It has often been said that the NFL is a quarterback league, and that’s especially true these days when just about every signal-caller is capable of reeling off 4000-yard, 35-touchdown seasons. Even so, NFL history is full of legendary QBs, and vintage quarterback rookie cards stand at the top of many collectors’ want lists and drive set values year after year.
What follows is a list of the top quarterback rookie cards in the hobby, ordered by their date of issue. For our purposes, “vintage” is anything issued before 1985, which pulls in the ballyhooed quarterback class of 1983 but leaves Brett Favre and Peyton Manning firmly in the “modern” camp.
Some of these cards sell at bargain prices, and some are nearly impossible to find in great condition, but all of them are hobby staples.
1948 Leaf Sammy Baugh
With his eye on a coaching career and the baseball diamond, Sammy Baugh came out of Texas Christian University in 1937 unsure about whether he wanted to play pro football. Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall finally convinced him, and Baugh eventually became one of the first “franchise” quarterbacks in NFL history.
His 1948 Leaf rookie card is not easy to find in nice condition, and a PSA 7 sold for more than $3500 in April of 2015.
1948 Leaf Bobby Layne
It took Bobby Layne a couple of years to get his feet under him in the NFL, but his career made a Hall of Fame turn when he landed with the Detroit Lions in 1950. From 1952-56, The Blonde Bomber led the Lions into four NFL championship games, and they came away with three victories.
When he hung up his cleats in 1962 after a stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Layne held league records for attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns.
His 1948 Leaf rookie card is a tough find in nice condition and brings several hundred dollars even in middling grades.
1948 Leaf Johnny Lujack
You don’t necessarily have to be a standout in the NFL to cement your status as a legendary quarterback, especially if you made your mark with the right college. Such was the case for Johnny Lujack, who lasted only four years with the Chicago Bears but won the 1947 Heisman Trophy and led Notre Dame to three national championships.
In 1950, he did rush for 11 touchdowns, the NFL record at the time, but his college exploits are what continue to make his 1948 Leaf rookie card popular with collectors. hat issue brings less than $100 for mid-grade copies but is rarely offered in grades higher than 7. There is also a more scarce error version of the card, with Lujack’s first name spelled “Jonny” on the front.
1950 Bowman Otto Graham
Otto Graham was to Cleveland sports in the 1940s and 1950s what Cavs fans hope LeBron James can be over the next several seasons. From 1946-55, Graham led the Browns to the championship game every season, and they won seven titles during that span.
He got a late start to his NFL career due to military duty, and he retired at the relatively young age of 34, but Graham still managed 174 touchdowns and 57 victories in 10 years with the Browns.
He remains a legend in Cleveland, and his 1950 Bowman rookie card is a popular issue that brings around $100 in solid unslabbed condition and upwards of $2000 in an 8 or better.
Before Joe Montana was even born, Y.A. Tittle was the first star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, but most fans remember him for his late-career exploits with the New York Giants. He could never get the G-Men over the hump, though, and is the only Hall of Famer to have started but never won a playoff game.
Today, his 1950 Bowman rookie card is fairly scarce on the auction scene and can bring close to $500 in near mint condition or better.
Believe it or not, only twice in pro football history has the NFL championship landed with a team from Los Angeles. The first time came thanks to the heroics of Norm Van Brocklin, who tossed the game-winning touchdown to Tom Fears in the 1951 league championship game. That performance helped elevate Van Brocklin from a fourth-rounder sharing quarterback duties to a gridiron legend who made it to the Hall of Fame in 1971.
His 1951 Bowman rookie card is not that easy to come by, but you can occasionally find ungraded copies in VG (or so) condition for under $50. A PSA 8 sold for nearly $800 in May of 2014.
1957 Topps Bart Starr
It took just the right quarterback to guide Vince Lombardi’s powerhouse Green Bay Packers teams of the 1950s and 1960s, and Bart Starr was that man. Not too hung up on posting huge individual numbers, Starr passed for under 25,000 yards in his career and connected for only 152 touchdowns, but he and the Pack won the first two Super Bowls and three NFL championships before that.
His rookie card can be found in the 1957 Topps set and sells for a few hundred dollars in ungraded or low-grade slabbed condition. Copies in graded, NM-MT form can bring several thousand dollars.
1957 Topps Johnny Unitas
If you’re seeking the genesis of the modern NFL quarterback, look no further than Johnny Unitas, who led the Baltimore Colts to two NFL championships and a Super Bowl victory, along with one other Super Bowl appearance. In the process, Unitas used his big arm to toss for more than 40,000 yards and 290 touchdowns, winning three MVP awards during his career. He was one of the first gridiron heroes to help turn a city into a football town, and he is still beloved today.
Unitas’ 1957 Topps rookie card is considered one of the top 10 Topps football cards ever made. It’s regularly available on the auction circuit, but graded 8 copies sell for $3000 or more. An SGC 96 sold for nearly $22,000 in December of 2014.
1962 Topps Fran Tarkenton
Before he became a television personality and software guru, Fran Tarkenton was the field general who led the Minnesota Vikings to three Super Bowl appearances during the 1970s. Even though all were losses, Tarkenton made it to the Hall of Fame in 1986, and continues to be a popular NFL figure.
His 1962 Topps rookie card sells for $100 or less in decent raw condition, but high-grade slabbed copies can bring thousands.
1963 Fleer Len Dawson
Despite being a first-round draft pick, Len Dawson found the NFL to be a tough assignment, at least until he landed with the Houston Texans at age 27. The next year, in 1963, the Texans became the Kansas City Chiefs, and Dawson began building his legend. By 1967, the Chiefs were squaring off against the mighty Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I and, in 1970, Dawson led KC to their only Super Bowl victory.
Dawson’s rookie card is part of the 1963 Fleer set and is somewhat difficult to find in the usual places, such as eBay. When it does come to market, expect to pay around $100 for lower grade copies, and up to $500 for graded 8 specimens.
1965 Topps Joe Namath
Sure, Joe Namath brought flash to the quarterback position and helped to establish the AFL as a legitimate league by leading the New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, but he was also an excellent passer. Before “Broadway” got the better of him and balky knees cut into his scrambling ability, Namath became the first QB in pro football history to pass for 4000 yards when he eclipsed that mark in 1967.
Today, his oversized 1965 Topps rookie card is a hobby classic that can bring more than $500 even in low grades. Plagued by centering issues and a size that invites wear, it’s tough to find at the highest grades. A PSA 9 copy sold in 2014 for $60,000 but you can pick up a fairly solid example for $1,000-$1,500.
1968 Topps Bob Griese
Even though he missed most of the storied 1972 season with a leg injury, Bob Griese made it back in time for the Super Bowl and helped the Miami Dolphins’ cap a perfect season that has never been duplicated. It was the second of three consecutive Super Bowl appearances that would help cement Griese’s place in the Hall of Fame despite somewhat mediocre passing stats.
His 1968 Topps rookie card is still popular and can bring in the high three figures for graded, mint copies.
1971 Topps Terry Bradshaw
Terry Bradshaw may not have had the prettiest stats on this list, but as the quarterback for four Super Bowl champions with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s, he more than holds his own when it comes to overall impact. Add in his 1978 MVP trophy and two Super Bowl MVP awards, as well as his continued standing as an NFL analyst, and it’s easy to see why Bradshaw is still popular after all these years.
His rookie card in the 1971 Topps set is the most valuable vintage rookie card of any former number one draft pick. It can bring close to $1000 in top grades but a near mint, graded example can still be had for around $2oo-250.
1972 Topps Roger Staubach
Because of his commitments to the U.S. Navy, Roger Staubach didn’t get started in the NFL until age 27, but that could not stop him from putting together a Hall of Fame career. Quarterbacking the “America’s Team” Dallas Cowboys of the 1970s, Staubach ended his career in 1979 with five Super Bowl appearances and two rings.
1975 Topps Dan Fouts
The pilot of the San Diego Chargers’ famous “Air Coryell” offense in the 1970s and 1980s, Dan Fouts was just the second quarterback to put up 4000 yards in a season. His monster stats year after year changed the expectations for pro QBs and helped set the stage for the fireworks we see now on a weekly basis.
Fouts’ 1975 Topps rookie card sells for less than $200 in a 9 and for well under $50 in most other conditions, which makes it a bona fide bargain.
1981 Topps Joe Montana
For many fans, Joe Montana is still the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and his big-game heroics are the standard by which all other QBs are judged. The same can be said for his 1981 Topps rookie card, which can be had for under $100 raw and even in PSA 7 or 8 but breaks $500 for a 9. Recent sales of PSA 10s put that card around $15,000.
1984 Topps John Elway
John Elway is one of the more romantic figures in the NFL, from his jilting of the Baltimore Colts to his two-sport excellence that included a stint in the New York Yankees’ minor league system to the two Super Bowl victories that capped a legendary career with the Denver Broncos.
His rookie card is part of the loaded 1984 Topps set and sells for close to $150 in a graded, mint holder…but a decent one can be yours for much less.
Before the current generation of gunslingers, Dan Marino held just about every gaudy passing record in NFL history, including 420 touchdowns and more than 60,000 yards passing.
Before Elway’s late-career heroics, Marino’s rookie card was the undisputed king of the 1984 Topps set and today and considered one of the best NFL rookie cards of the 80s. A mint, graded example will run about $150. The occasional 10 that comes to market can bring upwards of $1000. A near mint-mint example, though, can easily be picked up for around $50-60.
While you could make a case for guys like Ken Stabler, Phil Simms, and Sonny Jorgensen to appear on this list, too, they don’t carry quite the same hobby weight as the players and cards above. Collectors will always love vintage quarterback rookie cards, and these 18 are the best of the best.