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NFL late bloomer QBs

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Jed Jacobsohn // Getty Images

NFL late-bloomer QBs

Today’s NFL is so complicated that it’s common for new quarterbacks to sit their first years out and watch from the sidelines to learn the pro game and hit the ground running in year two. Some quarterbacks, however, don’t break out in year two—or years three, four, or five.

With 32 teams in the league, the better half of the NFL is dominated by the top 15 quarterbacks. Many, of course, never make it into that class of signal-callers at all, and those who do tend to establish themselves fairly early on. Some quarterbacks, however, make it into the top 15, but not until they’re mature veterans well into their careers. This list tells their stories.

Stacker compiled a list of NFL late bloomers using 1932–2020 data from Pro Football Reference. The list includes players who did not rank in the top 15 in passing yards until after their first five seasons. The list is in reverse chronological order by year their careers ended, with current players first.

Some of the entries would likely be surprising to most—Hall of Fame players who are household names, at least among anyone remotely interested in football. Others are much more obscure—virtual unknowns who broke into the top 15 only once or twice in the middle or end of their careers. Others began their careers as backups and later went on to achieve significant success after starters retired or were injured. Others were journeymen who bounced around the league before finally settling in with teams that allowed them to thrive.

All, however, hold the distinction of spending at least one season listed among the 15 best quarterbacks. They also stand out for their persistence—five years is a long time to spend in a bruising league like the NFL without the recognition, notoriety, or salaries that come with success under center.

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Jamie Squire // Getty Images

Alex Smith

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 30.8
- First season in top 15: #8 in 12th season
- Best season rank: #8 in 12th season

Alex Smith had the only 4,000-yard season of his 14-year career when he threw for 4,042 in 2017, just one year before he retired. He played for Kansas City at that time but spent most of his career with the 49ers, who drafted him in 2005. It was actually his 13th season, but he sat out all of 2008 with an injury.

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Tom Pennington // Getty Images

Jimmy Garoppolo

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 48.6
- First season in top 15: #12 in 6th season
- Best season rank: #12 in 6th season

The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014, and he spent his first three seasons in New England, where a guy named Tom Brady had a fairly secure lock on the starting job. He was then traded to San Francisco, where he won all of his first five starts. He won his only two starts in New England, as well, bringing his total to 7-0 as a starter, a feat accomplished only by himself and Ben Roethlisberger. He then signed a big contract and finally started all 16 games in 2019.

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Bob Levey // Getty Images

Matt Schaub

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 39
- First season in top 15: #1 in 6th season
- Best season rank: #1 in 6th season

Matt Schaub originally played backup to Michael Vick in Atlanta before moving to Houston for his first starting gig. Injuries forced him to miss five games in each of his first two seasons, but then in 2009, he caught fire in a big way. Not only were his 4,770 yards #1 in the league, but so too were his 396 completions, 583 attempts, and 298.1 yards per game. His efforts earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl, where he was chosen as MVP.

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Doug Benc // Getty Images

David Garrard

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 46.4
- First season in top 15: #10 in 7th season
- Best season rank: #10 in 7th season

Drafted by Jacksonville in 2002, David Garrard spent nine years with the Jags but served as a backup through 2005. In 2006, he landed the starting gig but wouldn’t break the top 15 until 2008, when he threw for a career-high 3,620 yards. He threw for 3,597 the following year, the only other time he broke the 3,000 mark in his entire career.

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Michael J. Minardi // Getty Images

Kerry Collins

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 22.2
- First season in top 15: #9 in 6th season
- Best season rank: #4 in 8th season

Drafted by Carolina in 1995, Kerry Collins didn’t start a full 16 games until his second year with the Giants in 2000. That was the year he broke into not just the top half of the league but the top 10 with 3,610 yards. He went on to throw for 3,000-plus yards in five more seasons and broke the 4,000-yard mark once.

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Ezra Shaw // Getty Images

Tommy Maddox

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 59.2
- First season in top 15: #10 in 7th season
- Best season rank: #10 in 7th season

Tommy Maddox played in the NFL from 1992–2005, but there’s a gaping hole in his resume from 1996–2000. Maddox took a hiatus from football and worked for several years as an Allstate insurance agent and then came back to football, first in the Arena League, then the XFL, before finally joining the Steelers in 2001. He played mostly as a backup for his entire career and started in a full 16 games only once in 2003, which was naturally his most productive season.

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John G. Mabanglo/AFP // Getty Images

Rich Gannon

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 47.8
- First season in top 15: #7 in 11th season
- Best season rank: #5 in 12th season

Drafted by Minnesota in 1987, Rich Gannon didn’t start in a full 16 games for more than a decade until he joined the Raiders in 1999 after bouncing from the Vikings to Washington, Kansas, and finally Oakland. That’s where he hit his stride, throwing for 3,840 his first season with the Raiders. He passed the 3,000-yard mark four seasons straight, including one season with 4,689 yards, and went to four consecutive Pro Bowls.

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Elsa Hasch/Allsport // Getty Images

Elvis Grbac

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 36
- First season in top 15: #8 in 6th season
- Best season rank: #3 in 7th season

Drafted by San Francisco in 1994 and traded to Kansas City in 1997, Elvis Grbac started in six or fewer games every year—never starting in more than 10—until 1999. That year, he started all 16 games for the Chiefs and broke into the league’s top 10 with 3,389 yards. The next year, he broke the 4,000 mark—the best year of his career—despite starting in only 15 games.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Erik Kramer

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 37.2
- First season in top 15: #7 in 6th season
- Best season rank: #7 in 6th season

Erik Kramer was never drafted but entered the NFL in 1987 as a replacement for Atlanta during a players strike. When the first-stringers returned, Kramer moved to a Canadian league for a few years before returning to the NFL in 1991, this time with Detroit. He started in more than five games only once until 1995—by that time he was in Chicago. The only year of his career that he started an entire season, he went 9-7 on 16 games and threw for 3,838 yards, his best season by far.

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Kirby Lee // Getty Images

Steve Young

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 36.6
- First season in top 15: #14 in 8th season
- Best season rank: #2 in 11th season

The great Steve Young was drafted by Tampa Bay in 1985 and spent two years there, first as a backup. In his second year, he started in 14 games and threw for 2,282 yards. Then he was traded to San Francisco, where the starting job was held by Joe Montana, who was busy being the greatest quarterback of all pre-Brady time while Young mostly watched from the bench. In 1991, however, Montana was plagued with injuries, and the next year he missed the entire season, giving an opening to Young, who went on to Hall of Fame greatness.

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George Rose // Getty Images

Wade Wilson

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 48
- First season in top 15: #14 in 7th season
- Best season rank: #14 in 7th season

Wade Wilson, who died at the age of 60 in 2019, played in the NFL for 17 years from 1981–1998, mostly in Minnesota. He started in seven games or fewer for all of those years but three. The first year he broke double-digit games played was in 1988, his seventh season in the NFL, when he played in 14 games and started in 10. That year, he threw for a career-high 2,746 yards.

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Rich Pilling/Sporting News via Getty Images // Getty Images

Jeff Hostetler

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 39.2
- First season in top 15: #7 in 6th season
- Best season rank: #7 in 6th season

Drafted in 1985, Jeff Hostetler began his career as a third-string quarterback for the Giants during the Phil Simms era. He started in just four games combined during his first five seasons. In 1991, however, he leaped to the top of the pack, replacing an aging and injured Simms for the starting job and immediately breaking into the NFL’s top 10 in passing yards.

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Ronald C. Modra // Getty Images

Lynn Dickey

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 39.4
- First season in top 15: #6 in 8th season
- Best season rank: #1 in 11th season

Houston drafted Lynn Dickey in 1971, and he split time with another quarterback for his entire tenure with the Oilers. In 1976 he was traded to Green Bay, but he wouldn’t start a full season until 1980, his fourth year with the Packers. That year, he jumped into the top 10 with 3,529 passing yards. His career season, however, came in 1983, when he led the league with 4,458 passing yards and 32 touchdowns.

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George Gojkovich // Getty Images

Mike Livingston

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 39.2
- First season in top 15: #6 in 7th season
- Best season rank: #6 in 7th season

Drafted by the Chiefs in 1968, Mike Livingston remained in Kansas City for the entirety of his career before retiring in 1979. He started in single-digit games until 1975, breaking the 1,000-yard mark only twice. Then in 1976, he started in 14 games and threw for 2,682 yards, the only time he breached the 2,000-single-season yard mark.

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John Sunderland/The Denver Post via Getty Images // Getty Images

Steve Ramsey

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 43.8
- First season in top 15: #13 in 7th season
- Best season rank: #13 in 7th season

Steve Ramsey, who died in 1999, was drafted in 1970 and played most of his seven-year career in Denver. He started in just 19 combined games over the course of six of those years. During his last year in the league, however, he got the nod to start in 12 games, during which he threw for a career-high 1,931 yards.

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Diamond Images // Getty Images

Jack Concannon

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 23.6
- First season in top 15: #12 in 7th season
- Best season rank: #12 in 7th season

Philly drafted Jack Concannon in 1964, but he spent the bulk of his 10-year career in Chicago. It was there that he played his only two seasons in which he started in double-digit games. Playing mostly backup, he started in only 20 games combined for the other eight years of his career. In 1970 he started in a career-high 13 games and threw for a career-high 2,130 yards.

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Focus on Sport // Getty Images

Len Dawson

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 34
- First season in top 15: #14 in 6th season
- Best season rank: #4 in 7th season

Hall of Famer Len Dawson was drafted in 1957 but played rarely early on and put up only double-digit passing yards per year for his first five seasons. Then in 1962, he was traded to the team that was then called the Dallas Texans as a starter. In a league that was much more oriented to the running game, he broke the 2,000-yard passing mark for seven seasons straight.

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Diamond Images // Getty Images

Rudy Bukich

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 24.4
- First season in top 15: #14 in 6th season
- Best season rank: #2 in 10th season

The late Rudy Bukich was drafted all the way back in 1953. He didn’t start in a single game until 1960, and only three in that year. The next year, however, he started in eight of the 11 games he played and threw for 1,253 yards. Four years later, he threw for a career-high 2,641 yards.

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Marquette University // Wikimedia Commons

Gene Ronzani

- Average passing yards rank, first 5 seasons: 36
- First season in top 15: #11 in 6th season
- Best season rank: #11 in 6th season

Career Chicago Bear Gene Ronzani entered the league in 1933 and retired in 1945. The years 1939–43 are missing from his record, presumably because of World War II. He played back and right halfback for almost the entirety of his career, only moving to quarterback for one season in 1944, the year before he retired.

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