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NFL Draft

Lamar Jackson joins small club of black quarterbacks drafted in first round

We rank the black signal-callers before Jackson who heard their name in the NFL draft’s opening round

ARLINGTON, Texas — Only 19 African-American quarterbacks had been selected in the first round of the NFL draft before Thursday night. That small club expanded as the Baltimore Ravens drafted former Louisville star Lamar Jackson with the 32nd overall pick.

There’s talk out there that the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner isn’t suited to line up behind center at football’s top level. Perhaps, some NFL people say privately, his best skills won’t translate well from the college game.

Of course, we’ve heard that before when black quarterbacks were being evaluated. For more than 40 years, Doug Williams has been at the center of that discussion.

Way back in 1978, Williams was the first black signal-caller to be selected in the first round of the NFL draft. (In the 1968 AFL/NFL draft, the then-AFL’s Oakland Raiders made Eldridge Dickey, who played at Tennessee State, the first black quarterback to be selected in the first round by a team in either league.)

Williams, now the Washington Redskins’ senior vice president of player personnel, has seen many black passers through the years who “had a whole lot of ability and could have [even] been first-round guys, but they didn’t get the opportunity.”

“You can’t do it without the chance to prove yourself. But if you go there [in the first round], you know a whole lot will be on you. That’s just the way it is.”

With Jackson joining Williams and 18 others on the list of first-round African-American QBs, The Undefeated ranked the group.


No. 1: Doug Williams

Year drafted: 1978

Draft position: 17th, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

College: Grambling State

Scouting report: Joe Gibbs, the Buccaneers’ running backs coach at the time, compiled the scouting report on Williams: “A big-time arm with perfect passing mechanics” and is “a natural leader. Just has what it takes for guys to want to follow him,” Gibbs wrote. “He makes all the throws. Great touch on his deep ball. Can really throw it deep. Great person. He’s really football smart and … totally prepared. Just very impressive.”

The thinking: Although Williams’ career statistics don’t match up with some of the other passers on this list, his groundbreaking Super Bowl performance opened the door for other black signal-callers. It’s impossible to overstate the impact Williams had on both the NFL and society in general. He shattered the racist myth that black men lacked the smarts, heart and skill to succeed at the most important position in professional sports. For his monumental accomplishment and enduring legacy, Williams tops the list.

No. 2: Steve McNair

Year drafted: 1995

Draft position: Third, by the Houston Oilers

College: Alcorn State

Scouting report: Quick arm. … Awful strong. Stands flat-footed … and flips it and still puts a little something on it.”

The thinking: As both a leader and a performer, McNair checked all the boxes. The 2003 Associated Press co-Most Valuable Player, McNair passed for more than 31,000 yards, guided teams to five postseason appearances and was a three-time Pro Bowler. He was revered by teammates and was among the toughest guys of his era to play QB. The former Alcorn State standout may be the last quarterback from a historically black college or university selected in the first round of the NFL draft. McNair was murdered in 2009.

No. 3: Cam Newton

Year drafted: 2011

Draft position: First, by the Carolina Panthers

College: Auburn

Scouting report: “Elite size and strength. Built like a tight end. Impressive mobility for his size. Has the speed to pick up yards with his feet. Strong enough to shake defenders off his back. Extremely tough to bring down. Does a great job keeping his eyes down field, even when on the run. Elite arm strength; can make any throw you ask of him. Accuracy is good when he sets his feet and takes his time to throw. … Serious character red flags. There’s no denying Newton’s raw talent, but I wouldn’t touch him early in the draft.”

The thinking: Here’s where things get interesting. Some NFL observers would argue that Newton hasn’t been around long enough to earn this ranking. And we get it. But even at only 28, Newton has put in serious work. Remember: Newton was the NFL’s 2011 Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year, the NFL’s 2015 Associated Press Most Valuable Player, a three-time Pro Bowler and a first-team All-Pro selection. In his first seven seasons, Newton has led the Carolina Panthers to four playoff appearances and one Super Bowl berth. Statistically, Newton has produced in a big way, passing for more than 25,000 yards and rushing for more than 4,300. Newton is one of only four quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 4,000 yards rushing (only Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham and Steve Young, respectively, have more), and he has accounted for 212 touchdowns.

No. 4: Donovan McNabb

Year drafted: 1999

Draft position: Second, by the Philadelphia Eagles

College: Syracuse

Scouting report: “The rap against him was familiar and, for McNabb, infuriating: great athlete, good option quarterback, but can he run a pro-style offense?”

The thinking: With more than 37,000 yards passing, McNabb ranks in the top 25 all-time. He has 234 career touchdown passes. Only 28 passers in the game’s history have more. For five consecutive seasons (2000-04), McNabb led the Philadelphia Eagles to the postseason. He helped them reach a Super Bowl. He was a six-time Pro Bowler. McNabb has more career victories than Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Warren Moon, among others. McNabb never guided a team to a Super Bowl title. But by any metric, he had a great career. There’s an argument to be made that McNabb has Hall of Fame credentials.

No. 5: Michael Vick

Year drafted: 2001

Draft position: First, by the Atlanta Falcons

College: Virginia Tech

Scouting report: “Versatile scrambler who is very tough to defend. … Shows quick feet and excellent balance, smoothly dropping back from center in his set-up. … Still needs to mature as a player. … Sometimes gets too confident in his running skills, forgetting to eye his secondary receivers in order to run with the ball when his primary target is not available.”

The thinking: No QB, regardless of race, was more athletic. During his prime, Vick had a powerful passing arm and was one of the game’s fastest players. Vick passed for more than 22,000 yards and 133 touchdowns. He rushed for 36 touchdowns and 6,109 yards (with a 7.0-yard average). He’s No. 1 among QBs in rushing yards and is the only passer to rush for at least 1,000 yards in a season, having accomplished the feat in 2006. Vick’s critics complained that he bolted from the pocket too quickly, failing to permit plays to develop. Later in his career, Vick revealed that he relied too much on his athleticism and he didn’t work hard enough on his craft early in his career, acknowledging he should have studied more in the film room. Still, he was a four-time Pro Bowler. Imprisoned for 18 months on dogfighting charges during the prime of his career, Vick returned to the league in 2009. He was voted the NFL’s 2010 Associated Press Comeback Player of the Year.

No. 6: Daunte Culpepper

Year drafted: 1999

Draft position: 11th, by the Minnesota Vikings

College: Central Florida

Scouting report: “Big fish in a small pond. Huge player with very good athleticism and strength. Very strong arm and possesses good mobility. Average release. More of a pocket passer than scrambler. Has a good pocket sense. Tough, mature leader.”

The thinking: The last of three black QBs selected in the opening round of the 1999 draft, Culpepper — listed at 6 feet, 4 inches and 264 pounds — was massive for the position. Culpepper got off to a great start, passing for nearly 4,000 yards with 33 touchdown passes while leading the Vikings to the playoffs in his second year in the league and first as a starter. A three-time Pro Bowler, he led the league with more than 4,700 passing yards in 2004. The next season, Culpepper suffered a devastating knee injury that derailed his career. Cut by the Vikings, he bounced around until 2009 but never recaptured the magic.

no. 7: Jameis Winston

Year drafted: 2015

Draft position: First, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

College: Florida State

Scouting report: “His release, though substantially tightened up in 2015, still could be more refined from the pocket, allowing him to generate more velocity when his feet can’t be ideally set. His decision-making was far more of an issue in 2015 as opposed to his redshirt freshman year. On the field, Winston has a case to be the most NFL-ready and talented quarterback prospect in the 2015 draft. … Off the field, however, is what could make or break Winston’s value to NFL teams in the top 10.”

The thinking: A work in progress, he could wind up much higher on this list. Through his first three seasons, Winston has thrown for nearly 12,000 yards and 69 touchdowns. As a rookie, he reached the Pro Bowl. At only 24, he has shown flashes of the immense talent that prompted Tampa Bay to use a No. 1 overall pick to draft him. But Winston’s record as a starter is 18-27, and he has committed way too many turnovers (44 interceptions, 15 lost fumbles). Also, there are lingering questions about Winston’s maturity. If he finally puts it all together, the Buccaneers could have a championship QB. But that’s the question: Will Winston ever put it all together?

No. 8: Jason Campbell

Year drafted: 2005

Draft position: 25th, by the Washington Redskins

College: Auburn

Scouting report: “The game finally slowed down for him. He didn’t make mistakes. He’s strider-fast, not short-area quick fast. He’s like Aaron Brooks because of his elongated delivery and his running.”

The thinking: During his second stint in Washington, Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs drafted Campbell. But Campbell had the misfortune of joining one of the most dysfunctional franchises in major professional sports. While Campbell was with Washington, the team was plagued by poor senior management. The journeyman wound up playing for five teams in a nine-year career. A strong-armed pocket passer, he passed for almost 17,000 yards and 87 touchdowns.

No. 9: Robert Griffin III

Year drafted: 2012

Draft position: Second, by the Washington Redskins

College: Baylor

Scouting report: “Everybody is just assuming because of the Heisman and the socks and all that BS … they are ignoring a lot of bad tape that he’s had. I don’t think he has vision or pocket feel, which to me are the two most important components of quarterbacking. He’s just running around winging it. He’s [Michael] Vick, but not as good a thrower.”

The thinking: If this were a greatest-single-season list, “RG3” would be way higher. That’s because for one season, Griffin was a superstar. Washington traded four early-round picks (three in the first round and one second-round selection) to move up and acquire the second overall pick. The dual-threat passer had a spectacular rookie season while leading Washington to the NFC East title. He was selected the NFL’s Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year. Griffin, it seemed, would be the NFL’s next big thing. But after disagreements with coaches, a major knee injury and being released by two teams, Griffin is trying to make the long climb back as a Baltimore Ravens backup.

No. 10: Vince Young

Year drafted: 2006

Draft position: Third, by the Tennessee Titans

College: Texas

Scouting report: “Athletic quarterback with immense physical ability. Possesses a live arm, zips the ball into targets or easily gets passes downfield. Quick release and immediately gets the ball out of his hand. Devastating ball carrier who displays outstanding vision and the ability to create. … Does not correctly read the defense. Must improve his overall accuracy and pass placement. Needs to learn touch.”

The thinking: Young was so spectacular in Texas’ thrilling 2006 Rose Bowl victory over Southern California and throughout the school’s national championship season, it seemed he was destined for NFL stardom too. He got off to a good start. Young was selected the Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year. A two-time Pro Bowler, he led the Titans to the playoffs in his second season despite throwing only nine touchdowns with 17 interceptions. When he entered the league, Young wasn’t a polished pro-style passer. He didn’t improve much during five seasons with the Titans, clashed with then-Titans head coach Jeff Fisher and was released. After one season as a backup with the Philadelphia Eagles, Young was out of the league. At 34 and coming off a long layoff, Young in 2017 attempted to make a comeback in the Canadian Football League. His comeback bid was cut short by a hamstring injury.

No. 11: Byron Leftwich

Year drafted: 2003

Draft position: Seventh, by the Jacksonville Jaguars

College: Marshall

Scouting report: “Leftwich is Drew Bledsoe. He’s real big (6-5½, 245 pounds) like Bledsoe. He’ll stand real tall in the pocket and make all the throws.”

The thinking: He was solid as a starter in Jacksonville early in his career and led the team to the playoffs in his second season. After leaving Jacksonville, Leftwich was a backup for three teams in a nine-year career, earning a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers in 2009. He passed for 10,532 yards and 58 touchdowns.

No. 12: Teddy Bridgewater

Year drafted: 2014

Draft position: 32nd, by the Minnesota Vikings

College: Louisville

Scouting report:Has an above-average arm, but not a powerful arm. He hangs tough to deliver passes in the face of pass rush, has mobility on rollouts, and can get in rhythms of nice accuracy. Bridgewater plays well on third downs, too. He shows great poise.”

The thinking: At this point, his grade is incomplete. In only his second season, Bridgewater directed the team to an 11-5 record and the NFC North title. He improved across the board statistically from his rookie season, and the Vikings believed they were set for a decade or so at football’s most important position. Then, Bridgewater’s left leg essentially snapped in two after he planted his foot awkwardly on a noncontact drill in practice on Aug. 30, 2016. He suffered a dislocated knee and torn ligaments, prompting fears he could lose his leg. He was active in games last season for the Vikings and has moved on to the New York Jets, where he’s expected to compete for the starting job.

No. 13: Josh Freeman

Year drafted: 2009

Draft position: 17th, by the Tampa Bay Buccneers

College: Kansas State

Scouting report: “Elite frame with excellent height and in great condition. No questions about arm strength; shows elite arm strength on 15- to 20-yard stick throws [outs, posts]. Uses nice touch and throws a catchable ball. Can throw the ball on the run. … Locks on to receivers and shows below-average field vision. Wildly inconsistent; runs hot and cold. Questionable leadership.”

The thinking: Another huge guy to play the position, Freeman is listed at 6-foot-6, 240 pounds. He produced big numbers early for Tampa Bay, but a coaching change and his poor play were a bad combination. He also played for Minnesota and Indianapolis and is now in the Canadian Football League.

No. 14: Deshaun Watson

Year drafted: 2017

Draft position: 12th, by the Houston Texans

College: Clemson

Scouting report: “He’s No. 1. He’s played the best in the biggest stages. His best thing is leadership and he’s a winner. He has to develop into a pocket passer.”

The thinking: Watson was a showstopper until a knee injury cut short his outstanding rookie season after only seven games. He completed almost 62 percent of his passes and had 19 touchdown passes with only eight interceptions. The Texans chose well.

No. 15: Patrick Mahomes

Year drafted: 2017

Draft position: 10th, by the Kansas City Chiefs

College: Texas Tech

Scouting report:I may be crazy but when I watch his tape, just as a scout, I get excited. He’s a guilty pleasure. We all have biases. Going in [to evaluate Mahomes], Texas Tech, dink, dunk, dink, dunk, this guy cannot translate. I left saying, ‘Love this guy. He’s so much fun.’ He pulls plays out of his [expletive] like you wouldn’t believe. It’s not dink and dunk. He believes in his arm so much that it’s a problem sometimes. He’s not ready right now. I’m not comparing him to Aaron [Rodgers], but that natural sense of making plays when they break down is unusual. Now can he make plays from structure?”

The thinking: Kansas City head coach Andy Reid, who knows a little something about quarterbacks, traded up in the draft to get Mahomes and then moved solid veteran Alex Smith to Washington in January to clear a path for the second-year player to start this season. We’ve got a feeling Mahomes will rocket up this list soon. Very soon.

No. 16: EJ Manuel

Year drafted: 2013

Draft position: 16th, by the Buffalo Bills

College: Florida State

Scouting report: “Size, arm strength, athleticism, and I think he can run read-option stuff. Now, he’s a little sloppy with his footwork. He had a tendency to fall away from throws. There were times when he leaned over his front foot when he needed to re-set, and that impacted his ability to make accurate throws. As most quarterbacks are in college, he was very over-reactive to bodies around him. There are concerns, but when you look at some of the positives, I’m very anxious to see where he gets drafted, because he gives you that read-option factor.”

The thinking: The only quarterback selected in the first round of that year’s draft, Manuel never developed into a dependable, full-time starter, let alone a franchise signal-caller. He’s now a backup with the Oakland Raiders.

No. 17: Akili Smith

Year drafted: 1999

Draft position: Third, by the Cincinnati Bengals

College: Oregon

Scouting report: “We visited Akili in Oregon and we were very impressed with his workout there. He threw the ball extremely well. … He has a lot of football intelligence.”

The thinking: Selected one spot after Donovan McNabb and eight spots ahead of Daunte Culpepper, Smith struggled early. His NFL career ended after only four years with Cincinnati.

No. 18: Andre Ware

Year drafted: 1990

Draft position: Seventh, by the Detroit Lions

College: Houston

Scouting report: After one pre-draft workout, a scout declared, “Gentlemen, we are looking at the next great quarterback in the National Football League.”

Where he ranks: No. 18

The thinking: Ware was the first black quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy. In the NFL, though, he played only 14 games over four seasons before moving on to the Canadian Football League. These days, he’s a respected television analyst.

No. 19: JaMarcus Russell

Year drafted: 2007

Draft position: First, by the Oakland Raiders

College: Louisiana State

Scouting report: “The only thing that’s going to keep [Russell] from being great is him. What it comes down to is you’ve got to figure out whether or not this kid wants to be the best quarterback in football.”

The thinking: We began with a no-brainer and end with another. Russell’s NFL career can best be summarized in one word: abysmal. Widely considered a can’t-miss prospect because of his size — he entered the league at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds — Russell, who was guaranteed $31.5 million in his rookie deal, lasted only three years in Oakland. He had major problems controlling his weight. In 2010, Russell reportedly weighed in at 290 pounds during a minicamp. His comeback bid in 2013 fell short. Russell is considered one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.