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Most Successful Quarterbacks Chosen First Overall in the NFL Draft

21 quarterbacks have been selected with the #1 pick in the NFL collegiate draft since March 1967 when the NFL and AFL held their initial merged draft. This Sunday, in the 50th Super Bowl, two number ones – Peyton Manning and Cam Newton – will start behind center against each other. The first time two first overall quarterbacks have done so in the big game’s long history.

In 1970, after six consecutive losing seasons and three wins over the previous two seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected The Blonde Bomber, Terry Bradshaw, out of Louisiana Tech with the #1 pick. Bradshaw was the first quarterback taken at the top of the draft to both reach a Super Bowl and win. His Steelers would earn four rings over six seasons and become the NFL’s first post-merger dynasty.

As far as first overall quarterbacks are concerned, Bradshaw owns the 1970’s. But never have two such quarterbacks met on the mountain at the same time. John Elway of the Denver Broncos was the premier first overall quarterback at the position for most of the 1980’s, but stepped aside in the early 1990’s for Troy Aikman. Shortly after Aikman’s Cowboys won three titles, the Broncos returned Elway to the top with two championships late in the decade. Following Elway, Peyton Manning emerged as the NFL’s best number one draft pick pivot in the 2000’s and has remained there…

Once the final seconds tick down on Sunday, this is where you, the reader, need to insert “ever since” or “until 2015 when Cam Newton grabbed center stage and led the Carolina Panthers to the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy.”

In honor of Manning and Newton’s unprecedented upcoming tête-à-tête at the Super Bowl, I have decided to analyze who have been the most successful quarterbacks chosen #1 in the NFL draft. The first chart examines which first overall quarterbacks have won the most, and the least, NFL regular season starts. The chart is divided into three segments: the top five in wins, where Newton sits in comparison, and the bottom five.


Peyton Manning’s consistent supremacy of regular season football has launched him above and beyond all other first overall quarterbacks even comparing himself to another legendary Broncos quarterback like Elway. But Peyton isn’t the only Manning in the top five. Little brother Eli sits one win behind Drew Bledsoe and is closing in on 100 regular season victories.

Newton has been steadily rising on this list over the past few seasons. He currently sits 14th out of 21 – one win behind Jeff George and three ahead of Matthew Stafford who was drafted by the Lions two seasons before Newton. If Newton and the Panthers can string together consecutive 10-win seasons in 2016 and 2017, he will move up to 11th ahead of former Falcons, Steve Bartkowski and Michael Vick.

The bottom five consists of a few quarterbacks whose careers did not live up to lofty expectations. The most disastrous of all is, without a doubt, the brief career of Oakland’s JaMarcus Russell. Tim Couch and David Carr also failed to ascend struggling franchises to the heights that each organization had hoped.

The next chart studies regular season performance differently. Durability can bias the results shown above, so I have summarized the first overall quarterbacks by regular season winning percentage. In this case, I have only shown the top 10.


Peyton Manning again leads the way with a 186-79 regular season win/loss record – an impressive feat considering all the dominating Steelers teams of the 1970’s. Newton, along with Andrew Luck, have made their mark early in their NFL careers. Luck already nears the career regular season winning percentage of Elway and Newton, for now, has passed the decorated Aikman.

The fact Kansas City’s Alex Smith is included shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. In a 35-game stretch from the beginning of the 2011 season until midway through 2013, Smith’s regular season record was 29-5-1 as a starter. And don’t forget the 10-game winning streak he and the Chiefs closed off this regular season with.

But enough about the regular season. It’s the playoffs where these elite quarterbacks will make their true mark. Don’t forget that Carson Palmer started 159 regular season games before finally winning a playoff game a couple of weeks ago. The chart below ranks each first overall quarterback by the number of playoff victories.


There is quite a disparity between those quarterbacks who have tasted significant playoff success and those who have merely dipped their toe into the playoff pool. But there are also six men who haven’t yet won a playoff game; although only one of the six, Stafford, has even qualified for the postseason.

The top three – Bradshaw, Elway and Peyton Manning – have all reached the Super Bowl at least four times. Peyton, however, has lost as many playoff games (13) as he has won. Bradshaw (14-5) and Elway (14-7), in comparison, have lost one less when adding their defeats together.

Jim Plunkett won seven playoff games as he led the Raiders to two titles. Other than those seasons, Plunkett could only manage one other playoff victory. But Eli Manning’s playoff experience has even been more boom or bust. The younger Manning has converted every playoff win into a Super Bowl ring. Under Eli, the Giants have never won a playoff game and then failed to win a title in the same postseason.

This Sunday will be Newton’s first playoff start against a team outside the NFC West. His first taste of playoff success came last year as the Panthers made the most of their division crown by beating the Cardinals in Charlotte. Heading into the game versus Denver, Newton has three playoff wins under his belt after this year’s victories over Seattle and Arizona.

The final analysis I performed was on Super Bowl appearances. And, no, I don’t give credit to David Carr for backing-up Eli Manning in Super Bowl XLVI. Only first overall quarterbacks who started a Super Bowl have been listed in the chart below. The quarterbacks are ranked by appearances from left to right.


Elway is deserving of being presented on the far left; however, it’s duly noted that Denver’s current EVP of Football Ops did lose three Super Bowls. Bradshaw’s perfect record in four Super Bowls is a considerable achievement only matched by the great Joe Montana. Like Bradshaw, Aikman, Plunkett and Eli Manning have never lost the big game either. It is that fact that makes Peyton’s underwhelming Super Bowl track record stand out.

If Carolina defeats Denver on Sunday, Peyton Manning will match the great John Elway with a third Super Bowl loss. But the Panthers quarterback will be looking at it a bit differently. You see, if Carolina defeats Denver on Sunday, it will be Cam Newton who will match the great Peyton Manning with one win apiece.

Bob Sullivan writes periodically for and can be followed on Twitter at @mrbobsullivan.

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