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NFL quarterback trends: From mobile to pocket passer

Crissy Froyd

The quarterback has one primary job in the NFL, one that sounds like coach speak in press conferences. That’s to throw the ball accurately and get it into playmakers’ hands. While this may be the traditional definition of what a quarterback is, it’s easy to point to players like Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and ask questions.

But the era of fawning over quarterbacks whose brightest spots revolve around what they can do on the ground seems to be coming to a close. At least, this is changing to a degree.

The mobile NFL quarterback trend and what ultimately becomes of the running signal-caller

nfl quarterback cam newton
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The ability to move and have a level of quickness in any position in the game of football is a plus. That much is not a secret and has never been, and it’s true that players get faster at the next level. But mobility and athleticism are not the key to everything. They are certainly not the two traits that will single-handedly turn a quarterback into a Hall of Fame player down the line.

There are a number of mobile quarterbacks with all of the desirable athletic traits as a runner who have been that way since early on in their careers. In those instances, an NFL team ends up with a quarterback who is trying to fine-tune his mechanics and improve himself as a passer much later on in his career than it ever should have been.

While this is successful in some cases, the quarterback is usually behind to some degree when it comes to throwing the ball. Over time, all running quarterbacks eventually slow down. And if they’re not up to par as a passer, they often can’t even serve as a viable backup even if they had achieved stardom at one point for the other things they bring to the table.

Among the most popular names of the running quarterback trend have been Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow. None of these players have panned out as long-term starters.

Related: Updated 2022 NFL power rankings

The greatest NFL quarterbacks of all-time are pocket passers

NFL predictions
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Looking at the best NFL quarterbacks in present day and throughout history, more than the vast majority fit the pocket passer definition. These players are accurate, mechanically sound and can deliver a well-placed ball at all levels of the field first and foremost. Any type of mobility, athletic ability and special physical traits come secondary.

The quarterbacks largely considered some of the best to have ever played the game at the highest level include Tom Brady, Joe Montana, Drew Brees, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham, Peyton Manning, John Elway, Roger Staubach, Aaron Rodgers, Bart Starr, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Terry Bradshaw.

While some of these quarterbacks had or currently have the ability to use their legs in a significant way, the vast majority of those on that list were very limited in that aspect. For those that did have it, they were known primarily for their accomplishments through the air.

Sure, it’s easy to make the argument that many of those players didn’t see time in the modern era of the NFL. But looking at the best quarterbacks of the league today, Brady still reigns king.

Names like Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, Derek Carr and Kyler Murray frequently accompany him on top-10 lists. These are quarterbacks who range in types of mobility and have been recognized most for their work as passers. There is no purely running quarterback in the mix there.

Related: NFL quarterback rankings for 2022

What the 2022 Draft says about the NFL quarterback position and the state of the league

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Minicamp
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The Pittsburgh Steelers had a decision to make with the 20th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Drat. Said decision was between going with someone who has a high floor or a high ceiling. This year, Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett represented the high and reliable floor while Liberty’s Malik Willis presented an abundance of physical traits, athleticism and a howitzer for an arm. He also showed accuracy issues and some overall instability as a passer based on his college tape.

Related: Malik Willis as a legit NFL quarterback?

While it should be taken into consideration that each team has its own way of doing things, aspects it is building around and a coaching staff that has a certain way of running its offenses. There are some quarterbacks who fit in better than others. There’s also value placed on a quarterback who has shown himself to be a consistently solid passer and possesses that sort of “sneaky” mobility that he’s not known for. Pickett fits this mold.

Willis fell much further than expected after he was projected by some to be the first overall pick. Instead, he was the third quarterback off the board at pick No. 86 in the third round by the Tennessee Titans. While he showed improvement throwing the ball with touch and completing passes in multiple areas of the field, it’s something that must continue to translate. Willis had five games in 2021 in which he didn’t touch a 60% completion rate and three games with three interceptions against below-average competition.

Former Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder was selected ahead of Willis. And while Ridder displayed intriguing speed at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine that leaves us to believe he could develop into a more athletic, Marcus Mariota-esque quarterback, he didn’t project that way in college. He was pinned as more of a game-manager than anything else.

Revisiting the 2021 NFL Drat class and the bottom line

nfl quarterback trey lance
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The 2021 NFL Draft had one of the most top-heavy quarterback classes presented in recent history with five quarterbacks coming off the board in the first round.

No. 1: Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

No. 2: Zach Wilson, New York Jets

No. 3: Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

No. 11: Justin Fields, Chicago Bears

No. 15: Mac Jones, New England Patriots

Looking back on this class, there are some quarterbacks who happened into disadvantageous situations (as so many early quarterback picks do). They are expected to make a jump and could very well do so.

But the first-rounder of 2021 who has performed the best to this point is Jones, who is pure pocket passer. He finished out the year with a 67.6% completion rate, 3,801 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions — leading his team on a postseason run in his very first season.

While the rest of the first-round crop has some appeal where mobility is concerned, each of these players were praised for accuracy and ball placement throughout their college careers. Each went into the draft projecting as player who would be established passer with the ability to move.

Lance, the “quarterback with a linebacker mentality,” seems to be the only quarterback here outside of that mold because of just how much he brings to the table from a physical and athletic standpoint. But he was highly praised by his coaches and teammates for his accuracy and taking care of the football in college — something that reflected on the stat sheet even if he didn’t play a ton of games due to the circumstances.

Related: Trey Lance as an NFL quarterback, 49ers star set up to succeed

Lance finished his college career at North Dakota State with a 65.4% completion percentage, 2,947 passing yards 30 touchdowns and just one interception.

It will be interesting to watch how the situation continues to evolve. Trends come and go in sports. But it seems teams are starting to err more on the side of a quarterback who has upside as a pure passer and can run when called upon as opposed to a rare overall athlete.