Trading up in the NFL Draft for a QB is a huge risk – here’s how it has worked in the past

Mac Jones
Mac Jones.

  • Trading up for a quarterback in the NFL Draft can be a franchise-defining move.
  • It comes with a lot of risk, as several big trades have not panned out.
  • That said, if a team gets its quarterback of the future, no price is too high to pay.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The San Francisco 49ers traded a boatload of picks for the right to jump up to the third pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

In a draft loaded with QBs, it’s a move that suggests the 49ers are aiming for the quarterback of their future. A look back at other teams that have traded up into the top of the draft to take a quarterback shows that the gamble can be a risky one.

Below is a look back at every trade from the last 30 years in which a team traded up into the top three picks to select a quarterback.

Ahead of the 1990 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts traded up to secure the first overall pick, which they would use to take Jeff George out of Illinois. His rookie deal was worth $15 million – a record at the time.

Jeff George

Colts gave up: 1990 fifth-round pick, 1991 first-round pick, OT Chris Hinton, WR Andre Rison

Colts received: 1990 first overall pick (Jeff George)

George started every game of the Colts’ dismal 1-15 season in 1991 and would leave the team a few years later. He remained in the NFL for over a decade, even leading the league in passing with the Raiders in 1997.

Jeff George 2

Ryan Leaf is well known as one of the biggest busts in NFL history, having been taken just after Peyton Manning in the 1998 NFL Draft. Adding to the embarrassment for the Chargers is that they parted ways with their second-round pick and the next year’s first rounder to jump up just one spot past the Cardinals.

Ryan Leaf 1

Chargers gave up: first- and second-round pick in 1998, first-round pick in 1999, kick-returner Eric Metcalf and linebacker Patrick Sapp.

Chargers received: 2nd pick in 1998 (Ryan Leaf)

Leaf was out of the league in four years, leaving the NFL with 14 touchdowns and 36 interceptions to his name.

Ryan Leaf 2

Atlanta was able to trade up in 2001 after the Chargers couldn’t come to a deal with quarterback Michael Vick, giving the Falcons the chance to take him with the first overall pick in the draft.

Michael Vick 1

Falcons gave up: 5th, 67th pick in 2001, second-round pick in 2002, kick returner Tim Dwight

Falcons received: 1st pick in 2001 (Michael Vick)

Michael Vick would become the most dynamic player in NFL with the Falcons until 2007, when he would plead guilty to federal charges related to dog fighting. After serving his sentence and suspension, Vick would return to the NFL and contribute for the Eagles, Jets, and Steelers. While he would never find the form he once had, he did make it back to the Pro Bowl in 2010.

Michael Vick 2

While the trade didn’t happen until after Manning was drafted by the Chargers, the New York Giants already had a deal in place to send picks to San Diego for the rights to Eli Manning. It helped with their leverage that Manning has stated he’d refuse to sign with the Chargers, but New York still gave up a healthy amount in the deal.

Eli Manning

Giants gave up: Philip Rivers, 65th pick in 2004, first- and fifth-round pick in 2005

Giants received: Eli Manning

After two Super Bowl wins, Manning was clearly a blessing for the Giants. He retired after the 2019 season, having started nearly game for the Giants over his 16 years in the league.

Eli Manning

Washington moving up to pick Robert Griffin III in 2012 is likely one of the most written about draft trades in league history, with Washington sending the Rams their first-round pick for three straight years in order to move up four spots and secure the services of the Heisman winner.

Robert Griffin III

Redskins gave up: 6th, 39th picks in 2012, first-round pick in 2013, first-round pick in 2014

Redskins received: 2nd pick in 2012 (Robert Griffin III)

While a breakout rookie season left many thinking Washington had made the right decision, a series of injuries sent Griffin’s career off the rails. Griffin spent the latter half of his career bouncing around the league as a backup.

RG3

Looking to start fresh with a new coach in a new city, the Los Angeles Rams pulled off an impressive exchange of picks with the Tennessee Titans to move into the top spot in the 2016 NFL Draft and take Jared Goff as their next franchise quarterback.

Jared Goff

Rams gave up: 15th, 43rd, 45th, 76th pick in 2016, first- and third-round pick in 2017. 

Rams received: 1st (Jared Goff), 113th, 171th pick in 2016.

Goff’s first two years with the Rams were good, leading the team to a Super Bowl appearance in 2019. But after two down years, Goff was traded away to the Detroit Lions.

Jared Goff

The Rams weren’t the only team to trade up to get their guy in 2016. The Philadelphia Eagles also orchestrated a massive pick swap with the Cleveland Browns to move into the No. 2 spot and draft Carson Wentz out of North Dakota State University.

Carson Wentz

Eagles gave up: 8th, 77th, 100th pick in 2016, first-round pick in 2017, second-round pick in 2018

Eagles receive: 2nd pick in 2016 (Carson Wentz), fourth-round pick in 2017.

Wentz also showed flashes of brilliance early, and even looked like an MVP candidate in 2017 before a season-ending injury. But after the Eagles won a Super Bowl with backup Nick Foles, Wetnz didn’t come back the same, and has since be traded to the Colts.

Carson Wentz

The Chicago Bears traded into the top of the draft in 2017, sending three picks to the San Francisco 49ers to move up just one spot in the draft and select Mitch Trubisky.

Mitchell Trubisky

Bears gave up: 3rd, 67th, and 111th pick in 2017, and third-round pick in 2018

Bears received: 2nd pick in 2017 (Mitch Trubisky)

Mitch Trubisky was largely a disaster in Chicago, and was eventually traded to the Buffalo Bills to serve as a backup.

Mitch Trubisky

After trading up for the third pick in 2018, the New York Jets selected Sam Darnold out of USC.

Sam Darnold draft

Jets gave up: 6th, 37th, and 49th pick in 2018, second-round pick in 2019

Jets received: 2018 third overall pick (Sam Darnold)

Darnold struggled for three years as the Jets starter, and the team ultimately decided to move on in 2021, trading him to the Carolina Panthers.

Sam Darnold
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The 26 biggest NFL Draft busts of the last 15 years

Johnny Manziel

For every Patrick Mahomes or Khalil Mack in the NFL Draft, there is another former top prospect who didn’t pan out.

Whether they failed because of injuries, off-field issues, or just poor play, all of these players provide fascinating case studies of the NFL’s demanding environment and the fleeting nature of athletic success.

Here are 26 of the most notorious draft busts from recent NFL history. The group includes 10 quarterbacks, eight players taken among the first five picks, 24 players who never made a Pro Bowl, and four players drafted by the New York Jets.

Sam Belden contributed to this post.

26. Roberto Aguayo, K

roberto aguayo

School: Florida State

Selected: 2nd round (59th overall), 2016 draft, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Played for: Bucs

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 1

One thing to know: The Bucs traded up to select Aguayo in the second round after he set an NCAA record for accuracy in college. He was waived before his second season after missing nine field goals and two extra-point attempts his rookie year.

25. Christian Hackenberg, QB

Christian Hackenberg

School: Penn State

Selected: 2nd round (51st overall), 2016 draft, New York Jets 

Played for: Never appeared in a regular season game

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: Hackenberg spent time on the roster of four NFL teams in three years and most recently struggled in his time as a starter in the now-defunct AAF.

24. Rashaad Penny, RB

GettyImages 1189799140

School: San Diego State 

Selected: 1st round (27th overall), 2018 draft, Seattle Seahawks

Played for: Seattle Seahawks

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: Penny is heading into the final year of his rookie contract with less than 1,000 career rushing yards and no career starts. Penny has only appeared in 27 games, including just three last year after spending the first 14 weeks on the physically unable to perform list. 

23. Phillip Dorsett, WR

Phillip Dorsett

School: Miami

Selected: 1st round (29th overall), 2015 draft, Indianapolis Colts

Played for: Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: Dorsett still has time to turn things around, but at 26 years old, his leash is starting to tighten. He caught just 12 passes in 2017 after being traded to the Patriots. After not playing in 2020, he is now on the Jaguars’ roster.

22. Paxton Lynch, QB

paxton lynch

School: Memphis

Selected: 1st round (26th overall), 2016 draft, Denver Broncos

Played for: Broncos

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: Lynch was drafted in the hopes of being the heir to Peyton Manning, but in two seasons he started just four games. He was cut prior to the 2018 season and sat out the entire season. He has since spent time with the Seahawks and Steelers but is again a free agent.

21. Johnny Manziel, QB

Johnny Manziel

School: Texas A&M

Selected: 1st round (22nd overall), 2014 draft, Cleveland Browns

Played for: Cleveland Browns

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: Cleveland took Manziel after the 2012 Heisman winner sent a text instructing Browns quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains to hurry up and draft me because I want to be there.” In less than two years, he had checked himself into rehab, was accused of assaulting his girlfriend, and was ultimately released after two seasons and just 258 passes as a professional. He tried a comeback with stints in the CFL and the AAF, but now says he is hoping to become a pro golfer.

20. Taco Charlton, DE

GettyImages 835658468

School: Michigan

Selected: 1st round (28th overall), 2017 draft, Dallas Cowboys

Played for: Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: After Charlton was released by the Cowboys in the first month of the 2019 season, he posted a tweet that read “Free Me.” One anonymous individual within the Cowboys organization even called Charlton “soft” after his release, according to NBC Dallas.

19. Amobi Okoye, DT

Amobi Okoye

School: Louisville

Selected: 1st round (10th overall), 2007 draft, Houston Texans

Played for: Houston Texans, Chicago Bears

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 4

One thing to know: Okoye knew almost nothing about football when he took up the game as a high school sophomore, but just a few short years later, he heard his name called as the youngest first-round pick in NFL history. Unfortunately, his raw talent never translated into consistent success in the pros, and he was released by the Texans after the 2010 season. He survived a scary bout with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis in 2013, making several comeback attempts but never appearing in another game.

18. Matt Leinart, QB

Matt Leinart

School: USC

Selected: 1st round (10th overall), 2006 draft, Arizona Cardinals

Played for: Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans, Oakland Raiders

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 1

One thing to know: Leinart was set to be a top pick in the 2005 draft, but he chose to return to USC for his senior season and saw his stock plummet. He never developed into the franchise signal caller the Cardinals dreamed of and spent four seasons as a backup. He later spent time with the Texans and Raiders but only started one game.

17. Dee Milliner, CB

Dee Milliner

School: Alabama

Selected: 1st round (9th overall), 2013 draft, New York Jets

Played for: New York Jets

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 1

One thing to know: Milliner underwent right shoulder surgery the month before he was drafted. In the years to come, the Alabama native suffered several injuries, appearing in just five games after his rookie season. He was released after his third season and never appeared in another NFL game.

16. DeAndre Baker, CB

GettyImages 1175837071

School: Georgia

Selected: 1st round (30th overall), 2019 draft, New York Giants

Played for: New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 1

One thing to know: Baker was accused of armed robbery and aggravated assault last summer by friends at a party in Miramar, Florida. He was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list to start training camp and was released by The Giants just prior to the start of the season. The charges were eventually dropped and Baker earned a second chance with The Chiefs, but only played in two games as a backup.

15. Justin Gilbert, CB

Justin Gilbert

School: Oklahoma State

Selected: 1st round (8th overall), 2014 draft, Cleveland Browns

Played for: Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: Gilbert started just three games across two seasons before the Browns traded him to Pittsburgh for a sixth-round pick. The change of scenery didn’t do much. He was suspended for the entire 2017 season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and hasn’t played in the NFL since.

14. Jake Locker, QB

Jake Locker

School:  Washington

Selected: 1st round (8th overall), 2011 draft, Tennessee Titans

Played for: Tennessee Titans

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 1

One thing to know: Some originally projected Locker as the top pick in the 2010 draft before opting to return to Washington. A poor senior season didn’t hurt his stock too much as he was still taken eighth overall. He started 23 games in four seasons but was eventually replaced by a rookie, Zach Mettenberger. Locker retired after the 2014 season, citing a lack of desire to keep playing.

13. Derrick Harvey, DE

Derrick Harvey

School: Florida

Selected: 1st round (8th overall), 2008 draft, Jacksonville Jaguars

Played for: Jacksonville Jaguars, Denver Broncos

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 2

One thing to know: Harvey entered the 2008 draft as one of the most fearsome pass rushers available, but he never found his footing in the NFL. He was riding the pine by the end of his third season in Jacksonville, finishing his career with 8 sacks in 52 games.

12. Kevin White, WR

kevin white bears

School: West Virginia

Selected: First round (7th overall), 2015 draft, Chicago Bears 

Played for: Bears

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: In five seasons, White is yet to catch a TD in the NFL thanks to series of injuries that have limited him to 17 games and five starts. The Bears let White become a free agent after the 2018 season and he signed with the Arizona Cardinals. He spent the 2020 season with the 49ers.

11. Vernon Gholston, DE

Vernon Gholston

School: Ohio State

Selected: 1st round (6th overall), 2008 draft, New York Jets

Played for: New York Jets

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: As a prospect, Gholston looked like he had the right combination of size and speed to succeed in the NFL for years to come. He also earned the highest bench press score at the draft combine, teasing Jets fans who wanted an uncompromising defender to make life difficult for division foes like Tom Brady. Unfortunately, Gholston struggled throughout his tenure in New York, starting just five games and going without a sack in three years. He was cut by the Jets after three seasons and never played in another NFL game.

10. Mark Sanchez, QB

Mark Sanchez

School: USC

Selected: 1st round (5th overall), 2009 draft, New York Jets

Played for: New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 5

One thing to know: Sanchez went to back-to-back Conference Championship appearances in his first two seasons, but he never materialized into a franchise QB. The California native threw 69 interceptions in just four years in New York and was released following the 2012 season. He became a serviceable backup after that, seeing playing time with the Eagles, Cowboys, and Washington. He finished his career with 87 TDs and 89 interceptions in 79 career games. 

9. Justin Blackmon, WR

Justin Blackmon

School: Oklahoma State

Selected: 1st round (5th overall), 2012 draft, Jacksonville Jaguars

Played for: Jacksonville Jaguars

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 1

One thing to know: Blackmon is a stark example of how drug and alcohol use can derail a promising career. Things started out well enough, but after leading all rookies with 865 receiving yards in 2012, Blackmon was hit with two suspensions during the 2013 season and hasn’t played in the NFL since.

8. Dwayne Haskins, QB

GettyImages 1293493566

School: Ohio State

Selected: 1st round (15th overall), 2019 draft, Washington Football Team

Played for: Washington Football Team, Pittsburgh Steelers

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: Haskins was named the starting quarterback and offensive captain by Washington head coach Ron Rivera heading into the 2020 season, but by the end of the year he’d been demoted to fourth-string quarterback and stripped of his captain title. Rivera even said that benching Haskins ‘helped other players’ according to The Washington Post.

7. Josh Rosen, QB

GettyImages 951729978

School: UCLA

Selected: 1st round (10th overall), 2018 draft, Arizona Cardinals

Played for: Arizona Cardinals, Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, San Francisco 49ers

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 1

One thing to know: After the Cardinals traded up to select Rosen 10th overall in 2018, Rosen’s post-draft press conference didn’t ring of gratitude, but rather smelled of discontent. 

“I thought I should have been picked at 1, 2 or 3. I dropped, and I was pissed. I was really, really angry,” Rosen said. “There were nine mistakes made ahead of me. And I will make sure over the next decade or so that they will know they made a mistake.”

Rosen’s play (or lack thereof) over his first three seasons have only legitimized the decisions of every team who passed on him, and the Cardinals appeared to have made the biggest mistake by trading up to select him. 

6. Trent Richardson, RB

Trent Richardson

School: Alabama

Selected: 1st round (3rd overall), 2012 draft, Cleveland Browns

Played for: Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 3

One thing to know: Richardson was hyped as the game’s best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson. He had a solid first season for the Browns, but they gave up on him quickly, shipping him to Indianapolis for a first-round pick after just 17 games. From there, his career fell off a cliff. Richardson rushed for just 1,082 yards over his final two seasons, appearing in his final NFL game in 2014. He spent the 2017 season playing for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL and recently found some success in the AAF.

5. Dion Jordan, DE

Dion Jordan

School: Oregon

Selected: 1st round (3rd overall), 2013 draft, Miami Dolphins

Played for: Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 0

One thing to know: Jordan made one start for the Dolphins. That number would be higher, but the Arizona native just couldn’t stay out of his own way as a young player, racking up three drug suspensions before his third season. After failing a physical with the Dolphins after the 2016 season, he ultimately caught on with the Seahawks but started just three games in two seasons before bouncing around to Oakland and San Francisco.

4. Vince Young, QB

Vince Young,

School: Texas

Selected: 1st round (3rd overall), 2006 draft, Tennessee Titans

Played for: Tennessee Titans, Philadelphia Eagles

Pro Bowls: 2

Seasons as primary starter: 4

One thing to know: Despite throwing more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (12) his rookie season, Young’s career got off to a promising start thanks to several fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. He was rewarded with a trip to the Pro Bowl. But things regressed during his second season as he threw 17 interceptions and just 9 touchdowns. He appeared in one more Pro Bowl following the 2009 season when the Titans went 8-2 with him as a starter. But he played just two more seasons. In 2012, 2013, and 2014, he signed with different NFL teams but was cut before each season. He signed with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the CFL in 2017 but was cut before ever appearing in a game.

3. Robert Griffin III, QB

Robert Griffin III

School: Baylor

Selected: 1st round (2nd overall), 2012 draft, Washington Redskins

Played for: Washington Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens

Pro Bowls: 1

Seasons as primary starter: 2

One thing to know: Griffin was the toast of the league after his rookie season, which ended with a Pro Bowl appearance and the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. It was all downhill from there, as the dual-threat’s play suffered thanks to a series of frustrating knee injuries, as well as a growing rift with the coaching staff. He was released in 2016 and signed with the Browns, but played in just five games thanks to a shoulder injury. He has spent the last three seasons as a backup with the Ravens.

2. Jason Smith, T

Jason Smith

School: Baylor

Selected: 1st round (2nd overall), 2009 draft, St. Louis Rams

Played for: St. Louis Rams, New York Jets

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 1

One thing to know: Smith’s smaller size and inexperience with an NFL-style offense provided meaningful question marks in the months leading up to the 2009 draft. But the Rams, in need of a franchise left tackle to anchor their rebuilding project, still jumped at him early. They were quickly disappointed by his slow transition to the professional game and growing injury history, eventually trading him to the Jets in 2012. He never started another game, bouncing around the league for a couple of years before hanging up his cleats.

1. JaMarcus Russell, QB

JaMarcus Russell

School: LSU

Selected: 1st round (1st overall), 2007 draft, Oakland Raiders

Played for: Oakland Raiders

Pro Bowls: 0

Seasons as primary starter: 2

One thing to know: Russell was the definition of a can’t-miss prospect when he declared for the 2007 draft. With a 6-foot-6, 260-pound frame and an absolute cannon for an arm, many scouts envisioned him developing into a superstar with the ability to beat defenses with monster passes and surprisingly nimble footwork. It never happened. Russell completed 52.1% of his attempts and was released after the 2009 season. Russell attempted multiple comebacks to the NFL but was never signed by a team.

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