Mel Kiper Top 10 all-time QB prospects
I put out my first draft guide in 1979. This year will be No. 35. That first guide was a full six years before the first NFL scouting combine. Back then, there were no online prospect guides and no recruiting rankings to track talent down to the high school level, and the draft looked something like this. For me, evaluating prospects was all about getting as much tape as I could find (there was no ESPN GamePlan), and making hundreds and hundreds of phone calls (no cellphones, either!) to coaches, scouts and front-office folks who would listen and evaluators at every level. You couldn't watch a verified 40-yard dash time on live TV; instead, you had to triangulate and weed out truth from fiction. It wasn't easy.
Mel Kiper's all-time draft grades
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But throughout all this time, I've kept the same 10-point grading scale, so even as the athletes changed, we can compare today where players stood among their prospect peers over a generation.
So, some parameters for what you see below:
1. The ranking is based on the final draft grade before the draft, and it goes back to 1979, my first draft guide. It's clear to me now I graded a little easier when I was younger. I didn't have the point of reference I do today.
2. The grades do not reflect NFL performance. (You'll see.) I printed these grades and simply went back through every book. I have to live with the busts.
3. There are some ties on grades, so I had to break those ties without a great deal of science. But again, I didn't break ties based on NFL production.
Here are my top 10 all-time quarterbacks based on draft grades.
1. John Elway, Stanford (No. 1 pick, 1983)
A generation later, Elway's skill set and pedigree would look just as impressive. His arm strength was legendary and would stand up to the strongest arms in the current NFL. He wasn't just smart in a traditional sense with obvious academic intelligence; he also was the son of an innovative coach in Jack Elway and was perfectly tailored to enter an era in part defined by the growth of the passing game under innovators such as Bill Walsh. It's fair to say Elway made his draft grade look accurate.
2. Andrew Luck, Stanford (No. 1 pick, 2012)
Highly accurate, highly intelligent, highly prepared and highly adaptable, Luck was a true modern prospect in the sense that the innate skills became obvious early in his career at Stanford. His NFL rookie season showed off not just what we all could see, but fans also got to see what kind of an athlete Luck is. Great size, strength and durability are just add-ons to an already exceptionally promising profile.
3. Jim Kelly, Miami (No. 14 pick, 1983)
The third QB off the board in 1983, Kelly was a great prospect not just because of the arm, accuracy and good size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), but because he was extremely competitive and could read the field from both sides of the ball. I've noted it previously, but he wouldn't have gone to Miami if Penn State and Joe Paterno had recruited him as a QB; Paterno wanted him to play linebacker. Kelly was one of the big early names in the USFL, but he proved Hall of Fame-worthy in the NFL.
4. Drew Bledsoe, Washington State (No. 1 pick, 1993)
Just a natural QB. Bledsoe had a low arm slot and wasn't going to beat most of the guys blocking for him in a race, but he had uncanny accuracy, a very strong arm, and the ability to make quick reads and snap off throws all over the field with ease. He quietly put up major numbers, too. Bledsoe is 10th all-time in passing yards, seventh in completions and 15th in touchdowns.
5. Peyton Manning, Tennessee (No. 1 pick, 1998)
[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Brian Spurlock/US PresswirePeyton Manning had a stellar career in Indianapolis.
The Colts … chose wisely. I'll hear Manning described retrospectively as a perfect prospect, but there were questions on arm strength and about performance in big moments. Manning's arm got stronger in the NFL, and it's almost impossible to project the level of professionalism -- obsession, even -- that Manning has when it comes to preparation and the science of passing. A first-ballot Hall of Famer.
6. Ryan Leaf, Washington State (No. 2 pick, 1998)
The mistake you can make with Leaf is a.ssuming you wouldn't make the same mistake again. That's wrong. Leaf was a fantastic prospect and would be one today based on what we knew. Huge arm, great size, even the intangibles were there. He was a winner, a player who made others around him better in college and played well on big stages when given the chance. Who knows what would have happened to Leaf if he hadn't started on an awful team as a rookie. He simply wasn't prepared to fail and bounce back. He failed and never truly recovered.
7. Vinny Testaverde, Miami (No. 1 pick, 1987)
A big, accurate, smart passer, Testaverde had such an odd NFL career. He was practically a bust given his draft slot, and yet there he was in 1998 at age 35, going 12-1 as a starter with 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He could never truly carry a team or make a lot of really bad teams good on his own, but I think few will ever doubt his ability to play QB, which is why he did it for so long.
8. Andre Ware, Houston (No. 7 pick, 1990)
I loved Ware. We now see the type of college system he was in as a potential warning sign -- the Houston Cougars under Ware could put up 70 points like nothing, and defenses simply weren't prepared to stop them at the time -- but we didn't know that at the time, and Ware really was an accurate passer with an above-average arm. He was smart and capable of good reads. But he too never really recovered from a bad start to his NFL career. And yes, this was the famous Jeff George draft -- I had him No. 84 on my board and he went No. 1. I still like my grade.
9. Troy Aikman, UCLA (No. 1 pick, 1989)
Great arm, and great, great accuracy. It can't be underscored enough just how precise a passer Aikman was in the era in which he played. The NFL of today would make Aikman dominant, and he was very good for the era in which he played. People forget he transferred out of Oklahoma to find a better place to develop as a passer. A cinch for the No. 1 pick in 1989, and he went on to have a great career.
10. (Tie) Boomer Esiason, Maryland (No. 38 pick, 1984)
Now we'd see Esiason's 54.2 completion percentage in college as a disastrous number, but it wasn't a bad one then. Esiason wasn't surrounded with great talent at Maryland and willed his team to an ACC title. I loved the upside and the competitiveness, and he put together a great NFL career.
10. (Tie) Steve Young (No. 1 supplemental, 1984)
Extremely accurate, Young didn't have a huge arm and really had to learn the position after being recruited as an option quarterback, but the natural ability was there. Young wasn't brilliant in any one area save for his remarkable ability as a scrambler, but he made himself great, at both the college and NFL levels.
Next best quarterbacks
• Eli Manning (Ole Miss, 2004) He fell off as a junior, but Eli showed a flair for the dramatic and clutch play even in college.
• Jim Everett (Purdue, 1986) The No. 3 pick in the draft, Everett had a great presence in the pocket and a big arm. Purdue is underrated as a QB producer, huh?
• Carson Palmer (USC, 2003) I questioned his ceiling, but the downside for Palmer was high because he's such a gifted thrower of the ball.
• Matt Ryan (Boston College, 2008) Not surprised he's such a good QB. I think what surprised me was how seamless the transition was for Ryan. Accute talent.
• Matthew Stafford (Georgia, 2009) I said he'd be a No. 1 pick before he committed to Georgia. Safe to say I think he's pretty talented.
still won't admit he was wrong about ware