Brees-Thomas, Ryan-Jones among NFL's top 10 QB-WR pairings
Football is a complex, richly nuanced game, but sometimes, there’s nothing better than watching one player throw passes to another.
When a quarterback and a receiver are truly in sync, it can be magical, whether they’re connecting on long-range bombs or dismantling opponents with perfectly timed quick darts. With the conclusion of the 2020 NFL Draft putting the more chaotic, roster-swirling phase of the offseason mostly behind us, I thought this would be a good time to re-center by taking stock of the best quarterback-receiver pairings in the NFL right now. Some of the pairings below are new and some are time-tested, but all project to create aerial fireworks in 2020.
NOTE: I believe a good percentage of the receivers selected in the 2020 NFL Draft have the potential to become quality wideouts — but the nature of this offseason, truncated by the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, will only add to the difficulty of transitioning to the NFL. So for now, I’m leaving rookie quarterbacks and receivers off of this list.
1) Drew Brees and Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints: No receiver in NFL history has ever caught more passes in one season than Thomas’ 149 in 2019. While we can logically expect Thomas’ catch total to dip with Emmanuel Sanders now in the fold, Sanders should ultimately help make Thomas even more dangerous by giving Brees a second option with which to scare opposing defenses. Thomas has developed into a Larry Fitzgerald-esque presence — and he’s laying the groundwork for a path to the Hall of Fame.
2) Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons: Don’t overlook this pair coming off the Falcons’ disappointing 2019. Atlanta is poised to become the first team in the common draft era to start 10 former first-round picks on offense, thanks to the acquisitions of running back Todd Gurley and tight end Hayden Hurst. Between their addition and the continued emergency of No. 2 receiver Calvin Ridley, Ryan and Jones should continue to perform at an all-world level as their prolific partnership — Ryan is the only player in the NFL to top 4,000 passing yards in each of the nine seasons since Jones was drafted, and no one has more than Jones’ 12,125 receiving yards in that span — stretches into a 10th season.
3) Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals: I have a world of respect for Texans coach Bill O’Brien, and I will give him the benefit of the doubt for his decision to trade away one of the NFL’s great receivers. Whatever you think of the move, though, Murray is a clear beneficiary. The dynamic young quarterback is ridiculously blessed to spend his second pro season throwing to one future Hall of Fame wideout (Larry Fitzgerald) and another (Hopkins) who is working his way squarely into the gold-jacket conversation.
4) Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, Dallas Cowboys: The selection of Oklahoma receiver CeeDee Lamb with the 17th overall pick could have a positive impact on Cooper. If Lamb is able to develop quickly, Cooper could get more snaps in the slot, where he’ll be able to wreak havoc. Even if Lamb needs a bit of time, Cooper should still make the most of the contract extension to which he’s been signed, assuming he doesn’t have to deal with anything like the leg injuries that bothered him last year. Of course, this also presumes the franchise-tagged Prescott doesn’t hold out or miss time as he waits for a new contract.
5) Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs: Every notable skill-position player returns to the offense of the defending champions. A wealth of weapons — including first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire and receiver Mecole Hardman, who could see an expanded role in Year 2 — will create plenty of opportunities for Hill to burn through opposing defenses.
6) Tom Brady and Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Brady hasn’t had two pass-catchers top 1,100 receiving yards in the same season since 2011, when Rob Gronkowski and Wes Welker did it — to find another instance before that, you have to go back to the days of Randy Moss (Moss and Welker pulled it off in 2009 and ’07). Brady certainly didn’t get close last year, when Julian Edelman (100 catches, 1,117 yards, six TDs) was the only Patriots receiver to top 400 yards. In Tampa, Brady will get to throw to the only pair of teammates (Evans and Chris Godwin) who logged 1,100-plus receiving yards and eight-plus receiving touchdowns in 2019. I listed Evans here because I had to pick one Bucs receiver, but Brady could strike up a rapport with either Evans or Godwin — or both.
7) Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers: There are plenty of questions swirling around Rodgers and the Packers in the wake of Green Bay’s selection of Jordan Love in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. And it’s fair to wonder if Rodgers’ production will be somewhat limited by coach Matt LaFleur’s apparent preference for running the ball. But let’s not forget that, when Adams was healthy and on the field in 2019, he and Rodgers continued to produce at the same prolific level — Adams reached his third straight Pro Bowl while falling 3 yards short of notching his second consecutive 1,000-yard season despite missing four games with injury.
8) Ryan Tannehill and A.J. Brown, Tennessee Titans: Brown led all 2019 rookies in receiving yards (1,051) as the main big-play target for the Titans when opposing defenses got sucked into play-action fakes to running back Derrick Henry. With Tannehill and Henry returning for 2020, that success should be repeatable.
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9) Matthew Stafford and Kenny Golladay, Detroit Lions: Stafford is my leader in the clubhouse in the 2020 Comeback Player of the Year race after a back injury cost him half the 2019 season — he was on pace to near his career highs in passing yards (5,038) and passing touchdowns (41). This is good news for Golladay — who led the league with 11 receiving TDs last season — entering the final year of his rookie contract.
10) Philip Rivers and T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts: Rivers and Hilton are both coming off a down 2019. Hampered by injury and inconsistent quarterback play, Hilton barely topped 500 receiving yards, while Rivers got as close as he ever has to a 1:1 TD-to-INT ratio (23:20). But from 2012 to ’18, Hilton was the NFL’s most productive receiver on a per-catch basis (15.97 yards per reception). Rivers, meanwhile, ranked third in yards per attempt (8.5) just one season ago. With the Colts’ stout offensive line in front of Rivers, it’s not unrealistic for this pair to rediscover their mojo together in Indy.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.
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