A recent trend in college football has been the quick success of freshmen quarterbacks or those that started at one school before moving on to another. No longer are coaches as determined to sit a quarterback as soon as they step on campus and groom them while relying on an upperclassman to handle the offense.
This change in thinking has also resulted in more quarterbacks, even freshmen, opting to transfer if things are not working out right away at their schools of choice, because the opportunity to play may never come if they do not find success early on. As the years go by, the way in which we evaluate the quarterback classes by recruiting class will attempt to evolve in a way that takes this all into consideration.
For example, three of the past four years have resulted in a Heisman Trophy winner that was a transfer and two freshmen signal-callers leading their teams to a national title. Our rankings this year also reflect some of the recent success of some quarterbacks at the next level, like Lamar Jackson piling up the stats with his arm and his legs for the Baltimore Ravens and Patrick Mahomes leading the Kansas City Chiefs to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. There was a lot to consider this year with the ranking of the top quarterback classes since 2002. A year from now, this list will probably change some more, but here is how the quarterback classes (minus 2020, for now) stack up before the Class of 2021 starts getting into the mix.
1. Class of 2006
The Stars: Tim Tebow, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Jake Locker, Case Keenum
The Best of the Rest: Christian Ponder, Josh Freeman, Greg McElroy, Todd Reesing, Nate Davis, Juice Williams, T.J. Yates, Ricky Stanzi, Thaddeus Lewis, John Skelton, Scott Tolzien, Nathan Enderle
This group remains the top quarterback class since the turn of the century, for now, with a pair of Heisman Trophy winners (Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford) and three BCS national championships between Tebow, Bradford and Greg McElroy. The class also turned out some other talented quarterbacks that would go on to start in the NFL, including Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, and Jake Locker. This class also gave us Case Keenum at Houston, who under Kevin Sumlin and Art Briles went on to rewrite the NCAA record book and is just a season separated from leading the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship game after replacing an injured Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater (Class of 2011).
How long can this class hold on to the top spot? Other classes have seen more success at the next level, and the time at the top of this list may be coming to an end soon enough.
2. Class of 2011
The Stars: Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota, Braxton Miller, Teddy Bridgewater, Brett Hundley, Dak Prescott, Carson Wentz
The Best of the Rest: Everett Golson, Trevone Boykin, Marquise Williams, Jeff Driskel, Cody Kessler, Jake Rudock, J.W. Walsh, David Ash, Kevin Hogan, Connor Cook, Chuckie Keeton, Rakeem Cato, Brett Smith
This class developed two Heisman Trophy winners in Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota. The next tier consists of Braxton Miller, Teddy Bridgewater, Brett Hundley, Dak Prescott, Connor Cook, Trevone Boykin and more. This class' strong finish also helped boost its status, as Everett Golson led Notre Dame to a BCS National Championship Game appearance and Boykin later led TCU to a share of the Big 12 title. In 2015, Marquise Williams took North Carolina to the ACC Championship Game and Cook led his Spartans to the College Football Playoff as a Big Ten champion. Louisville's Bridgewater was a first-round NFL draft pick of Minnesota in 2014 and Prescott had a remarkable rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys in '16.
Though he was not signed by an FBS program, it is worth noting North Dakota State's Carson Wentz was in the Class of 2011 as well. As a starter, Wentz led the Bison to two FCS national titles and earned game MVP honors in each. He went on to be the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and quickly became the starter for the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2017, Wentz had an MVP-caliber season before a season-ending injury kept him out of the postseason as the Eagles went on to win Super Bowl LII, although his pro career has trended in the wrong direction the last two seasons.
3. Class of 2007
The Stars: Cam Newton, Brandon Weeden, Russell Wilson, Kellen Moore, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill
The Best of the Rest: Ryan Mallett, Chandler Harnish, Tyrod Taylor, Josh Nesbitt, Jimmy Clausen, Ryan Lindley, Dan Persa, GJ Kinne
A pair of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks highlight the Class of 2007 with Russell Wilson and Nick Foles. It also includes a Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL MVP in Cam Newton, who powered Auburn to a BCS national championship. Minnesota Vikings starter Kirk Cousins and Ryan Tannehill have carved out nice NFL careers after solid collegiate tenures. It also includes Kellen Moore, who had a record-setting career at Boise State as the winningest quarterback in college football history. Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State was a standout as well. Jimmy Clausen was the highlighted recruit at the time, although his track didn't follow the same path as others in this class.
4. Class of 2014
The Stars: Deshaun Watson, DeShone Kizer, Mason Rudolph, Will Grier, Patrick Mahomes II, Trace McSorley, Joe Burrow
The Best of the Rest: Brad Kaaya, Kyle Allen, Brandon Harris, Jerrod Heard, Quinton Flowers, Keller Chryst, Drew Barker, Clayton Thorson
The Class of 2014 continues to impress, and the value in this class continues to be trending upward. Joe Burrow was a record-setting Heisman Trophy winner who led LSU to its first College Football Playoff national championship after transferring from Ohio State. Burrow was also the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. Meanwhile, Patrick Mahomes has led the Kansas City Chiefs to back-to-back Super Bowls and is hoping for a rare repeat. And Deshaun Watson, who took Clemson to a national title, still has plenty of potential in the NFL after a messy 2020 season with the Houston Texans.
Trace McSorley was a game-changing quarterback at Penn State and Clayton Thorson was a top quarterback at Northwestern. This class also featured Will Grier, who ended his career on a high note at West Virginia and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph.
5. Class of 2015
The Stars: Lamar Jackson, Josh Rosen, Jake Browning, Sam Darnold, Kyler Murray, Daniel Jones, Drew Lock
The Best of the Rest: Brett Rypien, Kelly Bryant, Brandon Wimbush, Lorenzo Nunez, Travis Jonsen, Ricky Town, Blake Barnett, Jarrett Stidham, Deondre Francois, Alex Hornibrook, Brian Lewerke, Khalil Tate
Kyler Murray gave the class a second Heisman Trophy winner to go with Lamar Jackson. Jackson also is expected to add an NFL MVP to the class' trophy shelf after a record-setting 2019 campaign as the new starter for the Baltimore Ravens. The class also included a pair of first-round picks with USC’s Sam Darnold going to the New York Jets and UCLA’s Josh Rosen going to the Arizona Cardinals in the top 10 of the 2018 NFL Draft. Rosen and Washington’s Jake Browning combined to win three consecutive Pac-12 titles as well, and Browning took the Huskies to the College Football Playoff, a Fiesta Bowl and a Rose Bowl. Daniel Jones has become the franchise quarterback with the New York Giants too.
6. Class of 2008
The Stars: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Collin Klein, Landry Jones, Darron Thomas, Blaine Gabbert, Nick Florence, EJ Manuel, Terrelle Pryor
The Best of the Rest: Mike Glennon, Seth Doege, Tyler Wilson, Colby Cameron, Sean Renfree, Ryan Nassib, Matt Scott, Zac Dysert, Alex Carder, Jacory Harris
This class gave college football two of its best quarterbacks of the 21st century with Baylor’s Robert Griffin III winning a Heisman Trophy and Stanford’s Andrew Luck perhaps being the best college signal-caller to never win the award (he was a runner-up twice). The rest of the class had some good talent as well, including the likes of Blaine Gabbert, EJ Manuel, and Terrelle Pryor. Manuel and Gabbert would go on to be first-round NFL draft picks, while Pryor’s collegiate career ended prematurely amid scandal at Ohio State. But talent-wise, the 2008 class had plenty to offer. The depth of the class sometimes gets overlooked but players like Darron Thomas, Landry Jones, Collin Klein, Nick Florence, Seth Doege, Mike Glennon, Ryan Nassib and more helped in this respect.
7. Class of 2013
The Stars: J.T. Barrett, Baker Mayfield, Davis Webb, Jared Goff
The Best of the Rest: Malik Zaire, Kenny Hill, Joshua Dobbs, Anthony Jennings, Sefo Liufau, John O’Korn, Christian Hackenberg, Anu Solomon
This class continues to see its stock rise thanks to a couple of the best in the class. Baker Mayfield went from winning the Heisman Trophy in his final year at Oklahoma to being one of the top offensive rookies in the NFL in 2018, making the Cleveland Browns must-watch TV in the NFL for the first time in decades. In the same 2018 season, Cal’s Jared Goff guided the Los Angels Rams to a second straight playoff appearance and was preparing for the Super Bowl as of this writing.
J.T. Barrett certainly had a historic career at Ohio State that should not be forgotten about, including helping lead the Buckeyes to a national championship and a number of school and Big Ten records before moving on. The supporting cast in this class could be saved by Anu Solomon and Sefo Liufau, but players like Christian Hackenberg and John O’Korn seemed to regress as the years went by.
8. Class of 2009
The Stars: AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Matt Barkley, Geno Smith, Tajh Boyd, Derek Carr, Taylor Martinez, Denard Robinson, Jordan Lynch, Bryn Renner
The Best of the Rest: Logan Thomas, Keith Price, Zach Mettenberger, Brock Osweiler, C.J. Brown, Kolton Browning
You will be hard-pressed to find a legend in this class, but there is no doubt this group served up some successful college quarterbacks. AJ McCarron led Alabama to a pair of BCS national championships. Aaron Murray provided some tremendous stability at Georgia at the position for the majority of his time in Athens. Geno Smith was a natural fit in West Virginia’s up-tempo, high-scoring offense, and Tajh Boyd helped Clemson turn a corner on its path to national championship contender. Dual-threat quarterbacks like Taylor Martinez and Denard Robinson were highlights waiting to happen with the ability to create plays with their feet, and Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch led the Huskies to a BCS bowl appearance. Matt Barkley was among the best passers in the west during a brief sanction phase for USC.
9. Class of 2003
The Stars: Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Chris Leak, Paul Smith, Kevin Kolb, Dennis Dixon, Brady Quinn, Andre Woodson
The Best of the Rest: John Beck, John David Booty, Kevin O'Connell, Tom Brandstater, Matt Flynn, JaMarcus Russell, Drew Tate
Joe Flacco, a Super Bowl champion, and Matt Ryan, who took the Atlanta Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance, are your top passers out of the 2003 class when you take their entire careers into account. However, when it came to their collegiate careers, others shined more than both Ryan and Flacco. JaMarcus Russell out of LSU was a big guy who could do some damage with his arm on Saturdays, although he clearly did not pan out at the next level despite being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft. Chris Leak helped Florida win a national championship while players like Brady Quinn and Dennis Dixon helped make Notre Dame and Oregon national title contenders. At Houston, Kevin Kolb flourished under Art Briles.
10. Class of 2010
The Stars: Bryce Petty, Blake Bortles, Taylor Kelly, James Franklin, Connor Shaw
The Best of the Rest: Tanner Price, Cody Fajardo, Devin Gardner, Stephen Morris, Tyler Bray, Sean Mannion, Connor Halliday, Chase Rettig, David Piland, Blake Bell, Shane Carden, Brandon Connette, Jake Heaps, Hutson Mason
Blake Bortles turned out to be the top star in this class after leading UCF to a Fiesta Bowl victory over Bryce Petty and Big 12 champion Baylor. Bortles went on to become the No. 3 overall pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars and took them to the AFC Championship Game in the 2017 NFL season. At Missouri, James Franklin helped lead the Tigers to some successful runs in the SEC East, including a pair of trips to the SEC Championship Game. Shaw’s legacy at South Carolina is unrivaled among peers. Petty was explosive at Baylor, as was Sean Mannion at Oregon State. In a similar fashion, Connor Halliday racked up big yardage numbers at Washington State under Mike Leach.
11. Class of 2002
The Stars: Vince Young, Troy Smith, Colt Brennan
The Best of the Rest: Drew Stanton, Omar Jacobs, Phil Horvath, Trent Edwards, John Stocco, Marcus Vick, Jordan Palmer, Drew Olson, Tyler Palko
This class will best be remembered for one Heisman Trophy winner and another who should have won it but did carry his team to a national championship with a performance for the ages. Vince Young at Texas led the Longhorns to a wild national title victory over USC, ending his career on a high note. At Ohio State, Troy Smith did win a Heisman Trophy and led the Buckeyes to a BCS National Championship Game, but lost. Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan put up video game numbers in leading the Warriors to their lone BCS bowl appearance. This class also gave you Mike Vick’s younger brother Marcus, which was not quite as good as the original Vick experience, and Drew Stanton, who has played and started for both the Lions and Cardinals in the NFL.
12. Class of 2017
The Stars: Tua Tagovailoa, Jake Fromm, Sam Ehlinger, Tate Martell
The Best of the Rest: James Blackman, Myles Brennan, Jack Sears, Sean Clifford, Kasim Hill
Tua Tagovailoa burst on the scene in his freshman season to save Alabama’s national title hopes against none other than Jake Fromm and Georgia in the 2018 national championship game. Tagovailoa then led Alabama to an undefeated regular season and an SEC title before coming up short in the 2019 national championship game, while Fromm led Georgia back to the SEC Championship Game for a second straight season. Tagovailoa was a first-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins and has already been broken in at the next level.
Sam Ehlinger led Texas to a Big 12 championship game and a Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia. Sean Clifford is about to embark on his third year as the starting quarterback at Penn State in 2021. Tate Martell's college career has not lived up to the hype, as he left Ohio State for Miami and was being converted to another position.
13. Class of 2016
The Stars: Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts, Dwayne Haskins, Jacob Eason, Shea Patterson, Shane Buechele, Ian Book
The Best of the Rest: K.J. Costello, Nate Stanley, Feleipe Franks, Malik Henry, Jake Zembiec, Zerrick Cooper
We're not quite ready to bump this class up just yet, but there is an argument to be made for it. Jalen Hurts was a Heisman Trophy finalist at Oklahoma, after transferring form Alabama where he helped win a national championship. Hurts could make a push to be a starting quarterback in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles. Ian Book has been a rock for Notre Dame and led the Fighting Irish into the College Football Playoff in 2020. Shea Patterson couldn't quite make the jump at Michigan after transferring form Ole Miss, but Shane Buechele put up explosive numbers at SMU after starting off at Texas.
Dwayne Haskins started for the Buckeyes for just one season as the successor to J.T. Barrett. All he did was rewrite the Ohio State and Big Ten passing records before making the decision to head to the NFL after guiding the Buckeyes to a Big Ten title. But Justin Herbert has been the rising star of this class. Herbert was an impressive rookie in the NFL with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020.
14. Class of 2018
The Stars: Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, JT Daniels, Adrian Martinez
The Best of the Rest: Tanner McKee, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, Phil Jurkovec
Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State's Justin Fields (who transferred from Georgia) have been the 1-2 combo of this recruiting class. Although neither player won a Heisman Trophy, both have been finalists for the award. Lawrence did help bring one of Clemson's playoff-era national titles to Death Valley, and Fields helped get the Buckeyes to its second playoff national championship game.
JT Daniels may flourish with his change of scenery at Georgia and Phil Jurkovec benefited from a move to Boston College from Notre Dame. This is still a class to watch in 2021 after Lawrence and Fields have moved on to the NFL.
15. Class of 2005
The Stars: Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel, Mark Sanchez, Zac Robinson, Dan LeFevour
The Best of the Rest: Riley Skinner, Tony Pike, Joe Webb, Sean Canfield, Mike Kafka, Levi Brown, Matt Grothe, Tim Hiller, Jarrett Brown
Colt McCoy’s career at Texas will likely go down as one of the most successful without the props and recognition to go along with it. McCoy never won a Heisman Trophy and his one trip to the BCS National Championship Game ended before it ever really got started with an early injury against Alabama. None of that takes away from the success McCoy did have at Texas, and the Longhorns have not been the same since his departure. This class also produced Mark Sanchez, who experienced brief success with the Trojans before leading the New York Jets to two AFC title game appearances. Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour was one of the stars of #MACTION’s earlier days as well as one of the reasons Brian Kelly and Butch Jones went on to become head coaches at high-profile programs.
16. Class of 2012
The Stars: Jameis Winston, Maty Mauk, Taysom Hill, Trevor Knight
The Best of the Rest: Tommy Armstrong, Travis Wilson, Wes Lunt, Chad Voytik, Nate Sudfeld
This class wasted little time in having an impact on the field. Jameis Winston was a star from his first game and led Florida State to an ACC and BCS national championship in his first year as a starter, which also led to a Heisman Trophy. Taysom Hill at BYU became one of the top quarterbacks to pay attention to from the non-power conferences, while Trevor Knight led Oklahoma to a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama and became the twinkle in Katy Perry’s eye (for one year at least) before moving on to Texas A&M. Tommy Armstrong provided some memorable moments for Nebraska and Nate Sudfeld was a reliable option at Indiana, while Maty Mauk saw a promising start turn sour at Missouri.
17. Class of 2019
The Stars: Spencer Rattler, Bo Nix, Jayden Daniels, Graham Mertz, Sam Howell
The Best of the Rest: Taulia Tagovailoa, Ryan Hillinski, Max Duggan, Hank Bachmeier, D'Wan Mathis
It did not take long for members of the Class of 2019 to have a serious splash in the college football world. Bo Nix hit the ground running at Auburn and Spencer Rattler has continued to keep the Oklahoma offense moving. Graham Mertz has shown potential to elevate the all-around passing game at Wisconsin and UNC's Sam Howell has quickly become one of the top passers in the nation.
So why is this class ranked so low? Perhaps it should be higher, but there have been some hiccups to counter-balance some of the positives we have seen from this class. But with a strong showing in 2021, it could easily rocket up the rankings during next year's overall evaluation.
18. Class of 2004
The Stars: Chad Henne, Brian Brohm, Pat White, Brian Johnson, Graham Harrell, Daryll Clark
The Best of the Rest: Max Hall, Curtis Painter, Stephen McGee, Brian Hoyer, John Parker Wilson, Erik Ainge, C.J. Bacher, Mike Teel, Rudy Carpenter
Daryll Clark led Penn State to a Big Ten championship and its second Rose Bowl trip since joining the Big Ten. Brian Brohm was a product of the Bobby Petrino offensive system at his hometown Louisville and Pat White helped lead the revival of West Virginia football as he tore up the Big East. Graham Harrell was one of many Texas Tech QBs to rack up big numbers during his college career. The impact this quarterback class had on the game was not much more significant than that, although players like Chad Henne, Brian Hoyer and Max Hall would have fine careers at Michigan, Michigan State and BYU, respectively.
19. Class of 2020
The Stars: Bryce Young, D.J. Uiagalelei, C.J. Stroud, Hudson Card, Luke Doty
The Best of the Rest: Haynes King, Ethan Garbers, Harrison Bailey, Chubba Purdy, Anthony Richardson
We left the Class of 2020 out of this list a year ago, but it is time to put them in the conversation. For now, however, there is much unknown about this class as we simply have not seen enough from it to truly evaluate it. That could be about to change in 2021 with many key opportunities for this class to step in and show what they can do. That includes Bryce Young as the likely successor to Mac Jones at Alabama and Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei to replace Trevor Lawrence. Some of these players should be about to become household names for college football fans. Until they do, we'll keep this class at the bottom and wait to see what it can do.
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.