The read option has come and gone as a staple of NFL offenses, but it’s also left a mark. Now, more than ever, coaches allow their quarterbacks to run. In some offenses, that means the zone read is still called with regularity. In others, that means the quarterback will break the pocket and go as he pleases. In others still, it means the zone read could be mixed in every other game as to retain the element of surprise.
It’s no longer unusual to see a quarterback who can use his legs. Most signal callers do so on some basis. The only difference is how often and in what way. Here are the NFL’s 10-best dual-threat quarterbacks.
Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
Newton and the next guy on this list, Russell Wilson, were read-option quarterbacks that endured. The biggest reason for that is because they’re great pocket passers in addition to being able to run. Newton has largely cut down on using his legs, rushing for a career-low 359 yards last season, but it’s still a big part of his game. Carolina readily calls his number in the red zone — he scored five rushing touchdowns last season — but Newton also won an MVP in 2015 mostly because of his pocket prowess.
He can deliver deep balls with pinpoint accuracy. And in that MVP season, Newton averaged 7.20 adjusted net yards per attempt. The Panthers are cutting back on his running this season, mostly because they know Newton is just as good, if not better, when he’s in the pocket. That doesn’t hurt his standing on this list, however, because the threat of Newton’s legs is still greater than any other quarterback in the league.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
Like Newton, Wilson saw a deep cut in his rushing yardage last season, going for a career-low 239 yards on the ground in 2016. He and Newton have both become stars as pocket passers, but Wilson is still a viable threat to run. The Seahawks still run zone read with a degree of regularity and Wilson is unafraid to break the pocket if he sees an opportunity. It’s only fitting that he be near the top of this list.
It’s important not to disparage Wilson’s ability as a passer either. After all, he threw for 4,219 yards and 21 touchdowns last season despite a shambolic offensive line. Running is now only a complementary part of his game, which is pretty scary given how good of a runner Wilson can be.
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Designed runs for Rodgers are usually not a part of Green Bay’s offense. However, he still went for 369 rushing yards last season, the vast majority of which stemmed from extending plays and breaking the pocket. Nobody will argue he meets this list’s criteria when it comes to passing, but it’s time to think about the other side of Rodgers’ game.
Everyone who watches football can picture this play in their mind’s eye: Rodgers drops back, but nobody’s open downfield. With the pass rush coming, he works to his left, almost turning his back to part of the field. No receivers work back toward him and the rush is coming hot. The play seems over, but it isn’t. Because no receivers have worked back, the entire secondary is away from Rodgers and there’s space for him to run. He picks up 10 yards with ease, despite the play looking dead three seconds ago. This happens more than once during every Packers game. Let’s take a moment to appreciate it.
Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys
Rushing ended up being less a part of Prescott’s game than many predicted during the draft process. It turned out that he was much more developed as a passer than most realized, throwing 23 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions in his rookie season. Prescott did, however, still run for 282 yards and six touchdowns. While by no means depending on his legs, Prescott was happy to use them when the situation called for it.
With Ezekiel Elliott in the Cowboys’ backfield, those situations were relatively rare. It will be interesting to see, however, if Dallas incorporates more designed runs for Prescott into their offense during the early part of this season. Elliott’s situation is still in flux, but if the running back does end up missing six games due to suspension, Prescott could be a source of production on the ground.
Tyrod Taylor, Buffalo Bills
Taylor has probably taken the lead as the NFL’s most prolific rushing quarterback, going for 580 yards and six touchdowns last season. However, while Taylor is underrated as a passer, he isn’t at the same level as most players on this list. It’s important to keep in mind that the first part of “dual-threat” is in the air and Taylor has to improve there.
The third-year starter barely hit made it over 3,000 passing yards last season. He throws a nice deep ball and was only picked off six times, but Taylor ranked 19th among quarterbacks in efficiency, as measured by DVOA. His accuracy to the intermediate areas of the field weren’t up to par and nearly all of Taylor’s numbers got worse in his second year as Buffalo’s starter. Taylor deserves the starting job, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement in his game.
Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
Similar to Prescott, Mariota has been markedly less dependent on his legs than most expected. Which is to say, he hasn’t been dependent on them whatsoever. After just two seasons, the 23-year old already looks like one of the best passers in the NFL. Everything he does on the ground is just a bonus. And in 2016, the Titans got 349 yards worth of bonus.
The reason he’s this far down on the list is because the Titans don’t seem to want Mariota running. They play with heavy personnel more often than most teams. And while head coach Mike Mularkey believes in smash-mouth football, that usually means downhill runs. Not zone reads or other types of option runs. Mariota is still capable of doing damage on the ground, but it isn’t an integral part of Tennessee’s offense.
DeShone Kizer, Cleveland Browns
The rookie field general made running a big part of his game while at Notre Dame, rushing for 472 yards land eight touchdowns last season. After winning the Browns’ starting job during the preseason, Kizer will bring that to the NFL. Don’t overlook his qualifications as a passer either. Kizer displayed good accuracy to all areas of the field and the ability to make a full-field read in college.
He rarely checked down in college and was able to hit tight windows and make good decisions. The biggest problem in his game was consistency. He threw nine interceptions last season and needs to be more consistent in nearly every area of the game. If the Browns can develop Kizer from a consistency standpoint, he could be their quarterback of the future.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Here’s something you may not have realized: Luck scampered for 341 yards as a runner in 2016, injuries and all. While that may not be what the doctor ordered, it certainly gets Luck — one of the league’s best pure passers — on this list. Despite playing through injury for much of the season, Luck still threw for 4,240 yards and 31 touchdowns last year. That was with a poor offensive line against defenses which were often looking for the pass. Running for 341 yards on top of all that is just absurd.
Luck is out for Indy’s Week 1 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, but he’s expected to return relatively soon. The Colts may hesitate to have him run so soon after an injury, but watch out for it nonetheless.
Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals
Before you tell us that Dalton rushed for just 184 yards — less than a lot of people who didn’t make this list — last season, let me explain. About once every other game, Dalton keeps it on a zone read. Nearly every time, it gains at least five yards. Just look at his game logs from last season. In Week 3: six attempts for 40 yards. Week 5: six attempts for 34. Week 11: three attempts for 14. And so on.
The play usually catches defenses off-guard and with good reason. Nobody suspects Dalton will run because he rarely does. It’s a subtle part of Dalton’s game, but it’s something the Bengals can break out at any time. The best part: it usually works.
Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars
Bortles was nearly left off the list entirely because he’s such a terrible passer. However, we have to give Bortles some credit for the 359 rushing yards he put up last season. It ranked fourth among all quarterbacks and the fact of the matter is that as long as Bortles is starting in Jacksonville, his legs will be part of their offense to some degree.
It seems unlikely that he lasts long as the Jaguars’ starter after an abominable preseason, but the team doesn’t have much to lose by sticking by him. Chad Henne, their backup, is of a similar caliber. The main differences between the two is that Bortles is younger and can use his legs. That may be enough for the 25-year old to keep his starting job this season.