Ranking the NFL’s Top 10 QB-WR Duos

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Maurice Moton @@MoeMoton Twitter Logo Featured Columnist

    It’s the fourth quarter, you’re down two touchdowns and the defense has shut down your ground attack. Which quarterback-wide receiver tandems do you trust to carry your team to victory?

    That’s what we set out to answer while ranking the NFL’s top 10 QB-WR duos going into the 2019 season.

    Although individual performances matter, we have to look at the rapport between the signal-callers and their wideouts. What have they done lately? Are there signs of improvement or decline in recent seasons? How long has the connection been productive?

    Even though we emphasized forward-looking projections, new combinations such as Baker Mayfield-to-Odell Beckham Jr. and Derek Carr-to- Antonio Brown aren’t included. Both tandems should fare well, but we can’t assume that without any prior regular-season history. (Sorry, Oakland Raiders fans, but Pro Bowl action doesn’t count.)

    Lastly, the tandems below only include starting quarterbacks and No. 1 wide receivers based on targets. Lead wideouts typically match up against top cornerbacks and double-teams, which increases the difficulty of their assignments, whereas No. 2 options often face one-on-one coverage and less pressure to produce on a weekly basis.

    According to the parameters laid out above, take a look at the top-10 quarterback-wideout duos throughout the NFL.

    In eight seasons, quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green have connected on 58 touchdown passes. However, their joint production declined over the last three years because of injuries or inefficiency.

    Green has missed 13 games over the past three seasons, while Dalton sat out five contests in 2018 because of torn ligaments in his thumb. And when they played a full season together in 2017, they didn’t look electric. Dalton logged his worst career QBR ( 45.7), while Green recorded his lowest catch rate ( 52.4).

    Based on recent production, Dalton and Green aren’t on the rise heading into 2019. Last year, the wideout missed the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career. However, this tandem has been the backbone to the Cincinnati Bengals offense since 2011.

    If Dalton and Green can stay healthy, both players could have a bounce-back year. Longevity puts them on the radar at No. 10.

    Before the Minnesota Vikings signed quarterback Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal last offseason, wide receiver Adam Thielen was coming off a breakout year. In 2017, he earned his first Pro Bowl invite with 91 receptions for 1,276 yards and four touchdowns.

    Cousins helped Thielen elevate his production even further.

    The wideout logged at least 100 receiving yards in eight straight games last year, making him only the second player in NFL history with such a streak. Former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson stood alone in that category prior to 2018.

    Through seven seasons, Cousins has completed 66.5 percent of his passes. He’s typically accurate, which paid dividends for Thielen last season.

    Their rapport should continue to grow now that they’ve played a full season together. As a result, Cousins and Thielen slot in above Dalton and Green in the leaguewide hierarchy.

    What keeps Cousins and Thielen out of the eighth spot? In 2018, the Vikings had another 1,000-yard wideout in Stefon Diggs, which suggests the offense could flip its 1 and 1A options at wide receiver. The two-time Pro Bowler saw more targets (153-149) last year, but that could change next season.

    Tyreek Hill led the Kansas City Chiefs in receiving yards each of the last two seasons, but his instant chemistry with quarterback Patrick Mahomes fully unleashed his big-play ability in 2018. He averaged 17 yards per reception, which ranked fifth in the league among players with at least 30 catches.

    Mahomes and Hill’s rapport started during the 2018 preseason, when they connected for 14 completions, 182 yards and a touchdown. The duo carried that momentum into the regular season and posed a threat to defenses every week.

    In 2018, Mahomes won league MVP honors, while Hill became an All-Pro for the first time as a wide receiver.

    Hill is currently under investigation for an alleged battery involving his three-year-old son that resulted in a broken arm, per Brooke Pryor and Steve Vockrodt of the Kansas City Star. If the league suspends him or the Chiefs cut him, this pair would fall out of the top 10.

    Mahomes and Hill have tremendous upside, but given the latter’s uncertain future, they lack the longevity to push higher than eighth here.

    Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen don’t consistently connect over the top like Mahomes and Hill do, but they have a longer history of production. In addition, Allen has played his best football over the last two years.

    Allen missed 23 games between the 2015 and 2016 seasons because of kidney and ACL injuries, but he rebounded with back-to-back Pro Bowl campaigns in 2017 and 2018. He registered career highs in catches (102) and receiving yards (1,393) in 2017 and won Comeback Player of the Year.

    In 2018, Allen had 532 more yards than the Los Angeles Chargers’ second-most productive wideout, Mike Williams. Fellow wide receiver Tyrell Williams signed with the Raiders during the offseason, which should free up more targets for Allen and his fellow wideouts.

    Rivers has earned three straight Pro Bowl invites and completed 68.3 percent of his pass attempts in 2018, the second-best mark of his career. Since Allen still hasn’t reached his ceiling, this tandem could log its best numbers yet in 2019.

    Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and quarterback Deshaun Watson have played only 23 games together, but they’ve already connected on 18 touchdowns.

    Hopkins has faced constant pressure to produce because of an underperforming and injury-riddled supporting cast. While Keenan Allen played alongside two pass-catchers with at least 40 receptions and 550 yards each of the last two seasons, Hopkins was the only Texans player to eclipse those numbers in the same period.

    Will Fuller V, the Texans’ second-most productive wide receiver in catches (60), yards (926) and touchdowns (11) since 2017, has missed 15 games over that span. His absence puts a huge target on Hopkins’ back, yet he posted career highs in receptions (115) and yards (1,572) last year.

    Meanwhile, Watson recovered from a torn ACL he suffered in November 2017 to complete 68.3 of his passes for 4,165 yards and 26 touchdowns to only nine interceptions last season. He earned his first Pro Bowl nod and helped to guide the Texans to the playoffs, too.

    Watson and Hopkins have a budding rapport. If Hopkins’ numbers from last year are any indication, the duo should continue to rise as a high-end tandem.

    In his first two NFL seasons, Davante Adams was the Green Bay Packers’ the third option at wide receiver behind Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. When the former went down with a torn ACL during the 2015 preseason, James Jones ranked second in targets (99) that year.

    Since 2016, quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ rapport with Adams has grown significantly. Over the last three campaigns, Adams ranks second in touchdowns (35) among all wide receivers.

    Even though Rodgers suffered a fractured collarbone and missed nine games in 2017, Adams led the Packers in catches (74), receiving yards (885) and touchdowns (10) that season. He’s become the club’s most reliable threat in the red zone, too. The two-time Pro Bowler has caught 29 of his 39 touchdown receptions inside the 20-yard line.

    The Packers head into the upcoming campaign without a clear-cut No. 2 option at wide receiver, which may play into Adams’ favor in terms of production.

    Going into their sixth season together, Rodgers and Adams top Watson and Hopkins, who’ve played together for only 23 contests.

    The Andrew Luck-to-T.Y. Hilton connection deserves more leaguewide buzz.

    Luck missed 26 games from 2015 through 2017 because of a shoulder injury, but he consistently peppers Hilton with targets when healthy. Hilton has led the Indianapolis Colts in yards in each of the past six seasons and ranks fourth leaguewide in receiving yardage ( 8,097) since coming into the league.

    Hilton is a versatile wideout who’s difficult to defend because of his movement across the formation. At 5’10” and 183 pounds, he can take the top off a defense or rack up yards after the catch.

    In 2018, Hilton averaged 16.7 yards per reception, which ranked eighth leaguewide among players with at least 30 grabs. He also recorded 392 yards after the catch ( 30th).

    Unlike Rodgers and Adams, Luck and Hilton clicked immediately as a one-two punch. They entered the league together in 2012 and have been a viable tandem ever since.

    Tight end Eric Ebron emerged in the Colts’ passing attack last year, logging 750 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns, but the offense doesn’t have an established No. 2 option at wide receiver. Luck will likely lean on Hilton to move the ball through the air in 2019.

    Tom Brady and Julian Edelman separate themselves from the rest of the pairings here with their postseason production and success.

    Since 2009, Edelman leads the Patriots in receptions (115) and yards (1,412) in the playoffs. He’s the only wide receiver in these rankings with Super Bowl MVP honors after he became the seventh player at his position to accomplish the feat in February.

    Although Edelman doesn’t have consecutive 1,000-yard seasons or a Pro Bowl campaign on his resume, he’s been the Patriots’ top wideout in receiving yardage for five of the last six campaigns. Had he not torn his ACL in the 2017 preseason, he likely would have led all Pats wideouts in receiving yards that year, too.

    Brady’s continued excellence over the years boosts the duo in these rankings. He led the league in passing yards (4,577) in 2017 and finished with the ninth-best QBR (68.8) last year.

    Rob Gronkowski commanded double coverage downfield, which knocks this duo down a few notches, but Edelman could play a bigger role in 2019 with Gronkowski now retired. Don’t be surprised if Edelman posts career-best numbers this season.

    No player in NFL history hauled in more receptions across the first three years of their career than New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas did ( 321) from 2016 through 2018. Thomas also registered the best catch rate (85 percent) among all qualified receivers in 2018.

    Meanwhile, quarterback Drew Brees has connected on at least 70 percent of his passes in each of the last three seasons. He set NFL records in completion rate (72 and 74.4) in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

    In other words, the Saints have the league’s most accurate quarterback and a rising star wideout who converts a vast majority of his targets into receptions. That’s a dominant combination.

    Last year, Brees and Thomas posted impressive numbers even though the latter had a target on his back. The Saints didn’t have a consistent No. 2 wide receiver to draw attention away from Thomas, which is why running back Alvin Kamara ranked second on the team in catches (81) and receiving yards (709).

    Brees and Thomas’ phenomenal three-year history elevates them above most of the league’s other top QB-WR tandems. So long as Brees remains healthy and accurate, they could be the NFL’s most productive duo in 2019.

    We’re going to see fireworks in the passing game between NFC South foes, but the Atlanta Falcons hold a slight edge.

    Matt Ryan and Julio Jones didn’t have a comparable start to Brees and Thomas because Jones fractured his foot during his third season, but they’ve been more productive over the last three years. Ryan finished with a top-five QBR in two of the last three years, while Jones led the league in receiving yards per game twice in the same span.

    Brees showed subtle signs of decline late in 2018, throwing only three touchdown passes across Weeks 13-16. His per-season pass attempts have significantly dropped since 2016, too.

    While the Saints may tone down their passing volume to maintain Brees’ efficiency in the pocket, Ryan and Jones maintained their excellence throughout the 2018 season without a viable ground attack.

    Last year, Ryan threw the second-most touchdown passes (35) and tied for the fewest interceptions (seven) for a single season in his career. Jones has been the Falcons’ unquestioned No. 1 receiving option and missed only two contests over the last four seasons.

    If you’re taking a quarterback-wide receiver pair for a full season, Ryan and Jones are the top choice.