I’ve been studying the NFL draft since 1979, and I’ve seen a lot of quarterbacks. Some great, some terrible. Some first-round picks who made the Hall of Fame, and some top-10 picks who were complete busts.
So when I was asked recently where Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence ranked among the highest-graded quarterbacks I’ve ever studied, I just said, “He’s up there.” I really wanted to dig in, though, and check his grade vs. the rest of mine over the past 40-plus years. What follows below are the top 10 quarterbacks on that list, based on my pre-draft grades. It doesn’t reflect their NFL performance but rather where I had them rated the day before their respective drafts.
You’ll notice that this list and order is slightly different from when I did something similar back in 2011. That’s because I added Andrew Luck from the 2012 class, plus a quarterback who’s still playing at No. 10. And when I was going back through my grades and scouting reports, I discovered that the 2011 list wasn’t quite accurate because it was using a couple of March scouting reports vs. my final April scouting reports. Don’t worry, though — I’m not hiding from how high I was on a couple of legendary busts, as you’ll see below.
Let’s dig into my highest-graded quarterbacks since 1979, and I’ll include snippets from my final scouting reports, quick notes on how their careers ended up and where Lawrence fits in for the 2021 class:
Draft class: 1983
Pick: No. 1 overall, Denver Broncos
What I wrote at the time: “Perhaps the best evaluation of his talents was given by Cardinals coach Paul Wiggin, who said: ‘He’s got the confidence and field instincts of John Brodie, the special human qualities of Archie Manning, and the physical attributes of Terry Bradshaw.’ In my final evaluation, Elway received the highest grades one can achieve in all categories. He has no discernible weaknesses and is the prototype QB. Without question Elway is a can’t-miss All-Pro NFL QB who has the ability to make a place for himself in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
Career notes: Elway started 231 games for the Broncos and won two Super Bowls to close out his 16-year NFL career. His 300 career touchdown passes rank 12th all time. He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
Draft class: 2012
Pick: No. 1 overall, Indianapolis Colts
What I wrote at the time: “Luck has it all — size, incredible smarts, accuracy, and a great work ethic. I compare him a lot to Peyton Manning, but Luck is more athletic. Because of this, the expectations for Luck will be through the roof. He has the overall makeup to deal with that type of pressure and go on to enjoy a career that lives up to all the hype.”
Career notes: Luck made four Pro Bowls in his seven-year career before he abruptly retired before the 2019 season. He was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 2018 after he missed the entire 2017 season with injuries. He finished his career with 171 touchdown passes and 83 interceptions.
Draft class: 1998
Pick: No. 1 overall, Indianapolis Colts
What I wrote at the time: “He won’t provide the extra dimension of a Steve Young, but I can’t think of a player I’d rather have under center leading my football team into battle. With free agency, teams are changing personnel each year. The need for consistency and leadership at QB is more critical than ever. Manning will win and win big at the pro level, provided of course he gets the necessary assistance from his teammates and the organization.”
Career notes: Manning threw 28 interceptions as a rookie but then settled into an elite quarterback. He was named first-team All-Pro seven times, was named regular-season MVP five times and won two Super Bowl titles, one with the Colts and one with the Broncos. He’ll enter the Hall of Fame in the 2021 class later this year.
Draft class: 2021
Pre-draft scouting report: “Lawrence is the clear top prospect in this class. He’s going No. 1 to the Jaguars and will get a chance to lead the turnaround of that franchise alongside coach Urban Meyer. He has everything NFL teams want in a starting quarterback, from size to arm talent to the ability to process reads and make the right throw. Lawrence finished his Clemson career with 108 total touchdowns (18 rushing) and just 17 interceptions across three seasons.”
Lawrence had surgery to repair damage to the labrum in his left shoulder last month. He told ESPN’s Stephania Bell that his rehab is going better than expected, and he should be ready for training camp in July.
Draft class: 1983
Pick: No. 14 overall, Buffalo Bills
What I wrote at the time: “Kelly amassed impressive statistics during his career and like John Elway played against very strong competition (six bowl teams in 1981). Outside of Elway, Kelly is the most gifted of the QBs to come out of the college ranks this season. The transition to pro football should be a smooth one. He would have been one of the first five players drafted had he not been injured, but he still should go in the middle of the first round, depending on the outcome of tests on the shoulder close to draft day. It is my feeling that within three years Kelly will rate as one of the top QBs in the NFL.”
Career notes: Kelly spurned the Bills for the upstart USFL, playing two seasons for the Houston Gamblers. He joined Buffalo in 1986 and played 11 seasons for the Bills, guiding them to four straight Super Bowls. He was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2002.
Jim Kelly delayed the start of his NFL career in 1983 when he signed with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers. F. Carter Smith/AP
Draft class: 1990
Pick: No. 7 overall, Detroit Lions
What I wrote at the time: “A key factor in obtaining such a high rating is the leadership qualities he possesses, as well as his intelligence, poise and overall presence. I could go on forever about his qualities as a player and person, but I need space for the other prospects. Should be the first QB selected in any draft, he’s that good! In fact, if he goes to the right team, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him lead his club to the Super Bowl early in his pro career. Even if he doesn’t, you can feel reasonably certain that he will enjoy a successful career, earning high honors throughout his stay in the NFL.”
Career notes: Ware made just six starts over four NFL seasons, throwing five touchdown passes and eight picks. Rodney Peete was the Lions’ preferred starter under coach Wayne Fontes.
Draft class: 1993
Pick: No. 1 overall, New England Patriots
What I wrote at the time: “I’ve been praising his skill level and raw potential since he entered the WSU campus in 1990, and nothing has changed since that time to lessen my enthusiasm. Like all young, maturing QBs, he needs to develop a little more touch. No QB in college football, either this year, or in the years to come, can touch Bledsoe in terms of raw physical potential. This is why he rates as the No. 1 overall player on my ratings board and is clearly the most coveted prospect in the draft.”
Career notes: Bledsoe had a good career, but he is perhaps now best known as the guy who lost his starting job to Tom Brady — and Brady went on to become the greatest quarterback ever. Bledsoe did take the Patriots to the Super Bowl in 1996, and he also started games for the Cowboys and Bills after leaving New England. He threw 251 career touchdown passes.
8. Ryan Leaf, Washington State
Draft class: 1998
Pick: No. 2 overall, San Diego Chargers
What I wrote at the time: “Physically, he always has had what it takes to be one of the first players selected. However, it was his attention to detail last summer and willingness to put in the time on the practice field that pushed him over the top in terms of developing into a complete QB. Leaf is the type who can single-handedly put a team in the win column, which at the pro level is the ultimate sign of greatness.”
Career notes: Leaf vs. Manning was a massive debate in 1998, and the Colts made the right choice with the top pick. Leaf had a dismal career, going 4-17 in his career as an NFL starter. He was released by the Chargers after three “turbulent” seasons. “With Ryan, there were too many off-of-the-field issues that I guess I should have paid more attention to,” former Chargers general manager Bobby Beathard said years later. Leaf ended his career with 14 touchdown passes and 36 picks.
Ryan Leaf had all the tools to be a future star but they never translated in the NFL. USA TODAY Sports
Draft class: 1989
Pick: No. 1 overall, Dallas Cowboys
What I wrote at the time: “Aikman possesses outstanding physical/athletic talent, running under 4.7 at almost 220 pounds. He throws everything from the ear, using his quick release to avoid possible sacks. His mobility is a real plus, allowing him to move the pocket, delivering the ball accurately while rolling to either side. He rates as a super blue chipper capable of transforming a cellar dweller into a contender early in his pro career. However, like all young QBs, he will need time to hone his skills at the pro level and will be at somewhat of a disadvantage due to the fact he lacks the overall experience of former standouts such as John Elway, Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Vinny Testaverde, having really played only two full years at the collegiate level.”
Career notes: Aikman went 0-11 as a starter as a rookie, but he and the Cowboys turned it around. He won three Super Bowl titles and made six Pro Bowl teams over 12 seasons. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.
Draft class: 2018
Pick: No. 7 overall, Buffalo Bills
What I wrote at the time: “Allen has crushed the pre-draft process and is in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick. He has shown improvement at the Senior Bowl and at the combine, and he has a high ceiling. Allen is super raw but can really sling it. His numbers weren’t great in 2016 (28 touchdown passes, 15 interceptions while completing 56 percent of his passes), and his numbers weren’t great in 2017 (16 touchdown passes, six interceptions while completing 56.3 percent of his passes), but NFL teams will take into account the talent around him. The Wyoming offense lost 47 touchdowns from the 2016 team, along with its center. I think Allen’s numbers will be much better in an NFL offense with NFL players. He put some strong film together in the Cowboys’ bowl win, throwing three touchdown passes in the first half, even while recovering from a shoulder injury.”
Career notes: Allen broke out in Year 3 in Buffalo, completing 69.2% of his passes and throwing 37 touchdown passes with only 10 picks. He finished second in the MVP voting while leading the Bills to the AFC title game. Allen, who turns 25 this summer, has inserted himself into the top tier of NFL signal-callers.
Next on the list
The grades are all extremely similar here, but here’s who’s next up, in no order: