The impressive pro debuts of Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson have changed the way the NFL views dual-threat quarterbacks. Instead of casting aside mobile playmakers in favor of traditional pocket passers, teams are embracing the athleticism of running quarterbacks and tweaking their schemes to fit their skills.
Given the number of explosive quarterbacks on the college landscape with the potential to thrive as run-pass threats at the next level, I thought I would take some time to check out which ones could attract the attention of NFL scouts in the fall. Here are five guys to watch:
1. Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
The Heisman Trophy winner has redefined the quarterback position as the only player in NCAA history to surpass 5,000 total yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a single season. Manziel is an improvisational wizard with the speed, quickness and agility to blow past defenders on the perimeter, while also displaying the awareness to find open receivers down the field. As a result, defensive coordinators found him indefensible despite his status as a first-year starter. While skeptics wonder if Manziel will be able to duplicate his success against SEC defenses better prepared to defend his impromptu skills, the film suggests he is an unstoppable force capable of winning with his arm or legs. If he can continue to make strides as a passer from the pocket, while also continuing to display greatness as a scrambling playmaker, Manziel could force scouts to rethink their definition of a franchise quarterback.
2. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Mariota doesn't receive the fanfare of some of his counterparts, but it's hard to find a more efficient dual-threat playmaker in college football. He completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 2,677 yards with a remarkable 32:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2012. Although some would suggest those numbers are a byproduct of the Ducks' explosive spread offensive system, I believe Mariota is a polished pocket passer with outstanding footwork and mechanics. He delivers crisp passes with zip and velocity, but also flashes a deft touch on anticipation throws at intermediate and deep range.
As a runner, Mariota is a sneaky playmaker with surprising speed and quickness. He has the ability to explode through cracks for big gains, which makes him an underrated home-run threat on zone-read plays or predetermined quarterback runs. The Ducks rarely give Mariota a heavy workload as a runner (only four games with 10 or more rush attempts), but his robust 7.1 yards-per-carry average suggest he is capable of being a viable threat on the perimeter.
3. Tajh Boyd, Clemson
Some would argue that Boyd is unfairly categorized as a dual-threat quarterback, but it's hard to leave him off the list based on his 4,410 yards of total offense and 46 combined touchdowns. As the triggerman for the Tigers' high-octane spread offense, Boyd connected on 67.2 percent of his passes for 3,896 yards with 36 touchdowns against only 13 interceptions in 2012, while displaying superb skills and polish as a pocket passer. He shows superior arm strength firing passes at all ranges, but also displays a soft touch on deep balls. Factor in his strong sense of anticipation and timing, Boyd has the potential to execute every concept in the passing game.
As a runner, he doesn't wow or dazzle on tape, but he is productive executing the zone read. He excels at keying on the designated defender and making effective reads based on reactions. While he lacks the burst to break off big gains, he is a viable running threat, especially in the red zone. This not only makes him difficult to defend, but it makes him a coveted prospect in the minds of scouts searching for a Russell Wilson-type playmaker at the next level.
4. Braxton Miller, Ohio State
Whenever Urban Meyer boldly touts a quarterback as one of the best athletes that he's ever coached, it deserves a raised eyebrow. But after watching Miller's performance in 2012, I'm convinced the junior QB is deserving of the praise.
Measuring 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, and with a reported 40-yard dash time of 4.32 seconds, Miller rushed for 1,271 yards and 13 touchdowns. He topped the 100-yard mark six times as a runner and displayed the kind of explosiveness that make defensive coordinators cringe. With the Buckeyes offense rooted heavy in various zone-read and quarterback-run concepts, Miller's athleticism and elusiveness made him the most dangerous player on the field.
Miller is not as polished in the passing game as some of the others on this list, but he is a capable thrower with exceptional arm strength. He excels at pushing the ball down the field on vertical throws and shows the ability to make tight line throws on intermediate routes. While his unrefined footwork and fundamentals leads to some poor throws, Miller's natural arm talent makes him a legitimate threat as a dual-threat playmaker from the pocket. If he can show more consistency in the passing game, particularly on quick-rhythm throws, Miller could surpass some of the notable names on this list and become recognized as the most dangerous weapon in college football.
5. Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech
After being touted as a top quarterback prospect a season ago, Thomas is no longer included in those conversations based on his disappointing junior campaign. However, I would hold off on completely discounting his chances of becoming a legitimate franchise quarterback at the next level.
Measuring 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, with a big arm and exceptional athleticism, Thomas is a dynamic playmaker in the mold of Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton. He is a physical, hard-nosed runner on the perimeter, yet displays the quickness and agility to elude defenders in the pocket. When given opportunities to run on zone-read play or quarterback draws, Thomas has a knack for picking up positive yards, particularly in the red zone. As a result, he has scored 20 touchdowns in the past two seasons, with most of those occurring on red-zone jaunts.
From a passing standpoint, Thomas remains a work in progress from the pocket. While he certainly possesses A-plus arm talent, he shows unrefined footwork and fundamentals as a passer. He also lacks the awareness and timing to consistently execute quick-rhythm throws. Additionally, Thomas fails to display the accuracy and ball placement expected of elite quarterback prospects.
Despite those flaws, Thomas is a season removed from a strong 2011 campaign in which he completed 59.8 percent of his passes for 3,013 yards with a 19:10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Those numbers are certainly achievable in a new pro-style offense directed by new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. If Thomas can approach those totals, while continuing to shine as an occasional runner, he could salvage his chances of becoming a top quarterback prospect in the 2014 draft.
Sleeper: James Franklin, Missouri
As a sophomore, Franklin nearly joined the exclusive 3,000/1,000 club when he passed for 2,865 yards and totaled 981 rushing yards. Although injuries kept him from building on that performance a season ago, he remains one of the most explosive run-pass athletes in college football. If Franklin can stay on the field, he could experience a steady rise up the charts in the fall.