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The NFL’s 15 Most Successful Heisman Winners

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The NFL’s 15 Most Successful Heisman Winners

Certainly not a sure-fire indicator that a player will be a superstar – lest we forget 2012’s pick of ” Johnny Football”, Johnny Manziel – but since its inception in 1935 the winners of the Heisman Trophy have had various levels of success in the NFL.

As last season’s Heisman winner Louisville’s Lamar Jackson returns to the Cardinals for another season, we thought it would be an interesting to take a deeper look to see how many Heisman winners were able to make a solid impression at the next level.

While some Heisman winners’ success was more a product of a powerhouse college system, others have proven that they could still be as dominant in the pros as they were in college. For a select few, they were able to continue to dominate their position and furthermore be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

For discussion purposes here, we will focus on the Heisman Trophy winners from 1954 to the present. We have selected what we feel are the top 15 players who went on to have successful NFL careers – several have played in other leagues, but for our purposes we will focus on their NFL careers.

Statistics sighted are courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and the ProFootballHOF.com.

15. Vinny Testaverde

Winner of the 1986 Heisman Trophy, Vinny Testaverde was the quarterback for the University of Miami (Florida) and was chosen as the No. 1 overall draft pick the following year by the Tampa Bay.

Testaverde bounced around quite a bit while in the NFL, spending time with the Buccaneers (1987 to 1992), Cleveland Browns (1993 to 1995), Baltimore Ravens (1996 to 1997), New York Jets (1998 to 2003), Dallas Cowboys (2004), Jets (2005), New England Patriots (2006), and finally the Carolina Panthers (2007) before he retired.

During his career, Testaverde played on two Pro Bowl teams and during one of his best seasons was voted All-Pro in 1998.

Testaverde played in 233 NFL games, completing 3,787 passes out of 6,701 attempts for a completion percentage of 56.5 percent. He threw for 46,223 yards and passed for 275 touchdowns compared to 267 interceptions. His career QB Passing Ratio was 75.0. Testaverde also rushed 430 times for 1,661 yards and 15 touchdowns and had an average of 3.9 yards per rush.

14. Doug Flutie

During his career, Doug Flutie was behind center for a number of teams from the NFL, USFL, and CFL. Flutie played for the Chicago Bears in 1986; New England Patriots from 1987 to 1989; Buffalo Bills 1998 to 2000; San Diego Chargers 2001 to 2004; and then back to the Patriots in 2005.

Relatively small for an NFL QB at only 5-foot-10, Flutie played with courage and intelligence, and was a tough player having endured 107 sacks during his career – all prior to the NFL’s emphasis on protecting the quarterback.

As the quarterback for Boston College, he won the Heisman Trophy award in 1984. He is mostly known for his Hail Mary pass to defeat the University of Miami on the final play of the game that has been replayed repeatedly.

Flutie was drafted with the 285th overall pick by the Los Angeles Rams in the 11th round of the NFL draft in 1985 but never played for the Rams. His best season was 1998 when he was elected to the Pro Bowl and won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.

While playing in the NFL Flutie played in 92 games, completing 1,177 passes out of 2,151 attempts for a completion percentage of 54.7. Flutie threw for 14,715 yards and had 86 career touchdown passes to 68 interceptions. His QB Passer Rating was 76.3. Flutie was a threat to run as well and thanks to his mobility and quickness, he had 338 career rushes for 1,634 yards and 10 career rushing touchdowns.

13. Herschel Walker

Walker won the Heisman Trophy as a running back for the University of Georgia in 1982 and rather than choosing an NFL path, he decided to play for the newly formed USFL. He didn’t join the NFL until the 1986 season and entered the league as a running back for the Dallas Cowboys (1986 to 1989), followed by stints with the Minnesota Vikings (1989 to 1991), Philadelphia Eagles (1992 to 1994), New York Giants (1995) and Cowboys (1996 to 1997).

During his career, Walker was named to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams twice, in 1997 and 1998. His NFL career stats were strong playing in 187 NFL games, rushing for 1,954 times for 8,225 yards. He gained an average of 4.2 yards per rush and scored 61 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 512 passes for 4,859 yards, for 21 touchdown passes and an average of 9.5 yards per reception.

Walker had the longest touchdown of the year in the NFL in both 1986 (84 yards) and 1994 (91 yards) and led the league in yards from scrimmage in 1987 with 1,606 yards. In 1988, Walker topped 2,000 combined yards. While at the top of his game, the Cowboys made the move to trade Walker to the Minnesota Vikings for five players and six draft picks. It was a move that would revive the Cowboy franchise.

12. Eddie George

Eddie George was the 1995 Heisman Trophy winner while as a running back for Ohio State. The following season, the Houston Oilers selected George in the first round with the No. 14 overall pick.

George played for Houston from 1996 to 2003, seeing the franchise through its name changes from the Tennessee Oilers and the Tennessee Titans. He concluded his NFL career by playing for the Dallas Cowboys in 2004.

A four-time Pro Bowl pick George was voted First-Team All-Pro in 2000 and Second-Team All-Pro in 1999. He is also a member of the NFL 10,000 Rushing Yards Club and won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 1996.

Through his career, George played in 141 NFL games. He rushed the ball 2,865 times for 10,441 yards, an average of only 3.6 yards per rush. He scored 68 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 268 passes for 2,227 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns.

11. Jim Plunkett

Stanford University quarterback Jim Plunkett won the Heisman Trophy in 1970 and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1971 draft selected by the New England Patriots.  Plunkett played for New England (1971 to 1975) and went on to play for San Francisco (1976 to 1977), and the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders (1978 to 1986).

Plunkett has two Super Bowl victories on his resume (Super Bowl XV and XVIII) and was the MVP of Super Bowl XV. He won the UPI AFC Rookie of the Year award in 1971, and the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award in 1980.

Ironically, Plunkett was never voted on to Pro Bowl teams or All-Pro teams, but a trade-off was the fact that he won a pair of Super Bowl games.

For his career, Plunkett played in 157 NFL games, completed 1,943 passes out of 3,701 attempts for a completion percentage of 52.5 percent. Threw for 25,882 yards, 164 touchdowns, and 198 interceptions. His QB Passer Rating was 67.5. He ran the ball 323 times for 1,337 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns.

10. Charles Woodson

University of Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy award in 1997 and was the No. 4 overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft selected by the Oakland Raiders.

Woodson played for the Raiders from 1998 to 2005 and joined the Green Bay Packers in 2006 where he would play until 2012 when he returned to the Raiders for his final three seasons, retiring in 2015.

One of the few NFL players to have ever played in a Pro Bowl in three different decades (1990s, 2000s, 2010s). He is currently sixth on the all-time interceptions list with 65 and is tied with Rod Woodson and Darren Sharper for most career defensive touchdowns with 13. He also is second all-time in interceptions returned for touchdowns, with 11.

During Woodson’s career, he has won a number of awards and accolades. He was the AP NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and also won the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2009. That year he was tied for the lead in the NFL for interceptions with Jairus Byrd of the Buffalo Bills. He tied again for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2011, this time with Eric Weddle and Kyle Arrington.

Woodson has the distinction of being one of the cornerbacks on the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 2000s. Another feather in his cap is that he is a member of the NFL 50 Interceptions Club. In his career, Woodson has been credited with 1,105 tackles, 65 interceptions, 13 touchdowns, 33 forced fumbles, and 20 sacks.

9. Tim Brown

After his 1987 season at Notre Dame, wide receiver Tim Brown, wide receiver went on to play for the Oakland Raiders (and Los Angeles Raiders) from 1988 to 2003, and then played in 2004 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Brown was selected by the Raiders with the No. 6 overall draft pick in the 1988 draft. During his career, Brown was named to nine Pro Bowl teams and was a Second-Team All-Pro pick once. He was named to six AFC All-Conference Teams. Brown was voted on as a member of the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1990s.

During his NFL career, Brown played in 255 games, hauling down 1,094 receptions for 14,934 yards. He scored on 100 touchdown receptions and averaged 13.7 yards per catch.

Brown was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in the 2015 class after having been a finalist since 2010.

8. Billy Sims

Billy Sims won the Heisman Trophy in 1978 as a running back or the University of Oklahoma after dominating the nation from the Sooner backfield. The Detroit Lions made Sims the No. 1 overall pick in the 1980 draft, where he would play all four of his injury-shortened career.

During his career, Sims was elected to the Pro Bowl for each of the first three seasons of his career and was voted First-Team All-Pro in 1981, and was voted Second-Team All-Pro as a rookie. He was voted as the UPI NFL Rookie of the Year along with being named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

After just 60 NFL games Sims was forced to retire due to a knee injury in 1984.

Sims had an average rush of 4.5 yards for his career running for 5,106 yards, averaging over 1,000 yards per season. He scored 42 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 186 passes for 2,072 yards, averaging 11.1 yards per catch. He had five receiving touchdowns.

7. Tony Dorsett

The Dallas Cowboys selected University of Pittsburgh running back Tony Dorsett as the No. 2 overall pick in the 1977 NFL draft. Dorsett played for Dallas from 1977 to 1987, and for the Denver Broncos in 1988.

A four-time Pro Bowl Selection and First-Team All-Pro in 1981, Dorsett was on the Cowboys team that won Super Bowl XII. He was also named to two different Second-Team All-Pro teams.

Dorsett played in 173 NFL games during his career, rushing the ball 2,936 times for 12,739 yards and 77 rushing touchdowns. He averaged 4.3 yards per carry. In addition, Dorsett caught 398 passes for 3,554 yards and another 13 touchdowns. He averaged 8.9 yards per reception.

Dorsett was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the class of 1994.

6. Paul Hornung

After winning the Heisman Trophy in 1956 as a running back out of Notre Dame, the Green Bay Packers made Paul Hornung the No. 1 overall pick in the 1957 NFL draft. He went on to be primarily a running back for the Packers, along with the team’s kicker. Hornung played from 1957 to 1962, and then from 1964-1966, sitting out the 1963 season because of the suspension imposed on him and Alex Karros for betting on NFL games.

Hornung was named to two Pro Bowl teams during his NFL career and was also named to the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1960s. He was voted as the NFL MVP in 1961 and elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the class of 1986. In 1960, Hornung led the NFL with 13 rushing touchdowns. In 1964, Hornung led the NFL with 38 field goal attempts.

5. Marcus Allen

University of Southern California running back Marcus Allen was the No. 10 overall pick chosen by the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1982 draft after winning the Heisman Trophy in 1981. Allen played for the Raiders from 1982 to 1992, and then the Kansas City Chiefs from 1993 to 1997.

Named to six Pro Bowl teams during his career, Allen was also selected to two First-Team All-Pro teams and one Second-Team All-Pro team. He played on the Raiders Super Bowl XVIII championship team and was the Super Bowl MVP. Adding to his accolades, he was the NFL MVP award winner in 1985 and in 1993 he won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award. In 1985 he was the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award. In 1982, Allen was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award winner.

Statistically, Allen played in 222 NFL games and had 3,022 rushes for 12,243 yards. He averaged a gain of 4.1 yards per rush and scored 123 rushing touchdowns catching 587 passes for 5,411 yards, 21 touchdown receptions and an average of 9.2 yards per reception.

Allen was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003.

4. O. J. Simpson

The Buffalo Bills made O.J. Simpson the No. 1 pick in the 1969 NFL draft after Simpson won the 1968 Heisman Trophy. He played for the Bills from 1969-1977 and then played for the San Francisco 49ers from 1978-1979.

Simpson was elected to six Pro Bowl teams, was a five-time All-Pro selection, was the NFL rushing champion four different years (1972, 1973, 1975, and 1976). He was voted to the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and was a member of the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1970s. In 1973, Simpson was the NFL MVP, the NFL Offensive Player of the Year, and the Pro Bowl MVP. He won the AFL Player of the Year award three times (1972, 1973, and 1975).

As for Simpson’s career stats, O.J. played in 135 games in the NFL running the ball 2,404 times for 11,236 yards, 61 rushing touchdowns, and an average gain of 4.7 yards per rush. He caught 203 passes for 2,142 yards, which was an average of 10.6 yards per catch. Scored on 14 touchdown receptions.

Simpson was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.

3. Roger Staubach

Dallas Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach won the Heisman Trophy award in 1963 while he was playing quarterback for the Navy. Staubach was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1964 but didn’t start to play for them until 1969, after he completed a required stint in the Navy. He was with the Cowboys from 1969 to 1979 – his only team.

Staubach was elected to six Pro Bowl teams, was selected to five All-NFC teams and was the MVP of Super Bowl VI playing on two teams that won the Super Bowl (VI and XII). Staubach was voted as a member of the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1970s.

In his career, Staubach played in 131 NFL games completing 1,685 passes out of 2,958 attempts for a completion percentage of 57 percent. He threw for 22,700 yards, 153 touchdowns and 109 interceptions posting a QB Passer Rating was 83.4. He also rushed the ball 410 times for 2,264 yards and scored 20 times on the ground. He had an impressive average of 5.5 yards per rush.

Staubach was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985, along with O.J. Simpson.

2. Earl Campbell

The 1977 Heisman Trophy winner, University of Texas running back Earl Campbell went on to play for the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints. The Oilers selected Campbell as the No 1 overall pick in the 1978 NFL 

Campbell played for the Oilers from 1978 to 1984, and for the Saints from 1984 to 1985.

During his career, Campbell was named to five Pro Bowl teams and three All-Pro teams and was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1978 along with the AP NFL MVP in 1979. He also won the NFL rushing championship three consecutive years (1978, 1979, and 1980) and was voted as the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1978,1979, and 1980.

As for Campbell’s career stats, he played in 115 NFL games and ran the ball 2,187 times, gaining 9,407 yards, for an average gain of 4.3 yards per carry. He scored 74 rushing touchdowns and also caught 121 passes for 806 yards but never caught a touchdown pass in his career. He averaged 6.7 yards per catch.

Campbell was a 1991 inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

1. Barry Sanders

Detroit Lion running back Barry Sanders won the Heisman Trophy in 1988 while running the ball for Oklahoma State. The Lions chose Sanders with the No. 3 overall pick of the 1989 draft and Sanders played for the Lions from 1989-1998.

Sanders award and accolades were unmatched. During his career, he was selected to 10 Pro Bowl games, 10 times an All-Pro, the 1989 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he led the NFL in rushing four times (1990, 1994, 1996, and 1997). He was voted as the NFL MVP in 1997.

In 1997, the year prior to his retirement, Sanders rushed for more than 2,000 yards. He is also a member of the NFL 10,000 Rushing Yards Club and the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1990s. He is the third-leading rusher in NFL history behind Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton.

Sanders played in 153 NFL games, rushing the ball 3,062 times for 15,269 yards. He scored 99 rushing touchdowns and had an average of 5.0 yards per rush. Sanders caught 352 passes for 2,921 yards and 10 touchdowns. He gained 8.3 yards on average per reception.

Sanders was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.

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