High Risers: The Next QB/WR Duos To Look For in the NFL
This past weekend, Jerry Rice, who is considered by most to be the greatest wide receiver in the history of the NFL, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
As great as he was, Rice certainly didn’t come to own pretty much every major statistical receiving record on his own.
In fact, the quarterbacks whose passes Rice was catching throughout his immaculate career were some of the best signal callers of their generation and beyond.
There’s little doubt that Rice was probably the best receiver ever to play the game, but catching passes from the likes of Montana, Young, and Gannon only enhanced his greatness.
In the NFL, there are few relationships that are as important as the quarterback-receiver dynamic.
This certainly explains why the best-of-the-best at both of these positions were either throwing the ball to great receivers or catching the ball from a great quarterback.
Of course it’s entirely possible for a great quarterback to make average receivers into very good players, and vice-versa.
But for the most part, it’s a two way street; quarterbacks make their receivers better, and receivers make their quarterbacks better.
Over the years, as these players get to know each other’s tendencies, practice habits, strengths, and weaknesses, they form a bond which makes both players even better.
The quarterback-receiver duos on this list are those who have the potential to turn into great connections for many years to come, but simply haven’t played enough (if at all) with each other to turn this potential into a consistent reality.
As we anxiously look forward to the 2010 NFL season more than Andy Reid awaiting his daily four-pound breakfast burrito, let’s take a look at some of the up-and-coming quarterback-receiver duos in the NFL.
Chad Henne to Brandon Marshall
Dolphins fans finally got their go-to receiver this offseason as the team managed to acquire the controversial but extremely talented Marshall in a trade with the Denver Broncos.
While the rest of the NFL is waiting for Marshall to either; slip and hurt himself on another McDonald’s bag, finally piss off commissioner Goodell enough for him to be suspended for an entire season, or simply be overwhelmed by South Beach, Dolphins fans know they’ve got one of the most unique receivers in the NFL.
In his time with the Denver Broncos, the 6’4’’ 230-pound Marshall established himself as the model of consistency at wide receiver, hauling in over 100 catches and 1,000 receiving yards in each of his last three seasons.
This coming year, Marshall will bring his unusual blend of size, power, and speed to Miami where he will team up with the Dolphins young quarterback Chad Henne.
In just his second season in the NFL, Henne was thrust into the Dolphins starting job after Chad Pennington blew out his shoulder in Week Three against the Chargers.
Under the circumstances, Henne performed fairly well especially considering he didn’t have a legitimate number one receiver whom he could count on.
Despite struggling at times, Henne showed flashes of being a very solid NFL quarterback last season and is expected to continue to improve in 2010 with almost a full season of starting under his belt.
In 2010 the Dolphins will continue to be a run-first offense, but that doesn’t mean Marshall and Henne won’t begin to blossom into one of the best young quarterback-receiver combos in the NFL.
Mark Sanchez to Braylon Edwards
Just a season ago, Braylon Edwards was a disgruntled member of the Cleveland Browns and Mark Sanchez was a rookie quarterback who was competing with Kellen Clemens for the Jets starting spot.
One year later, after an early season trade, and a surprising run to the AFC Championship game, Edwards and Sanchez are two of the biggest players in the passing game on a Jets team that has Super Bowl aspirations.
Although it seems like Edwards has been in the league forever, he’s still only 27 years-old and the 6’3’’ former Michigan standout will be looking to prove that his 2007 season with the Browns wasn’t a fluke.
Because of his big play ability and size, Edwards is pretty much a perfect match for the strong armed Sanchez and the two should be able to stretch defenses by going over the top as they did on a few occasions in 2009.
Of course, Edwards is facing questions about his concentration and uncanny ability to drop relatively easy passes while Sanchez is still just a second-year quarterback who struggled to make the proper reads and decisions in many instances during his rookie campaign.
Those shortcomings aside, the duo should benefit from nearly a full season of playing together as well as the entire 2010 preseason which should help them form one of the best young deep threat combos in the NFL this coming season.
The Jets are still a run first team, there’s no doubting that, but if Sanchez and Edwards can continue to work together and steadily improve their game, they should turn some heads in 2010 and beyond.
Kevin Kolb to DeSean Jackson
Speaking of deep threats, there might not be a scarier player in the deep passing game than Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson.
The 5’10’’ burner had a nearly unprecedented season in 2009 where he compiled 10 catches of over 40 yards, seven of which went for touchdowns.
Thanks to his breakaway speed, Jackson is capable of scoring whenever he touches the ball and when an opposing safety sees him streaking down the field it’s like the Pittsburgh Steelers ownership seeing Ben Roethlisberger in a sorority house—it’s not going to end well.
While Jackson has established himself as one of the premier deep threats in the league, the Eagles quarterback, Kevin Kolb, will be entering his first season as the team’s starter and will be trying to replace, Donovan McNabb, one of the greatest quarterbacks in Eagles history.
Having only attempted 130 passes over his three year career, Kolb is essentially an unproven commodity in the NFL, but the fact that the Eagles were so willing to hand him the starting job tells you what they think about his potential.
Another positive for the Kolb-Jackson duo is how the two performed together when Kolb started Weeks Two and Three for the Eagles after Donovan McNabb injured his ribs.
In those two games, Jackson put up a combined 250 receiving yards and two touchdowns both of which came on throws of over 60 yards.
So while it was only two games and Kolb might be inexperienced, it would seem that he already has great chemistry with Jackson, which should make a lot of defensive coordinators unhappy for many seasons to come.
Alex Smith to Michael Crabtree
There’s no doubt that both Smith and Crabtree have a lot of work to do before they’re considered one of the best QB/WR duos in the NFL, but it’s tough to argue with the potential that the two of them possess.
It once appeared that Smith, the former No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, would be just another early round quarterback bust after missing most of the 2007 season and all of 2008 with a shoulder injury.
But after Shaun Hill faltered during the first few weeks of the 2009 season, Smith got his chance to show he could be a starting quarterback in the NFL and had a solid season leading the 49ers.
In the 11 games he started, Smith posted respectable numbers; 2,350 yards passing, threw 18 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions, and posted a 60.5 completion percentage.
Meanwhile, Michael Crabtree held true to the perception that NFL wide receivers can be divas by holding out of 49ers camp as well as missing the first five games of the regular season.
The two sides finally worked out a deal and considering he was a rookie who had basically no connection with his teammates, coaches, or life in the NFL, Crabtree did well enough in the 11 games he did play, compiling 625 receiving yards as well as two touchdowns.
Looking ahead to the 2010 season, Crabtree possesses good size, hands, and while he’s not a burner, he is a tough runner who can be difficult to bring down once he gets the ball.
The 49ers will be a run heavy team in 2010, but with Smith being named the starter heading into the new season and having a full offseason to develop even better chemistry with Crabtree it would appear that this duo is moving in the right direction.
Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson
Detroit Lions fans haven’t had many reasons to feel good about their team over the last decade, but the combo of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson could do a lot to ease their pain.
Johnson is one of the most physically gifted players in the entire game, standing 6’5’’ and possessing great strength and athleticism which make him a mismatch for pretty much every cornerback who tries to cover him.
Johnson used the 2008 season as his official coming out party, torching opposing defenses to the tune of 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns in just his second year in the NFL.
Unfortunately for Lions fans, Calvin took a step back in 2009.
Thanks in part to minor injury troubles as well as adjusting to a rookie quarterback, the impressive young receiver saw his numbers drop in every major category.
As with any rookie quarterback, Matthew Stafford had more than his share of growing pains in 2009, as the 22-year-old threw 20 interceptions and missed six games due to injury.
But his first season in the league wasn’t all bad.
The rookie signal caller started the only two games the Lions won last year, and also delivered one of the gutsiest performances of the season when he threw the game winning touchdown pass against the Browns with a dislocated non-throwing shoulder.
Stafford has everything you want in a quarterback in terms of arm strength and accuracy and throws a great deep ball which should allow Calvin Johnson to use his size and athleticism to make plays down the field.
With all of the physical tools and one of the game’s best receivers in Johnson, Stafford has to limit his mistakes and begin to become the leader of this sputtering franchise both on and off the field.
This impressive (albeit young) duo certainly has their work cut out for them but there’s no reason why they can’t be one of the most feared aerial combos in the NFL in the near future.
Eli Manning to Hakeem Nicks/Steve Smith
Heading into the 2009 NFL draft, the New York Giants were looking to replace one of the best receivers in the league after Plaxico Burress inexplicably shot himself in the leg and was sentenced to two years in prison.
The Giants chose to put that messy fiasco behind them with their first-round selection of Hakeem Nicks out of North Carolina.
Despite battling injuries during his rookie season, Nicks showed that he has the talent and big play ability to be a guy that opposing defenses should keep their eyes on.
In what was a disappointing season overall for the Giants, Nicks had himself a productive year putting up 790 receiving yards, catching six touchdowns and posting an impressive 16.8 yards per catch.
While he might not be the biggest, fastest, or strongest wide receiver in the game today, Nicks is simply a playmaker who has no weaknesses to his game and possesses incredible hands.While Hakeem Nicks landed on the Giants roster because of Plaxico Burress, Steve Smith used his absence to announce his official arrival in the NFL.
In 2009 Smith set the Giants single-season receptions record and became the team’s first Pro Bowl receiver since 1968.
While Smith is an undersized player who isn’t much of a deep threat, he knows how to find and exploit soft spots in the opposing defense and will constantly work the underneath routes to perfection much like Wes Welker.
Catching passes from an experienced quarterback like Eli Manning should only improve Nicks and Smith as players and it would seem that the only thing keeping all three from terrorizing defenses for the foreseeable future is Nicks’ durability.
If he can manage to stay healthy, Nicks, Smith, and Manning should help Giants fans numb the pain of the Plaxico fiasco.
Aaron Rodgers to Jermichael Finley
Yes I know that Jermichael is a tight end and not a wide receiver, but the 6’5’’ 247 pound behemoth certainly has the ability to put up wide receiver type numbers for an explosive Green Bay offense.
With Aaron Rodgers emerging as one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, Finley finds himself in a prime position to see many red-zone targets as well as getting an opportunity to pile up the yards going over the middle of the field.
After he overcame a pesky knee injury as well as working his way up the Packers depth chart, Finley showed flashes during the 2009 season that he was on the brink of becoming one of the most dangerous tight ends in the NFL.
His performances in Weeks Four, Thirteen, and in the Packers epic Wild Card loss to the Cardinals proved that he can play the game at a very high level and have defensive coordinators reaching for the Pepto every time they think about trying to match up with the third year pro out of Texas.
Too big for defensive backs and too athletic for most linebackers, Finley presents your classic mismatch at tight end and looks to become one of Aaron Rodgers favorite targets for many years to come.
Tony Romo to Dez Bryant/Miles Austin
It seems Dez Bryant has been in the news for pretty much everything besides playing football as he enters his rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys.
Ranging from Dolphins executives asking inappropriate questions about his mother, to refusing to carry veteran Roy Williams’ pads, to suffering an ankle injury in the early stages of camp, Bryant’s name keeps popping up for all the wrong reasons.
But on the field, no one doubts Bryant’s talent, as he possesses a wide array of skills; being able to run by you, through you, and jump over you, to get pretty much whatever he wants on the football field.
Meanwhile, Miles Austin came out of nowhere to have a huge 2009 season and emerged as one of Tony Romo’s favorite and most reliable targets.
Even though he didn’t play very much for the first four weeks of the 2009 season, Austin’s numbers were still amongst the very best in the NFL and he proved to be incredibly tough to take down after the ball was in his hands.
With these two young and very promising receivers at his disposal, Tony Romo should be able to pick most defenses apart and as long as Bryant is given some time to develop into the player most think he can be, it will be almost impossible for the majority of secondaries to keep track of both Bryant and Austin.
Joe Flacco to Anquan Boldin
For years, the intimidating Baltimore Ravens defense has been the team’s calling card, while their offense seemed to lag behind.
But that figures to change this season, after the team acquired Anquan Boldin from the Arizona Cardinals in an off-season trade.
The addition of the 6’1’’ 230 pound wrecking ball of a wide-receiver known as Anquan Boldin should finally give Joe Flacco a go-to pass catcher who isn’t shy about going over the middle.
For the last seven years, Boldin has been one of the toughest and best receivers in the league but because he was playing alongside Larry Fitzgerald it was easy to forget about just how good he really is.
Now that he is out of Fitzgerald’s shadow, Boldin should be able to showcase his skills as the Ravens number one guy.
Joe Flacco will have the luxury of targeting Boldin for the foreseeable future, and the strong armed quarterback should continue to see an improvement in his numbers and overall effectiveness thanks in large part to Boldin’s presence.
Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace
Before the 2009 season if someone said the name Mike Wallace almost everyone would think of the 60 Minutes correspondent who is older than time itself.
But after the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie receiver also named Mike Wallace posted 756 yards and six touchdowns in 2009 we now think of the speedy, young playmaker who can run with anyone in the NFL.
Wallace used this unbelievable speed (ran a 4.33 40 at the 2009 combine) to blow past would-be defenders last season and became one of Big Ben’s favorite long distance targets.
With the departure of Santonio Holmes from Pittsburgh’s passing game, Wallace, who led the league last season with a ridiculous 19.4 yards per catch, figures to play a much bigger role this season and beyond as he should see many more opportunities thanks to being named one of the team’s starting wide-outs.
Although the Ben Roethlisberger suspension complicates matters in the short-term, when looking at the long term potential of Wallace and Roethlisberger, Steelers fans have to be excited about a guy who’s this young and this talented.