With LSU quarterback Joe Burrow poised to be selected first overall in this week’s NFL Draft, it is a perfect time to look back on the top five quarterbacks to be selected first overall this century.
This list will not include players like Peyton Manning or John Elway that were selected first overall prior to 2000 as well as players like Deshaun Watson or Aaron Rodgers that were taken in the first round, but not first overall.
Without further ado, let’s look at the players that made the top five as well as a few honorable mentions.
Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com
Andrew Luck, Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jared Goff, Alex Smith
Mayfield, Murray, and Goff are each off to great starts in their careers, but the sample size is just not large enough to justify putting them in the top five.
Smith has had a solid career after being selected first overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2005 draft. Although his career may now be coming to an end due to injuries, he has made three Pro Bowls, thrown for over 34,000 yards, and has nearly 200 touchdowns. He also led the 49ers and Chiefs to multiple playoff appearances as well as serving as a mentor to NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes. Smith has been nothing more than a quality quarterback over his 13-year career, justifying his position on the honorable mentions list.
Although it may initially seem controversial to list Luck as an honorable mention, the choice became simple once looking at his stats. Amongst the quarterbacks to make the top five, the 2012 first overall pick ranks higher than just one of them in nearly every major passing category. In addition, the one player Luck finished above is widely considered to be the greatest rushing quarterback of all time, which made the decision to leave Luck off the list even easier. Luck is the most talented quarterback to be taken first overall since Peyton Manning in 1998, but his injuries and abrupt retirement severely impacted his career and legacy. He also won just one individual award (2018 Comeback Player of the Year) and led the Colts to only one AFC Championship Game appearance (45-7 loss to New England Patriots in 2014).
#5. Matthew Stafford
Team: Detroit Lions (2009 – Present)
Stats: 41,025 passing yards, 256 passing touchdowns, 134 interceptions, 89.3 QBR,
1,086 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns
Accolades: 1x Pro Bowl, 2011 Comeback Player of the Year
Stafford may be the most underrated quarterback in the NFL. He has the highest QBR of any player on this list and is a close third in passing yards and touchdowns, despite playing in several less seasons than the players at the top of the list. He currently ranks in the top twenty all-time for both categories. In addition, he was able to overcome the injury concerns that plagued his first two seasons and went on to play in every Lions game from 2011-2018. The reason Stafford is not higher, however, is because of his lack of team success. Although much of the blame can be placed on the ineptitude of Detroit, some of the blame must be placed on the 2009 first overall pick. Over Stafford’s first eleven seasons, the Lions have made the playoffs just three times, losing in the first round each time. He is statistically one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, but Stafford’s failure to turn those stats into wins prevents him from reaching that top tier. If he can lead Detroit on a deep playoff run or land on another team that has a chance at a Super Bowl, Stafford will easily move up this list and become one of the all-time greats at the position.
#4. Carson Palmer
Teams: Cincinnati Bengals (2003 – 2010), Oakland Raiders (2011 – 2012),
Arizona Cardinals (2013 – 2017)
Stats: 46,247 passing yards, 294 passing touchdowns, 187 interceptions, 87.9 QBR
Accolades: 3x Pro Bowl
It was hard deciding between Palmer and Stafford at number four, but Palmer holds a slight statistical advantage due to him playing more seasons. Palmer also enjoyed greater team success during his career. The 2003 first overall pick ranks in the top fifteen all-time for both passing yards and touchdowns. He also has the second highest QBR for any player on this list. Similar to Stafford, Palmer had minimal team success as he made the playoffs just three times. He did, however, lead the 2015 Cardinals to the NFC Championship Game (49-15 loss to Carolina Panthers). 2015 was also the best statistical season for Palmer as he finished with 4,671 passing yards and 35 touchdowns. Injuries and consistency were a problem for Palmer as he played all 16 games in a season just seven times. Palmer was a solid, high-end quarterback throughout his career, but lacks the accolades and team success to move him into the top three.
#3. Michael Vick
Teams: Atlanta Falcons (2001 – 2006), Philadelphia Eagles (2009 – 2013),
New York Jets (2014), Pittsburgh Steelers (2015)
Stats: 22,464 passing yards, 133 passing touchdowns, 88 interceptions, 80.4 QBR,
6,109 rushing yards, 36 rushing touchdowns
Accolades: 4x Pro Bowl, 2010 Comeback Player of the Year, 2010 Bert Bell Award
Despite having the worst passing stats of any player on the list, Vick earns the third spot because of his elite rushing ability. During his time with the Falcons, the 2001 first overall pick revolutionized the position and paved the way for current dual-threat quarterbacks like Russell Wilson and Lamar Jackson. Vick holds the record for most career rushing yards by a quarterback and held the record for most rushing yards in a single-season (1,039 in 2006) before it was broken by Jackson in 2019. Of course, Vick’s career will forever be overshadowed by his involvement in a dog fighting ring that resulted in him spending 21 months in federal prison and being suspended by the NFL for the 2007 and 2008 seasons. He returned to form in 2010 and had one of the best statistical seasons of his career, finishing with 3,018 passing yards and 21 passing touchdowns to go along with 676 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns. However, his prison sentence along with other consistency issues resulted in Vick failing to reach his true potential. Regardless, Vick remains one of the most influential NFL players of this century and deserving of his ranking at number three.
#2. Cam Newton
Team: Carolina Panthers (2011 – 2019), currently a free agent
Stats: 29,041 passing yards, 182 passing touchdowns, 108 interceptions, 86.1 QBR,
4,806 rushing yards, 58 rushing touchdowns
Accolades: 2015 NFL MVP, 2015 Offensive Player of the Year, 2015 Bert Bell Award, 2011 Rookie of the Year, 3x Pro Bowl
Although his release by the Panthers last month has shone him in a negative light, Newton has been one of the top quarterbacks of the last decade and has garnered the most individual accomplishments of any player on this list. Newton is essentially an improved version of Vick as he is an elite runner and athlete, yet still effective throwing the ball. This all came to a head during Newton’s incredible MVP season in 2015 as he finished with 3,837 passing yards, 35 passing touchdowns, 636 rushing yards, and 10 rushing touchdowns. Although many may view him as a one-season wonder, he threw for over 3,100 passing yards and ran for over 350 rushing yards in each season prior to his injury-riddled 2019. Cam also led the Panthers to four playoff appearances, including a berth in Super Bowl 50 (24-10 loss to Denver Broncos). The 2011 first overall pick may have fallen on some hard times more recently, but his overall body of work makes him one of the top draft picks this century. He will likely find a home for the 2020 season and continue to add to his already impressive career.
#1. Eli Manning
Team: New York Giants (2004 – 2019)
Stats: 57,023 passing yards, 366 passing touchdowns, 244 interceptions, 84.1 QBR
Accolades: 2x Super Bowl Champion, 4x Pro Bowl, 2016 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award
Manning being the top quarterback taken first overall this century is likely a shock to most people, but the stats back this notion up. He tops all quarterbacks on this list in both passing yards and touchdowns, ranking seventh all-time in both stats. He also is tied with Vick for most Pro Bowls of any of the listed quarterbacks. Eli did throw a lot of interceptions, but made up for it with his play in the clutch. The 2004 first overall pick led the Giants to two Super Bowl victories, knocking off the mighty Patriots each time. He led New York to a total of six playoff appearances over his career. Manning also threw for over 4,000 yards seven times and recorded at least 20 passing touchdowns in every season but four. The Giant was remarkably durable throughout his career as well, failing to start all 16 games just three times. Eli is definitely not the flashiest player on this list and fans likely remember him being unceremoniously benched last season in favor of Daniel Jones. However, his mix of durability, consistency, and team success help him to earn the top spot.