Best Emerging QB-WR Combinations in the NFL Today
Every quarterback needs that receiver he can trust to be in the right spot at the right time and to come down with the ball in his hands in clutch moments.
Sometimes, the relationship builds almost instantaneously. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning took almost no time at all getting on the same page with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, and both men have enjoyed back-to-back Pro Bowl selections for their efforts. Other times, that relationship builds with time as the quarterback and receiver begin to work like two halves of a whole.
To determine which quarterback-receiver combos qualify as "emerging" as opposed to "established," we have to set some criteria. The first is that the duo cannot have been together for more than two years. Additionally, the receiver cannot have made the Pro Bowl in the time he has been playing with his quarterback.
So, with the parameters established, let's start looking at which tandems fit the bill.
Miami Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill and WR Brian Hartline
Brian Hartline has been in the NFL for five years but has only begun to reach his potential over the past two seasons with the arrival of Ryan Tannehill. Hartline has led the Dolphins in receptions and has crossed the 1,000-yard plateau in each of the past two years, totaling 150 receptions for 2,099 yards.
The two have hit it off in multiple ways, but Hartline's uncanny sideline awareness makes him a great target on comebacks and other out-breaking routes. Tannehill's ability to throw on the move has made these difficult plays look routine.
The Dolphins introduced several new receivers to revamp the offense last season, with the likes of Mike Wallace and Brandon Gibson brought in to give Tannehill more options. None of those acquisitions changed Hartline's status as Tannehill's go-to target. Hartline may not be the fastest or biggest receiver, but he is quick, smart, sure-handed and knows how to get open.
New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees and WR Kenny Stills
Drew Brees has a penchant for making his receivers look great, regardless of what round they were drafted or how long he's been working with them. Receivers such as Marques Colston and Lance Moore can thank much of their career success to Brees' pinpoint accuracy.
In 2013, rookie fifth-round pick Kenny Stills was the latest receiver to feel the positive impact of Brees' quarterbacking prowess. His blistering 4.38-second 40-yard dash translated to the NFL field in the form of big plays; Stills averaged a league-leading 20 yards per reception as a rookie.
With a bevy of other receivers at Brees' disposal, Stills may not emerge as one of the Saints' leading receivers right away—he hauled in only 32 catches in 2013. The departure of Moore and running back Darren Sproles could mean more catches to go around, so Stills' importance to the offense could grow in 2014.
Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck and WR T.Y. Hilton
The Indianapolis Colts offense has undergone some dramatic changes since the departure of Peyton Manning, but the aerial attack is in good hands with Andrew Luck at the helm. In 2012, Luck locked into one of Manning's most trusted targets, Reggie Wayne, to the tune of a team-high 106 receptions. When Wayne went down early in the 2013 season, it signaled a need for a new No. 1 to emerge for the year.
It was a tall order, but the 5'9", 178-pound T.Y. Hilton was up to the challenge. His 82 receptions, 1,083 yards and five touchdowns all led the team, and his 13-catch, two-touchdown performance lifted the Colts past the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs.
Hilton was one of the league's best deep threats last year, hauling in 11 of 26 passes that traveled 20 yards or more without a drop. The experience of being the go-to guy in 2013 could be an important building block toward the future, and the return of Wayne on the opposite side could mean another step forward for Hilton.
Chicago Bears QB Jay Cutler and WR Alshon Jeffery
Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall have developed a symbiotic relationship dating back to their Denver days; Alshon Jeffery is new to the mix, but it hasn't taken him long to solidify himself as a favorite target of Cutler's.
The Bears were short-handed at receiver in 2012, and it showed with Marshall's team-leading 118 receptions, which stood 74 grabs over the Bears' second-leading receiver. Jeffery was drafted by the Bears in 2012, but he missed six games due to injury; he was fully healthy last season and filled the No. 2 role nicely with 89 receptions, just 11 receptions short of Marshall's 100.
The 6'3", 216-pound receiver has no problem winning one-on-one matchups on the outside. He also has sure, 10.5-inch hands and dropped only five of 89 catchable balls in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 16th out of 94 qualifying receivers.
Marshall may always be Cutler's favorite target, but Jeffery is almost if not equally important to the Bears offense.
San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers and WR Keenan Allen
Philip Rivers was a statistical juggernaut under the tutelage of former head coach Norv Turner, but the wheels began to fall off the Chargers' bus down the stretch of Turner's run, and Rivers' play suffered as well. Prior to the 2012 season, former Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, creating an opening at receiver that the Chargers never truly filled.
That was the case until the arrival of third-round pick Keenan Allen in the 2013 draft. Allen led all rookies in receptions in 2013, using his size and jump-ball skills to give Rivers exactly the kind of threat he was missing when Jackson left.
Chargers head coach Mike McCoy likes a bit more balance to his offense than Norv Turner did, but if Rivers' resurgent 2013 is any indication (league-leading 69.5 completion percentage), the passing game will still be an important part of the offense in the future.
Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and WR Doug Baldwin
Doug Baldwin and Russell Wilson were both overlooked coming out of college—Wilson wasn't drafted until the third round, and Baldwin went undrafted. Since joining forces in 2012, the two have benefited greatly from each other's presence.
Thanks to their continued reliance on the running game, the Seahawks passing attack is not robust, but it is remarkably efficient—thanks in part to the efforts of Wilson and Baldwin. According to Pro Football Focus, Baldwin caught 71.6 percent of the passes thrown in his direction last season.
Baldwin finished the 2013 season with 50 receptions, an improvement of 21 on his 2012 season, and he may be asked to take on an even bigger role this year with former Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate now catching passes for the Detroit Lions.
Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III and WR Pierre Garcon
Catching passes from Peyton Manning is a good way for any receiver to get his start in the NFL, but Pierre Garcon didn't stop producing great grabs and solid numbers once he left Indianapolis.
It didn't take long for Robert Griffin III and Garcon to begin developing their chemistry. In fact, it only took 11 minutes and 32 seconds of game time in Week 1 of the 2012 season for the two to connect on their first touchdown. The 2013 season was a down year for the Redskins, but it was still a huge year for the Griffin-Garcon connection, as Garcon led the NFL with 113 receptions.
Garcon will have to be a little more reliable; he dropped 11 passes in 2013, tied for fourth most in the league, but more targets can sometimes lead to more drops. The Redskins offense also got a shot of adrenaline this offseason with the addition of DeSean Jackson, so while Garcon's reception total may slip a little from last season, the overall potency of the Redskins offense could be better for it.
San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick and WR Michael Crabtree
A lot of things changed when the San Francisco 49ers made the switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick, but the steady emergence of Michael Crabtree was not one of them. Some might think of him as a "sorry receiver," but there's nothing sorry about drastically improving on your numbers in each of your first four years in the league, as Crabtree did.
In 18 games (12 regular season, six playoffs) since Kaepernick was permanently inserted as the starter, the two have connected on 95 of 147 tries (64.6 percent) for 1,367 yards, nine touchdowns and two interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus.
Crabtree and Kaepernick chemistry-building was set off course for a short time in 2013, with Crabtree missing the first 11 games of the season with an Achilles injury, but they picked up right where they left off when he returned, and their relationship should continue to flourish in 2014.