The University of Southern California possesses one of the most iconic football programs in the country. Only Notre Dame University has sent more players to the NFL than USC. The school formerly known as “Tailback U” has sent a number of quality running backs to the NFL, but while players like Marcus Allen and O.J. Simpson went on to have Hall of Fame careers, players like Anthony Davis, Ricky Bell and Justin Fargas were not as fortunate. However, though the school made its name with high-quality tailbacks, USC has sent a number of quarterbacks to the league as well.
A large number of USC quarterbacks have entered the NFL draft, with varying degrees of success. Some have gone on to have lengthy careers, while others have either had short and largely forgettable careers or have not gotten drafted at all. Of the over 500 players from USC who have gone on to play in the NFL, only 17 quarterbacks have ever actually played in an NFL game. This list ranks the quarterbacks in terms, not of their college years, but in terms of their impact in the National Football League, and as mentioned, some did well, while others were forgettable.
UPDATE: 2023/10/18 15:37 EST BY STEFANO MOCELLA
With Caleb Williams projected to be the 2024 NFL Draft’s first overall pick, that is assuming he declares for the draft, it seems as good a time as any to revisit how some USC alumni have fared in the NFL at the QB position. While USC has traditionally been a haven for future NFL talent, it hasn’t quite panned out so well when it comes to quarterbacks. Williams is touted as being one of the best quarterback prospects of this generation, but we truly won’t know how he’ll fare as a pro until we see him at that level. As we’ll see on this list, we’ve certainly seen a number of Trojan quarterbacks get some hype going into the draft, only to disappoint.
17 Todd Marinovich
Todd Marinovich was nicknamed “Robo QB”, because his rise to the NFL was carefully crafted by his father, former player and coach Marv Marinovich. Supposedly, Marv introduced sports training methods to Todd while Todd was still a baby. Todd was the second quarterback taken in the very weak 1991 draft, from which only two of the 334 players taken have reached the Hall of Fame. Marinovich was taken ahead of Brett Favre and behind Dan McGwire, a fellow NFL bust.
Marinovich was drafted by the Oakland Raiders, partially because his father Marv was a former strength and conditioning coach for the team. In his first start, Todd threw for 395 yards, but that would be the best game of his short career, as he never again approached that level of productivity. Marinovich’s poor play and repeated drug use forced his exit from the Raiders and out of the NFL. ESPN listed Todd Marinovich as one of the Top 5 biggest flops in all of sports.
16 John David Booty
John David Booty comes from an athletic family, but while the other members of his family attended Louisiana State University, John David attended USC and backed up Matt Leinart before becoming the starter in his junior year. One week before the NFL Draft, Booty declared that he wanted to play for the Minnesota Vikings, and the Vikings drafted him in the fifth round in 2008. Booty found himself playing behind Gus Frerotte and Tavaris Jackson during his rookie season, and then behind Brett Favre the next year.
Booty spent two seasons of sitting on the bench for the Vikings and then was released, signed by Tennessee to the practice squad, released again, and then he failed to make the final cuts with the Houston Texans. What places Booty ahead of Marinovich on the list is the fact that while John David Booty was just not good enough to be an NFL quarterback, Marinovich was a very good player who let his personal demons and his thirst for rebellion curtail what could have been a very good career.
15 Matt Barkley
Matt Barkley, a four-year starter at USC, graduated as the USC career leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, Barkley got into parts of two games during his rookie season, and appeared for only a couple of plays the following season. Following his two seasons with the Eagles, Barkley was traded to and released by the Cardinals, and was eventually signed by the Bears.
Due to injuries, Barkley became the Bears’ starter for the second half of the season. Barkley posted a record of 1-5 as a starter, losing his last four games, and sending the Bears to a record of 3-13. Barkley then signed a two-year contract with the San Francisco 49ers, only to be cut after training camp and he has officially earned ‘journeyman’ status. He’s had multiple stints in Arizona, as well as stops in Tennessee, Carolina and Atlanta. He’s also had multiple stints with the Buffalo Bills, having been released just prior to the start of the 2023 season.
14 Paul McDonald
As a starter at USC, Paul McDonald lost only one game out of his 24 starts, with one tie. He was drafted in the fourth round by a Cleveland Browns team that already featured Brian Sipe as the starting quarterback. Sipe had gained a reputation for fourth-quarter comebacks and winning thrilling close games. The Browns earned the nickname “The Kardiac Kids” because of this. McDonald sat behind Sipe for four years before getting a chance as the starter.
The Browns went 5-11 under McDonald, benching him after the season in favor of first round draft choice Bernie Kosar. McDonald was released, signed and released by Seattle, and then signed and released by the Dallas Cowboys. So after throwing for nearly 3,500 yards and 14 touchdowns with Cleveland, McDonald would end his career with two seasons where he did not enter a single game or throw a single pass.
13 Cody Kessler
Cody Kessler didn’t exactly walk into a good situation in the NFL, heading to the Cleveland Browns and what is different about his rookie season when compared to some of the others on this list is that Kessler actually got to play early on. Kessler started the 2016 season as the number three QB, but injuries to the other two allowed Kessler to gain the starting job. With Kessler at the helm, though his numbers were respectable, the Browns went 0-8, and when the starters returned, Kessler returned to the bench.
The Browns finished with the worst record in the league at 1-15 and wound up trading Kessler to the Jacksonville Jaguars prior to the 2017 season. The good news is, Kessler was able to avoid being a part of the 0-16 Browns squad in 2017. The bad news is, Kessler didn’t really get going in Jacksonville, or anywhere else for that matter. Kessler played in four games for Jacksonville before being released in 2018. He had brief stints with the Eagles and Patriots and hasn’t been signed by a team since 2020.
12 Pat Haden
Pat Haden began his NFL career with the Los Angeles Rams as the third-string QB behind James Harris and Ron Jaworski. Injuries to the two QBs pressed Haden into the starting job. When Harris returned from his injury and played badly, the Rams’ owner ordered Coach Chuck Knox to bench Harris in favor of Haden, even though Harris was the top-rated passer in the conference. Haden took the Rams to the playoffs, but the following year, the Rams signed Joe Namath, and Haden was back on the bench.
An injury to Namath put Haden back in the starting lineup, and Haden took the Rams to the playoffs the next two seasons. Haden lost his starting job due to injury to Vince Ferragamo, who was able to take the Rams to the Super Bowl, something that Haden was unable to do. When Ferragamo left the team, Haden regained the starting job, but suffered another injury and decided to leave football for a broadcasting job, never looking back. He wound up returning to his alma mater, taking over as Athletics Director of USC in 2010. He would serve in that role for six years before stepping down in 2016.
11 Matt Leinart
Matt Leinart left USC with the Heisman Trophy, a pair of National Championships, and he was taken in the first round by the Arizona Cardinals with the expectation that he would take the starting job from veteran Kurt Warner. Leinart’s poor play, and the resurgence of Kurt Warner, kept Leinart on the bench while Warner improved the Cardinals to the point of reaching the Super Bowl. Warner’s retirement should have given Leinart the starting job, but Leinart was outplayed by Derek Anderson and the Cardinals released Leinart after four seasons.
With the Texans, Leinart sat behind Matt Schaub and then received the starting job due to an injury to Schaub. Unfortunately, Leinart was injured in his first start and was ultimately released by Houston. He signed with Oakland and sat behind former USC teammate Carson Palmer before being released, signed in Buffalo, and released again. Once Leinart left Buffalo, he left football and began his broadcasting career. Sadly, Leinart is just one of the many Heisman-winning quarterbacks who floundered in the NFL.
10 Sam Darnold
Sam Darnold had loads of potential coming out of USC, but his career seemed snake-bitten from the moment he stepped on an NFL field. Darnold was drafted third overall by the New York Jets back in 2018, with the Jets opting to take Darnold over Josh Allen. His first NFL pass resulted in a pick-6, which proved to be a bad omen for his time in New York. In fairness, Darnold bounced back from the pick-6 and won his NFL debut on Monday Night Football, but his career with the Jets never really got going. He would play 13 games in his rookie season, which had some ups and downs. His sophomore year proved to essentially be a write-off, as Darnold was diagnosed with mononucleosis early in the season and never really bounced back.
After a disappointing 2020 campaign, the Jets gave up on Darnold and sent him to the Carolina Panthers, where he showed some flashes, but never quite proved to be a bonafide starting quarterback. The Panthers let him walk in free agency and Darnold signed with the 49ers this past season, beating out Trey Lance for the backup role, and earning a roster spot behind starter Brock Purdy.
9 Mark Sanchez
Mark Sanchez was taken in the first round by the New York Jets. He was named the starter in his rookie season, and he took the team to the AFC Championship Game. During his first four seasons in the league, Sanchez started every game in which he was eligible, and though his teams were not very good, and despite his low completion percentage, it looked as if Sanchez would have a long career in the league. However, one mistake changed his dramatically changed the trajectory of his career.
During the 2012 season, while trying to fend off the popular Tim Tebow and return the Jets to the playoffs, Sanchez took a snap and ran into the back of a lineman, a play which came to be known as the “butt fumble”. That play shook Sanchez’ confidence and he was benched the following week. Sanchez missed the entire next season and, with the arrival of rookie Geno Smith, was released and bounced around the league for the next few years. Ultimately, Sanchez never quite got going after the Jets cut him and he wound up transitioning to a broadcast role after his playeing career and he’s done quite well in that department.
8 Sean Salisbury
Sean Salisbury came to the NFL following an uneventful career at USC, as the school ran the ball more than it passed during Sean’s years as QB. Salisbury went undrafted in 1986, and signed with Seattle as a free agent. Salisbury failed to make the Seattle roster, and after being signed and released by the then Indianapolis Colts, Salisbury took his talents to Canada and the CFL. The former Trojan led the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to the Grey Cup Championship, and then returned to the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings.
Salisbury spent much of his time with the Vikings on the bench behind Rich Gannon and Jim McMahon before leaving Minnesota for the Chargers. Salisbury started three games in San Diego, and was then released from the Chargers and out of football. Salisbury began his broadcasting career, but has also been credited as a quarterback consultant for many football movies. Both Adam Sandler (The Longest Yard) and Jamie Foxx (Any Given Sunday) credited Salisbury for teaching them proper QB mechanics, so Salisbury’s post NFL career has been very fruitful.
7 Rob Johnson
Rob Johnson was the first QB selected by the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars in the team’s first NFL Draft. Johnson did not get many opportunities to play in Jacksonville, nor did he get many opportunities with the Buffalo Bills, partially due to injury, and partially due to how often he was sacked. With Buffalo, Johnson was benched in favor of Doug Flutie, but Coach Wade Phillips opted to start Johnson ahead of Flutie in the team’s playoff game, even though Flutie had led the team to an 11-5 record.
Johnson left Buffalo and signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Midway through the season, due to injury, Johnson was named the starter, and he led the Bucs into the playoffs and all the way to the Super Bowl. However, Rob Johnson was benched for the Super Bowl as Brad Johnson (no relation) led the team to a victory over the Oakland Raiders. Johnson spent one more year in the NFL, but Tommy John surgery and poor play ended his career.
6 Vince Evans
Vince Evans has the longest NFL tenure of all the quarterbacks on the list. His first season was 1977, and his last was 1995. Usually, with a career that long in the NFL, there are many teams on a résumé, but Evans only played for two NFL teams, with a couple of USFL teams thrown in. Evans began his career with the Chicago Bears, but several years passed and several starters came and went before Evans got his chance with the team. During his time in Chicago, Evans became the only Bear QB to achieve a perfect quarterback rating in a game.
Evans was let go by Chicago, and spent two years in the USFL, and two years out of football before becoming a replacement starter for the Raiders during the 1987 player’s strike. Evans’ performance in the replacement games convinced the Raiders to sign Evans. Though he spent his entire Raider career on the bench, Evans stayed with the team for seven additional seasons. Evans never got many chances to be a full-time starter, but he was one who teams felt should always be on the roster.
5 Bill Nelsen
Bill Nelsen played QB for USC from 1960-1962 before being drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Nelsen was selected in the tenth round of the draft, and spent two years on the Steeler bench before earning the starting job. Nelsen suffered a number of injury-plagued seasons, and was traded from Pittsburgh to Cleveland, though it was rare for teams to trade players to division rivals. Nelsen’s career was resurrected in Cleveland, and he led the Browns to several playoff appearances.
In Cleveland, Nelsen earned his one and only Pro Bowl berth, but soon after, he started to incur more injuries. However, Nelsen continued to lead the Browns to wins and playoff berths. Another injury forced Nelsen out of what would have been his tenth NFL season, and ended his career. Forty years after his retirement from professional football, Nelsen was named one of the Top 100 Cleveland Browns of all time.
4 Pete Beathard
Pete Beathard split time at quarterback with Bill Nelsen on USC’s 1962 National Championship team, a team with offensive guard Marv Marinovich as team captain, the father of Todd Marinovich. Beathard was the fifth overall pick in the 1964 NFL draft, and was the second overall pick in the 1964 AFL draft, so he had a decision to make, and he decided to sign with the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL. In 1966, while Beathard backed up Len Dawson, the Chiefs won the AFL Championship, the year before the first Super Bowl.
In 1967, Beathard was traded to the Houston Oilers. He led the Oilers to the AFL Title game, but his Oilers lost to the Oakland Raiders. When the AFL merged with the NFL in 1970, Beathard played for several teams before finishing his career with the Kansas City Chiefs, the team with which he started his career. Though his numbers were not Hall of Fame caliber, Beathard is the only quarterback on this list who has won a collegiate and a professional championship.
3 Rodney Peete
Rodney Peete chose football over baseball, though he was selected in the baseball draft during his senior year in high school, twice more while in college, and after his rookie year in the NFL. Peete finished second in Heisman Trophy voting to Barry Sanders and defeated UCLA QB Troy Aikman twice in head-to-head matchups. Peete was selected by the Detroiit Lions in the NFL Draft, and was named the opening day starter. Unfortunately for Peete, his Lions career was marred by injury, and after five seasons, he was cut by the Lions.
Peete ended up with the Eagles, and his presence forced starter Randall Cunningham to the bench, and then to retirement from football. However, over the next few seasons, Peete only saw spot duty while playing behind Ty Detmer. Peete would play a few more years in the league, and when he retired, he held the record for most passing yards for a quarterback out of USC, a record that has since been broken by Carson Palmer.
2 Matt Cassel
Matt Cassel spent his entire college career playing behind Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, and despite never starting a game in college, Leinart was selected in the seventh round by the New England Patriots. For three seasons, Cassel sat and watched Tom Brady take the Patriots to three playoff berths, two AFC Title games, an undefeated season, and one trip to the Super Bowl. However, following the Super Bowl season, Tom Brady suffered and injury and Matt Cassel not only became the starter for the Patriots, he became the first QB in NFL history to start a game without having ever started a game in college.
Cassel led the Patriots to an 11-5 record, but the Patriots became only the second team to ever win eleven games in the regular season but not qualify for the playoffs. Following the season, Cassel was traded to Kansas City and earned his first Pro Bowl selection with the Chiefs. A pair of injury-riddled seasons led to Cassel being released from KC and journeyman status as Cassel bounced around the league. He finished his career with some brief stints with the Tennessee Titans and Detroit Lions, never quite being able to replicate that breakout year in New England.
1 Carson Palmer
Carson Palmer was the first USC quarterback to win the Heisman trophy, and was the first overall selection in the 2003 NFL Draft, the fifth USC player and first USC QB to be selected first overall. Palmer spent his rookie season on the bench, but was given the starting job the following season. Palmer’s first season as the starter was average, but in his second season, he led the Bengals to their first playoff berth in 15 years, and earned for himself a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Palmer had several more up-and-down seasons in Cincinnati, and he requested to be traded because he was tired of losing. He was released by the Bengals, and signed by Oakland. Palmer led the Raiders to 8 wins and 15 losses as the starter, and was traded to Arizona. In Arizona, Palmer returned to a Pro Bowl level, and took the Cardinals to an NFC Championship game. His play fizzled out a little after Arizona’s playoff run. Still, when all was said and done, Palmer was able to put together a really solid career for himself and truth be told, no other USC Trojan alum has come close to Palmer’s level at playing quarterback in the NFL.