The 2011 season precipitated so many of the changes that have become familiar in the NFL today. This week, The Ringer goes back in time to trace the lineage of the league’s offensive boom.
The 2011 college football season set the foundation for what would become one of the most interesting quarterback classes in the past 20 years. Eight signal-callers emerged from the group as pro starters for at least one season. There are Super Bowl champions, all-time greats, and several unlikely successes in the group. And each of these players has influenced how we view the quarterback position.
Below, we take a look at the eight QBs who’ve earned time as primary starters and recount their final seasons in college, their NFL career so far, and their lasting impacts on the quarterback position.
Andrew Luck (2012 no. 1 pick, Colts)
For more than a decade, Peyton Manning was the gold standard for generational, prodigious QB prospects. But for the past decade, Andrew Luck has been talked about with the same fervor.
Luck—the son of former NFL QB Oliver Luck—was a former four-star prospect (the 2008 class’s no. 3 pro-style quarterback behind Dayne Crist and Blaine Gabbert) and wasn’t deemed a generational talent until he took the conference by storm as a redshirt freshman at Stanford in 2009. The following season, he finished second in Heisman voting, shattering several Stanford passing records along the way.
He spurned the 2011 NFL draft (and the Panthers, who owned the no. 1 pick) in favor of completing his third season at Stanford and earning his degree—even as head coach Jim Harbaugh left to coach the 49ers. In Luck’s final season at Stanford, he again finished second in Heisman voting and won the Maxwell Award (given to the nation’s best all-around player) while leading the Cardinal to the 2012 Fiesta Bowl. He left Stanford as the school’s all-time career leader in both total yards (10,387) and passing touchdowns (82).
Luck was such a coveted draft pick that several NFL fan bases were eager to “Suck for Luck.” In the end, the pick went to the Colts, who started Curtis Painter, Dan Orlovsky, and 39-year-old Kerry Collins in Peyton Manning’s absence and scuttled to a 2-14 record.
Luck not only inherited Manning’s mantle as the once-in-a-generation quarterback prospect, he also assumed Manning’s job with the Colts. And he immediately proved capable of leading Indianapolis to great heights, breaking records for rookie passing yards and guiding the Colts to a wild-card berth. In successive seasons, Luck led Indianapolis to the divisional round and AFC championship game. Then the injuries piled up. In 2015, a shoulder injury, a lacerated kidney, and an abdominal injury caused him to miss time. In 2016, a concussion forced him out of one game, and he missed the entire 2017 season to recover from shoulder surgery. In 2018, he was strangely subbed out for Jacoby Brissett for an end-of-game Hail Mary situation. Luck played all 16 games in 2018 and set career highs in completion rate (67.3), QBR (69.6), and sack rate while leading the Colts to a wild-card victory over the Texans before losing to the Chiefs in the divisional round. But after seven seasons, the four-time Pro Bowler announced his stunning retirement in August 2019.
For years, the search for the Next Andrew Luck was fruitless—until former no. 1 recruit Trevor Lawrence led Clemson to a national championship victory over Alabama as a true freshman. Lawrence spent the rest of his college career locked in as the NFL’s next great prospect. Fans of struggling teams encouraged losing in order to potentially draft Lawrence, just as they had with the “Suck for Luck” campaign.
Robert Griffin III (2012 no. 2 pick, Washington)
The Surprise Riser
Obvious talent, elite athleticism, and a supercharged offense propelled Griffin into the national spotlight in 2011. He was named Baylor’s starting quarterback as a true freshman in 2008 and redshirted after suffering a torn ACL in 2009, then posted solid numbers in 2010. But in 2011, Griffin led a high-flying Bears offense that averaged 45.3 points per game and made Baylor must-see TV.
A 50-48 upset of 14th-ranked TCU in Baylor’s season opener set the stage for what was to come. Griffin went 21-for-27 with 359 passing yards and five touchdowns, connecting on several long passes to receivers Kendall Wright, Terrance Williams, and Lanear Sampson. RG3 led FBS in both passing yards per attempt (10.7) and adjusted passing yards per attempt (11.8), while his nine passes of 60 yards or more also led FBS passers. He completed 72.4 percent of his attempts and compiled 4,239 passing yards with 37 touchdowns.
RG3 beat out Luck for the Heisman Trophy and Davey O’Brien Award (given to the nation’s best quarterback), then capitalized on his meteoric ascension by entering the draft. With the Colts settled on Luck with the no. 1 pick, Washington and Cleveland jostled one another to pry the no. 2 pick from the Rams in order to land Griffin. Washington won, at the price of the 2012 draft’s no. 6, 33, and 39 picks, along with first-round picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts.
Initially, it looked like RG3 could live up to Washington’s investment. Coach Mike Shanahan mixed run-pass options into his West Coast offensive scheme, enabling RG3 to make quick reads and utilize his athleticism in the run game. Griffin thrived, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year while leading Washington to a 10-6 record, its first division crown since 1999, and a playoff appearance. But late in the season, RG3 picked up a right knee injury, and in Washington’s wild-card game against the Seahawks, he suffered ACL and LCL injuries that required surgery.
Griffin played in 2013, but not at the same level of his rookie season. He was shut down late in the year to avoid injury and his backup and fellow draft classmate Kirk Cousins played in his absence. The next season, RG3 missed several games with a dislocated ankle and was benched three games after returning. He suffered a concussion during the 2015 preseason, didn’t play that year, and was then released by Washington in March 2016. Griffin signed with the Browns but appeared in only five games due to a shoulder injury before being released. He spent three seasons as a backup with the Ravens (2018-2020), and is currently a free agent.
Griffin’s career serves as an example of several trends across football. He’s one of the early examples of a mobile passer experiencing great success within an option-based offense, and he helped pave the way for 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson. He’s also an example of a star quarterback prospect who burst onto the scene later in their collegiate career and cemented themselves as a premium player, similar to Zach Wilson last year at BYU. RG3’s career arc is a cautionary tale for a team considering giving up significant draft capital for a fast-rising QB. Ironically, the Rams and Eagles each pulled off similar deals to move up in the 2016 draft to select Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, respectively. Both players were traded away this offseason.
Ryan Tannehill (2012 no. 8 pick, Dolphins)
The Toolsy Project
Tannehill was an ordinary three-star recruit when he signed with Texas A&M. He initially carved out a role as a receiver and caught 55 passes for 844 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman. But entering his junior year, Tannehill went back to playing quarterback, and he played well. During his senior year, he threw for 3,744 yards, 29 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions while rushing for 306 yards and four touchdowns. He outdueled Griffin in a head-to-head matchup and was solid throughout the year, but it didn’t translate to A&M’s win column. That didn’t keep the Dolphins from banking on Tannehill’s upside and choosing him with the eighth pick.
Tannehill spent seven years with Miami and proved to be an average starter. He was traded to the Titans in 2019, however, and suddenly turned into one of the league’s most efficient passers, leading the league in yards per attempt (9.6) and adjusted net yards per attempt (8.5) en route to winning Comeback Player of the Year and taking Tennessee to the 2020 AFC championship game. He sustained that success into the 2020 regular season as well and helped the Titans win the AFC South.
Tannehill’s career serves as an example for how much a player’s environment and supporting cast matters to their success. Former Titans offensive coordinators Matt LaFleur and Arthur Smith have each gone on to earn head-coaching jobs while employing Shanahan-influenced schemes that are revered for being QB-friendly and capable of masking players’ faults.
Brandon Weeden (2012 no. 22 pick, Browns)
The Cannon-Armed Passer
After toiling in MLB’s minor league system during the early 2000s, Weeden decided to play college football at Oklahoma State at the sprightly age of 24. After a few seasons on the bench, he assumed the starting job as a junior in 2010. He proceeded to throw for 4,000 yards in consecutive seasons and established an incredible rapport with fellow first-rounder Justin Blackmon.
Weeden was an unconventional pick: He turned 29 during his rookie season. However, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. considered him an underrated prospect leading up to the 2012 draft, albeit as a potential second-round pick. To his credit, Weeden did go on to spend seven seasons in the NFL, primarily as a backup after two years with Cleveland. Taysom Hill is perhaps the most recent example of an NFL team taking a chance on an older rookie QB, but even with his mixture of size and athleticism, he went undrafted as a 26-year-old before finding a fit with the Saints.
Brock Osweiler (2012 no. 57 pick, Broncos)
The Long and Tall Prototype
Osweiler’s career at Arizona State wasn’t extraordinary, but he had a solid junior year, throwing for 4,036 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. He wisely left the Sun Devils with one year of eligibility remaining.
A month after signing Peyton Manning, Denver chose the 6-foot-7 Osweiler in the second round of the 2012 draft. Osweiler attempted 30 total passes across his first three NFL seasons. In 2015, he earned starting time while Manning battled injuries. Osweiler started Denver’s final seven regular-season contests and helped the Broncos clinch the AFC’s no. 1 seed. He returned to the bench as Denver went on to win Super Bowl 50 against the Panthers. The ensuing offseason, Osweiler signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Houston Texans. He was traded the following offseason to the Browns, but was released after the preseason. Osweiler re-signed with the Broncos shortly after, serving as Trevor Siemian’s backup. The following season, he signed with the Dolphins, appearing in seven games (five starts) in 2018 before retiring the following year.
There aren’t too many examples similar to Osweiler. His draft classmate Nick Foles experienced a similar run when he helped lead the Eagles to a Super Bowl win (but the obvious difference is that Foles was given postseason starts). There’s an argument to be made that NFL quarterbacks can be too tall to succeed, but there are a handful of passers—the 6-foot-6 Justin Herbert and Trevor Lawrence (potentially) come to mind—who are considered high-level players. If anything, Osweiler’s career does speak to the importance of having a capable backup.
Russell Wilson (2012 no. 75 pick, Seahawks)
The Not-Too-Short-After-All Prototype
Russell Wilson was a three-star recruit entering college. After redshirting during his first season at NC State, he had to win a three-way quarterback battle before staking claim as the unquestioned starter. By his junior season, he was one of the best quarterbacks in FBS, and his baseball career was also taking off, though then–NC State coach Tom O’Brien wasn’t supportive of Wilson balancing time between the two. Wilson transferred to Wisconsin for his senior season and led the Badgers to a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl before entering the draft.
At 5-foot-11, Wilson’s height is in the 2nd percentile of QBs who’ve been measured at the combine since 1999. It was the biggest reason—and perhaps the only one—that the productive Wilson wasn’t a consensus first-round pick. He ended up in Seattle, initially as a backup to Matt Flynn, before his preseason performance forced coach Pete Carroll to start him as a rookie. The Seahawks have enjoyed the most successful period in franchise history since. Wilson’s rise coincided with Seattle’s all-time defensive unit hitting its peak, which resulted in two Super Bowl appearances and one championship.
Wilson is easily the most successful of his classmates, boasting seven Pro Bowls and eight playoff appearances in nine seasons. His career has helped nullify the stigma surrounding shorter quarterbacks, as both Baker Mayfield (6-foot-1) and Kyler Murray (5-foot-10) were chosen with the top pick since Wilson’s career began. Murray even shares Wilson’s propensity for baseball.
Nick Foles (2012 no. 88 pick, Eagles)
The Prototypical Backup
Foles is a testament to the cliché that good things come to those who wait. The former three-star recruit left Michigan State after his freshman season when he sat behind Brian Hoyer. He sat out a year after transferring to the University of Arizona, where he served as the backup to Matt Scott. After a few games, he took over the job and didn’t relinquish it for the next three seasons. Foles put up solid numbers for some lowly Arizona squads; in his final season, coach Mike Stoops was fired six games into the year and replaced by interim Tim Kish. The Wildcats finished 4-8, but Foles had established himself as a solid quarterback prospect. If anything, the fallout might have hurt Foles’s draft stock.
The Eagles took Foles, and then-coach Andy Reid played him behind Michael Vick. Under Chip Kelly’s tutelage, Foles started 10 games in his second season and was a breakout star, throwing for 27 touchdowns and two picks to help Philadelphia win the NFC East. A broken collarbone ended his season in 2014 and he was traded to the Rams that offseason in a package that included Sam Bradford. Foles started 11 games for the Rams, who drafted Jared Goff the next offseason. Foles was released and reunited with Reid in Kansas City for one season before he re-signed with the Eagles in 2017. Late in the campaign, Foles replaced Carson Wentz, who was playing at an MVP level prior to tearing his ACL, and famously led the Eagles to their first Super Bowl win. He spent one more year with the Eagles before signing a four-year, $50 million guaranteed contract with the Jaguars during the 2019 offseason. Foles started four games for Jacksonville before getting traded to the Bears the next year. He’s currently the no. 3 quarterback on Chicago’s roster.
Foles, 32, might not be capable of playing at the same level as earlier in his career, but he’s certainly made the most out of his opportunities under center.
Kirk Cousins (2012 no. 102 pick, Washington)
The Unlikely Starter and Mega Earner
Cousins initially took over Foles’s role as Hoyer’s backup at Michigan State after Foles transferred in 2008. He held the Spartans starting job for the next three seasons, leading the school to AP top-15 finishes in both 2010 and 2011.
As a senior, Cousins led Michigan State to memorable wins against rival Michigan and Russell Wilson–led Wisconsin (the latter victory was on a game-ending Hail Mary). The Spartans and Badgers met again in the Big Ten championship, but Wisconsin won 42-39. Cousins led MSU to a comeback 33-30 win against Georgia in the Outback Bowl to cap his career.
Cousins lasted until the fourth round of the 2012 draft, and Washington doubled up by taking him after selecting Griffin earlier. It worked out for both Washington and Cousins. After three seasons of competing for reps with RG3, Cousins ran the show in his 2015. He cashed in by becoming the first quarterback to be given the franchise tag in back-to-back seasons, then signed a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million contract with the Vikings in 2018—the first fully guaranteed deal in NFL history. In 2020, he agreed to a two-year, $66 million extension. According to Spotrac, Cousins ranks as the NFL’s ninth-highest earner of all time. He, Wilson, and Tom Brady are currently the only non-first-rounders in the top 10 earners.
Time will tell whether there’s ever another Cousins. His pathway to becoming a starter is rare: the player he supplanted was a player who was drafted two days before him. Dak Prescott stands as the most recent example of a late-round gem who maximizes his earnings. Cousins has certainly set a standard for quarterbacks wielding their power to negotiate the biggest deals possible.