Top 10 Thursdays: Top 10 NFL Players Who Were Heisman Trophy Winners
The college football season will soon be upon us, so naturally, we got to thinking about the Heisman Trophy. But for this exercise, we’re not giving consideration to who might win it this year. Instead, we’re taking a look at past Heisman Trophy winners and ranking them based on how successful they were in their pro football careers.
It turned out that this was not an easy category to rank. The Heisman Trophy has been awarded every year since 1935. Of course, many of the early winners never went on to a pro football career or if they did, they had relatively short careers. A lot of them actually found that they could earn more money in other lines of work. Pretty unlikely that we would see that sort of thing happen today!
Now there were some Heisman winners from back in the 1940s, 50s and 60s who had some pretty distinguished pro careers. But it needs to be recognized that, for the most part, they played in a different era. The NFL was still pretty much a run-oriented league and in truth, both the run game and the passing game back then lacked the creativity and explosiveness that we see today. So to a large extent, comparing guys from that era with the more recent Heisman winners is kind of like comparing apples to oranges.
So, in order to do this fairly, we had to consider and compare more than just statistics. We took into consideration when the guy played and looked at his numbers in the context of how the game was generally being played at that time. Additionally, we gave some weight to the accolades that a player received throughout his career, since that is an indicator of the success he had in comparison to others during the particular time frame in which they played.
Now, I do have a final qualifier. The nice thing about being the author of a list such as this, is that I have some flexibility in making up the rules. As a result, I am taking the position that to the extent that there are any candidates for this list who happen to be a narcissistic, murderous, thug with a felony record, then they are automatically excluded from this list, no matter how outstanding their pro career was. Such a player can be on your list. But he’s not going to be on mine!
There, now that I feel better, let’s get going.
Walker played college ball at SMU, and won the Heisman in 1948, his junior year. Walker only played in the NFL for six years, all of them with the Detroit Lions. But, he was a 5-time Pro Bowler and he was voted to the All-Pro team four times.
Walker is one of those guys who does not have the gaudy numbers. He only rushed for a little over 1,500 yards in his career, but he did have some relatively impressive receiving numbers, catching 152 balls for over 2,500 yards. He also was a very accomplished place kicker for the Lions.
During his time in Detroit, Walker helped lead the Lions to two NFL championships and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1986.
#9 – Billy Sims – RB
Sims, out of the University of Oklahoma, won the Heisman Trophy in 1978. Like our #10 selection, he also went on to have a very short but extremely productive career with the Detroit Lions. His career actually ended prematurely and abruptly when he suffered a very severe knee injury midway through the 1984 season, his fifth season with the Lions.
In his first two seasons with the Lions, Sims rushed for over 1,300 yards and over 1,400 yards respectively. In 1983, he also rushed for a little over 1,000 yards. In the nine-game, strike-shortened, 1982 season, Sims rushed for 639 yards. Likewise, in the eight games before his knee injury in 1984, Sims rushed for 687 yards. Clearly, in both of those abbreviated seasons, Sims was on pace for 1000+ yard seasons. Additionally, Sims had some very solid numbers catching the ball out of the backfield.
Sims was a 3-time Pro Bowler and he helped lead the Lions to the playoffs in 1982 and 1983. Some may question the selection of Sims, given his relatively short time in the NFL. But we think his numbers compare favorably to most of the potential candidates for this list and therefore he is deserving of this #9 ranking.
#8 – Paul Hornung – RB
Known as the “Golden Boy”, Hornung had a stellar nine-year career in the NFL, all with the Green Bay Packers. As a halfback/quarterback at Notre Dame, Hornung won the Heisman Trophy in 1956.
Hornung was a 2-time Pro Bowler and he was voted to the All-Pro team twice. While Hornung’s numbers are far from eye-popping, it must be remembered that for the bulk of his career he shared the rushing duties with fellow Hall of Famer, Jim Taylor, in that Packers power running game of the 60’s. During Hornung’s time with Green Bay, the Packers won four League Championships.
Although Hornung had a very respectable 4.2 yards per carry average for his career, he was known as one of the best short yardage backs in the game. In 1960 he led the league in touchdowns scored with 15. For much of his career he was also the Packers placekicker. His placekicking success combined with his touchdown-making ability, resulted in him leading the league in scoring three times.
#7 – Charles Woodson – CB
Woodson, the cornerback/punt returner out of Michigan, won the Heisman in 1997. He is the only predominantly defensive player to win the award.
Woodson, the only active NFL player to make this list, is about to enter his 16th season in the league. The first eight years were spent in Oakland and for the past seven years he has played for Green Bay. He recently signed a one-year contract to return to the Raiders this year.
Long known as one of the toughest cornerbacks in the league, Woodson has 55 interceptions for his career, and led the league in that category twice. Amazingly, he has returned 11 of those picks for touchdowns and he is currently the active leader in that category.
Throughout his career, Woodson his had a knack for being a game changer by getting that turnover at just the right time. But he is also very solid in the run support game as well. In his rookie year in 1998, Woodson won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and in 2009 he won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Woodson is an 8-time Pro Bowler and he was voted to the All-Pro Team three times.
#6 – Tim Brown – WR
Brown, the 1987 Heisman Trophy winner out of Notre Dame, had an illustrious 17 year career in the NFL. The first 16 years were spent with the Raiders and then he wrapped up his career with a one year stint in Tampa Bay.
Brown, a 9-time Pro-Bowler, lead the league in receptions in 1997 with 104. For his career, Brown has 1,094 receptions and nearly 15,000 receiving yards. His career receptions and receiving yards totals each are good enough for 5th place on the all-time list. In addition, his 100 career touchdown receptions puts him in 7th place on the all-time list in that category.
For a number of years, Brown was the Raiders punt returner and in 1994, he led the league with 487 punt return yards. His 3,320 career punt return yards places him 5th all-time in that category.
Brown only served as the Raiders primary kick returner in his rookie year (1988), but he led the league that year in the number of returns (41), return yards (1,048), touchdowns (1), and yards per return (26.8). That same year, Brown also led the league in all-purpose yards (2,317). Brown’s 19,679 career all-purpose yards put him in 5th place all-time in that category.
#5 – Roger Staubach – QB
The 1963 Heisman Trophy winner, Staubach had to delay his entry into professional football due to his military commitment after graduation from the Naval Academy. As a result, he came to the NFL in 1969 as a 27-year-old rookie.
Staubach had an 11 year NFL career, all with the Dallas Cowboys. His overall career numbers were solid but not spectacular. He threw for a total of 22,700 yards and 153 touchdown passes in his career. He did lead the league in 1973 in touchdown passes thrown with 23.
Staubach is one of those guys where you have to look beyond the numbers in order to understand his true value. Known as “Roger the Dodger” because of his exceptional scrambling ability, Staubach had a knack for being able to extend plays and extend drives. Staubach was also known as “Captain Comeback” because of his uncanny ability to lead his team back late in ballgames to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
In eight of his 11 seasons, Staubach led the Cowboys into the playoffs. And on four of those occasions, he led Dallas to a Super Bowl, where they beat the Dolphins once and the Broncos once and lost twice to the Steelers. Overall he had an outstanding 11-6 record as a starting quarterback in playoff games.
Staubach also had a remarkable 85 – 29 regular-season record as a starting quarterback and he was a 6-time Pro Bowler. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1985.
#4 – Earl Campbell – RB
Campbell, the bruising running back out of the University of Texas, won the Heisman Trophy in 1977. He went on to have an eight-year, Hall of Fame NFL career, most notably with the Houston Oilers.
Campbell vaulted onto the scene in the NFL by leading the league in rushing in each of his first three seasons, totaling just over 5,000 yards in those three years. In addition, in his second and third seasons in the NFL he led the league in rushing touchdown scored with 19 and 13 respectively.
For his career, Campbell rushed for just over 9,400 yards and he scored 74 rushing touchdowns. In five of his eight seasons, Campbell rushed for at least 1,300 yards and in the strike-shortened 1982 season, he was on pace to have another 1,000 yard year.
Campbell was a 5-time Pro Bowler and he helped lead the Oilers into the playoffs three times. He was voted to the All-Pro team three times and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991.
#3 – Tony Dorsett – RB
Dorsett, out of the University of Pittsburgh, was the 1976 Heisman Trophy winner. He played 12 years in the NFL, the first 11 of which were spent with Dallas. He finished his career after his 1988 season with the Broncos.
While Dorsett never led the league in rushing, throughout his career, he was the model of durability and consistency. In eight of his first nine years, Dorsett ran for over 1,000 yards with a high water mark of 1,646 yards in 1981. The one year in that span that he didn’t top 1,000 yards was the 1982 strike-shortened season when he would have been on pace to rush for over 1,300 yards that year.
For his career, Dorsett rushed for a total of 12,739 yards which places him 8th on the all-time career list in that category. Dorsett was also highly productive catching the ball out of the backfield, accumulating 3,554 receiving yards in his career. Dorsett’s 16,293 yards from scrimmage for his career places him 10th on the all-time list in that category.
Dorsett helped lead the Cowboys to eight playoff appearances, two of which culminated in a Super Bowl berth. He was a 4-time Pro Bowler and was voted to the All-Pro team once. Dorsett was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994.
#2 – Marcus Allen – RB
Allen, the USC running back, won the Heisman Trophy in 1981. He had a 16-year, Hall of Fame career in the NFL. His first 11 years were spent with the Raiders and the last five years he spent playing for the Kansas City Chiefs.
In his rookie year in 1982, Allen won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. He ran for 697 yards in that nine-game, strike-shortened, 1982 season and he led the league that year with 11 rushing touchdowns. Allen rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the next three seasons, leading the league in 1985 with 1,759 rushing yards.
Over the course of his career, Allen rushed for a total of 12,243 yards, a figure that places him 12th on the all-time list in that category. Allen also scored a total of 145 touchdowns in his career putting him 6th on the all-time list in that category. With his total of 5,411 receiving yards, Alan amassed a total of 17,654 yards from scrimmage in his career, good enough for 7th on the all-time list.
Allen helped lead his Raiders to six playoff appearances and he helped to do the same for the Chiefs four times. His performance in the 1983 playoffs for the Raiders was quite memorable. In the Divisional Playoff game against the Steelers, he ran for 121 yards on 13 carries. He followed that up the next week in the AFC Championship Game against the Seahawks by rushing for 154 yards on 25 carries. And then two weeks later, he helped deliver a Super Bowl title to the Raiders by rushing for 191 yards on 20 carries against the Redskins.
Allen was a 6-time Pro Bowler and he was voted to the All-Pro team twice. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003.
And now, the number one NFL player who was a Heisman Trophy winner …
#1 – Barry Sanders – RB
Oklahoma State’s running back, Barry Sanders, won the Heisman Trophy in 1988. While ranking some of the other players on this list got to be a bit difficult, putting Sanders in the number one spot was an easy choice.
Sanders played his entire 10 year NFL career with the Detroit Lions. In each of those 10 years, Sanders rushed for at least 1,100 yards and he led the league in rushing four times. Indeed, in five of his seasons, Sanders rushed for over 1,500 yards, four of those coming in consecutive seasons.
Sanders won the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award in 1989, the Offensive Player of the Year Award in 1994 and he was the NFL’s Co-MVP in 1997 with Brett Favre. In that 1997 season, Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards and scored 11 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 33 passes for 305 yards and 3 touchdowns.
For his career, Sanders averaged over 1,500 rushing yards per season, gaining a total of 15,269 yards. He also gained nearly 3,000 yards receiving in his career. His career rushing yards total puts Sanders 3rd on the all-time list in that category. Additionally, his 99.8 career rushing yards per game average has him 2nd on that all-time list. He is 6th on the all-time list for total yards from scrimmage in a career with his 18,190 yards. Sanders has 99 career rushing touchdowns which places him 9th on the all-time list in that category.
Sanders was a 10-time Pro Bowler and he was voted to the All-Pro team six times. During his time in Detroit, Sanders helped lead the Lions to the playoffs five times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004.
Although Sanders’ career ended rather abruptly with his retirement after the completion of the 1998 season, the body of work he compiled in his 10 years in the league is clearly remarkable. And while there have been a number of great NFL players who were Heisman Trophy winners, none of them put together the kind of career that Sanders did. We believe that what Sanders accomplished in his 10 year career is most deserving of the #1 ranking on this list.