Traditionalists are correct when they say franchise quarterbacks must be able to win from the pocket, but the changing dynamics of the pro game make it increasingly important that elite passers possess the ability to make big plays in a spontaneous fashion. The exceptional speed and athleticism of dominant pass rushers in 2015 make it nearly impossible to pitch a shutout in pass protection. Thus, quarterbacks routinely are challenged to make plays when the pocket collapses. Of course, there is a fine line between improvisation and reckless spontaneity. But the spectacular playmakers are capable of balancing risk and reward when fleeing the pocket under duress.
Looking to assess the improvisational skills of the top quarterbacks in the game, I spent some time breaking down All-22 Coaches Film. Here are the five signal-callers who are most adept at working off-script in 2015:
5) Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers
Quick note: I thought about including Tony Romo on this list -- in this spot, in fact -- but recent back troubles have reduced his improvisational skills. Now, critics might take umbrage with Kaepernick's inclusion following his subpar 2014 performance, but he remains one of the most dangerous dual-threat playmakers at the position. Kap possesses a rare combination of arm talent and athleticism that makes him a headache to defend when he is on the move. He attempted to prove that he could thrive as a traditional pocket passer last season, but Kaepernick is still at his best when he plays "sandlot" football. He has a knack for finding open receivers downfield while on the move, and his uncanny agility and body control allow him to deliver pinpoint passes from unorthodox positions. While the 49ers certainly understand the need to keep their franchise quarterback protected, the spectacular plays that he delivers when operating "off the leash" should encourage the team to let him freestyle a bit more in 2015.
4) Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
There is little doubt that the young version of Big Ben would occupy a higher spot on this list, but the grizzled veteran still deserves mention as one of the best improvisational playmakers at the position. Roethlisberger rarely flees the pocket; rather, defensive backs must account for his ability to extend plays with his movement in the pocket. Unlike some athletic quarterbacks who look to run at the first sign of duress, Roethlisberger nimbly slides from side to side to buy time for his receivers to uncover. The deliberate movement has been a hallmark of Roethlisberger's game throughout his career; it is part of the reason opponents still have a tough time defending the big-bodied passer, despite his limited production as a runner.
3) Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers
It's uncommon for a 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback to be the most athletic player on the team, but that's certainly the case with Newton in Carolina. The two-time Pro Bowler is unquestionably the Panthers' most dynamic offensive weapon. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula takes advantage of Newton's rare skill set by crafting a game plan that routinely puts the QB on the perimeter. Newton deftly executes designed runs and various zone-read plays, but it's his ability to spontaneously take off when the pocket collapses that scares opponents. He is too big for many second- and third-level defenders to bring down on the perimeter, making him a dangerous weapon to use on run/pass option plays -- particularly down in the red zone (he has 33 rushing touchdowns in four years). With Newton also displaying a big arm and unlimited range as a passer, the Panthers have one of the NFL's most dangerous offensive threats at their disposal.
2) Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
While some foolishly attempt to discredit Wilson by calling him a "game manager," there is no disputing his effectiveness as an explosive improvisational weapon. He is a magician with the ball, exhibiting Houdini-like qualities when the pocket collapses around him. Wilson is a dangerous runner capable of picking up chunk yardage whenever he flees the pocket, as evidenced by his 849 rushing yards on just 118 attempts (7.2 yards per carry) in 2014. Not to mention, he is a dynamic playmaker with the capacity to make precise throws on the move. Consequently, few defensive coordinators have come up with solid solutions for dealing with Wilson's all-around game. Given the upgrades made to Seattle's receiving corps (see: trade acquisition Jimmy Graham and third-round pick Tyler Lockett) to complement a deadly running game that features zone-read elements, Wilson could come to be viewed as the ultimate playmaker.
1) Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
The reigning NFL MVP is regarded as the top quarterback in the game -- and few signal-callers in NFL history can rival his ability to make pinpoint throws off-platform. Rodgers routinely delivers dimes to receivers while rolling to his right or left, which is a testament to his exceptional athleticism, agility and body control. Rodgers has posted a passer rating north of 100 in seven of eight seasons as the Packers' starter, with a number of his completions coming off improvised throws on the move. Considering Rodgers' underrated athleticism and running skills -- he averaged 6.3 yards per carry in 2014 -- the thought of facing the MVP on an unscripted down is enough to keep defensive coordinators up all night.