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NFL Draft History: Power Ranking the Top 10 Quarterback Classes of All Time

Jeff ShullAnalyst IApril 19, 2011

NFL Draft History: Power Ranking the Top 10 Quarterback Classes of All Time

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    In just about every draft, you will have multiple teams going after their next great quarterback, and more often than not, those teams will miss on a QB.

    But how many times in the history of the NFL have there been several teams that have hit on a QB in the same class? I look back at the history of the NFL Draft, which has taken place since 1936, and have evaluated the top 10 quarterback draft classes of all time.

    My criteria for evaluating these draft classes was pretty simple. I tended to be a bit more lenient on the numbers aspect for guys in the pre-Super Bowl era, and if the class produced multiple Hall of Famers or championship winners, it probably made the list.

    For example, the 1987 draft class of Vinny Testaverde, Chris Miller, Jim Harbaugh, Rich Gannon and Steve Beuerlein looks pretty good, but it doesn't stack up to a draft class that produces a couple of Hall of Famers, or one with multiple Super Bowl champions.

    Enough rambling; let's take a look.

Just Missed the Cut

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    Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

    These draft classes are those that didn't quite make it, but are good classes in their own right.

    You could make an argument right now that some deserve to be in the top 10, but obviously, I didn't.

    1950 - Adrian Burk, Tobin Rote, Eddie LaBaron

    1952 - Bill Wade, Babe Parilli, Ed Brown

    1955 - Johnny Unitas

    1956 - Bart Starr, Earl Morrall

    1960 - Don Meredith, Charley Johnson

    1964 - Bob Berry (OK), Roger Stauback, Bill Munson (OK)

    1965 - Craig Morton, Joe Namath

    1985 - Randall Cunningham, Bernie Kosar, Doug Flutie

    1987 - Vinny Testaverde, Chris Miller, Jim Harbaugh, Rich Gannon, Steve Beuerlein

    1993 - Drew Bledsoe, Mark Brunell, Trent Green

    1995 - Steve McNair, Kerry Collins, Kordell Stewart

    1998 - Peyton Manning, Matt Hasselbeck

    2000 - Tom Brady, Marc Bulger, Chad Pennington

    2001 - Michael Vick, Drew Brees

10. 2004: Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Philip Rivers, Matt Schaub

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    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    The 2004 draft class of quarterbacks may easily move up this list as time goes by, but as of right now, they are still a top 10 quarterback class.

    Featured by Super Bowl winners Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, the 2004 class was highlighted by a major draft day trade that included the Giants sending the Chargers several picks and Phillip Rivers for Manning.

    The trade has shaped each franchise today, and neither team would complain about who they have calling the shots.

    Big Ben has brought two Super Bowl championships to Pittsburgh, making them the franchise with the most ever, and also appeared in a third in the 2010-2011 season.

    Also, a pick that had gone unnoticed at the time until recently, Matt Schaub was selected in the third round and has since been traded to the Houston Texans.

    He has led a dynamic offense since getting a starting gig, and if the Texans can ever improve defensively, they would become one of the elite AFC teams.

    I won't bore you with stats on this slide, because most of you already know a lot about each player.

9. 1949: Norm Van Brocklin, Jim Finks, George Blanda

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    This class features two Hall of Famers, and technically a third.



    Norm Van Brocklin: 23,611 yards, 173 TDs, 178 INTs, 75.1 QB Rating

    Norm Van Brocklin had a will to win but was also a very established passer. He was better than most during his era and was enshrined in the Hall of Fame after an illustrious career.

    He helped bring Los Angeles its first NFL title in 1951, but is probably most well known among Eagles fans because he brought them their most recent championship—in 1960. He was first team All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl in 1960, and retired following the season.

    In 11 seasons as a starting QB, he made the Pro Bowl nine times.



    Jim Finks: 8,622 yards, 55 TDs, 88 INTs, 54.7 QB Rating

    Although Finks definitely wasn't as great a player on the field as most of these other players, he did make the Hall of Fame as a "contributor" for his work as a QB and an administrator.

    Technically, this class produced three Hall of Famers, so you would think the class should be higher, but Finks is obviously the least impressive of the bunch and brings the class down a bit compared to the rest of the list. 

     

    George Blanda: 26,920 yards, 236 TDs, 277 INTs, 60.6 QB Rating

    Another Hall of Famer, Blanda is probably most known for the fact that he played 26 seasons in the NFL as both a place kicker and a QB. He helped the Houston Oilers win the first two AFL championships.

    He is also well known for the fact that until recently, he held the record for most interceptions thrown in a career.

    He does still hold the record for most interceptions thrown in a season with 42, a number that will never be topped.

    If anyone comes close, they will be pulled for their backup.

8. 1971: Jim Plunkett, Joe Tehismann, Ken Anderson, Lynn Dickey, Archie Manning

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    Jim Plunkett, Ken Anderson, Archie Manning, Lynn Dickey and Joe Theismann. This class could have been higher if it weren't for the fact that only Anderson and Theismann put up very good numbers.

    Anderson, Plunkett and Theismann all appeared in Super Bowls, with the latter two winning at least one each.

     

    Jim Plunkett: 25,882 yards, 164 TDs, 198 INTs, 67.5 QB Rating

    Jim Plunkett won two Super Bowls for the Raiders, one in Oakland and one in Los Angeles, and is one of the most popular Raiders of all time.

    While he didn't wow anyone with his statistics, he is clearly a winner, having brought two rings to the proud franchise.

     

    Ken Anderson: 32,838 yards, 197 TDs, 160 INTs, 81.9 QB Rating

    Anderson remains the career leader in passing yards for the Bengals, and that number will likely not be broken soon, unless Carson Palmer miraculously stays with the team.

    Anderson played his entire 16-year career with the Bengals, bringing them their first Super Bowl appearance, although they would lose to the 49ers.  


    Joe Theismann: 25,206 yards, 160 TDs, 138 INTs, 77.4 QB Rating

    Theismann had a terrific career that was cut a bit short when Lawrence Taylor busted his knee on a sack.

    However, he did win a Super Bowl ring and had several great years with the Redskins; he is probably their most popular player of all time.  


    Archie Manning: 23,911 yards, 125 TDS, 173 INTs, 67.1 QB Rating

    Archie Manning never had a winning season with the Saints, but has a reputation for being one of the tougher QBs to ever play.

    He almost never had great talent around him and was constantly getting killed by opposing defenses, but he went out and played every game the only way he knew how—hard.

    He's probably more famous for having two sons that now occupy starting positions as QBs in the NFL. I believe you know their names.

     

    Lynn Dickey: 23,322 yards, 141 TDs, 174 TDs, 70.9 QB Rating

    Lynn Dickey was an above average QB in his prime, but wowed everyone with his 1983 season, when he turned in over 4,400 yards and 32 touchdowns.

7. 1984: Boomer Esiason, Steve Young, Jay Schroeder

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

    The '84 draft yielded two great quarterbacks and one pretty good one. When building a list of top 20 or even top 15 QBs in the history of the NFL, there are very few people who wouldn't put Boomer Esiason and Steve Young on the list.

    In my opinion, Steve Young is a top-three QB for how much he dominated during an eight-year stretch in the 90s.

    Had he not had to spend his first two years with the awful Bucs and a few years behind Joe Montana, he probably would be widely regarded as the best ever.

    Young was not technically taken in the 1984 draft, but rather a draft of the USFL and WFL by NFL teams.

     

    Steve Young: 33,124 yards, 232 TDs, 107 INTs, 96.8 QB Rating

    During that stretch from 1991-1998, he set numerous records. His career QB rating is the best ever, and his 112.8 QB rating in his 1994 MVP season set the record at the time.

     

    Boomer Esiason: 37,929 yards, 247 TDs, 184 INTs, 81.1 QB Rating

    While not a Hall of Famer, he is definitely on the short list of those who nearly made it, or should have made it. He wasn't surrounded by the best talent, but the Bengals organization knew for those first nine years, they had a special player at QB.

    His best season came in 1988, when he led the Bengals to their second Super Bowl appearance of the decade. They would go on to lose to the 49ers in a hard fought battle; the Bengals had a seven point lead entering the fourth but could not hold off Joe Montana

     

    Jay Schroeder: 20,063 yards, 114 TDs, 108 INTs, 71.7 QB Rating

    Schroeder had a brilliant sophomore campaign and looked to be the quarterback of the future with over 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns for the Redskins, but a separated shoulder knocked him out of the first game the following season.

    He would return and lead the Redskins to an 8-2 record during that time, but the injury nagged and allowed Doug Williams to take the job prior to the playoff run.

    The Redskins won the Super Bowl. Williams was MVP of the game, and Schroeder was on the Raiders the very next season. He had a decent career with the Raiders, Bengals and Cardinals before retiring in 1995.

6. 1944: Otto Graham and Bob Waterfield

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    If Sammy Baugh was the father of the forward pass, Otto Graham was the prodigal son.

    Baugh introduced the change to the QB position in the late '30s and early '40s, and Graham took the ball and ran with it, or threw with it...whatever.

    Graham was the NFL's first elite forward passer, and in terms of championship success, there is no one else.

     

    Otto Graham: 23,584 yards, 174 TDs, 135 INTs, 86.6 QB Rating

    Compared to his era, Graham was way ahead of his time. His numbers may not even look that great to you right now, but compared to the others, including fellow Hall of Famers of the era, he was above and beyond.

    He changed the QB position to what it is today, and we can all thank Graham for starting the movement of football to the offensive aerial attack that it is.

    Oh, and did I also mention he led the Browns to 10 consecutive championship games as the starting quarterback? He won five straight, lost three and won two before retiring.

    The first four were championships of the All-American Football Conference, then the Browns returned to the NFL for the final six appearances and three wins. 

    Nobody will ever make 10 straight championship game appearances again. Ever. It also has to be considered how easy it was to make the championship; all they had to do was win their division.

    That said, they did it 10 times in a row, and Graham has to be given credit.

     

    Bob Waterfield: 11,849 yards, 97 TDs, 128 INTs, 61.6 QB Rating

    Waterfield was another player that didn't exactly light it up in the stat sheet, but willed his team to win with his toughness and determination. Not only was he in the same draft class as Graham, but he also got inducted in to the Hall of Fame in the same year.

    He won the championship with the Cleveland Rams before the team bolted for the West Coast and Los Angeles, then won the city's first NFL championship in 1951.

    Waterfield was one of those old school guys. He was not only the QB, but the punter and place kicker too. He did it all.

5. 1961: Fran Terkenton, Norm Snead, Billy Kilmer

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    This is a class of players who should have three Hall of Famers, considering the numbers they put up and the era they did it in.

     

    Billy Kilmer: 20,495 yards, 152 TDs, 146 INTs, 71.6 QB Rating

    Kilmer never won a championship, but was one of the great early Washington Redskins quarterbacks. Think about this: The Redskins transitioned from Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgenson, to Billy Kilmer who could be in the hall, to Hall of Famer Joe Theismann.

    Talk about hitting on draft picks.

    While the Redskins would only go on to win championships under Theismann and others, Kilmer is enshrined in their ring of honor and considered one of their greatest players ever.

     

    Norm Snead: 30,797 yards, 196 TDs, 257 INTs, 65.5 QB Rating

    I'm not quite sure how someone with over 30,000 yards during that era doesn't make the Hall of Fame. You could argue that he threw too many interceptions, but then what about Blanda making it?

    Though, admittedly, the fact that he never had much team success is probably what has handicapped him from making it to the Hall of Fame.

    His record of 52-99-7 doesn't wow anyone, but it still doesn't take away from the fact that the individual talent was there; he was just never in the right situation.

     

    Fran Tarkenton: 47,003 yards, 342 TDs, 266 INTs, 80.4 QB Rating

    If Fran Tarkenton isn't in your top 10 list of the best ever, you need to make a new list. He not only had the stats that broke numerous records at the time, but he also had team success.

    He would leave for the Giants, but upon his return to the Vikings six years later, he would lead them to three Super Bowls in four seasons.

    Although he lost all three games, he is still considered one of the best ever at the position and is in the NFL Hall of Fame.

4. 1948: Y.A. Tittle and Bobby Layne

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    George Rose/Getty Images

    Although Tittle and Layne were the only great QBs in their class, it's hard to argue against a class that produced two Hall of Famers.

     

    Y.A. Tittle: 33,070 yards, 242 TDs, 248 INTs, 74.3 QB Rating

    Tittle is another player whose career was marred by a lack of playoff success. Though back then, there was only one playoff game, and that was for the whole enchilada. Tittle played in and lost four championship games with both the 49ers and Giants.

    He had very many successful years with the 49ers before being traded in favor of John Brodie. He played four seasons with the Giants, appearing in three straight championship games between 1961-1963.

    He was hurt in the final championship game appearance in a heart wrenching loss to the Chicago Bears and is still the only QB in the Hall of Fame to have never won a playoff game.

     

    Bobby Layne: 26,768 yards, 196 TDs, 243 INTs, 63.4 QB Rating

    Although those stats don't look particularly appealing, Layne was a flat out winner. Sports Illustrated called Layne the "Toughest Quarterback That Ever Lived", and Layne ranks No. 52 on Sporting News' Football's Greatest 100 Players.

    Layne won back-to-back championships with the Detroit Lions in the 50s and is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

    Layne is famous for a reason that Detroit Lions fans will definitely know about. "The Curse of Bobby Layne" refers to the remarks made by Layne after the Lions traded him to the Steelers.

    "The Lions will not win for 50 years," he said.

    He was right.

3. 1979: Phil Simms and Joe Montana

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    Hard not to include the draft class that features probably the most unanimous selection for greatest QB of all time.

    No, Giants fans, not Phil Simms.

     

    Joe Montana: 40,551 yards, 273 TDs, 139 INTs, 92.3 QB Rating

    Simply put, Montana is the greatest winner of all time. The combination of pure skill and outstanding athletic ability made the 49ers the dominant team of the 1980s and early 90s. 

    He never lost a Super Bowl and always seemed to step up his game when it mattered the most. He appeared in four Super Bowls, winning them all, and never threw an interception. He accounted for 13 touchdowns in those four games.

    He also has a reputation as the greatest clutch QB ever, accounting for 31 fourth quarter comebacks and 33 game-winning drives, most of them coming in pressure situations.

    "The Drive" and "The Catch" are iconic situations and plays that will stand the test of time and never be forgotten.

     

    Phil Simms: 33,462 yards, 199 TDs, 157 INTs, 78.5 QB Rating

    Funny that Simms was actually taken by the Giants before Montana, though most Giants fans won't really complain about that.

    Simms was a winner in his own right, having a losing record only once in a full season and brought the Giants their first Super Bowl victory.

    His dominance of the Broncos in the 1987 Super Bowl is one of the best of all time. He completed 22 of 25 passes for 258 yards, three TDs, no INTs and a 150.9 QB rating.

    He is famous for coining the phrase "I'm goin' to Disney World" after he said that when asked what he was going to do now that he's won it all.

    "Phil Simms, you've just won the Super Bowl, what are you going to do??"

    "I'm goin' to Disney World!"

    He probably would have won another championship with the Giants in 1990, but got hurt late in the season. Luckily, Jeff Hostetler was still able to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.

2. 1957: John Brodie, Len Dawson, Milt Plum, Sonny Jurgensen, Jack Kemp

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    David Maxwell/Getty Images

    The 1957 class featured two Hall of Famers, the first of many great 49ers quarterbacks, two of the best AFL quarterbacks ever and one of the more efficient passers of the era (Len Dawson happens to be two of these descriptions.).

     

    Len Dawson: 28,711 yards, 239 TDs, 183 INTs, 82.6 QB Rating

    Len Dawson jumps out on the list because he is arguably the greatest AFL QB ever and led the Kansas City Chiefs to an improbably Super Bowl victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

    He is a Hall of Famer and one of the best quarterbacks during that era.

     

    John Brodie: 31,548 yards, 214 TDs, 224 INTs, 72.3 QB Rating

    Brodie played all 17 of his NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, becoming the franchise leader in just about every major statistical category. His numbers are now overshadowed by Joe Montana and Steve Young, but he is still one of the best QBs in franchise history.

    Trent Dilfer bought Brodie's jersey out of retirement in a campaign to get Brodie enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, Dilfer, who is a close friend of Brodie's, was unsuccessful.

     

    Jack Kemp: 21,218 yards, 114 TDs, 183 INTs, 57.3 QB rating

    Obviously not the best statistical QB, but his years with the Bills are well known among fans. He is one of the better QBs from the AFL and was an All-Star in the league seven times, as well as All-AFL five times.

    The Bills won two AFL championships with Jack Kemp as their QB, but missed a chance to play in the first ever Super Bowl when they lost two Len Dawson and the Chiefs in the AFL championship. All in all, Kemp appeared in six AFL championship games, winning two. 

     

    Milt Plum: 17,536 yards, 122 TDs, 127 INTs, 72.2 QB Rating

    Had Plum not been traded to Detroit, he may have gone down as one of the best QBs ever. He shined in his five seasons with the Browns, having a QB rating of 89.9 while there. His 1960 season rating of 110.4 is the best prior to 1989 and still the fifth best of all time.

    In those first five years with Cleveland, Plum had 66 TDs and 39 INTs, but Detroit did not have the same rushing attack to help with the offensive balance and he was never the same.

     

    Sonny Jurgenson: 32,224 yards, 255 TDs, 189 INTs, 82.6 QB Rating

    Yet another Hall of Famer in this class, Jurgenson had an unbelievable career with the Eagles and Redskins—mostly with the 'Skins. He made five Pro Bowls and had five All-Pro selections in his career, but the Redskins were never a great team and didn't win any championships.

    In fact, Jurgenson played in only one playoff game his entire career, and that was while splitting time with Billy Kilmer in his final season.

1. 1983: John Elway, Jim Kelly, Ken O'Brien, Dan Marino

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    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    This is, without any doubt in anyone's mind, the best QB class ever. It features three Hall of Famers and one other damn good QB that perhaps is overshadowed by his fellow draft class mates.

     

    Ken O'Brien: 25,094 yards, 128 TDs, 98 INTs, 80.4 QB Rating

    Though individually he was one of the elite quarterbacks of his time, his team never had great success.

    He holds a couple NFL records that still stand, including being the only quarterback to throw for over 400 yards in a single game while having a perfect 158.3 QB rating.

    He also shares a record with classmate Dan Marino, when they combined for 927 passing yards in a single game.

    O'Brien only made the Pro Bowl twice during his time, which is actually impressive considering he had John Elway, Marino and Jim Kelly alongside him in the AFC.

     

    John Elway: 51,475 yards, 300 TDs, 226 INTs, 79.9 QB Rating

    In my opinion, Elway was the most clutch quarterback to ever play the game.

    Although he did not win all of his Super Bowls like Montana did, he is credited for the most comeback wins and game-winning drives in the history of the NFL.

    He appeared in the Super Bowl five times, winning the last two in 1997 and 1998. Elway is easily a top 10 QB of all time and is in the Hall of Fame.

     

    Jim Kelly: 35,467 yards, 237 TDs, 175 INTs, 84.4 QB Rating

    Probably most known for being a part of the Buffalo Bills team that went to four straight Super Bowls and didn't win any of them, Kelly is a fantastic player that is marred by the fact that he did not win one of those championships.

    That didn't stop him from justifiably being elected to the Hall of Fame.

    He made the Pro Bowl four times, made the playoffs with the Bills in eight of 11 seasons and he and Andre Reed are fifth all time in QB to WR touchdown hookups.

     

    Dan Marino: 61,361 yards, 420 TDs, 252 INTs, 86.4 QB Rating

    Although surpassed by Brett Favre in many categories, many believe Dan Marino to be the best statistical QB ever. His numbers are off the charts despite the fact that he played with only one talented receiver over his career (Mark Clayton).

    However, the fact that he never won a championship is reason for many to not consider him the greatest QB ever.

    Dolphins fans will tell you different, since football is a team sport, and the Dolphins never really had great talent around Marino.

    This class has three quarterbacks who could be top 15 players at the position of all time. This was a no-brainer.

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