Breaking Down the Best Pass-Catching Duos in the NFL

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistMay 21, 2013

Breaking Down the Best Pass-Catching Duos in the NFL

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    It is not just wide receiver partnerships that dominate the list of the best pass-catching duos in the NFL. Tight end tandems and wide receiver/tight end combinations also make the list.

    Pass-catchers from the NFC figure more prominently. There are two combinations from both the NFC East and NFC South.

    Some of these are complementary duos who supplement each other's strengths and weaknesses. Others are like-for-like receivers, who pose matchup nightmares at every level of a defense.

    Here is a breakdown of the league's best pass-catching duos, beginning with honorable mentions for three AFC combos that could prove to be very dangerous in 2013.

Honorable Mentions

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    The first honorable mentions go to a pair of newly formed duos, whose success will rely on strong performances from rookies. If 21st overall pick Tyler Eifert makes an instant impact, the Cincinnati Bengals will have a devastating two-tight end offense.

    Eifert will combine well as a moving piece, with dynamic youngster Jermaine Gresham. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden should be able to move both pass-catchers across multiple formations.

    If he can scheme ways to isolate Gresham on linebackers and force defensive backs to cover Eifert, these two will be very dangerous.

    The Houston Texans will be hoping first-year wideout DeAndre Hopkins can draw some attention away from veteran Andre Johnson. Hopkins has the speed and frame to attack vertical routes with relish and stretch coverage schemes deep.

    That should let Johnson use his strength and intelligence to be more of a force across the middle and underneath.

    The Miami Dolphins are the third AFC team who could boast a prolific pass-catching duo. They will hope that free agent signing Mike Wallace can take plenty of coverage deep.

    That would open up more room for savvy flanker Brian Hartline to exploit intermediate and short-range patterns. Hartline and Wallace are the perfect complementary mix of excellent route-running and game-breaking speed.

    At least they will be if Hartline can repeat 2012's heroics, when he caught 74 passes, and Wallace plays up to his hefty contract.

8. Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas, Denver Broncos

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    This pick is made based on production alone. It is difficult to ignore both Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas surpassing 1,000 yards in 2012.

    However, it is equally difficult to overlook the massive impact Peyton Manning had on these two pass-catchers. Prior to Manning's arrival, neither had ever reached 650 yards in a single season.

    Of course, the quality of passers throwing to Decker and Thomas before 2012, could account for their struggles. Not many wide receivers would thrive in the type of offense Tim Tebow ran in 2011.

    With Manning at the helm, Thomas and Decker took their chance to showcase their talents. Both stand at 6'3" and are capable of overpowering single coverage.

    While Thomas has the true deep speed, Decker has become very effective across the middle. Manning's versatile passing range offers multiple ways to get the ball in the hands of Decker and Thomas and let them make plays after the catch.

    Only the major disparity in the duo's production pre- and post-Manning, and the arrival of Wes Welker, leave this pair propping up the list.

7. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Dallas Cowboys can still rely on Jason Witten to catch every pass thrown into underneath zones. The 31-year-old remains a stellar in-line tight end, with a knack for getting off the line quickly and drifting into any holes in coverage.

    Dez Bryant offers the ideal complement for Witten as the downfield, big-play specialist. Bryant made 92 receptions in 2012 and averaged 15 yards a catch.

    His 6'2", 220-pound frame is enough to take Bryant around or over most defensive backs. The only problem is he doesn't always deliver maximum effort.

    Bryant is this generation's Randy Moss. At his best, he is close to unstoppable. However, his best doesn't occur with any real consistency.

    That and Witten's paltry three touchdowns from an otherwise exceptional season keeps this duo near the bottom of the list.

6. Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants

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    The only thing that prevents Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks from ranking higher is the uncertainty surrounding Cruz's future. The hero of 2011 has yet to sign a new deal, although The New York Post reports that the New York Giants are close to convincing Cruz to stay.

    The Giants need Cruz because he is the most dynamic slot receiver in the game. Even in what was a considered a down year in 2012, Cruz caught 10 touchdown passes and averaged 12.7 yards per reception.

    The beauty of Cruz is that his ability to stretch the seams deep, pulls safeties away from staying over the top of outside receivers. Once a safety drifts inside to help a slot corner on Cruz, Nicks is facing single coverage on the edge.

    Single coverage is something Nicks is good enough to make a defense pay for every time. He uses his size well to overpower defensive backs.

    However, like Cruz, Nicks' future is shrouded in mystery, and he will be a free agent after the 2013 season.

    The Giants need to keep this devastating combination of speed and power intact if they hope to remain contenders in the NFC.

5. Jordy Nelson and James Jones, Green Bay Packers

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    Only Jordy Nelson's persistent hamstring injury that kept him on the sidelines for the last four games of 2012 prevents this Green Bay Packers double act from being higher.

    Nelson and James Jones are lethal weapons in the offense Aaron Rodgers directs with such expertise. What makes them such a potent partnership is that each pass-catcher can do it all.

    Nelson and Jones can both work the middle and the outside routes. They also pose a major threat when they go deep.

    Nelson is the more sure-handed of the two, but Jones really came on strong in 2012. He hauled in 14 touchdowns and revealed a more complete game, after being a vertical weapon most of his career.

    Like Nelson, Jones boasts good size for the position at 6'1" and 208 pounds. He also runs excellent routes and most importantly, has worked hard to improve his hands.

    He is not quite the physical specimen the 6'3", 217-pound Nelson is, but Jones offers greater speed. If the Packers can keep this quick and punishing duo healthy in 2013, they will again be in the thick of the Super Bowl race in the NFC.

4. Lance Moore and Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints

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    Marques Colston may still be Mr. Reliable for the New Orleans Saints. However, pint-sized wide receiver Lance Moore and ultra-athletic tight end Jimmy Graham form the best pass-catching duo for the Black and Gold.

    This little and large double act is one of the best combinations in the league. It starts with the diminutive Moore, a true all-rounder at the wideout position.

    The Saints line him up everywhere. Moore is used to attack coverage schemes from the slot and on the outside.

    He even begins some plays in the backfield. Moore is sent in motion before most snaps and pulls zone concepts apart with his crafty route-running.

    He has always been prolific in the red zone, but Moore has also proved he can stretch the field as well. This mini marvel is one player no defense can ignore.

    Of course, keeping track of Moore is not easy when Jimmy Graham is also on the field. The 6'7", 265-pound tight end who runs like a wide receiver challenges every level of a defense.

    Graham can haul in any pass and turn it into a big gain. Linebackers can't match his quickness and defensive backs are dwarfed by his height and overmatched by his strength.

    As they do with Moore, the Saints aren't shy about moving Graham around to create favorable matchups. Few offenses in the league boast a pair of weapons so versatile.

3. San Francisco 49ers: Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree

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    There isn't another wide receiver/tight end combination that complement each other as well as Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. The San Francisco 49ers have devised a host of ways to use the pair to create weak spots in a defense.

    Sometimes that involves aligning them on the same side. Both are particularly dangerous over the middle.

    Inside route combinations force linebackers and safeties to choose one to cover. That usually leaves the other open for big gains. The 49ers also often invert the pre-snap expectations for Crabtree and Davis.

    With Davis being the tight end and Crabtree the speedster on the outside, most defenses would expect their patterns to reflect their traditional roles.

    However, Davis often becomes the deep outlet in San Francisco's passing game. He will work the seams and even run post patterns and deep crosses.

    Crabtree usually draws coverage away by running underneath slants or comeback routes on the perimeter. Crabtree and Davis are a formidable one-two punch in an underrated passing game that leaves defensive coordinators scrambling for solutions.

2. Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, New England Patriots

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    The most dominant two-tight end offense in football belongs to the New England Patriots, thanks to the versatile talents of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

    The Patriots show no signs of running out of ways to use Gronkowski and Hernandez to terrorize defenses. Both spend time in the slot, in-line and out wide.

    Gronkowski presents a favorable target against any defender, regardless of position. He remains perhaps the most deadly red-zone receiver in the game.

    While Gronkowski is content to batter defenses, Hernandez prefers to outrun them. He is a wide receiver trapped in the frame of a tight end and the Patriots use him as such.

    They let Hernandez take screen passes, shift in motion to a flanker's position and run deep routes off the line. The Patriots will use any method to maximize Hernandez's talents in space.

    While Gronkowski usually delivers the force, Hernandez offers more guile. Every defense has to note their pre-snap positions on every play.

    Gronkowski and Hernandez are so good as a duo, they have propelled the Patriots to consecutive AFC Championship Games, despite threadbare options at wide receiver.

    Injuries meant that the Patriots rarely had Gronkowski and Hernandez on the field together in 2012. If that changes in 2013, Bill Belichick's team will still be a powerful force in the AFC race.

1. Roddy White and Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons' multi-talented passing game is headlined by explosive duo Julio Jones and Roddy White. They are the best pass-catching combination in football.

    Both are physical and dynamic wide receivers who each command double coverage. They are very adept at working the outside.

    White is the veteran and continues to be a nightmare for defensive backs. He caught 92 passes in 2012.

    The 31-year-old is still a credible vertical target, but is equally proficient over the middle and along the sideline. Jones is the big-play specialist, as his 10 touchdowns and 15.2 yards per reception average in 2012 proves.

    Jones and White are true vertical playmakers. Their size and speed stretches defenses all over the field and gives Atlanta the league's best passing attack.