A quarterback’s arm will always be his most treasured asset, but 2020 is showing that a QB’s legs can be just as much of a difference maker. For defenses, there is perhaps no greater threat than a mobile quarterback—downfield coverage can be picture perfect, but if an athletic passer breaches the line of scrimmage it can be a secondary’s worst nightmare.
The modern NFL is a further testament to the impact and importance of athletic passers. In that not-so-distant past, mobile quarterbacks were often deemed as gimmicky or undependable. There are still instances where that’s the case—remember when reigning league MVP Lamar Jackson, the dynamic runner whose passing numbers ranked among the NFL’s most efficient last season, was viewed as a potential receiver? This season, almost all of the league’s best passers are able to do damage with their legs.
When a quarterback has the ability to scramble and run, an offense’s potential is boundless, and offensive coordinator’s playbooks can expand twofold. When passing attacks are ineffective, the ability for a quarterback to run can become a strength. Take the Cardinals’ Monday Night Football demolition of the Cowboys in Week 6. Arizona’s Kyler Murray couldn’t find his way through the air, completing just 9-of-24 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns. However, to the Cowboys’ annoyance, the Cardinals signal-caller proved very effective running the ball, accounting for 10 carries for 74 yards and one touchdown.
“We were close on a couple things early and had some close throws that I think we’ll make in the future,” Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters after the win. “[We] may have been a little too revved up. But I thought throughout the game, he continued to make plays with his feet that really extended drives.”
Murray’s performance was just one of many this year in which a quarterback’s running ability boosted his offense. We’ve already seen the Patriots’ Cam Newton serve as the focal point in New England’s run game. Jackson, despite not rushing the ball as frequently as last year, remains a key cog in Baltimore’s ground game, too. When Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked Tuesday about what the key was to keeping Jackson in check, he told reporters, “I wish I had the answer to that. I wish the National Football League had the answer to that. ‘In check’ is a strong term, one that I choose not to use.” Tomlin’s words are a testament to the threat a versatile quarterback can pose for opponents. Pittsburgh enters this week’s heavyweight bout with the Ravens boasting the NFL’s no. 1 rush defense, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric.
While teams like Baltimore, New England, and Arizona have intentionally used their quarterbacks as rushers, almost every QB occasionally must improvise on the ground and scramble when a play goes wrong. Some players have to scramble because they’re playing behind poor offensive lines, such as the Giants’ Daniel Jones and Jets’ Sam Darnold, who are playing behind the two lowest-rated offensive lines, respectively, in ESPN’s team pass block-win metrics. They’ve found a way to buy time for themselves by using their legs—Jones averages 2.88 seconds per throw and Darnold averages 2.84—when pass protection breaks down. Jones, who’s registered 13 scrambles (not designed carries) this season, has been relatively effective, notching 8.71 expected points added per scramble, according to Pro Football Focus. Darnold, who’s scrambled 12 times, has been even better, posting 9.5 EPA through seven games.
But there’s much more to a successful scramble than just taking off and running at the first sign of pressure. A common knock on mobile QBs is that they’ll extend plays at the risk of taking sacks. Considering their teams’ struggles in pass blocking, it’s unsurprising that Jones (20 sacks taken; minus-42.8 EPA lost on sacks) and Darnold (18 sacks taken; minus-27.9 EPA lost on sacks) are the fifth- and sixth-most sacked QBs this season. But sacks affect signal-callers playing behind good pass-blocking lines, too. Seahawks star Russell Wilson has played behind both good and bad offensive lines throughout his career, yet he’s been sacked on no less than 7 percent of his dropbacks in a single season. He’s been sacked 17 times this season—on pace to be sacked on 7.2 percent of dropbacks this year—despite playing behind a Seattle offensive line ranked fifth in pass-block win rate.
There’s a balancing act that quarterbacks must navigate. They must know when to keep passing plays alive and when to take off downfield. It’s not surprising, for example, that Packers star Aaron Rodgers—whose agility within the pocket and ability to throw on the run has been considered among the best in the league for years—is not inclined to scramble past the line of scrimmage, but is routinely among the league leaders in throwaways. (Rodgers entered Week 8 second in throwaways with 17, per PFF.) His willingness to concede when a play isn’t developing saves his team from sacks, as he’s only been sacked seven times this season and has scrambled six times (tied for 22nd most). Despite the low scramble rate, across cumulative sack and scramble EPA, Rodgers ranked seventh in the league (minus-8.5 EPA), meaning he’s been among the best in determining when to extend plays, when to take off or when to concede to pressure. Having a talented offensive line—the Packers rank second in PBWR—also plays a factor, but Rodgers has been among the best in managing pressure.
Sack percentage plays a role in just how effective a scrambling quarterback can be. This year, for example, Jackson has registered the ninth-highest EPA on scrambles entering Week 8, but has also taken 15 sacks, putting him on pace for many more than the 23 he recorded last season. The EPA he’s lost on sacks (negative-28.7) is the 11th lowest among qualified starters, mitigating the effectiveness of his ability to keep plays alive. When discussing QBs who can trust in their athleticism when extending plays, it’s essential to account for how well they avoid pressure.
As modern NFL offenses continue to embrace more spread concepts and formations, more are beginning to embrace athletic passers. But who are the NFL’s best scrambling quarterbacks? Below, we take a look at the contenders for that crown.
Kyler Murray, Cardinals
The pint-sized Murray has long been regarded for his cannon arm. But as his passing has left a bit to be desired this season, the second-year pro has made a tangible impact with his legs. Murray ranks 11th in the league in rushing yards (437), averaging 6.7 per carry. He’s scored seven rushing touchdowns, tied with Derrick Henry, Todd Gurley II, and Dalvin Cook for most in the NFL. Murray has also picked up 28 first downs on the ground, tied with his teammate Kenyan Drake for the seventh most.
Murray’s athleticism helps him extend plays so he can look downfield, too. But thus far, he’s been more effective when he’s picking up yardage himself. At 5-foot-10, the former baseball player’s running style is a favorite topic of Twitter seemingly every week.
Kyler Murray runs like an RC Car— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) September 13, 2020
Kyler Murray runs like that kid from the “it’s a KNIFE” video.— Ralph Amsden (@ralphamsden) September 20, 2020
Kyler Murray runs like he's partners with himself in a three-legged race.— M.G. (@MarcasG) September 20, 2020
When Kyler Murray takes off, he has to have a plan.. he's legit runs 'like a chicken w/his head cut off'— Emory Hunt (@FBallGameplan) October 11, 2020
It’s entertaining to watch, and also very effective. Murray is currently the only QB to produce more EPA on scrambles than what he’s lost on sacks (totaling 5.6 EPA) from both sacks and scrambles this season (Ryan Fitzpatrick’s minus-1.88 EPA ranks second. For comparison, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson was the lone player to register a positive net EPA in this category last season (6.9 EPA), according to PFF’s Kevin Cole.
Murray has faced pressure on only 23.2 percent of his dropbacks this year, the fourth-lowest rate among qualified passers, per PFF. His 11.4 yards per scramble average is nearly 2 yards more than the next-highest QB who’s scrambled at least 10 times this season, according to Pro Football Reference.
So far this season, Murray’s scrambling ability has not only been tantalizing, it’s been crucial to the Cardinals’ success. It’s a big part of the reason Arizona remains in contention in the NFC West.
Josh Allen, Bills
Allen is a prime example of how scrambling can be both good and bad. The third-year quarterback has always been a tremendous athlete. Allen entered Week 8 third in QBR (82.6) and has Buffalo second in third-down conversion rate (52.4 percent) in part because of his ability to extend plays, buying time for himself to get the ball out to downfield targets:
He’s also tucked the ball and carried it himself with some success. Allen has registered 40 rushing yards or more three times this year, and has totaled 204 yards on 48 carries. While Allen’s 4.3 yards per carry isn’t amazing, he has picked up first down on the ground 21 times. The former Wyoming signal-caller has scored 17 rushing touchdowns across the past two seasons, and is already up to three this year.
But Allen hasn’t been nearly as good when it comes to avoiding sacks. Allen has averaged 6.8 yards lost per sack through his first three seasons, and he’s prone to taking long sacks at inopportune times while trying to keep plays alive. He’s also fumbled four times and lost each one.
Regardless, at 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds, Allen’s physical talents and rushing ability makes him one of the most dangerous threats to opposing defenses in the league, especially once he escapes the pocket.
Lamar Jackson, Ravens
Last year, Jackson’s legs keyed Baltimore’s offensive success. The Ravens are still proving reliant on the dual-threat passer to make things happen, too. Per PFF, Jackson has rushed the ball 36 times on designed rush attempts, third only to Kyler Murray (44) and Cam Newton (41). A year removed from rushing for 1,206 yards on 6.9 yards per attempt, Jackson is once again averaging 6.9 yards per carry, although he’s totaling nearly 23 fewer yards per game (57.7) and nearly three fewer attempts (8.3 this year, down from 11.7 last season). And while the designed runs are a crucial part of the Ravens offense, Jackson is at his most exciting when he’s improvising in the open field:
Jackson is one of the best runners in football, regardless of position. He is capable of breaking out massive gains, even when given just a sliver of space or the pocket starts to collapse. As former Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier recently noted on The Ringer NFL Show, when Jackson is able to break off long runs despite a good pass rush and great downfield coverage, “It demoralizes a defense.”
So far, Jackson hasn’t been quite as effective as he was in 2019. Jackson has taken 15 sacks, which has earned him a total of negative-28.6 EPA. But he’s earned a 9.0 EPA on his 14 scrambles this year, which ranked ninth in the league entering Week 8. This week’s matchup against the Steelers’ defense—which boasts the NFL’s top pass rush—will mark just the second start Jackson will make in the storied rivalry. (He played in the first meeting last season, but was rested in the second, which was a regular-season finale.) In that game, Jackson compiled 70 yards on 14 carries. Through the air, he went 19-for-28 with one touchdown and three picks and was sacked a career-high five times. Jackson has been struggling to avoid sacks this season, so it will be interesting to see whether or not he will manage to bounce back against one of the stingiest defenses in the league.
Russell Wilson, Seahawks
“Mr. Unlimited” has been phenomenal this year. As mentioned above, Wilson’s bugaboo has been sacks. But even those are a result of his willingness to extend plays for as long as he can, which is part of what makes him so special in the first place, and makes him almost indefensible when he’s playing at his best.
Wilson has had success running the ball as a scrambler, too. He’s notched 181 yards on 21 scrambles this season (8.6 yards per attempt) and gained 13 first downs. Wilson does well protecting himself and rarely puts himself at risk of losing the football or taking big hits.
Wilson might not ever be a threat to rush for 1,000 yards, but his mobility sures helps him live up to his self-prescribed nickname.
Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
The reigning Super Bowl MVP has scrambled more than any passer in the league, doing so 27 times for 172 yards and notching a 12.4 EPA on those runs. Mahomes is also, of course, excellent when throwing on the run:
Underrated Patrick Mahomes skill: He has the best sense of where the line of scrimmage is of any QB I’ve ever seen. Consistently stops at the exact right spot after escaping the pocket so he can still attempt a forward pass.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) October 19, 2020
It’s like he can see the blue line we see on TV.
Kansas City has been in some close contests this year, and in crucial moments Mahomes has dazzled, using his legs to extend plays well after they seem to be over. Teams have tried accounting for his impressive passing ability this season by implementing more zonal looks. It’s worked to some extent, but has done little to halt Mahomes from taking advantage of space when it’s presented to him.
Mahomes has converted 20 total third and fourth downs this season by gaining 15 or more yards, including three by rushing the football. He’s shown incredible mastery of keeping plays alive, using his incredible arm talent to find open receivers in a way unlike any player before him.
What’s especially rare about Mahomes is that there isn’t a true weakness to his game. His completion rate (65.8 percent for his career) never suffers. He doesn’t take many sacks nor does he throw too many interceptions—although there’s certainly a handful of plays where he should have been picked off this year. It’s a rare combination that only makes his ability to create and extend plays more tantalizing. Mahomes is the ultimate package—a once-in-a-generation arm coupled with savvy movement and intelligence.