When all is said and done, Aaron Rodgers might go down as the best quarterback of all-time. He might not have as many rings as Tom Brady or the same intellectual command of the game as Peyton Manning, but if you judge with your eyes, he might be the best. The fact that he has the highest passer rating and the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of all-time would seem to back that up.
Yet, few saw the greatness in Rodgers. He attended junior college after not receiving any scholarship offers out of high school, and even after a standout career at Cal, 23 teams passed on him before the Green Bay Packers took him 24th overall in the 2005 NFL Draft. Those 23 teams could have had the greatest quarterback of all-time play for them but instead ended up with someone else.
Let’s take a look back at the 23 players teams so foolishly drafted ahead of Aaron Rodgers.
1. Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco 49ers
It’s hard to argue that Smith has lived up to the billing of the top overall pick, but he’s done okay for himself. Coming out of Utah, he was viewed as a smart quarterback who was also a winner. He was 21-1 as a starter in college, earned his degree in just two years and scored 40 out of 50 on the famous Wonderlic Test. Mike Nolan, who was the 49ers coach at the time, also liked that Smith had a laid back personality and believed he would butt heads with Aaron Rodgers if the team drafted him.
Smith had a few rough seasons in San Francisco but did guide the team to a 13-3 season in 2011. He had a little more success in Kansas City under Andy Reid, taking the Chiefs to the playoffs four times in five seasons. Of course, he was ultimately traded to Washington to clear the way for Patrick Mahomes. As we all know, Smith suffered that gruesome injury in 2018, putting his future in question after 13 NFL seasons.
2. Ronnie Brown, RB, Miami Dolphins
Brown had a standout career at Auburn despite often having to compete for carries in a crowded backfield alongside Cadillac Williams. He twice earned Second-Team All-SEC honors, although not in consecutive years. In 2004, he helped lead the Tigers to an undefeated season.
All of that was enough to convince the Dolphins to make him the second overall pick with the hope that he and Ricky Williams would form a dynamic backfield duo. Brown was good early in his career, rushing for over 1,000 yards in his second season and going to his only Pro Bowl in 2008, his fourth season in the league. His productivity tailed off after that, although Brown did end up staying in the NFL for 11 seasons.
3. Braylon Edwards, WR, Cleveland Browns
For those who don’t remember, Edwards was a big deal in college. He had three 1,000-yard seasons at Michigan, scoring 39 career touchdowns. He was also a unanimous All-American selection, the Biletnikoff Award winner, and Big Ten MVP in his senior season. He also ran track in college, and his speed helped make him an attractive option for teams drafting in the top-5.
In 2005, the Browns traded for Trent Dilfer and then drafted Charlie Frye in the 3rd Round, passing on Rodgers and choosing Edwards instead. The young receiver hit some bumps in the road during his first two seasons, but he had a breakout campaign in 2007, earning his only Pro Bowl invitation. That turned out to be his only 1,000-yard season in 10 years in the NFL and one of only four seasons in which he topped 800 yards receiving.
4. Cedric Benson, RB, Chicago Bears
Benson is one of the most prolific running backs in college football history. He had four 1,000-yard seasons at Texas and left school with over 5,500 rushing yards, putting him sixth all-time in Division 1. However, he was also arrested twice during his college career.
Despite the red flags, the Bears had no problem drafting him fourth overall. But he spent just three years in Chicago. His time there was plagued by injuries and reports that he didn’t get along with his teammates. Benson fared better after going to Cincinnati, putting together three straight 1,000-yard seasons between 2009 and 2011, although he never made the Pro Bowl in eight seasons. He also had multiple arrests during his NFL career and a couple more after his playing days. After a foot injury in 2012 effectively ended his career, Benson became a loan originator.
5. Cadillac Williams, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Despite sharing carries with Ronnie Brown during his college career, Williams racked up over 3,800 rushing yards. He left Auburn as the school’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns and carries, trailing only Bo Jackson in rushing yards. He also set an SEC record for being the league’s Player of the Week nine times.
With the Bucs, Williams hit the ground running, earning Rookie of the Year honors after rushing for close to 1,200 yards. But injuries started to slow him down in 2007. Williams had a nice 2009 season but had trouble being anything more than a backup during the latter part of his seven-year career. He has since become a coach, returning to Auburn in 2019 as the running backs coach for the Tigers.
6. Adam Jones, CB, Tennessee Titans
Jones was an electric athlete during his college career at West Virginia. He was actually a high school All-American in both track and basketball, so it’s not a surprise that he was both a standout cornerback and elite kick returner in college.
Of course, several off-field incidents made some teams think twice about him. Despite being on probation on draft day, the Titans had no problem drafting him sixth overall. Ultimately, Pacman’s rap sheet overshadowed anything he did on the field, including his only Pro Bowl selection in 2015. Despite all of the legal problems, Jones played parts of 14 seasons in the NFL before finally retiring after the 2018 season.
7. Troy Williamson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
It’s amazing how speed seduces NFL teams. After playing his college ball at South Carolina, Williamson ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, which made the Vikings think he could replace Randy Moss. In fact, they drafted him with the pick they got from the Raiders when they traded Moss.
But Williamson never caught on in the NFL (literally). He had trouble with dropped passes, claiming that it was due to his bad depth perception. After three seasons in Minnesota, the Vikings traded Williamson after he said he wanted to “duke it out” with head coach Brad Childress. Following two equally lackluster seasons with the Jaguars, Williamson was out of the NFL after five seasons and just four touchdowns.
8. Antrel Rolle, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Rolle was one of the few top-10 picks in 2005 that lived up to his billing. He was a three-year starter at Miami and was named First-Team All-Big East as a sophomore in 2002 and First-Team All-ACC in 2004 as a senior. He was also a unanimous All-American with the Hurricanes in 2004.
Rolle went on to spend 11 seasons in the NFL, earning three invitations to the Pro Bowl. In 2010, the Giants made him the highest-paid safety in NFL history, and the following season, Rolle helped the Giants win a Super Bowl. He signed a three-year deal with the Bears in 2015, which turned out to be his final season, as injuries limited him to seven games and ultimately led to the Bears releasing him the following year.
9. Carlos Rogers, CB, Washington Redskins
Rogers was the third Auburn player selected in the top-10 in 2005. He started 44 games in his four years playing for the Tigers and finished his career as the school’s leader in pass deflections. Rogers also took home the Jim Thorpe Award in his senior season, in addition to being First-Team All-SEC and an All-American.
He looked like a star in the making coming out of college but was hindered by injuries during his first few seasons. After five years in Washington, Rogers signed with the 49ers in 2011 and went to his first and only Pro Bowl that season. He had a couple of more good seasons in San Francisco and ultimately retired after a solid but unspectacular 10-year career in the NFL.
10. Mike Williams, WR, Detroit Lions
Things came easy for Williams at USC, earning Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors in 2002 and being a consensus All-American in 2003. In then declared for the NFL draft after just two years in college, only to have a ruling allowing players like him and Maurice Clarett to enter the draft less than three years out of high school reversed. As a result, Williams had to sit out the 2004 season after hiring an agent.
The year off didn’t stop the Lions from drafting Williams 10th overall, but it did hinder his NFL career. He struggled in four seasons, playing with three different teams, before spending two years out of football. Williams returned to the NFL in 2010 thanks to former USC coach Pete Carroll and had a couple of decent years with the Seahawks. In total, Williams caught 127 passes with five touchdowns over six NFL seasons. He is now a high school football coach.
11. DeMarcus Ware, LB, Dallas Cowboys
Ware played his college ball at Troy, dominating the Sun Belt and ultimately being named to that conference’s All-Decade Team. Despite playing in a smaller conference and being labeled as a “Tweener,” accumulating 27.5 sacks in his college career made Ware an obvious 1st-round selection.
The Cowboys are no doubt happy with their choice. After nine seasons in Dallas, Ware left as the franchise’s all-time leader in both sacks and forced fumbles. He then spent the final three years of his career in Denver, helping the Broncos win a Super Bowl. In 12 seasons, Ware went to the Pro Bowl nine times, led the NFL in sacks twice, and was named to the NFL’s All-Decade 2000’s Team. He signed a one-day contract with Dallas so he could retire as a Cowboy and was then hired by the Broncos as a pass-rush consultant. He’ll one day be in the Hall of Fame.
12. Shawne Merriman, LB, San Diego Chargers
Merriman earned his nickname “Lights Out” in high school after knocking four opposing players unconscious in one game. Of course, that’s not necessarily something that would be celebrated today. In any event, he passed on offers to play for bigger schools in favor of playing for his home state Maryland Terrapins, where he emerged as a star late in his college career.
The Chargers took him 12th overall with the extra pick they had from trading away Eli Manning the previous year. Merriman quickly became one of the best linebackers in the NFL, going to the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons. He was Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2005 and the NFL sacks leader in 2006. But injuries started to derail him in a big way starting in 2008. He was never the same player after that and also dealt with some legal problems. Merriman last played in the NFL in 2012 and has since stayed busy with other ventures, including pro wrestling and MMA.
13. Jammal Brown, OT, New Orleans Saints
After going to Oklahoma as a defensive lineman, Brown turned out to be a much better fit on the offensive side of the ball. As a senior, he won the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in the country and was a unanimous All-American while paving the way for Adrian Peterson.
The Saints made him the first lineman selected in the 2005 Draft and Brown excelled right away, making the Pro Bowl in two of his first four seasons. Alas, he was slowed by a torn ACL in 2009, keeping him from playing when the Saints won the Super Bowl that season. Brown was traded to Washington in 2010 and started 26 games the next two seasons before missing all of the 2012 campaign due to injury and never landing another NFL job after that.
14. Thomas Davis, LB, Carolina Panthers
After growing up in a small town, Georgia was the only school to offer Davis a scholarship. Of course, by the end of his time with the Bulldogs, he was an All-American who played both linebacker and free safety.
After the Panthers drafted him, Davis trained at both positions before eventually settling in at linebacker and ultimately becoming one of the finest defensive players in Carolina history. Of course, it took Davis a little while to settle in, but he had five straight seasons with 100 or more tackles from 2012 to 2016 and made the Pro Bowl three straight years from 2015 to 2017. The 2018 season was his last with the Panthers, but Davis soon signed a two-year deal with the Chargers, as he continues his career at age 36.
15. Derrick Johnson, LB, Kansas City Chiefs
Johnson could be the best linebacker in Texas history, which is saying something. As a senior, he was Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and won both the Dick Butkus Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy. Johnson was also a consensus All-American in both 2003 and 2004.
After getting drafted by the Chiefs, Johnson soon blossomed into a star in the NFL. He was a starter from Day 1 and eventually earned four Pro Bowl selections, although the first one didn’t come until his seventh season in the league. Johnson spent 13 seasons in Kansas City and one forgettable campaign with the Raiders in 2018 before signing a one-day contract with the Chiefs before retiring in May 2019.
16. Travis Johnson, DT, Houston Texans
Johnson was a three-sport star in high school, also playing basketball and running track. However, he focused on playing football at Florida State, earning First-Team All-ACC honors as a senior.
Unfortunately for Johnson, things never clicked for him in the NFL. He played regularly in four seasons with the Texans but never made much of an impact. It was more of the same in two seasons with the Chargers. When all was said and done, Johnson played six NFL seasons, amassing just 136 tackles and three sacks, a disappointing output for a 1st-round pick.
17. David Pollack, LB, Cincinnati Bengals
It’s hard to find a college player with a better resume than Pollack. He was SEC Player of the Year twice, First-Team All-SEC three times, and a First-Team All-American three times. On top of that, he won the Ted Hendricks Award for the best defensive end twice and also took home the Chuck Bednarik Award, Lott Trophy, and Lombardi Award his senior year. For what it’s worth, he also graduated with a degree in history.
Unfortunately, Pollack broke his sixth cervical vertebrae in a game early in his second season. He never recovered enough to return to the NFL. He has since become a broadcaster and serves as a college football analyst for ESPN during college football season.
18. Erasmus James, DE, Minnesota Vikings
Born in the Caribbean nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, James didn’t play football until he was a senior in high school. He ended up at Wisconsin and was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American during his senior season.
However, after accumulating four sacks and 28 tackles in a decent rookie season for the Vikings, James missed most of 2006 and 2007 due to injury. He was traded to Washington the following year but played only five games before being waived. James never played in the NFL again, although he played with the New Mexico Stars, an indoor football team, in 2011.
19. Alex Barron, OT, St. Louis Rams
At 6’8’’ and 315 lbs., Barron looked the part of a dominating offensive tackle. He was exactly that at Florida State, earning First-Team All-ACC and All-American honors in both 2003 and 2004, including unanimous All-American honors his senior season.
But the NFL game proved to be a little too quick for Barron to handle. During his five seasons with the Rams from 2005 to 2009, he led the NFL in penalties. After his time with the Rams, he was traded to the Cowboys. In his first game with Dallas, Barron committed a crucial holding penalty that negated a touchdown and ended the game. It turned out to be his last play in a regular-season game. Barron spent the next three years in an NFL training camp but never made the 53-man roster.
20. Marcus Spears, DE, Dallas Cowboys
Spears had an impressive career at LSU, earning First-Team All-SEC honors twice and being a consensus All-American his senior season. He also accumulated six sacks and 49 tackles when the Tigers won the national championship in 2003.
Of course, he was only the second defensive end the Cowboys drafted in 2005, as they picked up DeMarcus Ware earlier in the 1st Round. Dallas hoped that Ware and Spears would become an unstoppable pass-rushing tandem. But Spears was often hindered by injuries and never became a star. For much of his eight seasons with the Cowboys and one year with the Ravens, he was a complementary player. He now makes regular appearances as a commentator on the SEC Network.
21. Matt Jones, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Most people forget that Jones was a quarterback at Arkansas. He was the full-time starter for the Razorbacks for three seasons and oversaw a 9-game winning streak his junior season. In fact, Jones left Arkansas as the SEC’s all-time leader in rushing yards by a quarterback, only to be passed by both Tim Tebow and Nick Fitzgerald.
The Jaguars made the risky pick of selection Jones as a wide receiver, a position he hadn’t played in any meaningful way. Despite a lack of experience, the 6’6’’ Jones had a few decent seasons at wide receiver. However, his fourth NFL season ended with a suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Jacksonville released him the following spring when Jones was arrested on charges related to substance abuse. After a year out of football, he tried making a comeback in 2010 but was one of the last players the Bengals cut before the season.
22. Mark Clayton, WR, Baltimore Ravens
In retrospect, it’s a little surprising that Clayton dropped to the 22nd pick and was only the fifth wide receiver picked. He was a two-time All-Big 12 performer and a two-time First-Team All-American at Oklahoma. His lack of size at 5’10’’ likely caused his stock to drop, although Clayton was incredible at gaining yards after the catch in college.
Clayton would go on to spend six seasons in the NFL, never sniffing the Pro Bowl. His second season with the Ravens was the best of his career with 939 receiving yards and five touchdowns. But he never quite lived up to the hype of being a 1st-round pick.
23. Fabian Washington, CB, Oakland Raiders
Washington was both a football standout and a track star in high school, running a 4.29 40-yard dash his senior year. He went on to become a Freshman All-American and a regular All-Big 12 selection during his time at Nebraska.
However, his NFL career didn’t go as planned. After three years in Oakland, the Raiders traded for DeAngelo Hall and sent Washington to the Ravens. He played three more seasons in Baltimore but never made the impact expected of a 1st-round pick. Washington signed with the Saints in 2011 but never played following a hamstring injury, ending his NFL career after six seasons.
24. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers
In retrospect, it’s unconscionable that Rodgers fell all the way to the 24th overall pick, but even at the time it was puzzling. After growing up in Northern California, he hoped the 49ers would take him no. 1 overall. But they passed and opted for Alex Smith instead. His numbers in two seasons at Cal were impressive, and even after a bowl loss, he led the Bears to a 10-2 record and no. 9 ranking his final season. However, while scouts noted that he had the arm talent to make all of the throws, they believed he benefited from a quarterback-friendly system and would have a steep learning curve in the NFL.
Of course, we don’t know how steep that curve would have been. Rodgers spent three seasons serving as the backup to Brett Farve. Much like a lot of the teams that drafted before them, the Packers didn’t have a pressing need for a quarterback at the time. But Green Bay saw what other teams failed to see, which is that Rodgers was too good to pass up after he started to fall in the draft. As a result, the Packers won Super Bowl XLV and are now associated with arguably the best quarterback of all-time.