Ranking Every Projected Starting QB/WR/RB Combination in 2012
Stars run the NFL.
And as much as fans and the media respect players like the Browns' blindside tackle Joe Thomas or a top-notch pass-rusher like Jared Allen, offensive skill players are the ones most talked about, namely the quarterback, running back and wide receivers.
So which team has the best trio?
Inside is a ranking of the OVERALL wealth of all 32 teams' starting quarterback, starting running back and primary wide receiving options. Keep that in mind: Just because Aaron Rodgers is the league MVP and easily one of the game's top quarterbacks doesn't mean the Packers earn a top spot.
Obviously, since we're pre-draft and in the middle of free agency, some teams have holes to fill or possible holes to fill at those key spots.
So I'll take my best stab at where I think those big names (Peyton Manning, Matt Flynn, Alex Smith, Andrew Luck) will end up.
No. 32: Cleveland Browns
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Projected Starting QB: Colt McCoy
Projected Starting RB: Montario Hardesty
Projected Primary WR: Justin Blackmon
Sorry to do it to you, Browns fans, but this is the bottom of the barrel.
Now that's not to say the Browns are the worst team in pro football; far from it—they have some outstanding linemen (Joe Thomas, Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor), a top-notch corner in Joe Haden, and some other strong players.
But McCoy still needs a ton of development, they just lost their best skill player (Peyton Hillis) and even if they nab the top wideout on the board (Justin Blackmon), he joins one of the least talented groups in football.
No. 31: Indianapolis Colts
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Projected Starting QB: Andrew Luck
Projected Starting RB: Donald Brown
Projected Primary WR: Reggie Wayne
It's not quite back to square one in Indy; it just seems that way.
Obviously the transition to Andrew Luck is obviously the key.
Sure he's considered one of the most "pro-ready" quarterbacks to come out of college in a long time, perhaps since...well, Peyton Manning.
But a Cam Newton-like rookie year still seems to be a tall order.
Although Reggie Wayne is back and Donald Brown already began the transition to starter last year, the lack of other pass-catchers will really hamper Luck's development.
No. 30: Miami Dolphins
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Projected Starting QB: Alex Smith
Projected Starting RB: Reggie Bush
Projected Primary WR: Davone Bess
ESPN is reporting that the Seahawks and Matt Flynn have agreed on a contract ,which leaves Alex Smith as the possible next domino to fall.
Smith may continue his resurgence in Miami , but no one can say that for certain right now. And even though Joe Philbin was a great teacher for Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn, the Dolphins do not have the receiving threats that Green Bay has.
The only reason Miami doesn't find itself closer to the bottom of this list? On a team that struggled in the passing game, Reggie Bush had the best year of his career last season.
No. 29: Washington Redskins
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Projected Starting QB: Robert Griffin III
Projected Starting RB: Roy Helu Jr.
Projected Primary WR: Pierre Garcon
RG3 has all the tools to be an instant success—maybe more than Andrew Luck or Cam Newton did last year.
Still, he'll be a rookie and will make rookie mistakes.
But that's not even the chief reason why Washington is so low on this list.
Who knows how Mike Shanahan will handle his running backs so maybe Helu will be a 250-plus carry running back, or maybe it will be Evan Royster or Tim Hightower.
And pulling Pierre Garcon out of Indy was a big deal, but let's see what he can do without Reggie Wayne on the other side of him.
No. 28: St. Louis Rams
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Projected Starting QB: Sam Bradford
Projected Starting RB: Steven Jackson
Projected Primary WR: Danny Amendola
Two out of three ain't bad for the Rams: Bradford should rebound and have a fine season in 2012...if the Rams can protect him. And Jackson remains one of the NFL's most underrated backs; for him to rush for 1,145 yards last year on that horrible team was a major achievement.
But they have no reliable wide receivers at this point and for Amendola—assuming he'll be re-signed—to be their No. 1 when he missed almost all of the 2011 season says a ton.
No. 27: Minnesota Vikings
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Projected Starting QB: Christian Ponder
Projected Starting RB: Toby Gerhart
Projected Primary WR: Percy Harvin
I don't care what is being said about Adrian Peterson's rehabilitation from his ACL injury; I just don't see him being the starter in Week 1.
So while Gerhart had a few big games in 2011, he's still not a premier back.
The same has to be said about Christian Ponder: he showed flashes of promise, but he too has a long way to go.
At least they have Harvin, who is a multi-talented threat and recorded 87 catches on a team with serious holes in its passing game.
No. 26: Seattle Seahawks
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Projected Starting QB: Matt Flynn
Projected Starting RB: Marshawn Lynch
Projected Primary WR: Doug Baldwin
Money and years on the contract may be the issue, but for the Dolphins not to sign Matt Flynn might be a red flag. What did Joe Philbin not like about his former backup quarterback?
But even if Flynn does have the chops, his receiving options aren't anywhere near what he had in Green Bay. Doug Baldwin is solid, but no threat to be a Pro Bowler right now.
Marshawn Lynch, however, is.
In a league that continues to turn away from the running game and toward the passing game, Lynch is one of the game's hardest runners.
No. 25: Denver Broncos
Projected Starting QB: Peyton Manning
Projected Starting RB: Willis McGahee
Projected Primary WR: Eric Decker
It's tough to say whether Knowshon Moreno or WIllis McGahee will be the primary ball-carrier at the start of next season. Similarly, it's tough to say whether Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker will be the top target in the passing game. Either way, those are four good—not great—skill guys.
At the quarterback position, Peyton Manning is headed to the Mile High City and should improve this unit, but he isn't a sure bet with questions about his immediate impact following neck surgery and longterm health.
No. 24: Jacksonville Jaguars
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Projected Starting QB: Blaine Gabbert
Projected Starting RB: Maurice Jones-Drew
Projected Primary WR: Laurent Robinson
As of right now, Blaine Gabbert is the black sheep of that 2011 QB class, far behind Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, even Christian Ponder and Jake Locker.
And although adding Laurent Robinson was important—Jacksonville's receiving corps was probably the worst in the NFL last year—he's going to have to prove he can be a major threat without Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten out there.
MJD may be the NFL's leading rusher, but that's not enough to push the Jags very high on this list.
No. 23: Kansas City Chiefs
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Projected Starting QB: Matt Cassel
Projected Starting RB: Jamaal Charles
Projected Primary WR: Dwayne Bowe
The biggest question facing the Chiefs in 2012 should be: Can Jamaal Charles return to being that explosive ball-carrier who averaged over six yards per carry in 2010?
If he can't, Peyton Hillis will do a fine job shouldering the load, which will allow the Chiefs' passing game to open up.
Cassel-to-Bowe proved to be a wonderful duo in 2010, but not last year, so it's anybody's guess what will happen next fall. That uncertainty pushes the Chiefs down the list.
No. 22: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Projected Starting QB: Josh Freeman
Projected Starting RB: LeGarrette Blount
Projected Primary WR: Vincent Jackson
It's looking more and more like the Bucs will go after Trent Richardson with that fifth overall choice, but on Day 1 you can expect the big bruising back from Oregon to handle the duties.
He's a solid, not necessarily spectacular back, but it's the passing game that has Tampa Bay's offense at the 22 spot.
Josh Freeman took three steps back last season, becoming something of a turnover machine, and even though they added Vincent Jackson, that might not change.
Jackson has great size, but I think he's going to find fewer openings in opposing defenses without Antonio Gates occupying the middle of the field.
No. 21: Tennessee Titans
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Projected Starting QB: Jake Locker
Projected Starting RB: Chris Johnson
Projected Primary WR: Kenny Britt
One of the biggest preseason duels next fall should be Matt Hasselbeck vs. Jake Locker: In the end, I think Locker will win that duel, but I don't think either one will be named to the Pro Bowl anytime soon.
Especially since Kenny Britt, their best wide receiver, is a relatively big question mark coming back from that major knee injury.
And even Chris Johnson, just a year ago considered the AFC's best runner, isn't the most reliable option; he was fairly average in 2011. Of course if he doesn't hold out for the whole preseason, maybe he'll return to top form.
No. 20: Cincinnati Bengals
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Projected Starting QB: Andy Dalton
Projected Starting RB: Bernard Scott
Projected Primary WR: A.J. Green
Green and Dalton enjoyed incredible rookie seasons in 2011 and it's not unreasonable to see them put up Pro Bowl-type numbers in 2012.
But the enormous void at running back has to be a major concern for them.
Cedric Benson almost certainly won't be back and as good as Scott was in spot duty, no one knows if he'll be able to fill the shoes full time.
So with no clear-cut choice on the way via the draft or free agency, Cincy could be very one-dimensional next year.
No. 19: Arizona Cardinals
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Projected Starting QB: Kevin Kolb
Projected Starting RB: Beanie Wells
Projected Primary WR: Larry Fitzgerald
I tend to think that Larry Fitzgerald is the NFL's best wide receiver but if 2011 was any indication, Kevin Kolb didn't seem to be worth all the offseason hype, a second round pick, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and tens of millions of dollars.
And then there is the running back issue.
When healthy, Beanie Wells might have a chance to be a top-10 runner, but that's the problem: For a young player he has endured a handful of injuries and ailments.
No. 18: New York Jets
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Projected Starting QB: Mark Sanchez
Projected Starting RB: Shonn Greene
Projected Primary WR: Santonio Holmes
Sanchez's faults are well documented, but he has won some big games and is still only 25 years old. So while he's not Joe Namath, he's not Browning Nagle either.
And he doesn't have to get along with Santonio Holmes for those two to be one of the NFL's better duos.
Greene, however, is the big question mark going forward. He was a fine complementary runner to Thomas Jones in 2009, LaDainian Tomlinson in 2010 and started to show he can be the feature back in 2011, but he's not yet a top-tier runner.
No. 17: Oakland Raiders
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Projected Starting QB: Carson Palmer
Projected Starting RB: Darren McFadden
Projected Primary WR: Darrius Heyward-Bey
It may have cost them a first-round pick for relatively little in return—i.e. no playoff berth—but the trade for Carson Palmer still has to be encouraging to Raiders fans.
For someone who didn't go through a training camp and missed a huge portion of the NFL season, Palmer really played well at times. Imagine what he'll be able to achieve next year given a full offseason and preseason.
With Heyward-Bey using his great speed to stretch the field, the Raider passing game should be something that Al Davis would have adored.
And if Darren McFadden didn't have a (well-deserved) reputation of being unable to stay healthy, they'd be one of the best QB/RB/WR combos in the AFC.
No. 16: San Diego Chargers
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Projected Starting QB: Phillip Rivers
Projected Starting RB: Ryan Matthews
Projected Primary WR: Robert Meachem
Time will tell if Vincent Jackson-for-Robert Meachum turns out to be an even swap: I think it will. So for now, the Chargers do have a legitimate No. 1 receiver to relieve pressure on Antonio Gates. He's above average, not a stud.
The same should be said for Ryan Matthews; he can be a 1,000-yard rusher who keeps the defense honest and becomes a serious threat near the goal line.
Phillip Rivers is more of the wild card in this scenario. Two years ago he was a stud and on his way to that Brady, Brees, Manning class. Last season, not so much, be it for an undisclosed injury or something else.
That's why the Chargers' trio falls right smack dab in the middle of this list.
No. 15: Buffalo Bills
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Projected Starting QB: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Projected Starting RB: Fred Jackson
Projected Primary WR: Stevie Johnson
Although they now pay their quarterback and wide receiver (and may soon do the same for their running back) like top-tier players, I'm not convinced they are.
Fitzpatrick had a nice first half to the 2011 season, forcing the Bills to lock him up long term. But he regressed back to a mediocre passer down the stretch.
And although Stevie Johnson makes plays, he's wildly inconsistent.
Then there is Fred Jackson, who could very well lose his job to C.J. Spiller sometime next year. He too had a fine first half of the season—at one point he led the NFL in yards gained—but a leg injury to a 31-year-old back is not terribly encouraging.
No. 14: Baltimore Ravens
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Projected Starting QB: Joe Flacco
Projected Starting RB: Ray Rice
Projected Primary WR: Anquan Boldin
Ray Rice is a superstar.
If this were a list of top backs heading into the 2012 season, he might be No. 1.
And despite being over that 30-year milestone coupled with a rich tapestry of injuries, Anquan Boldin steps up in big games and big situations. He may not be a 1,000-yard receiver any more, but he doesn't have to be to make an impact.
But since Joe Flacco seems to struggle with consistency—and accuracy—they can't be considered a top-10 trio.
No. 13: Dallas Cowboys
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Projected Starting QB: Tony Romo
Projected Starting RB: DeMarco Murray
Projected Primary WR: Dez Bryant
Maybe it's jumping on the bandwagon too early—in fact, it probably is—but I look for DeMarco Murray to pick up right where he left off during his rookie season and be a fine feature runner for Dallas. Maybe not a contender for the league rushing title, but definitely a 1,200-yard runner.
If that is the case both Tony Romo and Dez Bryant can play to their full potential.
Bryant has all the physical tools to become an elite receiver when he's healthy, and Romo is still capable of 4,000 yards passing and 25+ touchdowns.
No. 12: Pittsburgh Steelers
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Projected Starting QB: Ben Roethlisberger
Projected Starting RB: Isaac Redman
Projected Primary WR: Mike Wallace
Although the loss of Rashard Mendenhall—for an indeterminable period of time at this point—hurts, I don't think it's as crippling as others might. Mendenhall was never the consistent back they were looking for.
Whether it's Ike Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Mewelde Moore or some rookie or free agent they bring in, the Steelers will run the ball with marginal results; as much as diehard Steeler fans hate to admit it, this is a passing team now, even with the departure of Bruce Arians.
But because they have Big Ben and Mike Wallace heading up the passing attack, they still earn a reasonably high place on this list. There aren't that many better QB-to-WR combos in the game.
Wallace is lightning quick and Roethlisberger has the arm and escape ability to get him the ball deep downfield.
No. 11: Carolina Panthers
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Projected Starting QB: Cam Newton
Projected Starting RB: DeAngelo Williams
Projected Primary WR: Steve Smith
Newton had an incredible rookie season; now let's see how he reacts to defenses having a full offseason to dissect his weaknesses.
But even if Newton fails to improve—or even takes a step backwards—with DeAngelo Williams and Steve Smith, the Panthers offense is in good hands.
Williams averaged 5.4 yards per carry last year and Smith was every bit the explosive playmaker he was in 2003 or 2005. This is a very well-balanced trio of QB, RB and WR.
No. 10: New York Giants
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Projected Starting QB: Eli Manning
Projected Starting RB: Ahmad Bradshaw
Projected Primary WR: Victor Cruz
In 2011 there may not have been a better pass combination in the NFL than Eli Manning to Victor Cruz, especially in the fourth quarter or critical games.
But their running game was the worst in the NFL last season and now that Brandon Jacobs is gone, it's not going to improve. This is not a case of addition by subtraction.
Ahmad Bradshaw is a solid runner but not the dynamic workhorse who can take over a game: He only has seven 100-yard games since 2007.
No. 9: Detroit Lions
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Projected Starting QB: Matthew Stafford
Projected Starting RB: Jahvid Best
Projected Primary WR: Calvin Johnson
At least in terms of regular=season numbers, Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning were pretty much equal last year; the playoffs are obviously a different story. And both the Lions and Giants running attacks were borderline awful last season.
So I've place the Lions' trio just a notch ahead of the Giants' for one simple reason: Calvin Johnson is probably the best wide receiver in football, or at least a close No. 2 to Larry Fitzgerald.
But for all intents and purposes the Giants and Lions are in a dead heat: two VERY one-sided (even if that one side is incredible) offenses.
No. 8: Green Bay Packers
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Projected Starting QB: Aaron Rodgers
Projected Starting RB: James Starks
Projected Primary WR: Greg Jennings
Similar to the Lions and Giants, the Packers are fairly one-dimensional for the purposes of this list. They have the NFL MVP at quarterback and, although Jordy Nelson led the team in yards and catches, Greg Jennings is still the primary target on that dynamic Packer offense.
But James Starks does separate Green Bay from the two previous entries on this list.
Sure his numbers aren't impressive, but [not-so-bold prediction alert] if Ryan Grant doesn't return, Starks should earn far more carries, more yards and more touchdowns.
Remember, this is a guy who missed his entire senior season in college and came into last year still very raw. Season 3 will be a big one for him.
No. 7: New Orleans Saints
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Projected Starting QB: Drew Brees
Projected Starting RB: Mark Ingram Jr.
Projected Primary WR: Marques Colston
If I have to try to convince you of the greatness of Drew Brees you shouldn't be reading this website...or maybe you should be reading this website far more often.
And although he's not a household name like Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson, Marques Colston should be. Five of Marques Colston's six seasons in the NFL have been for 70-plus catches, 1,000-plus yards.
As far as their running game, obviously there are three (maybe even four) viable contenders for the title of "starter." But I expect the former Heisman Trophy winner who the Saints traded up to get is the pick.
He's had a full year of NFL football under his belt, a full year for that knee to get to 100k percent and a full year to gain Sean Payton's trust. Besides, they didn't trade away then spend another first-round pick for him to carry the ball just 100 times per season.
No. 6: Chicago Bears
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Projected Starting QB: Jay Cutler
Projected Starting RB: Matt Forte
Projected Primary WR: Brandon Marshall
Once again, this is not a list detailing the best offenses in football; just the best trio of QB-RB-WR in football. And as hard as it is to believe, the trade that brought Brandon Marshall to the Windy City pushed the Bears way up that ranking.
Sooner or later Jay Cutler is going to live up to his potential. I have to believe that Mike Martz's style just didn't mesh with Cutler's strengths. He has a fantastic arm and if the Bears ever learn to protect him (presumably Mike Tice can arrange that), then he will be a top-10 passer.
And Matt Forte—also, when healthy—is as versatile a threat as any running back in the league, and doesn't get the credit he deserves as a workhorse: In his short career, he's recorded 20-or-more carries 26 times.
Then there is Marshall, who certainly has his off-the-field concerns but is the big, physical, explosive receiver the Bears have been in search of since...well, forever.
No. 5: San Francisco 49ers
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Projected Starting QB: Peyton Manning
Projected Starting RB: Frank Gore
Projected Primary WR: Michael Crabtree
Ok, I'll put it out there. Peyton Manning will sign with San Francisco.
Now should that happen, there's obviously no guarantee that he'll either be healthy enough to play or he'll return to the All Pro, MVP level he's seemingly always at.
But even Peyton Manning at 80 percent is still very, very good.
And if he's healthy enough to play, look for that to make Michael Crabtree start to be the consistent threat 49ers fans have been hoping to see.
Couple that duo with Frank Gore, always a threat to rush for 100 yards, and this offense can be much more explosive than it was just a year ago.
No. 4: New England Patriots
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Projected Starting QB: Tom Brady
Projected Starting RB: BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Projected Primary WR: Wes Welker
Although the Pats will be ready if he leaves, I'm expecting BenJarvus Green-Ellis to return to New England. He's not going to get the type of money that justifies leaving a year-in, year-out Super Bowl contender.
And just because he's not a 1,500-yard back or a Pro Bowler doesn't diminish his value: He literally never fumbles and is a great threat on the goal line, with 24 touchdowns in the last two seasons.
But obviously the reason the Pats are here is the Brady-to-Welker duo.
Brady is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who is still at the top of his game and Welker—despite the nonsense about his "drop" in the Super Bowl—is the game's most reliable short-range receiver in the game.
No. 3: Atlanta Falcons
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Projected Starting QB: Matt Ryan
Projected Starting RB: Michael Turner
Projected Primary WR: Roddy White
Although they have yet to produce a playoff victory, this trio is fantastic, at least in the regular season.
Turner is a steady ball-carrier who wears defenses down and Ryan is seasoned, intelligent and accurate. Most importantly, neither one of them turns the ball over often.
And while White isn't necessarily an explosive, deep threat (they now have Julio Jones for that role), he's a fantastic possession receiver and durable.
No. 2: Houston Texans
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Projected Starting QB: Matt Schaub
Projected Starting RB: Arian Foster
Projected Primary WR: Andre Johnson
I'll admit that I don't think Matt Schaub is a top-tier quarterback, even if the Texans are paying him like he is.
And that belief is justified by the fact that there was even a hint of credibility to the rumors that they were interested in Peyton Manning. Unless they are over 35 or coming off major health issues, franchise quarterbacks don't lose their jobs.
But Schaub is above average and has done a fine job over the last two years, especially with Andre Johnson being limited by injury at times and having no decent second option to throw to.
So if you put Schaub with (when healthy) perennial Pro Bowler Andre Johnson and the former rushing champion Arian Foster—who was almost unstoppable in two playoff games—and the Texans have the best QB-RB-WR trio in the AFC.
No. 1: Philadelphia Eagles
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Projected Starting QB: Michael Vick
Projected Starting RB: LeSean McCoy
Projected Primary WR: DeSean Jackson
No team in today's NFL has the trio of Hall of Famers that the Cowboys of the 1990s had in Michael Irvin, Emmiitt Smith and Troy Aikman or the Steelers of the 1970s had in Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris and Lynn Swann.
It's rare; something that comes along once every generation.
So while we wait for the next such trio to emerge, we'll have to settle for the one in Philadelphia.
LeSean McCoy will be a viable contender for the NFL rushing crown in 2012, DeSean Jackson (assuming he will stay healthy and won't be a malcontent now that he is being paid more than 10 times what he made last year) is a top-notch receiver and Michael Vick is still the game's most explosive player.
Any one of these players is capable of producing a touchdown from 80 yards out.