Using the prosportstransactions.com archives of the NFL draft, I tracked every trade since 1970 involving a quarterback for a first rounder or more. There were
29 30 such trades, and, well, here is my futile attempt to rank them. As you will see, it goes off the rails pretty quickly. It’s a wild list, and one bookended by trades made by the Packers and Broncos.
1. Brett Favre from Atlanta to Green Bay. Traded for 17th overall pick (eventually, Kevin Smith after another trade), February 10, 1992.
A bold move at the time, it turned out to be the best trade of a first round pick for a quarterback. Placement here is not to start a Favre/Elway debate; the Packers gave up less to get their Hall of Famer. Mike Holmgren came in, said he liked Favre the previous year when he was in San Francisco (a team that did not need a quarterback), and traded away the 17th overall pick for a QB who threw four passes the previous year–two that were incomplete and two caught by the opponent. He would complete a few more after he went to Green Bay.
2. John Elway from Baltimore to Denver. Traded or Chris Hinton, Mark Herrmann, and 1984 1st (#19 Ron Solt), May 2, 1983.
Elway threatened to sign with the New York Yankees after the Colts drafted him, and the standoff lasted six days before Baltimore relented and traded his rights to Denver. If you caught the 30 for 30, “Elway to Marino” last night, then you saw plenty of the intrigue behind the scenes as the Elways angled to be traded, Ernie Accorsi didn’t want to give him away, and then owner Robert Irsay came in and cut a poor deal.
3. Fran Tarkenton from NY Giants to Minnesota. For 24th overall (Larry Jacobson), 1973 2nd (Brad Van Pelt), Norm Snead, Bob Grim, and Vince Clements, January 27, 1972.
Fran Tarkenton can boast being traded for first round picks, twice, between the same organization. The first time came in 1967 when the Giants gave up two first round and two second round picks for the Scrambler. Five years later, he went back to Minnesota in a big trade that involved two picks, a pretty good wide receiver in Bob Grim, and Norm Snead. The Vikings made three Super Bowl appearances in Tarkenton’s second stint in Minnesota.
4. Joe Theismann from Miami to Washington. Traded for 1976 1st (#17, Larry Gordon) on January 27, 1974).
After changing the pronunciation of his name for the Heisman, Joe Theismann was drafted in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins, but played for three seasons in the Canadian Football League. In 1974, the Redskins traded for the 24 year old, and signed him to a $100,000 contract. It took a while for the trade to look good, but eventually Theismann starred for the Joe Gibbs teams that played in consecutive Super Bowls, and was selected as the 1983 MVP.
5. Trent Green (and 4th round pick) from St. Louis to Kansas City. Traded for 12th overall pick (Damione Lewis), April 20, 2001. Over a three year stretch from 2002 to 2004, Kansas City ranked 1st, 1st, and 2nd in points scored. Oh, and Greg Robinson was the defensive coordinator. Green started for 88 games for Kansas City.
6. Joe Montana (and David Whitmore, 3rd round pick) from San Francisco to Kansas City. For 18th overall pick (Ernest Dye), April 20, 1993.
Some will quibble with putting Montana just behind Green on this list. Montana was the starting quarterback the last time Kansas City won a playoff game (which is painful to continue to write). His performance in the Monday Night win at Denver was monumental, because the Chiefs had lost roughly 135 straight games there (just an estimate, but reasonably accurate).
And with that, we kind of come to a point where the Hall of Famers and guys that were very good in great offenses for long stretches are gone . . . Let the controversy really begin. We’ve got 23 more to go.
7. Jay Cutler (and 5th round pick) from Denver to Chicago. Traded for 18th overall pick (Robert Ayers), 3rd round pick (Mike Wallace), 2010 1st round pick (#11 Anthony Davis) and Kyle Orton, April 2, 2009.
Yes, I have Jay Cutler and his grimaces at 7th on the list. I mean, he’s carried some awful offensive units at times, when he’s been out, the Bears’ offense has been an abomination. I think this also speaks to how bad many of the quarterback trades have been, but in retrospect, the Bears wouldn’t want a do-over. I doubt we could say that about most of them.
8. Jim Everett from Houston to LA Rams. Traded for 1987 1st (Haywood Jeffires), 1987 5th (Spencer Tillman), 1988 1st (Terry McDaniels), Kent Hill, and William Fuller, September 18, 1986. Before he went downhill and mixed it up with Jim Rome, Everett had a pretty good start to his career, twice leading the league in touchdown passes, and playing (albeit poorly) in a NFC Championship Game. Everett’s 105 games started as a Ram is 4th among the quarterbacks on this list for the teams that traded for them, though he ranks lower because the picks given up produced some very good players.
9. Drew Bledsoe from New England to Buffalo. Traded for 2003 1st (#14 Michael Haynes) on April 21, 2003.
Because of a brain fart, I left this off the original list, but the Patriots were so confident in Bledsoe that they traded him in the division. He did start 48 games in Buffalo, which means it was a positive trade compared to the player eventually taken in that spot (though New England would trade again to get Ty Warren.
10. Brad Johnson from Minnesota to
Tampa Bay Washington. Traded for 11th overall pick (Daunte Culpepper), 1999 3rd (Joey Porter), 2000 2nd (Michael Boireau), February 15, 1999.
Minnesota traded away a pick that was used on his replacement, Daunte Culpepper, who was really good for the first five years of his career, and a pick that would become Joey Porter after another trade, and this still ranks in the top ten. [Update: I really whiffed here like a typical quarterback trade, and originally listed him going to Tampa, blocking out the Washington era. Johnson played two years in Washington, as the Redskins made the playoffs in 1999. The list is so sad it wouldn’t change his ranking much]
I mean, so at this point, it becomes really difficult. Do you go with trades that weren’t as costly because the team didn’t give up that much, but the player was a failure, or with trades that were extremely costly, but the quarterback provided some short term value. Man, I don’t know, I’m throwing my hands up here.
11. Roman Gabriel from LA Rams to Philadelphia. Traded for Harold Jackson, Tony Baker, 1974 1st (#11 John Cappelletti), 1975 1st (#11 Dennis Harrah), and 1975 3rd (Dan Nugent), on June 8, 1973.
Roman Gabriel had a great first season in Philadelphia at age 33, making a pro bowl and leading the league in touchdowns. It was downhill after that. This ranks this low on the list, despite Gabriel’s fine first season, because of the cost. Harold Jackson led the league in touchdown receptions that same season and would continue to be one of the best receivers of the 1970’s, Dennis Harrah played guard for the Rams forever, while John Cappelletti was a pretty good fullback.
As we will see, the Rams built their teams that were always among the best thanks to more quarterback trades than this one.
12. Marty Domres from San Diego to Baltimore. Traded for 1973 1st (#25 Johnny Rodgers) and John Andrews on August 8, 1972.
The Colts traded for Domres and he replaced the legendary Johnny Unitas, pissing off the Hall of Famer more than the Joe Flacco has pissed off his grandson. So, I mean, this was a bad trade and Domres wasn’t exactly a great replacement. He gets the nod here, though, because it had very little harm. Rodgers didn’t even play in the NFL for several years, opting for Canada, and Domres did start 24 games for the Colts. Which is about as nice a thing as we can say for most of these trades.
13. Bob Lee from Minnesota to Atlanta. Traded for 1974 1st round pick (#17 Lonnie Warwick, and Bob Berry).
Bob Lee started for two years for Minnesota, playing pretty well for one season, then dreadfully the next (3 td, 14 int, 5.0 yards per attempt in 1974.
14. Carson Palmer from Cincinnati to Oakland. Traded for 17th overall (Dre Kirkpatrick) and 2013 2nd rounder (TBA) on October 18, 2011.
Yes, this was a bad trade. No, it was nowhere near the worst. Just keep reading.
15. Jeff George from Indianapolis to Atlanta. Traded for #7 overall (Bryant Young), 1994 3rd (James Bostic, and 1996 conditional that became a 1st (Marvin Harrison), on March 24, 1994.
Jeff George did just well enough in Atlanta in 1995 to trigger a 1996 pick becoming a first rounder that the Colts used on Marvin Harrison. Then he got into a fight with June Jones and started only 3 games in 1996 before being jettisoned. Jason Whitlock thinks I have this one rated too low; the rest of you think it is too high.
16. Rob Johnson from Jacksonville to Buffalo. Traded for 9th overall (Fred Taylor and 4th rounder (Tavian Banks) on February 13, 1998. Rob Johnson was frequently mentioned among the worst trades when I ran an impromptu poll. I have him squarely at the halfway point. Yes, the Bills mistakenly started him instead of Flutie. Yes, he took too many sacks and could play the role of a statue. He was still good looking, and that is worth bonus points when trying to split hairs on this list.
17. Mike Phipps from Cleveland to Chicago. Traded for 1978 1st rounder (Elvis Peacock) in October 1977.
Before the Bears traded for Rick Mirer, they traded for his 1970’s doppleganger, Mike Phipps. Phipps only ranks higher because in 1979, two years after the horrible trade, he had one of those “just wins games” seasons where he went 9-1 as Chicago’s starter while averaging 6.0 yards per attempt.
18. Steve Walsh from Dallas to New Orleans. Traded for 1991 1st rounder (Leonard Russell), 1991 3rd (Erik Williams) and 1992 2nd (Patrick Rowe).
Just throwing darts at this point. Bad trade. Walsh started 8 games, and never could supplant Bobby Hebert, setting in motion a series of events that resulted in Hebert being a complete loon with press access thanks to being a local legend.
19. Richard Todd from NY Jets to New Orleans. Traded for 15th overall (Ron Faurot) on February 18, 1984.
Will just group the Saints bad trades together for ease of organization. Todd was serviceable for one year, but never started again.
20. Craig Morton from Dallas to NY Giants. Traded for 1975 1st (#2 overall Randy White), and 1976 2nd (Jim Jensen) on October 22, 1974. Morton is far from the worst quarterback on this list, but they dumped him to the Giants and got the 2nd overall pick and Randy White in return. Ouch. Then, White tormented Morton in the Super Bowl three years later, when he was on to the Denver Broncos after two seasons in New York.
21. Kelly Stouffer from Phoenix to Seattle. Traded for 1989 first rounder (#17 Joe Wolf) and two fifth round picks (1988 and 1989) on April 22, 1988.
Stouffer was the last first round quarterback to hold out an entire season. It didn’t work out. He could not unseat Dave Krieg, and was part of one of the worst offensive teams ever, combining with Stan Gelbaugh and Dan McGwire in 1992.
22. Jim Plunkett from New England to San Francisco. Traded for two 1976 1sts (Pete Brock and Tim Fox), 1977 1st (Raymond Clayborn) and 1977 2nd (Horace Ivory) along with Tom Owen, on April 5, 1976.
Plunkett had little help in San Francisco, and his short two year stint on the other side of the Bay Area is often forgotten. It ranks so low on this list because of how costly it was. Three first round picks and a second turned out some pretty good players for the Patriots, including cornerback Raymond Clayborn.
23. Craig Erickson from Tampa Bay to Indianapolis. Traded for 1996 1st (Marcus Jones) on April 27, 1995.
The Bucs and Colts were involved in some serious quarterback for picks trades in the 1990’s. Erickson started only 3 games for Indy, tied for fewest among those traded for a first round pick.
24. Bert Jones from Baltimore to LA Rams. Traded for 4th overall pick (Art Schlichter) and 2nd round pick (Rohn Stark), on April 27, 1982.
Bert Jones suffered a career ending injury after 4 games in Los Angeles. Of course, the Colts gambled on Art Schlichter as his replacement. You know something has gone horribly wrong when a punter swings the balance of the trade. Jones went on to a lucrative career in Miller Lite “less filling/tastes great” commercials.
25. Chris Chandler from Indianapolis to Tampa Bay. Traded for 1992 first rounder (#2 overall Quentin Coryatt) on August 6, 1990. This one would probably be remembered much more if Chandler hadn’t been a Super Bowl quarterback three franchises later, and Quentin Coryatt hadn’t been such a bust as the 2nd overall pick by the Colts. Chandler was 0-8 as a starter for the Bucs over 1.5 seasons, and wasn’t even with the franchise anymore by the time the Colts made that pick.
That concludes the Colts’ portion of bad quarterback trades.
26. Mike Boryla from Cincinnati to Philadelphia. Traded for 1976 1st (Billy Brooks) and 1975 5th on March 8, 1974.
This is one of the odder ones. They appeared to treat first round picks like greenies in a major league locker room in the 1970’s and apparently you could find them anywhere. Boryla was drafted in the 4th round just two months earlier, when the Eagles gave up a first round pick for him because the coach (who had been there at the time of the draft) liked him. Bizarre. The World League was a thing in 1974, so I don’t know if that was an issue that altered negotations and draft position, but I can find no explanation. It didn’t turn out like Green Bay trading a first round pick for a guy who went early in the 2nd a year before.
Anyway, Boryla is also responsible for the most bizarre pro bowl season ever, getting to go in 1975 because everyone else backed out. (he started 5 games that year). He is also been a lawyer, mortgage banker, and playwright.
27. Rick Mirer from Seattle to Chicago. Traded for 11th overall (Michael Booker) on February 18, 1997. Rick Mirer had a passer rating of 65.2 over four seasons when the Bears traded the 11th overall pick for him. To put this in some perspective, imagine if Blaine Gabbert played about like he did last year for two more seasons, and then the Jaguars were able to trade him for a high first round pick. That’s how mind numbingly awful this was.
Mirer started 3 games in Chicago, matching Erickson for fewest on this list.
Yet, it’s still not the worst.
28. Jack Thompson from Cincinnati to Tampa Bay. Traded for 1984 1st (1st overall Irving Fryar) on June 2, 1983. The Throwin’ Samoan had averaged only 5.4 yards per attempt in four years and 370 pass attempts in Cincinnati, when the Buccaneers came calling desperate for a quarterback after Doug Williams left for the USFL. Tampa Bay went 2-14 and got the first overall pick with Thompson at quarterback. This trade would be considered way worse if a franchise quarterback had been available with that top pick. As it was, this would be like trading for Brady Quinn and then missing out on getting the first overall pick as a result.9
This one is a true hidden gem. Never would I have imagined that Matt Robinson was traded for a 1st and a 2nd in the same draft. Robinson was a 9th round draft pick, who had started some for the Jets, but was beaten out by Richard Todd. Through 13 starts with the Jets over three seasons, he completed 45.9% of his passes, threw 26 interceptions vs. 15 touchdowns, and had a passer rating of 53.4. He also took a sack on 10% of his dropbacks and was not much of a runner (72 yards in his first three years).
The best comparison I can come up with is someone like John Skelton. Insane. He started the first six games for Denver in 1980 after the trade, and here were his numbers:
59 of 123, 705 yards (5.7 per attempt), 1 TD, 9 INT.
Reader and Bronco fan Gerard Portmanteau forwarded me that football card for Robinson. You can just see the sadness in his face as he knows there is no way that trade should have ever happened.
30. John Hadl from LA Rams to Green Bay Packers. Traded for 1975 1st (Mike Fanning), 1975 2nd (Monte Jackson), 1975 3rd (Geoff Reece), 1976 1st (Dennis Lick), 1976 2nd (Pat Thomas), on October 22, 1974.
John Hadl had been a very good quarterback for the San Diego Chargers for a long time, and in 1973 was an All Pro with the Rams. He seemingly aged overnight, though, in his second year with the Rams (think Favre from year one in Minnesota to year two). The Rams unloaded him midseason for a massive haul.
Hadl started 19 games for Green Bay, averaging 5.9 yards per attempt and throwing 29 interceptions and only 9 touchdowns. The Rams got two pro bowl cornerbacks, a starting defensive tackle, and traded away another pick that would become a starting right tackle for the Bears.
So let’s put this horrific list in some perspective. Yes, the average games started for these quarterbacks for the team that traded for them was 48, but that is skewed because of Elway (231 starts for Denver) and Favre (253 starts for Green Bay). The median number of starts is 24, which is where Carson Palmer was with the Oakland Raiders. Jay Cutler is already 7th most in games started for the team that traded a first round pick for him.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]