bowls, including two of the most memorable victories in the 48-year history of the game (the 2007 Giants upset of the 18-0 Patriots and the '08 Steelers' thrilling last-minute comeback against the Cardinals).

And when you add in the strong production of No. 4 pick Philip Rivers, who has led San Diego to five playoff trips in the eight seasons since he took over for Drew Brees as the Chargers' starter, the 2004 class stands head and shoulders above any in the past decade, and is one of the league's strongest classes ever. The Manning-Rivers-Roethlisberger contingent has combined for a 22-12 playoff record, 16 out of a possible 28 playoff berths (Rivers didn't start in 2004-05 for San Diego) and 18 winning seasons in 28 attempts. And their body of work looked even more impressive two years ago, before Manning and Roethlisberger posted consecutive non-playoff seasons, with Rivers' return to the postseason in 2013 being the only berth earned by the threesome in that span.

Even third-round pick Matt Schaub of Atlanta proved to be a productive quarterback for many seasons, helping Houston to its first two AFC South titles in 2011-12, and logging a playoff victory in the latter season, before hitting the wall in spectacular fashion in 2013. With Schaub under center, the Texans endured just two losing seasons from 2007-13.

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The Lowlights: The J.P. Losman era in Buffalo was more of an error, with the Bills never able to extract a measure of consistency from the free-wheeling and aptly-named Tulane quarterback they took 22nd overall in 2004. Losman lasted five sack-filled seasons in Buffalo, compiling a dismal 10-23 record as a starter, with 33 touchdown passes, 34 interceptions and a meager 75.6 passer rating. His struggles played no small role in the demise of Bills head coaches Mike Mularkey and Dick Jauron.

2. Class of 2012

The Highlights: Even if your tendency is to detest the hype at every turn, there's almost nothing not to love about the first two prolific seasons churned out by this headline-stealing group. The Big Three of No. 1 pick Andrew Luck, No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III and third-round extraordinaire Russell Wilson have combined to make the playoffs five out of a potential six times, with Wilson's 4-1 record as a postseason starter and Seattle's eye-opening Super Bowl victory over the Peyton Manning-led Broncos leading the embarrassment of riches. All three quarterbacks quickly morphed into the face of their franchise and energized fan bases on both coasts and in the nation's heartland.

Indianapolis, Seattle and Washington have gone 64-41, including playoffs, since Luck, Wilson and Griffin arrived, with each team winning a division title and the Seahawks and Colts driving to consecutive playoff berths. True, RGIII's second season in D.C. was an unmitigated disaster, but there's still time to correct those issues and blame most of the mess on the Shanahans.

As for the rest of the class, it isn't too shabby either, with Miami's No. 8 pick Ryan Tannehill turning in a solid first two seasons for the ever-striving Dolphins (15-17 as a starter), and Philadelphia's third-round pick Nick Foles emerging as one of the stories of the 2013 season and leading the Eagles back to the playoffs under rookie head coach Chip Kelly. Even the curious fourth-round pick of Kirk Cousins by Washington in 2012 turned out to look sage in hindsight, once the ex-Michigan State star offered superb relief work in place of the injured Griffin late in the Redskins' drive to the NFC East title during his rookie season.

The Lowlights: From the second the Browns spent the No. 22 overall pick on the 28-year-old Brandon Weeden, out of Oklahoma State, there were plenty of critics predicting his time in Cleveland would be short and unsuccessful. And in the end, they were absolutely correct. Weeden lasted just two seasons before being released last month by a Browns team that is again starting over. His 5-15 record as a starter in Cleveland tells most of the story, but there's really no QB capable of winning with the Browns until some sense of stability is established. Weeden didn't have many weapons at his disposal, but his 55 sacks absorbed, 55.9 completion percentage and 71.8 quarterback rating looked more like misery indexes.

3. Class of 2005

The Highlights: The Packers snagged the free-falling Aaron Rodgers at No. 24 in the first round, and they're eternally thankful he lasted all that time in the humiliating environs of the draft-day green room. Rodgers continued to sit for three long years behind Brett Favre in Green Bay, and then endured the circus-like transition period of 2008, but he has made the most of his opportunity, leading the Packers to the playoffs an NFL-high five consecutive seasons and winning a Super Bowl ring in Titletown in 2010. Green Bay has since lost in the NFC Divisional round three years running, but the Packers will remain a Super Bowl contender as long as Rodgers -- the league's MVP in 2011 -- is under center.

The early results were not there for 2005's No. 1 overall pick, Alex Smith, during his first six seasons in San Francisco, in part due to the procession of 49ers' head coaches and offensive coordinators with which he was saddled. But Smith's career took off under coach Jim Harbaugh when it was in last-chance mode in 2011, with the 49ers reaching the NFC title game. And Smith was turning in more strong work in 2012, when he lost his starting job to second-year man Colin Kaepernick while injured. Traded to Kansas City in 2013, Smith helped revive the Chiefs' fortunes with a 9-0 start, an 11-5 wild-card playoff berth and an impressive playoff performance in that memorable K.C. first-round loss to the comeback-minded Colts.

The depth of the 2005 class is perhaps its most impressive quality. Jason Campbell (25th overall) didn't live up to his first-round price tag in Washington, but he remains a part-time starter/backup in the league, and had flashes of starting production with the Redskins and Raiders. Kyle Orton (fourth round, Chicago), Derek Anderson (sixth round, Baltimore), Matt Cassel (seventh round, New England) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (seventh round, St. Louis) all had their standout seasons as starters, with Orton and Cassel leading teams to the playoffs, Anderson making the Pro Bowl and helping the Browns go 10-6 in 2007, and Fitzpatrick starting games for four teams in the past nine seasons.

The Lowlights: Third-round picks Charlie Frye and Andrew Walter both proved not-ready-for-prime-time when given shots to hold down the starting jobs in Cleveland and Oakland, respectively, but they were far from alone in recent years when it comes to the downtrodden Browns and Raiders. Campbell's lack of success probably has lots to do with playing the majority of his career with the ever-changing Redskins, Raiders and Browns, but he did help Washington to the playoffs in 2007 and had Oakland in playoff contention in 2010-11, going 11-7 in 18 starts, before breaking a collarbone in October '11, paving the way for the Raiders' ill-fated Carson Palmer trade.

Clearly the most forgettable moment for the Class of 2005 was provided by Detroit fifth-round pick Dan Orlovsky, who managed to personify the Lions' infamous 0-16 season of 2008 on one particularly inept play. Orlovsky, to his eternal chagrin, ran way out of the back of his own end zone while attempting to pass in a loss at Minnesota, costing his team a safety and earning him a first-ballot spot in the Bloopers Hall of Fame.

4. Class of 2008

The Highlights: If you're trying to pinpoint the origin of the recent trend of first-round quarterbacks looking instantly ready to play as rookies, look no further than 2008, when both Atlanta's Matt Ryan (No. 3 overall) and Baltimore's Joe Flacco (No. 18) took over last-place teams and led them to the playoffs. As if there was nothing to it. Both the Ravens and Falcons went 11-5 in those turnaround seasons, and Baltimore even won two playoff games before losing at Pittsburgh in the AFC title game. Ryan and Flacco looked like polished, well-finished products as Day 1 starters, and proved you don't always need to sit and wait or take baby steps as a rookie quarterback.

And there was nothing fluky about Ryan's and Flacco's early success, because Baltimore made the playoffs in each of Flacco's first five seasons, capped by its Super Bowl-winning run of 2012; and Ryan reached the postseason in four of his first five years as a Falcon. In fact, 2013 marked the first year that neither Flacco or Ryan were in the playoffs in their six-year careers.

Miami second-round pick Chad Henne was one of the other few survivors in this class, winning just 13 of 31 starts for the Dolphins from 2009-11, before moving on to Jacksonville, where he has played reasonably well for a Jaguars team that is trying to claw its way out of irrelevance in the AFC South. Henne was known for his safe-but-sorry approach to passing (a master of the check-down) as a Dolphin, but he took enough chances last year in Jacksonville to warrant a new two-year contract from the team this offseason.

The Lowlights: Brian Brohm. Remember him? Some draft experts projected him to go as high as No. 1 overall in 2007, but instead he returned to Louisville for his senior season and wound up lasting until the second round in 2008, when Green Bay took him 56th overall, the third QB selected. But by the time the Packers closed out their preseason that year, Brohm had slid to No. 3 on the depth chart, failing to even beat out fellow rookie and seventh-round pick Matt Flynn, who went 209th overall. Brohm spent time with Buffalo, making two starts over the course of 2009-10, but has since kicked around the UFL and CFL, and is currently property of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Flynn has his own interesting and circuitous story. After earning a sizable free-agent contract in Seattle following his mostly successful but lightly-used four-year stint as Rodgers' backup in Green Bay, he preceded to get beat out by rookie Russell Wilson for the starting job in 2012. The Seahawks traded him to Oakland in 2013, but he was beaten out for the No. 1 gig there as well and somehow managed to get released by both the Raiders and Bills in less than a month last season. Finally, with Rodgers hurt and Green Bay's playoff hopes sinking fast, Flynn resurfaced in Green Bay and helped the Packers rally to the NFC North title, going 2-2 in four starts.

5. Class of 2011

The Highlights: There's a little something here for everyone. Carolina's Cam Newton, the Heisman winner, rewrote the passing record book as a rookie, fell into some bad habits at times in Year 2, then rebounded with stellar play in 2013, leading the Panthers to their first playoff berth in five years. Newton's fellow first-round QBs -- Tennessee's Jake Locker (No. 8), Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert (10th) and Minnesota's Christian Ponder (12th) -- haven't come close to matching his start.

But there have been two significant second-round success stories, with Cincinnati's Andy Dalton (No. 35) becoming the first Bengals' quarterback to lead the team to the playoffs three years in a row (during his first three years in the league at that), and San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick (No. 36) taking the 49ers to the Super Bowl in his first half-season as the 49ers' No. 1 guy in 2012, and then getting back to narrowly lose in the NFC title game last season. Lastly, fifth-round pick T.J. Yates turned in strong work as a rookie in the second half of 2011, taking over for the injured Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart and helping the Texans clinch their first playoff berth and then their first postseason victory.

The Lowlights: Four quarterbacks taken in the draft's top 12 made for a good story, but it didn't translate into a good batting average once the games started. Newton is a franchise QB, but Gabbert has already moved on to San Francisco via a low-level trade, Ponder has been deemed a failure and supplanted on the depth chart in Minnesota and the oft-injured Locker is facing a make-or-break fourth season in Tennessee. Gabbert was the biggest swing and a miss for now, going 5-22 in his injury-plagued three-year tenure with the Jaguars, while enduring 74 sacks and completing a mere 53.3 percent of his passes.

6. Class of 2009

The Highlights: This is a quarterback class that in retrospect looks worse all the time, but there were some upswings along the way. Mark Sanchez (No. 5 overall) won four road playoff games and started in the AFC title game in each of his first two seasons with the Jets. Josh Freeman (17th) looked like the long-term answer in Tampa Bay after the Bucs went a surprising and hopeful 10-6 in 2010. And Detroit's 10-6, wild-card playoff season of 2011 seemed to announce No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford's arrival among the NFL's quarterbacking elite.

But upon further review, only Stafford is still considered the goods, and even he has his critics following his two so-so seasons of 2012 and '13. Stafford had 27 turnovers last season (19 interceptions and 8 fumbles lost) and his penchant for the big game-turning mistake was not supposed to still be an issue as his fifth season unfolded in 2013. With Sanchez cut by the Jets and signing on as a backup in Philadelphia, and Freeman having experienced a career free-fall like few quarterbacks ever last year (from Tampa Bay to Minnesota, to potential oblivion), Stafford remains the relative gold standard in the class of 2009.

The Lowlights: No less a judge of playing talent than Bill Parcells has called Miami's selection of versatile West Virginia quarterback Pat White (44th) in the second round of 2009 as one of his worst draft mistakes ever, and we concur. The NFL's wildcat craze was started in Miami in 2008, and the Dolphins thought White was the natural choice to take that novel form of offense to another level the following season. But that proved woefully incorrect. White ran 21 times for just 81 yards in 2009, and was 0-for-5 as a passer, and that was it for his Dolphins career.

7. Class of 2006

The Highlights: Turns out there wasn't as much staying power as there was star power in 2006's first-round trio of quarterbacks. Tennessee's Vince Young (No. 3), Arizona's Matt Leinart (No. 10) and Denver's Jay Cutler (No. 11) hit the league with great resumes and a ton of fanfare, but only Cutler is still active, and preparing for his ninth NFL season, and sixth in Chicago. For all his gaudy stats, however, Cutler has played on just one playoff-qualifying team in eight years, going 1-1 in the postseason as the starter for the 2010 Bears, who lost to division rival and wild-card entrant Green Bay at home in the NFC title game.

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Young was the early pacesetter of the draft class, earning the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2006 and going 8-5 as the Titans' starter, with four fourth-quarter comeback wins. He followed that up by going 9-6 in his second season and leading Tennessee to a wild-card playoff spot, but by early 2008 he was benched in favor of Kerry Collins and had fallen out of favor with Titans head coach Jeff Fisher. By the time his tenure in Tennessee was over, Young owned a very respectable 30-17 starting record (.638), but he also possessed a well-deserved reputation for mercurial behavior and a crippling lack of maturity. His play was equally uneven at times.

The Lowlights: Leinart's career in Arizona is thought of as a train wreck, but that's not exactly the way it went down. He threw for an NFL rookie-record 405 yards in a late-November game against the Vikings, totaling 2,547 yards and 11 touchdowns in going 4-7 as a starter for the 5-11, last-place Cardinals. But he couldn't stay healthy and beat Kurt Warner out in either 2007 or '08, and by the time that unexpected '08 Super Bowl season unfolded in Arizona, Leinart's future development already appeared to have been stunted from lack of work.

The top of the 2006 QB class certainly didn't last as long as expected in the league, but there was some serious backup quarterback potential discovered after the first round. Four passers taken in rounds 2-7 are still drawing a check in the league for clipboard duty, and occasionally playing well when given the chance: Kellen Clemens (Jets, second round), Tarvaris Jackson (Vikings, second round), Charlie Whitehurst (Chargers, third round) and Bruce Gradkowski (Bucs, sixth round).

8. Class of 2013

The Highlights: Last year's non-descript quarterback crop did little to elicit excitement on the months-long road to the draft, and from that perspective it lived up to its billing. Manuel was the only first-round selection, and while the ex-FSU star showed flashes of dual-threat playmaking potential when healthy, he twice got knocked out of the lineup by knee injuries and wound up starting just 10 of the Bills' 16 games, going 4-6 for 6-10 Buffalo.

The Jets' Geno Smith lasted all the way until New York's No. 39 pick in the second round, but his rookie season was a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride from start to finish. New York rallied to an 8-8 record to save head coach Rex Ryan's job, winning three of its last four games, and Smith's play was on the upswing when the season ended. But his 12 touchdowns against 21 interceptions, with five fumbles lost, along with his 55.8 completion percentage and 66.5 passer rating did little to convince the Jets they had found their next Joe Namath.

Tampa Bay third-round pick Mike Glennon was actually the most pleasant surprise of the low-profile QB draft class, throwing for 19 touchdowns and 2,608 yards in 13 starts after the Josh Freeman benching. Glennon played smart and steady football for the most part, guiding the Bucs to their only four wins of the season. But the head coach who drafted him got fired (Greg Schiano) and new coach Lovie Smith has already brought in veteran Josh McCown to start ahead of Glennon in 2014.

The Lowlights: Considered a cinch top-10 pick after his stellar 2011 season, USC's Matt Barkley opted to return to the Trojans for his senior season and paid the price, falling all the way to the fourth round (98th overall) after he struggled in 2012 and ended the year with a separated shoulder. And his reputation didn't rebound much during his rookie season in Philadelphia, where he served as the third quarterback behind Nick Foles and Michael Vick for the NFC East-champion Eagles. Barkley saw three games worth of relief action, but he looked overmatched for the most part, throwing four interceptions without a touchdown, fumbling three times and posting a 44.6 passer rating. With the Eagles signing Mark Sanchez to potentially serve as Foles' veteran backup in 2014, Barkley's No. 3 status is quo for the time being.

9. Class of 2010

The Highlights: Pay attention, because this is going to be quick. The Rams' Sam Bradford went first overall, and by no means did St. Louis bomb with the selection. But the Rams haven't gotten their full money's worth from the last of the big-dollar No. 1 pick quarterbacks either. Bradford has started 16 games just twice in four years (2010 and '12), with his 2011 season being cut to 10 games by injury and a torn ACL costing him all but seven games in 2013. His durability issues have dominated the discussion, but his play has been a mixed bag, as well. He's 18-30-1 as a starter, but has gone 5-2-1 in the rugged NFC West the past two seasons, a hopeful sign.

His 79.3 career passer rating is only so-so, but plenty of Bradford's issues have to do with the 120 sacks he's absorbed in just 49 games, and not having much of a team around him. His 59 touchdown passes against 38 interceptions are at least trending the right way (35 to 17 the past two seasons) and the Rams under Bradford were a competitive 10-12-1 when he started in 2012-13. Staying healthy and getting past the seven-win threshold in 2014 will tell the story of Bradford's future in St. Louis.

The Lowlights: Who can forget the unexplainable magic carpet ride that was Tim Tebow's 2011 season in Denver, where he willed a .500 Broncos team into the divisional round of the playoffs with a series of late-game heroics and comebacks? But even that two-plus months of feel-good drama didn't make Denver's trade for the No. 25 pick in 2010 a good expenditure in the long run. Tebow is out of the league, as is the draft's No. 48 pick, Carolina's Jimmy Clausen. The ex-Notre Dame quarterback lasted just three seasons as a Panther, going 1-9 as a rookie starter on a 2-14 Carolina squad.

In the third round, Cleveland took Colt McCoy out of Texas, and he fared about as well as your typical Browns quarterback: three years and done. McCoy went 6-15 as Cleveland's starter in 2010-11, then was replaced by Brandon Weeden in '12. He spent 2013 as Kaepernick's backup in San Francisco and last month moved on yet again, signing with Washington, where he'll presumably compete with Kirk Cousins for the No. 2 role behind Griffin.

10. Class of 2007

The Highlights: Were there any? I can think of one, actually, but it came off the field, when the best moment of Brady Quinn's career unfolded during a postgame press conference in the wake of Jovan Belcher's tragic murder-suicide in Kansas City in December 2012. As you might recall, Quinn, as the Chiefs quarterback, delivered an honest and eloquent plea for people to plug into the lives of friends and those they work with and spend time with, in an effort to head off the kind of troubles that drove Belcher to his act of violence.

The Lowlights: As quarterback draft classes go, this one sets the bar impossibly high when it comes to unfulfilled expectations. Oakland's No. 1 overall pick, JaMarcus Russell, is the closest thing the league has ever seen to Ryan Leaf, going 7-18 as the Raiders' starter and being out of the league by 2010. Oakland's colossal miss on him set the franchise back for years. Quinn, taken 22nd overall by Cleveland (yes, the Browns again), is just 4-16 as a starter in his career, and has been the property of five teams.

And there's plenty more career wreckage to sort through. Second-rounder Kevin Kolb couldn't stay healthy and keep/win the starting job in Philadelphia, Arizona or Buffalo. John Beck was a second-round pick in Miami (40th overall), but had only brief and failed chances with the Dolphins and Redskins. The Lions took Drew Stanton in the second round (43rd) and he's still a capable backup in Arizona, but the likes of Trent Edwards (third round, Buffalo), Troy Smith (fifth round, Ravens), Jordan Palmer (sixth round, Redskins) and Tyler Thigpen (seventh round, Vikings) never were able to change our impression of the failed 2007 quarterback class.

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