10 Heisman Trophy Winners Who Struggled in the NFL

The Heisman Trophy, an esteemed individual award in sports, elevates college athletes to the pinnacle of recognition and exposure before they embark on their NFL careers. Nevertheless, not every Heisman recipient manages to find success in the professional league. The transition to the NFL is often challenging, as players encounter opponents who are typically bigger, stronger, and faster than those they faced in college. Here, we delve into the top 10 Heisman Trophy winners who faced difficulties in the NFL. To maintain a recent perspective, we will focus on Heisman winners since 1985.

10. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma (2017)

NFL Stats: 72 games, 16,288 passing yards, 102 touchdowns, 64 interceptions

Baker Mayfield, the 2017 Heisman Trophy recipient, enjoyed a stellar college career at Oklahoma, amassing 12,292 passing yards, 119 touchdowns, and just 21 interceptions in three years as a starter. However, his professional journey has been less smooth. Mayfield, currently with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has a chance to revive his career, but his record of 31 wins and 38 losses, with only one playoff victory in five seasons, lands him on this list. Although he showed promise as a rookie with 27 passing touchdowns in just 14 games, he has struggled to replicate that success. It is always disheartening to see a top overall pick fail to secure a second contract with the team that drafted them.

9. Jameis Winston, Florida State (2013)

NFL Stats: 86 games, 21,840 passing yards, 139 touchdowns, 96 interceptions

Jameis Winston, who won the Heisman Trophy in 2013 as a redshirt freshman, led the Florida State Seminoles to a National Championship while producing 44 total touchdowns. Selected as the first overall pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2015 NFL Draft, Winston earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie with 28 total touchdowns but experienced a downward spiral from there. The nadir of his career was in 2019 when he threw 33 touchdowns but also a staggering 30 interceptions. Tampa Bay chose not to extend his contract, signed Tom Brady, and won the Super Bowl shortly after his departure. Winston remains in the NFL but seems destined to serve as a backup for the foreseeable future.

8. Sam Bradford, Oklahoma (2008)

NFL Stats: 83 games, 19,449 passing yards, 103 touchdowns, 61 interceptions

Sam Bradford’s remarkable 2008 Heisman Trophy-winning season, in which he amassed 50 passing touchdowns and just eight interceptions, solidified his status as the clear top overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Although he spent nine seasons in the NFL, Bradford exceeded 20 touchdowns only once and retired with a 34-48-1 record as a starter. While he occasionally displayed glimpses of being an average quarterback, he fell far short of the lofty expectations placed upon him when the Rams entrusted him with their franchise.

7. Ron Dayne, Wisconsin (1999)

NFL Stats: 96 games, 3,722 rushing yards, 28 rushing touchdowns, 3.8 yards per carry

Ron Dayne, the recipient of the 1999 Heisman Trophy, showcased his prowess by rushing for 2,034 yards and 20 touchdowns during his time with the Rose Bowl Champion Wisconsin Badgers. He was chosen as the 11th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, but his NFL career failed to live up to the high expectations. Dayne never surpassed 773 rushing yards in a season and recorded fewer than 500 rushing yards in four of his eight NFL seasons. Running backs selected this high in the draft are typically expected to excel immediately, but Dayne fell short of these expectations.

6. Robert Griffin III, Baylor (2011)

NFL Stats: 56 games, 9,271 passing yards, 43 touchdowns, 30 interceptions

Robert Griffin III, one of the most electrifying college quarterbacks in history, tallied nearly 5,000 total yards of offense and 47 touchdowns during his 2011 Heisman campaign. As a rookie with the Washington Redskins, Griffin III accumulated 4,000 yards of offense and 27 touchdowns, leading the team to an NFC East title. Unfortunately, a knee injury in that season’s playoffs derailed his career. Over the next seven years, he started in just 27 games, winning a mere seven of them. Griffin III’s NFL journey was marred by injuries, and without these setbacks, he might not have found a place on this list.

5. Rashaan Salaam, Colorado (1994)

NFL Stats: 33 games, 1,684 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns, 3.6 yards per carry

Rashaan Salaam’s remarkable 1994 Heisman Trophy-winning season saw him amass 2,349 yards and 24 touchdowns on 322 total touches. He was drafted 21st overall in the 1995 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears and enjoyed a strong start in his rookie season, rushing for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns. However, he also fumbled nine times. Following his promising debut season, he played in just 17 more games, accumulating 610 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Fumbles, injuries, and off-field issues eventually led to his departure from the NFL.

4. Tim Tebow, Florida (2007)

NFL Stats: 35 games, 2,442 passing yards, 17 touchdowns, nine interceptions

Tim Tebow, renowned as one of the greatest college quarterbacks ever, clinched the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and led the Florida Gators to their second BCS National Championship in three years. Despite being considered a risky prospect due to his unorthodox passing mechanics, Tebow was selected 25th overall by the Denver Broncos in the 2010 NFL Draft. He earned the starting role in 2011 after limited playing time as a rookie, amassing a 7-4 record with 18 total touchdowns and 12 turnovers. Although he guided the Broncos to an AFC Wild Card victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver subsequently signed free agent Peyton Manning, leading to Tebow’s trade to the New York Jets, where his NFL career quickly fizzled out.

3. Matt Leinart, USC (2004)

NFL Stats: 33 games, 4,065 passing yards, 15 touchdowns, 21 interceptions

Matt Leinart, the 2004 Heisman Trophy recipient and a BCS National Championship winner with 36 touchdowns and only six interceptions, surprisingly struggled throughout his seven-year NFL career. He started just 18 games and never exceeded 11 passing touchdowns in a single season. The Arizona Cardinals, who drafted him 10th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft, swiftly moved on from him as he failed to establish himself as even an average quarterback, making him one of the prominent Heisman busts in NFL history.

2. Andre Ware, Houston (1989)

NFL Stats: 14 games, 1,112 passing yards, five touchdowns, eight interceptions

Andre Ware, who threw for an astonishing 4,699 passing yards and 46 touchdowns during his 1989 Heisman-winning campaign, propelled the Houston Cougars into the national spotlight. Selected by the Detroit Lions with the 7th overall pick in the 1990 NFL Draft, Ware’s NFL career failed to materialize, culminating in just 14 games. He completed fewer than 85 passes in four seasons with the Lions and recorded only five total passing touchdowns. Whether it was due to a lack of opportunities or simply being unprepared for the NFL, Ware stands as one of the most notable NFL busts among Heisman winners.

1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M (2012)

NFL Stats: 14 games, 1,675 passing yards, seven touchdowns, seven interceptions

Johnny Manziel, widely known as Johnny Football, took the SEC by storm in Texas A&M’s inaugural year in the conference in 2012. Manziel secured the Heisman as a redshirt freshman, amassing 26 passing touchdowns and 21 rushing touchdowns. The Aggies achieved an 11-2 record, including a historic victory over number one-ranked Alabama on the road. Despite his exceptional college career, his character and style of play raised doubts about his NFL prospects. In a classic Cleveland Browns move, they selected him 22nd overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. Unfortunately, his NFL career was short-lived, lasting just two seasons with the Browns. He finished with a 2-6 record as a starter and never had a chance with another team before his career abruptly came to an end.

How hard is it to be in the NFL?

Playing in the NFL is extremely difficult, and the odds of making it to the league are very slim. The competition is fierce, the league is physical, and the demands are high. However, if you are serious about making it to the NFL, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances:
1. Start training at a young age and continue to work hard throughout high school and college.
2. Focus on developing your physical skills, as well as your technical skills and football fundamentals.
3. Be coachable, mentally tough, and able to handle pressure.
4. Be dedicated to your goal of making it to the NFL. Read More…