Grading 12 Years of First-Round Quarterbacks

It's the biggest decision an NFL team can make: Spending a first-round draft pick and a boatload of cap space on the toughest position in the game, quarterback. Make the right choice, and you can turn your sorry franchise into a Super Bowl contender. Make the wrong choice, and you're looking at years and years of rebuilding.

But should you expect every first-round QB to become another Peyton Manning? Maybe not. Here's a look at how all the first-round passers over the past 12 years -- all 33 of them -- grade out today...

 
Indianapolis Colts
 1998
Peyton Manning, Tennessee (1st overall)
Some liked Washington State hotshot Ryan Leaf better than Manning, but the Colts seemed to view Peyton as their man the whole way. Obviously, they made the right call. Manning is a surefire Hall of Famer. In 11 full seasons, he's gone to the playoffs nine times and took home Super Bowl XLI.
Grade: A+
San Diego Chargers
 1998
Ryan Leaf, Washington State (2nd overall)
Uh, is there a grade lower than F? Leaf was seen as an equal to Peyton Manning coming into the '98 Draft, but proved he to be an all-time headcase who won just four of his 21 career starts.
Grade: F
Cleveland Browns
 1999
Tim Couch, Kentucky (1st overall)
This was Cleveland's first season after the original Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. And things didn't go well for Couch on what was essentially an expansion team. Couch's biggest problem was a series of injuries that robbed him of his arm strength, but his career 64-to-67 TD-to-INT ratio tells you all you need to know about his shortcomings. Clearly, Cleveland made the wrong decision to build around Couch, especially considering who was available second...
Grade: D-
Philadelphia Eagles
 1999
Donovan McNabb, Syracuse (2nd overall)
Eagles fans booed D-Nabb, hoping for Texas running back Ricky Williams. Oh, how wrong they were. McNabb has done nothing but pile up the wins, with a strong 83-45-1 regular season record and 10 career postseason wins. Sure, he hasn't won a Super Bowl, but you can't ask for much more from a guy who has basically carried the Philly offense for the past decade.
Grade: A+
Cincinnati Bengals
 1999
Akili Smith, Oregon (3rd overall)
Poor Akili, he never had much of a chance. A one-year wonder for the Oregon Ducks, Smith's athleticism and arm strength enticed the Bengals. He was overmatched in the NFL, going 3-14 as a starter with a pathetic stat line: 46.6 completion percentage, 5-to-13 TD-to-INT ratio, and a passer rating of 52.8.
Grade: F
Minnesota Vikings
 1999
Daunte Culpepper, Central Florida (11th overall)
Culpepper put together some huge seasons before a severe knee injury robbed him of his mobility. Of course, he didn't fare well after superstar receiver Randy Moss was traded to Oakland, but when he was healthy Culpepper was a special player as a passing and running threat.
Grade: B
Chicago Bears
 1999
Cade McNown, UCLA (12th overall)
McNown looked promising early on, but quickly earned a reputation as an inconsistent passer who couldn't handle the mental part of the position. McNown went 3-12 as a starter for the Bears, was traded to the Dolphins, and never appeared in a game after the 2000 season.
Grade: D-
New York Jets
 2000
Chad Pennington, Marshall (18th overall)
There were times when Pennington looked like he was on the verge of being an elite quarterback. But a series of injuries left him with one of the weakest arms in the NFL, and his latest shoulder injury might force him to call it quits. If it is over, Pennington will finish his career 43-37 as a regular season starter and made the playoffs four times with two different franchises. He'll be remembered as an effective game manager, and there are much worse things than that.
Grade: B+
Atlanta Falcons
 2001
Michael Vick, Virginia Tech (1st overall)
On the field, Vick was an inconsistent passer but an electrifying performer overall. He led the Falcons to the playoffs twice, coming up a win short of the Super Bowl in 2004. But the stain he left off the field haunted the Falcons, and it overshadowed his accomplishments between the lines. This pick originally belonged to the Chargers, but they decided to trade down rather than take Vick. They ended up landing LaDainian Tomlinson with their first-round pick, and spent the first pick of the second round on an undersized passer from Purdue named Drew Brees. So, obviously, the Falcons could have done much, much better than Vick.
Grade: C-
Houston Texans
 2002
David Carr, Fresno State (1st overall)
Carr stepped into a tough situation, joining the expansion Texans, a team with one of the worst offensive lines in NFL history. He spent five seasons getting knocked around in Houston, throwing more interceptions (65) than touchdowns (59). In 2007, he joined the Panthers and looked like the worst quarterback in football. He's currently backing up Eli Manning for the Giants, and it looks like the 30-year-old will finish out his career as a second-stringer.
Grade: D-
Detroit Lions
 2002
Joey Harrington, Oregon (3rd overall)
Unlike Carr, Harrington at least joined an NFL-caliber team in 2002. But he didn't fare any better than Carr, going 18-37 as a starter in Detroit. After a couple of weak performances for the Dolphins (2006) and Falcons ('07), Harrington didn't see the field as a back-up for New Orleans last season and hasn't caught on with a team since the Saints cut him during the 2009 preseason.
Grade: D-
Washington Redskins
 2002
Patrick Ramsey, Tulane (32nd overall)
Well, in Ramsey's defense, he was barely a first-rounder. Then-'Skins head coach Steve Spurrier traded up to snag him with the last pick of the first-round. He was immobile and a sitting duck in Spurrier's offense, which had him hanging in the pocket for way too long. Ramsey's career was defined by mediocrity, as he never fully claimed a starting job while playing for three teams (Washington from 2002-05, the Jets in '06, and the Broncos in '07 and '08).
Grade: D
Cincinnati Bengals
 2003
Carson Palmer, USC (1st overall)
The Bungles missed badly with Akili Smith in 1999, but they were right on taking Palmer with the first pick in 2003. Despite all the poor personnel decisions Cincy has made since Palmer came to town, he has led them back to respectability. The Bengals have never been worse than 7-9 with Palmer under center, and in '05 he led them to their first division crown since 1990. If Palmer hadn't suffered a major knee injury in the first quarter of their playoff loss to the Steelers, Palmer might have a Super Bowl ring on his finger.
Grade: A-
Jacksonville Jaguars
 2003
Byron Leftwich, Marshall (7th overall)
Few quarterbacks can match Leftwich's toughness. He's willing to hang in the pocket and take the big hits. But Leftwich's long, slow delivery has kept him from becoming more than a good back-up in the NFL. He led Jacksonville to a 12-4 record and a playoff appearance in 2005. But he lost his starting job to David Garrard during the '07 preseason and has barely seen the field since then. He was solid as a fill-in for Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh last season and earned Tampa's starting job this year, but it looks like he'll head back to the bench in favor of the Bucs' younger passers.
Grade: C+
Baltimore Ravens
 2003
Kyle Boller, California (19th overall)
Back in 2003, Boller created pre-draft buzz by throwing the ball through the uprights from the 50-yard-line... while on his knees! But that freakish arm strength hasn't translated to NFL success. Boller went 20-22 as a starter in Baltimore despite the team's phenomenal defense, and he never threw a pass in the post-season. With Joe Flacco in town, the Ravens let Boller go after last season, and he's now playing second-string for the Rams.
Grade: D
Chicago Bears
 2003
Rex Grossman, Florida (22nd overall)
Grossman has played in the Super Bowl, something that most quarterbacks can't say. Of course, he didn't play well, throwing two costly interceptions in Chicago's Super Bowl XLI loss to the Colts. Grossman's career has been plagued my injuries and inaccurate throws. He played more than eight games in a season just once, and threw a whopping 20 interceptions in his only full season (2006). The Bears let him go when they upgraded to Jay Cutler, and Grossman now backs up Matt Schaub in Houston.
Grade: C-
New York Giants
 2004
Eli Manning, Mississippi (1st overall)
Technically, the Chargers took Eli and traded him to the Giants on draft day. He came under heavy criticism early in his career, but all has since been forgotten. Eli led an amazing fourth-quarter comeback to win Super Bowl XLII, beating the Patriots in one of the biggest upsets in sports history. He has gradually improved each season, and despite a lack of proven receivers, looks like a superstar through four games this season.
Grade: A
San Diego Chargers
 2004
Philip Rivers, N.C. State (4th overall)
Rivers was drafted by the Giants, then traded to San Diego in the trade that sent fellow draftee Eli Manning to the G-Men. Despite an unorthodox three-quarter throwing motion, Rivers has become one of the NFL's most prolific passers. Last year, he passed for more than 4,000 yards and led the NFL with 34 TD passes and a superb 105.5 passer rating. This year, he's on pace for a similar numbers. The only knock on Rivers has been some inconsistent play in the postseason, but a 3-3 playoff record, and a near upset of the Patriots in the 2007 AFC Championship, isn't too shabby.
Grade: A-
Pittsburgh Steelers
 2004
Ben Roethlisberger, Miami-Ohio (11th overall)
Roethlisberger was a small school prospect who fell behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers in the '04 Draft, but he has outshined those two from the start. Roethlisberger went 13-0 as a starter his rookie year, and winning 53 of his 75 regular season starts so far. He's far from a classic pocket passer. Instead, Big Ben relies on size and strength to shed pass rushers and make improvised play. It has led to two Super Bowl rings. While he played terribly in Super Bowl XL, he shined in XLIII, leading a last-minute drive to beat the Cardinals.
Grade: A+
Buffalo Bills
 2004
J.P. Losman, Tulane (22nd overall)
Losman was an overachiever in college, putting together some big names despite the lack of a supporting cast with the Green Wave. But he never caught on in the NFL, plagued by injuries, inaccurate throws, and poor decisions. He didn't catch on as a free agent this past offseason, and is set to play for the Las Vegas Locomotives in the new United Football League this year.
Grade: D
San Francisco 49ers
 2005
Alex Smith, Utah (1st overall)
The choice to take Alex Smith is the perfect example of how picking the wrong QB can cost a team -- and a coach -- dearly. In the 2005 SI KIDS draft preview, I pegged Aaron Rodgers as the top player and top pick in the draft. Playing right near San Francisco (at California-Berkley), the local boy was a no-brainer. But head coach Mike Nolan pegged Smith, who had run Utah's spread offense flawlessly. Smith's career has been derailed by injuries, be he looked far from promising even when he was healthy. His strengths were supposed to be accuracy and smarts, but Smith has a 54.4 career completion percentage and a laughably bad 19-to-31 touchdown-to-interception ratio. This was as wasted a draft pick as there ever was.
Grade: F
Green Bay Packers
 2005
Aaron Rodgers, California (24th overall)
Rodgers has lived up to the hype and then some. He spent three seasons as Brett Favre's understudy, and the pressure was on when Favre retired, unretired, and was sent packing in a trade to the Jets. Rodgers has been a star since taking over, showing a strong, accurate arm, great mobility, and plenty of guts behind a shaky offensive line. Despite a terrible defense and lack of a running game, Rodgers almost single-handedly carried the Pack to six wins last year. And through the first four games of '09, he has a 101.1 passer rating despite getting the worst pass protection in the NFL. He's a very good quarterback right now, and the 25-year-old has the chance to be a great one.
Grade: B+
Washington Redskins
 2005
Jason Campbell, Auburn (25th overall)
No one doubts his arm. Campbell can sling strong, accurate downfield passes with the best of them. But a revolving door of offensive coordinators with vastly different game plans and philosophies stunted his growth. Now Campbell is just downright inconsistent. He's shown flashes so far, but Campbell needs to put it together soon. Otherwise, he's going to end up being a journeyman back-up.
Grade: C-
Tennessee Titans
 2006
Vince Young, Texas (3rd overall)
VY is still an absolute riddle. We know he can run, and he's shown flashes as a passer. But after leading the Titans to the playoffs in his second season, he lost his starting job to veteran Kerry Collins because of a boatload of interceptions and poor decisions on and off the field. We haven't seen the last of Young, and certainly the raw talent is there. But he has a ways to go before he lives up to his draft status.
Grade: C-
Arizona Cardinals
 2006
Matt Leinart, USC (10th overall)
Leinart likely would have been the top pick of the 2005 Draft, but he opted to play his final season at USC instead. His stock dropped leading up to the draft because of questionable arm strength. And Leinart's performance on the field did nothing to quiet his critics. After a disappointing year-and-a-half as Arizona's starter, he lost his job to Kurt Warner. Warner has gone on to turn the Cards into one of the league's best ariel attacks. It's too early to call Leinart a bust, but if he couldn't be successful throwing to Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, will he ever make it in the league?
Grade: D
Denver Broncos
 2006
Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt (11th overall)
Looking back, it's pretty surprising that Cutler wasn't the top quarterback taken in this draft. He has arguably the strongest arm in the NFL and is a very good athlete who throws as well as any QB when on the run. He steadily improved over three seasons in Denver, topping 4,000 yards with 25 TDs in 2008. He loses points for the way he forced a trade to Chicago, but he has already led his new team to two come-from-behind wins. He seems on his way to regular Pro Bowl appearances.
Grade: B+
Oakland Raiders
 2007
JaMarcus Russell, LSU (1st overall)
Before we get into ripping apart Russell, keep one thing in mind: He was drafted by a mess of an organization. His first coach, Lane Kiffin, didn't seem to want him (especially because Kiffin's offense relies on short passes, while Russell's biggest strength is his cannon arm). But if you were rating the NFL's 32 starting quarterbacks, you'd have to put Russell Number 32. It's his third year in the league, he's overweight, he's reportedly always late to meetings, and he's completing less than 40 percent of his passes. His passer rating is 42.4, for goodness sake! Maybe the right coach could have taken Russell's amazing arm and turned him into something great, but Russell is now a lost cause.
Grade: D-
Cleveland Browns
 2007
Brady Quinn, Notre Dame (22nd overall)
The scary thing about Quinn's awful performance is that the pieces are in place for him to succeed. The Browns' offense is similar to the one he ran at Notre Dame. Cleveland pass protects well. And, at least last year, they had some decent pass catchers with Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. Yet here is Quinn, back on the bench as a second-stringer. His decision-making has been poor, and his throws have been all over the place. Cleveland won't give up on him just yet, but he's on the verge of becoming a career back-up.
Grade: D
Atlanta Falcons
 2008
Matt Ryan, Boston College (3rd overall)
With his play on the field and his attitude off of it, Ryan looks like a long-lost Manning brother. He didn't have eye-popping numbers as a rookie, but it seemed like every time the Falcons needed a big third down play, Ryan made it happen. It's a big reason why the Falcons went from one of the league's worst teams in 2007 to the playoffs in '08. Most importantly, Ryan is the reason Falcons fans aren't still thinking about Michael Vick.
Grade: A-
Baltimore Ravens
 2008
Joe Flacco, Delaware (18th overall)
The Ravens missed badly when they took Kyle Boller in 2003. Five years later, they took an even bigger risk in snagging Flacco. During his college career, Flacco couldn't hold down the starting job at Pittsburgh and ended up playing for Division I-AA Delaware. But Flacco has a big arm and a great coach in offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. He had immediate success as a game manager last season, and this year Flacco looks even better. He has the size to shrug off pass rushers and the arm to fling it all over the field. The Ravens are back near the top of the league, and Flacco is a huge reason that they are.
Grade: A-
Detroit Lions
 2009
Matthew Stafford, Georgia (1st overall)
I said last April that Mark Sanchez was the best player available in the 2009 Draft, but it looks like the Lions will be happy with Stafford. There's no doubting his arm strength, and he's made do with a poor supporting cast so far. I could see him developing into a Jay Cutler-type (without the attitude, of course), but I still say Sanchez is the more complete player.
Grade: incomplete
New York Jets
 2009
Mark Sanchez, USC (5th overall)
Sanchez looks like this year's version of Matt Ryan. He plays with the poise of a veteran. While he doesn't have to carry the offense, he repeatedly makes the big throw on third down to keep drives alive. He already has a win over the rival Patriots, and he'll have many more. Sanchez is a star in the making.
Grade: incomplete
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
 2009
Josh Freeman, Kansas State (17th overall)
It's going to be a while before we know what the Bucs have in Freeman. There's no doubting his tools: He has a big arm and is very athletic, in the Donovan McNabb mold. But Freeman didn't produce much at K-State, and the Bucs are planning on taking it very, very slow with who the hope is their quarterback of the future.
Grade: incomplete

 

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