Ranking last 25 Heisman Trophy winners based on NFL success

On Saturday night, USC’s Caleb Williams became the 19th quarterback this century to win the Heisman Trophy.

Williams won college football’s most prestigious award over TCU quarterback Max Duggan, Ohio State quarterback C.J Stroud and Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett. Williams also was the seventh USC Trojans player to win the Heisman, tying the school with Notre Dame for the most Heisman winners in college football history (an eighth award for USC, the 2005 trophy won by Reggie Bush, has been vacated).

Williams is not eligible for the 2023 NFL draft. So while NFL teams #CrashforCaleb next season, Williams will attempt to become the first back-to-back Heisman winner since Archie Griffin of Ohio State in 1974-75.

Winning the Heisman Trophy typically doesn’t translate to NFL success. Just take a look at the previous 25 Heisman winners, whose NFL careers range from not appearing in a single professional game (one due to still playing college football, the other due to not making an NFL roster) to Pro Football Hall of Famer.

Here is a ranking of the last quarter century of Heisman Trophy winners based on their NFL success:

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25. Bryce Young

Year: 2021 (Alabama)

NFL accolades: N/A

Young didn’t successfully defend his Heisman Trophy win, but still is expected to be selected at the top of the 2023 NFL draft. When that happens, Young will vault up this list significantly. Be sure to check this space again next year.

24. Jason White

Year: 2003 (Oklahoma)

NFL accolades: None

More Heisman Trophy winners have gone undrafted (15) than have made the Pro Football Hall of Fame (10). White is the last Heisman winner to go undrafted, not getting selected in the 2005 NFL draft. He had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs and eventually signed a free-agent contract with the Tennessee Titans, but retired from football, citing weak knees. In 2003, Larry Fitzgerald and Eli Manning finished 2-3 in the Heisman voting behind White, and both likely will wind up in the Hall of Fame.

23. Eric Crouch 

Year: 2001 (Nebraska)

NFL accolades: N/A

An option quarterback for the Cornhuskers, the 6-foot Crouch was considered too short for the position in the pros. The St. Louis Rams took a chance on Crouch – the wide receiver – in the third round of the 2002 draft. Injuries kept Crouch from ever playing a down in the NFL. For a few years, Crouch bounced around an alphabet soup of pro football leagues (NFL Europe, CFL, UFL), and positions, switching to safety while in NFL Europe.

22. Johnny Manziel

Year: 2012 (Texas A&M)

NFL accolades: 8 starts in 2 seasons

Manziel’s short time with the Cleveland Browns was ravaged by numerous off-the-field issues. He experienced a vagabond pro football career afterward, playing in the Canadian Football League (2018), the AAF (2019) and the Fan Controlled Football indoor league (2021). 

21. Troy Smith

Year: 2006 (Ohio State)

NFL accolades: 8 starts in 4 seasons

Smith was a fifth-round selection in 2007 by the Baltimore Ravens, but played sparingly in three seasons with the team. He did go on to make six starts for the San Francisco 49ers in 2010, his last season in the NFL.

20. Chris Weinke

Year: 2000 (Florida State)

NFL accolades: 20 starts in 5 seasons

Weinke – who at 28 was the oldest player to win the Heisman – was a fourth-round selection by the Carolina Panthers in 2001 and became the team’s primary quarterback that season. The Panthers had a disastrous 1-15 season that year, Weinke’s only year as a full-time starter, and he made just five more NFL starts over the next six years. In the Heisman voting in 2000, future Hall of Famer Drew Brees finished third and 2017 Hall enshrinee LaDainian Tomlinson was fourth (in case you were curious, current UCF coach and then-Oklahoma QB Josh Heupel was the runner-up).

19. Matt Leinart

Year: 2004 (USC)

NFL accolades: 18 starts in 6 seasons

Leinart earned his Heisman on a ballot that included notables such as Adrian Peterson, Alex Smith, Reggie Bush and Aaron Rodgers. The No. 10 overall pick in the 2006 draft by the Arizona Cardinals, Leinart never lived up to the hype. When the Cardinals reached Super Bowl 43 during the 2008 season, it was veteran Kurt Warner, not Leinart, who directed the team’s offense.

18. Ron Dayne

Year: 1999 (Wisconsin)

NFL accolades: 3,722 yards and 28 TDs rushing

After being the No. 11 pick in the 2000 NFL draft, Dayne became ‘Thunder’ to Tiki Barber’s ‘Lightning’ as the New York Giants reached Super Bowl 35 in the 2000 season. However, Dayne had a disappointing seven-year NFL career, with his NFL highlight coming on Thanksgiving Day 2005, when Dayne – with the Denver Broncos – rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown in a 24-21 win over the Dallas Cowboys.

17. DeVonta Smith

Year: 2020 (Alabama)

NFL accolades: First-round selection (No. 10 overall) in 2021

After posting 916 yards receiving during his rookie season, Smith is on pace to have his first 1,000-yard season for a Philadelphia Eagles team that currently has the NFL’s best record.

16. Tim Tebow

Year: 2007 (Florida)

NFL accolades: 16 starts in 3 seasons

Tebow’s 2011 season is the stuff of legend. After a 1-4 start that year, the Broncos inserted Tebow as the starter. Tebow led Denver to an 8-8 finish and the AFC West title, thanks to a series of late-game heroics that inspired the ‘Tebow Time’ moniker. To cap it all off, Tebow delivered a dramatic overtime wild-card playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

15. Marcus Mariota

Year: 2014 (Oregon)

NFL accolades: 61 starts in 6 seasons

With Mariota as the primary starter behind center, the Tennessee Titans did enjoy three consecutive winning seasons, the longest run of winning seasons – since stretched to five in a row – since the team relocated from Houston. In the 2017 playoffs, Mariota guided a second-half comeback in a wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

14. Jameis Winston

Year: 2013 (Florida State)

NFL accolades: No. 1 pick in 2015 draft, 1-time Pro Bowler

Winston’s career never took off as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had expected, and the mistake-prone quarterback was jettisoned after five seasons with the team. But not before experiencing one of the wildest statistical seasons in NFL history. In addition to throwing for more than 5,000 yards in 2019, Winston became the first quarterback to throw for 30 or more touchdowns and 30 or more interceptions in the same season.

13. Robert Griffin III

Year: 2011 (Baylor)

NFL accolades: 2012 offensive rookie of the year, 1-time Pro Bowler

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft, RGIII was an immediate NFL sensation, leading Washington to the playoffs. RGIII enjoyed a flash-in-the-pan NFL existence. After suffering a major knee injury in Washington’s playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, he hasn’t been the same, starting just 27 games in the eight years since.

12. Kyler Murray

Year: 2018 (Oklahoma)

NFL accolades: No. 1 pick in 2019 draft, 2019 offensive rookie of the year, 2-time Pro Bowler

As a threat to burn defenses with his arm or legs, Murray’s abilities helped the Cardinals reach the playoffs in his third pro season. The seminal moment of Murray’s young career might be a dramatic Hail Mary touchdown play to DeAndre Hopkins in a 32-30 win over the Buffalo Bills that has been dubbed the ‘Hail Murray.’

11. Sam Bradford

Year: 2008 (Oklahoma)

NFL accolades: No. 1 pick in 2010 draft, 2010 offensive rookie of the year

Bradford had an injury-riddled NFL career. He started every game in two of his five seasons with the St. Louis Rams (2010 and 2012), but an ACL injury during the 2014 preseason effectively ended Bradford’s tenure in St. Louis. In his final full season as a starter, in 2016, Bradford started 15 games for the Minnesota Vikings and led the NFL in completion percentage (71.6%).

10. Mark Ingram

Year: 2009 (Alabama)

NFL accolades: 3-time Pro Bowler

Ingram has enjoyed a productive career in his 10 NFL seasons. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards three times and also posted double-digit touchdown seasons (combined rushing and receiving) three times.

9. Baker Mayfield

Year: 2017 (Oklahoma)

NFL accolades: No. 1 pick in 2018 draft

After 12 consecutive losing seasons, Mayfield helped end the NFL’s longest playoff drought in 2020, as Cleveland reached the playoffs for the first time since 2002. After selecting Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel in the first round since returning from hiatus in 1999, it was Mayfield who finally delivered the Browns’ long-sought postseason berth. While he’s no longer with the Browns, Mayfield delivered an unforgettable comeback performance for the Los Angeles Rams two days after getting claimed off waivers.

8. Reggie Bush

Year: 2005 (USC)

NFL accolades: First-team All-Pro selection in 2008, Super Bowl winner

While records can be vacated years after the fact, you can’t take away the memories. That is why in this exercise we are not excluding Bush, who voluntarily forfeited his Heisman Trophy in 2010. After being the No. 2 pick in the 2006 NFL draft, Bush played 11 seasons in the NFL, scoring 58 total touchdowns via the run, pass and on kickoff returns. He was a vital member of the New Orleans Saints team that won Super Bowl 44.

7. Ricky Williams

Year: 1998 (Texas)

NFL accolades: First-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection in 2002

The New Orleans Saints traded all of their remaining 1999 draft selections to Washington in order to move into position to select Williams. It was a gamble that didn’t exactly pay off (for both sides). While Washington somehow couldn’t parlay that draft pick haul into a run of success, the Saints got two 1,000-yard rushing seasons (plus, an unexpected NFC West title in 2000). A trade to the Dolphins netted Williams a rushing title in 2002 (1,853 yards). After 11 NFL seasons, Williams accumulated 10,009 yards and 66 touchdowns rushing.

6. Carson Palmer

Year: 2002 (USC)

NFL accolades: 3-time Pro Bowler

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft, Palmer enjoyed a productive NFL career. In 2005, Palmer helped the Cincinnati Bengals make their first playoff appearance in 15 years. However, Palmer enjoyed his greatest success during five seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, for whom he posted three 4,000-yard-plus passing seasons and led to the 2015 NFC championship game. Palmer’s 46,247 yards passing are good for 15th on the NFL’s all-time list and the most for a Heisman winner, just ahead of Vinny Testaverde’s career total of 46,233 yards.

5. Derrick Henry

Year: 2015 (Alabama)

NFL accolades: 2019 and 2020 rushing yardage leader, 2-time Pro Bowler

Henry, a second-round pick in the 2016 draft, has cemented himself as one of the NFL’s most dangerous offensive players and the league’s premier bell-cow back. During the 2020 season, Henry became the eighth player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season.

4. Joe Burrow

Year: 2019 (LSU)

NFL accolades: No. 1 overall pick in 2020 draft, 2021 comeback player of the year

After a knee injury cut short his rookie season, Burrow helped the Cincinnati Bengals make an unexpected run to Super Bowl 56. While leading the NFL in 2021 with a 70.4 completion percentage, Burrow threw for 4,611 yards and 34 touchdowns. In 10 starts during the 2020 season, Burrow had five games with 300-plus passing yards, including one 400-yard game in which he became the first rookie in NFL history with 350-plus passing yards, three passing TDs and a rushing TD in the same game. 

3. Lamar Jackson

Year: 2016 (Louisville)

NFL accolades: 2019 NFL MVP, 2-time Pro Bowler

The 32nd pick in the 2018 draft is one of the NFL’s most dynamic quarterbacks. In his MVP season, Jackson eclipsed Michael Vick’s single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback, finishing the season with 1,206 yards. In 2020, Jackson became the first quarterback in NFL history with multiple 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Jackson helped the Baltimore Ravens win the AFC North in his first two pro seasons.

2. Cam Newton

Year: 2010 (Auburn)

NFL accolades: 2011 offensive rookie of the year, 2015 NFL MVP, 2015 offensive player of the year, 3-time Pro Bowler 

During the 2020 season, Newton became the first player in NFL history to accumulate 30,000-plus passing yards and 5,000-plus rushing yards during his career. In his 2015 MVP season, Newton led the Panthers to a franchise-best 15-1 regular-season record and an appearance in Super Bowl 50.

1. Charles Woodson

Year: 1997 (Michigan)

NFL accolades: Pro Football Hall of Famer, 1998 defensive rookie of the year, 2009 defensive player of the year, 2000s all-decade team, 9-time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl winner

A 2021 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Woodson is the 10th Heisman winner to be enshrined in Canton. Woodson’s 65 career interceptions is tied for fifth all-time, and he’s tied for second for most career pick-sixes (11, just one behind Rod Woodson’s 12). During the 2010 season, Woodson was a vital cog for the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl 45 championship team. Woodson’s fellow 2021 Hall classmate – Peyton Manning – was the runner-up in the 1997 Heisman voting; current Hall of Famer Randy Moss finished fourth. 

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