The NFL Draft can be a cruel reminder of the gap between how its 32 teams evaluate top collegiate players versus how football media and fans value incoming professional talent.
Kentucky quarterback prospect Will Levis, now a Tennessee Titan after being selected with the second pick of the second round (33rd overall) this past weekend, found out how wide that gap can be. Levis was once thought to be the favorite to go second in the NFL Draft by Vegas oddsmakers as late as wo days prior to Round 1, and he was the Colts' Plan B if a team had traded up to select Florida's Anthony Richard third overall, one spot before the Colts. Since Richardson was on the board at four, Indianapolis went with their guy, and no other team opted to take Levis that night. After losing out on , Levis now has a massive motivator for the rest of his career.
Given his notable draft day experience, here are a few quarterbacks who went through a similar fall from a projected top-10 pick prospects to being selected in the back end of the first round or later. Among seven examples of similar situations to Levis', it's a mixed bag: three roaring successes, three absolute busts, and then Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl quarterback Geno Smith, who is in his own unique category.
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The massive success stories
New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- wow, it's still weird to see in writing -- is the biggest success story of any QB who has taken a similar tumble to Levis. Rodgers was supposedly neck-and-neck with former Utah quarterback Alex Smith to be the first overall pick of the 2005 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. After Rodgers' hometown team went with Smith, Rodgers tumbled 23 more picks before the Green Bay Packers ended his slide with the 24th overall pick.
After that moment, Rodgers used the embarrassing night to became one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history:
- Four NFL MVPs (second-most all time)
- Highest touchdown-to-interception ratio all time (4.52, 475 passing touchdowns to 105 interceptions)
- Two highest single-season passer ratings in NFL history (122.5 in 2011 and 121.5 in 2020)
- Most touchdown passes in Green Bay Packers history (475, fifth-most in NFL history)
- Super Bowl XLV MVP for bringing the Vince Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay at the end of the 2010 season.
Even after one of his worst seasons ever at age 39, the future Hall of Famer is still coveted enough that the Jets Ryan Tannehill for a year is probably a touch different than observing Hall of Famer Brett Favre for three seasons.to acquire him. Rodgers is Levis' best-case scenario -- although learning from
In the 1983 NFL Draft, a record six quarterbacks were selected in the first round. Hall of Famer Dan Marino was the last of the six, falling to the penultimate pick of the opening round, 27th overall to the Miami Dolphins. The why was two-fold, with one of the reasons being an urban legend: there were rumors that Marino had a drug problem. The rumors were so pervasive that Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Chuck Noll admitted in a 1992 interview to not selecting Marino, who attended the University of Pittsburgh, because of those rumors.
Like Levis, Marino also had a less prolific senior year than he did his junior year. He threw for 20 fewer touchdowns (17) in 1982 than he did in 1981 (37). Pitt was 11-1 and finished fourth in the final AP Poll in 1981, and their record also dipped in 1982, going 9-3 to finish 10th in the final AP Poll.
Like Rodgers, Marino had the last laugh in the pro's, proving the haters wrong as early as Year 2. His 1984 season revolutionized modern football as Marino became the first player in NFL history to throw for over 40 touchdowns (48) or 5,000 yards (5,084) in one year. He rightfully won NFL MVP that season en route to leading the Dolphins to a Super Bowl appearance. They fell short against Joe Montana's and Bill Walsh's San Francisco 49ers, but that season was just the start of Marino's record-breaking career. He retired as the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns after his 17th season in 1999.
Lamar Jackson was a transcendent college player at Louisville, winning the 2016 Heisman Trophy as a 19-year-old. He followed up that year with another Heisman finalist season in 2017 -- primed to be an early pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. However, it was not to be, as Jackson, like Levis, dropped from the top end of Round 1 to pick No. 32, the final pick of the first round. The drop had nothing to do with Jackson as a person; some had doubts about his athletic, dual-threat style of play translating to the NFL. Most notably was Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, who said Jackson should.
Yet, Jackson has thrived as a pro, becoming the unanimous 2019 NFL MVP and the fastest in NFL history (67 games) to throw for more than 100 passing touchdowns (101) and rush for more than 4,000 yards (4,437). His rushing yards total through his first five seasons was 1,000 more than the previous first five seasons record that Cam Newton once held (3,207). Just last week, Jackson became the owner of the : five years and $260 million with $185 million guaranteed. That type of deal would more than make up for Levis' draft-day slide.
Brady Quinn was a dominant college quarterback at Notre Dame, throwing 69 touchdowns to only 14 interceptions across his final two seasons with the Fighting Irish in 2005-06. He was thought to be NFL-ready and bookmarked for the top 10 after being coached by Charlie Weis, a three-time Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator during Tom Brady's and Bill Belichick's first three Super Bowl runs in New England in 2011, 2003 and 2004. However, poor performances in big games like the 2005 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, a 34-20 loss, and a 41-14 loss in the 2006 Sugar Bowl caused him to tumble.
After LSU's JaMarcus Russell went first overall to the Raiders to kickoff the 2007 NFL Draft, Quinn dropped like Levis sitting in the green room, only for the Cleveland Browns to trade back into Round 1 to take him 22nd overall. Some injuries and poor performances under defensive head coaches like Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini in Cleveland led to him playing only four NFL seasons.
Jimmy Clausen was Brady Quinn's successor at Notre Dame as well as his successor on this bust list. Clausen had so much hype after a junior year in which he threw for 3,722 passing yards, 28 passing touchdowns and four interceptions on 68% passing. In fact, ESPN NFL Draft Analyst Mel Kiper Jr. promised to retire if the Fighting Irish quarterback wasn't good in the NFL after eight years. Despite the fanfare, Clausen fell into the second round where he was drafted 48th overall by the Carolina Panthers in 2010.
Carolina's Clausen-led offense floundered as he started 10 games in 2010, averaging 12.3 points per game, the fewest in the entire league despite having wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. and the all-time Panthers running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Clausen only started four more games combined with the Bears and Ravens in 2014 and 2015, retiring with seven career passing scores and 14 interceptions.
Like Quinn, Johnny Manziel, aka "Johnny Football" as he was known in college at Texas A&M, was selected 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns, just seven years later in 2014. Manziel won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman in 2012 with his signature win being a 29-24 road upset over No. 1 Alabama during which he totaled 345 yards (253 passing and 92 rushing) with two passing scores. He improved as a passer in 2013 across the board, throwing 37 touchdowns to 13 interceptions after 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2012. His rushing numbers declined as a result: he ran for only 759 yards and nine touchdowns after putting up a whopping 1,410 rushing yards and 21 rushing scores in 2012.
As a pro, Manziel underwhelmed with stories of partying late into the night before games and mediocre performances on the field derailing his career. He was out of the NFL after two seasons in which he threw seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in 14 games, eight of which were starts.
The Geno Smith journey: Flameout to career back-up to Pro Bowl-caliber starter
Geno Smith put up gaudy numbers in Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid offense at West Virginia in his last three college seasons: 97 passing touchdowns, 20 interceptions and 11,353 passing yards. That kind of production gave Smith the buzz of potentially being the first overall pick in 2013. Instead, Smith joined Levis as a green room horror story, leaving Day 1 undrafted and returning on Day 2 to be selected 39th overall, the seventh pick of the second round by the Jets, a team that passed him over with their ninth and 13th overall picks.
He struggled in 30 career starts with the rebuilding Gang Green, throwing 28 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. After one-year pit stops with the Giants as Eli Manning's backup (2017) and the Chargers as Philip Rivers' backup (2018), he settled down with the Seattle Seahawks to be Russell Wilson's backup in 2020. Through his first eight years, 2013-2021, Smith had completed 59% of his passes for 6,917 passing yards, 34 passing touchdowns and 37 interceptions. That's the career of an NFL back-up who has managed to stick around, nothing more.
Then, Wilson's wish to be traded to the Denver Broncos was granted, opening the door for Smith to get a one-season audition in 2022 as an NFL starter in Wilson's place after beating out Drew Lock in training camp. His performance in 2022 was so miraculous -- leading the NFL in completion percentage (68.8%), throwing a Seahawks-record 4,282 passing yards and ranking top-five in the league in passing touchdowns (30) and passer rating (100.9) -- that he won 2022 NFL Comeback Player of the Year, not for overcoming any injury, but rather eight years of unspectacular play on the field.
Smith then re-signed with Seattle for life-changing money: three years and $75 million. All it took was plugging away for eight years and then getting a second chance at 32 years old. There haven't been many careers in NFL history quite like Smith's, but it does show that sometimes a quarterback can bounce back, even after a prolonged, underwhelming beginning.
Geno Smith (2022 season)
* Seahawks' single-season record