The Biggest Steals in NFL Draft History: Quarterbacks

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2014

The Biggest Steals in NFL Draft History: Quarterbacks

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    Kurt Warner
    Kurt WarnerChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    There's no such thing as a sure thing in the NFL. If you look at the annual player draft, professional scouts regularly make a case for a young stud and tell their bosses there's no way that player can miss.

    However, first-round draft picks may turn into superstars, but they may also turn into busts like Ryan Leaf or Akili Smith who flame out almost immediately.

    But it's not about the bust-outs. It's really about the steals. The players who come from out of nowhere to become stars.

    In this series, we will look at the biggest steals in NFL history—and not just in the NFL's recent past. In this edition, we examine quarterbacks.

Ken Anderson

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    Drafted: Third round, 1971 draft (67th pick)

    Career: 1971-1986

    Team: Cincinnati Bengals

    Key Stat: Led NFL in passing accuracy three times; completed more than 60 percent of his passes in five consecutive seasons (1980-84)

    Overview: Ken Anderson was overlooked for more than two rounds before the Bengals decided to take a chance on a quarterback from tiny Augustana College in Illinois.

    Anderson did not have any of the swagger that many top quarterbacks show the minute they walk into training camp. However, Anderson may have been the most accurate passer of his era. He threw the short-, medium- and long-range passes with ease and accuracy.

    He never changed his demeanor and carried the Bengals to the Super Bowl XVI following the 1981 season, where they fell just short and lost to the San Francisco 49ers.

Brian Sipe

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    Drafted: 13th round, 1972 draft (330th pick)

    Career: 1974-83 (NFL); 1984-85 (USFL)

    Teams: Cleveland Browns, New Jersey Generals (USFL), Jacksonville Bulls (USFL)

    Key Stat: Had a 30-14 TD-interception ratio in 1980 when he won the AP MVP Award and led the Browns to an 11-5 record.

    Overview: Sipe was an afterthought when the Cleveland Browns drafted him in the 13th round. He was on the reserve squad—now known as the practice squad—for two years before the Browns gave him a chance to play. Few believed he had the arm strength, accuracy or leadership to play at the NFL level.

    However, Sipe was a courageous leader who did not back down. He was not the fastest or the quickest, but he learned how to buy time and get an extra second in the pocket to wait for his receivers to get open. If his accuracy was questionable when he came into the league, he worked at it and improved every year. 

    He had a superb season in 1980 in which he led the Browns to an 11-5 record and it appeared they had an excellent chance to get to the Super Bowl. However, with the Browns trailing the Oakland Raiders 14-12 in the late stages of the divisional playoff game at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, Sipe had the Browns in position to kick the winning field goal. However, he threw an ill-advised interception and the Raiders went on to become the first wild-card team to win the Super Bowl.

Fran Tarkenton

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    Drafted: 3rd round, 1961 draft (29th pick)

    Career: 1961-78

    Teams: Minnesota Vikings (1961-66); New York Giants (1967-71); Minnesota Vikings (1972-78)

    Key Stat: Completed 273-of-425 passes for 2,994 yards with 25 TDs and 13 interceptions in 1975; won AP NFL MVP

    Overview: Fran Tarkenton was a decorated college quarterback at Georgia before he was drafted by the expansion Minnesota Vikings.

    However, few thought "Scrambling Fran" would make it in the NFL because he wanted to leave the pocket any time there was pressure. A quarterback who ran away from pressure was not looked at as an asset in the early 1960s. Nobody held to that belief more strongly than Vikings head coach Norm Van Brocklin, who despised Tarkenton's tendency to scramble even though it bought the quarterback time and helped him get the ball downfield when his receivers got open.

    Tarkenton eventually became one of the most prolific passers in the game and eventually opened the door for running quarterbacks. Tarkenton led the Vikings to three Super Bowl appearances—Joe Kapp led them to one more—and he became one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

Dan Fouts

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    Drafted: 3rd round, 1973 draft (35th pick)

    Career: 1973-87

    Team: San Diego Chargers

    Key Stat: Completed 360-of-609 passes for 4,802 yards with 33 TDs and 17 interceptions in 1981; won Pro Football Writers' NFL MVP in 1982

    Overview: San Diego Chargers head coach Don Coryell was not the father of the modern passing offense, but he sure was one of its leading advocates. Prior to taking over as head coach of the San Diego Chargers in 1977, he had been head coach of the St. Louis Cardinals from 1973 through 1977 and turned a moribund team into a bountiful one.

    But when he became the Chargers' head coach, he found the magical leader of his offense in Dan Fouts. Coryell was like an artist who was given the finest tools of the trade to craft his masterpiece. The Chargers became the most prolific offense in the game, and Fouts was its magnificent leader

    It wasn't just that Fouts became a Hall of Famer, it was that he was one of the great innovators of the passing game. He worked with Coryell and a cadre of superb receivers, and this third-round draft choice opened up the game to many and showed what the passing game could become.

Roger Staubach

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    Drafted: 10th round, 1964 draft (129th pick)

    Career: 1969-79

    Team: Dallas Cowboys

    Key Stat: Completed 179-of-286 passes for 2,428 yards with 23 TDs and 15 interceptions in 1971; led the Cowboys to two Super Bowl victories

    Overview: Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy while playing for Navy in 1963, but he was an afterthought in the 1964 draft because he had a long service commitment in front of him as the United States involvement in the Vietnam War was getting more intense.

    Few thought Staubach would ever become a factor in the NFL, but he became a star who took the Cowboys to a level that they had never been before. Prior to Staubach's arrival, the Cowboys were a good team that could never win the big one. Staubach changed that as he led the Cowboys to Super Bowl victories over the Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos. 

    Staubach excelled at reading defenses and making accurate throws to receivers so they could make big plays on the run. His famous Hail Mary pass to Drew Pearson in 1975 (above) allowed the Cowboys to upset the powerful Vikings in a playoff game at Minnesota.

    He spent the majority of his career making plays that few thought were possible and leading the Cowboys to winning seasons every year of his career.

Kurt Warner

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    Drafted: Undrafted free agent; signed by St. Louis Rams 1998

    Career: 1998-2009

    Teams: St. Louis Rams (1998-2003); New York Giants (2004); Arizona Cardinals (2005-09)

    Key Stat: Completed 325-of-499 passes for 4,353 yards with 41 TDs and 13 interceptions in 1999; won AP NFL MVP in 1999 and 2001

    Overview: Warner was an unknown quarterback at Northern Iowa who was not given a chance to play in the NFL until he showed a remarkably quick release and eye-catching accuracy while playing for the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League.

    The Rams brought him to training camp and head coach Dick Vermeil liked what he saw from him and  gave Warner a contract. Warner was supposed to be the backup to starter Trent Green, but he was thrust into the starting lineup in 1999 when Green suffered a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game.

    Warner had great understanding of Vermeil's offense and was able to develop a rapport with Marshall Faulk and the Rams' crew of receivers. 

    After a great run with the Rams, Warner would resurrect his career with the Arizona Cardinals and take them to the only Super Bowl in their history.

Joe Montana

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    Drafted: 3rd round, 1979 draft (82nd pick)

    Career: 1979-1994

    Teams: San Francisco 49ers (1979-92); Kansas City Chiefs (1993-94)

    Key Stat: Completed 271-of-386 passes for 3,521 yards with 26 TDs and 8 interceptions in 1989; won three Super Bowl MVP awards

    Overview: Much as Don Coryell had his leader in Dan Fouts, Bill Walsh had his maestro in Joe Montana. If Montana is not the greatest quarterback in the history of the game, he is in the team picture.

    Quarterbacks are often measured by how many Super Bowls they have won, and Montana won all four that he played in with the 49ers. 

    Montana was one of the most accurate passers the game has ever known, and his instincts were finely honed as he knew exactly when to get rid of the football. He had a brilliant relationship with wide receivers Jerry Rice and John Taylor, and it was Montana's legendary pass to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship game (above) that allowed the 49ers to become one of the greatest franchises in NFL history.

Tom Brady

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    David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    Drafted: 6th round, 2000 draft (199th pick)

    Career: 1999-

    Teams: New England Patriots

    Key Stat: Completed 398-of-578 passes for 4,806 yards with 50 TDs and 8 interceptions in 2007; won AP NFL MVP in 2007 and 2010; won three Super Bowl titles

    Overview: Tom Brady was not even a regular starter at Michigan during his college career, but New England head coach Bill Belichick liked Brady's confidence and drafted him in the sixth round.

    When Drew Bledsoe suffered a sheared blood vessel in 2001, the untested Brady took over. Instead of being overwhelmed and intimidated by the competition, Brady kept his cool, read the defense and made all the throws.

    Brady led the Patriots to the AFC East title. He didn't stop there as he led them to a Super Bowl upset over the high-powered St. Louis Rams. 

    Brady and Peyton Manning have become the best quarterbacks of their generation. It's no surprise for Manning, since he was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, but Brady was merely a late-round afterthought who has turned into one of the greatest quarterbacks the game has ever known.

Bart Starr

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    Drafted: 17th round, 1956 draft (200th pick)

    Career: 1956-71

    Team: Green Bay Packers

    Key Stat: Completed 156-of-251 passes for 2,257 yards with 14 TDs and 3 interceptions in 1966; led Packers to victories in first two Super Bowls and won MVP in both games.

    Overview: It seemed an unlikely pairing, Vince Lombardi and Bart Starr. Starr was born and raised in Alabama and played his college football at Alabama, prior to the arrival of Bear Bryant.

    Lombardi's harsh demeanor didn't play well with many of the Packers, but they quickly learned that he was not to be questioned. Lombardi would prove to be a fair taskmaster even though he was hard.

    Lombardi quickly realized that Starr was the ideal quarterback for his team. But the partnership did not become a winning one until Starr stood up to Lombardi and asked Lombardi never to criticize him in front of his teammates.

    "I told him he could say whatever he wanted to behind closed doors," Starr told me in a 2009 interview. "But not to do it in front of my teammates. I told him it would be impossible to lead them if he did that, and he never did it again."

    Starr scored one of the most famous touchdowns in NFL history when he followed guard Jerry Kramer into the end zone for the winning touchdown in the 1967 NFL Championship Game. That game would become known as the Ice Bowl, because it was played at a temperature of minus-13 degrees.

Johnny Unitas

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    Drafted: 9th round, 1955 draft (102nd pick) by Pittsburgh Steelers

    Career: 1956-73

    Teams: Baltimore Colts (1956-72); San Diego Chargers (1973)

    Key Stat: Completed 193-of-367 passes for 2,899 yards with 32 TDs and 14 interceptions in 1959; won AP NFL MVP in 1959, 1964 and 1967

    Overview: Johnny Unitas does not have the statistics to match up with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Steve Young, Dan Marino or any of the great quarterbacks of the modern era.

    However, when Unitas was in his heyday with the Baltimore Colts, no quarterback was more respected or feared. Unitas basically invented the two-minute drill, and it didn't take him long to perfect it.

    Unitas became a national figure when he led the Colts to a 23-17 victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, commonly referred to as "The Greatest Game Ever Played." That overtime game is widely considered to be the game that jump started the NFL and turned it into the sports and financial behemoth that it would eventually become.

    Unitas was drafted by the Steelers, but he never made it out of their first training camp. He was cut by that lowly team and played minor-league football before the Colts gave him a chance to show his talent and ability to win clutch games.