11 QB-to-WR Connections We Can't Wait to See in 2011
Although no group of teammates is more important to an NFL quarterback than his offensive linemen, it's his receivers with which the QB absolutely has to establish a healthy relationship.
Gold watches and steak dinners aside, O-linemen don't actually have a choice whether or not they're going to lay it all out to protect their quarterback. Hate him or love him, the QB won't be the first one getting benched or waived if his blockers don't do their jobs. Aside from the center, a quarterback and his linemen can spend the entire offseason in different parts of the country and it won't impact how they perform once they're back on the field.
Meanwhile, quarterbacks and receivers can't fake chemistry. Today's defensive schemes are so complicated and defensive players move so fast that if the timing or trust is off between pitcher and catcher, the incompletions and interceptions will pile up as proof that something isn't right. Quarterbacks and receivers living with each other in the offseason isn't even a new concept in the NFL.
As the NFL preseason gets underway this week with new faces in new places, rookies getting their first action, and players who were sidelined due to injuries and other circumstances last season returning to the field full-time, more than a few QB-to-WR connections are surfacing that have a lot of potential to be special.
Here are 11 passing combos that we haven't seen before or didn't see much of last season that could make highlight-reel magic this season:
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Andy Dalton to A.J. Green
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When the Cincinnati Bengals used this year's No. 4 overall draft pick on Georgia receiver A.J. Green, they had no idea who would be throwing him the ball this season or beyond. Longtime starter Carson Palmer was threatening to retire, novelty backup Jordan Palmer (Carson's little brother) had all of 15 pass attempts in his NFL career, and, well...that was it.
But Green was too talented to pass up, so it didn't really matter at the time.
The next day, Cincy addressed its dilemma by drafting TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round. So now we know who the Bengals are banking on to light up the scoreboard in the future, but what about the present?
Green has pretty much been locked in as a starter since day one, but Dalton is still competing with veteran Bruce Gradkowski for the No. 1 job. Gradkowski has the advantage of already knowing offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's system, but Dalton, like Green, is pretty talented in his own right.
For the Bengals, the future may come sooner than expected.
Cam Newton to Steve Smith
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Other than the end of the NFL lockout—which allowed him to sign a $22 million contract and begin working with his coaches—the best thing to happen to Cam Newton this summer was Steve Smith's decision to squash any trade rumors by declaring his loyalty to the Carolina Panthers organization.
Newton will have enough uncertainty to deal with getting situated as the face of the franchise, but he can at least rely on having one of the league's most talented receivers on his side. (Until Smith is a free agent in 2013.)
Smith finished last season with only 46 catches, 554 yards and two touchdowns, about half of what he's capable of producing in a normal season. With the rocket-armed Newton making Smith his No. 1 target, both can flourish from here on out.
Donovan McNabb to Percy Harvin
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Donovan McNabb put up Hall of Fame-caliber numbers in Philadelphia with a rotating cast of receivers that, more often than not, didn't quite draw comparisons to Mike Quick, Harold Carmichael and Fred Barnett. For every one T.O. or DeSean Jackson who crossed McNabb's line of vision, he got two or three guys like Hank Baskett or James Thrash to work with.
So while Percy Harvin might not be a superstar, he's definitely good enough to appease McNabb as he aims to repair his reputation with the Minnesota Vikings.
Harvin, who caught 71 passes for 868 yards and five TDs last season, has already received high praise from his new QB.
"I have played with guys that play big, but are short in stature and have been so successful," McNabb said about the 5'11" speedster. "You talk about guys like DeSean Jackson and Santana Moss. There is no reason why Percy can't be a perennial Pro Bowler, as a starter at the receiver position with over 1,000 yards receiving, 90-100 catches."
Jake Locker to Kenny Britt
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A few things need to happen before the Tennessee Titans new franchise quarterback can form a lethal combination with their supremely talented third-year receiver.
First, Locker has to earn the trust of the coaching staff that he can take off the training wheels and run the offense. Second, Locker has to unseat veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck. Third, Britt has to keep himself out of trouble and on the field.
Britt caught 42 passes for 775 yards and nine touchdowns last season, his 18.5 yards per catch ranking seventh in the league. But he's still dealing with hamstring injuries that plagued him last year, and he's been arrested six times since the Titans drafted him in '09.
Locker has the arm to get Britt the ball and the elusiveness in the pocket to buy Britt more time to get open. Britt just has to make sure he's taking care of business and that he'll be available when Locker is ready to find him.
Kevin Kolb to Larry Fitzgerald
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Depending on who you ask, Kevin Kolb is either the missing piece who will lead the Arizona Cardinals back to Super Bowl contention, or the overpaid underachieving quarterback who will join guys like Timm Rosenbach and Tom Tupa on the list of forgettable Cardinals QBs.
But until we find out Kolb's fate, Larry Fitzgerald isn't complaining. After spending last season catching passes from a motley crew of mediocre QBs—which didn't stop him from collecting 90 catches, six touchdowns and 1,137 yards along with a Pro Bowl nod—Fitzgerald reportedly asked Arizona's front office to trade for Kolb.
The Cardinals made it happen, and the early results look promising. Kolb and Fitzgerald hooked up for a 43-yard completion early in Thursday's preseason-opening win over Oakland, a play that was two yards longer than Fitzgerald's longest reception last season.
Mark Sanchez to Plaxico Burress
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While the New York Jets did what they had to do to re-sign star receiver Santonio Holmes—giving him a five-year, $50 million contract—they let QB Mark Sanchez's favorite deep threat, WR Braylon Edwards, walk away in free agency, along with another of his trusted playmakers, WR Jerricho Cotchery.
That's where Plaxico Burress is supposed to step in. Back in the league after serving a two-year prison sentence, Burress is 33 years old and hasn't played at a high level since 2008, when he caught the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII to cap a season in which he made 70 catches for 1,025 yards and 12 scores.
Burress is still 6'5" and a physical mismatch for a lot of cornerbacks, but will the time away from football and his age prove too much to overcome? He's already dealing with ankle problems early in training camp, but Burress is still expected to start right away for the title-contending Jets.
Matt Ryan to Julio Jones
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The Atlanta Falcons already have one Pro Bowl receiver in Roddy White—who led the NFL in catches (115) and receiving yards (1,389) last season—and the most productive pass-catching tight end of all-time in Tony Gonzalez, but they still gave up a lot to trade up in the 2011 draft and get Julio Jones.
A teenage phenom who was being compared to everybody from Larry Fitzgerald to Michael Irvin in high school, Jones shined for three years in college at Alabama and won a national championship before going pro. At 6'3" and 220 pounds, he has the physical tools to be even better than White.
Meanwhile, QB Matt Ryan is on the verge of superstardom with Atlanta. He threw for 3,705 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, making his first Pro Bowl, and now with Jones on his side will make the Falcons' passing attack perhaps the most dangerous in the league.
Philip Rivers to Vincent Jackson
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You probably won't get any member of the San Diego Chargers to say it publicly at risk of rocking a delicate boat, but if Vincent Jackson hadn't missed most of last season due to a contract holdout, the team probably would have made the playoffs. He's that valuable.
When Jackson last played a full season (2009), he connected with star QB Philip Rivers for 68 receptions, 1,167 yards and nine touchdowns, and San Diego made the playoffs.
Going into this season armed with a new deal, Jackson already showed what he and Rivers can do when he caught a 48-yard pass from Rivers on the Chargers' opening drive of the preseason. Barring injury, Jackson will put up Pro Bowl stats this season, while Rivers will compete for league MVP.
Tom Brady to Chad Ochocinco
Ochocinco has been (understandably) accused of being more yap than YAC since he realized he could be a celebrity and a star football player, but it's not like he's washed up or can't produce anymore.
Last season his 67 catches, 831 yards and four touchdowns were below his standard, but to be fair, he was put in an unfamiliar position of being the No. 2 receiver in Cincinnati (to Terrell Owens) and the Bengals in general were terrible. If being traded to the New England Patriots can do close to the same thing for Ocho that it did for Randy Moss, No. 85 will regain his Pro Bowl form this season.
He'll have the best quarterback in the game throwing to him in Tom Brady, the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year, Most Valuable Player and First Team All-Pro. Brady threw for 3,900 yards and 36 touchdowns last season versus just four interceptions. With a receiver of Ochocinco's talents added to his arsenal, Brady is leading a team that is better than anybody in the AFC on paper.
Tony Romo to Dez Bryant
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Dez Bryant was drafted to be one of the most dangerous weapons for Tony Romo to utilize in the Dallas Cowboys' offense, but the two mostly missed each other in Bryant's rookie season.
Romo started out the year strong, completing 69 percent of his throws and posting a 94.9 passer rating, but he suffered a season-ending broken clavicle in Week 6. Bryant took a while to get into rhythm while learning the pro game, and coincidentally had his best production of the season right after Romo went down—a three-game stretch beginning in Week 7 where he caught 19 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns.
With Romo back healthy and Bryant having one year under his belt, they could be an explosive passing tandem to watch.
Tarvaris Jackson to Sidney Rice
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A lot was made about how the Minnesota connection in Seattle—QB Tarvaris Jackson, WR Sidney Rice, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell—could help the Seahawks make a smooth transition from new-look offense to repeat NFC West champs.
But how much were Jackson and Rice really on the same page? Jackson was only a part-time starter with the Vikings, and during the 2009 season in which Rice had his best year as a pro, Jackson saw his least playing time as a pro.
Thursday's preseason opener didn't offer any clearer picture. Jackson couldn't find an open receiver more than 10 yards down the field under duress from San Diego's pass rush, and Rice didn't play anyway. Seattle's next game is against the Vikings, where Jackson and Rice could get their first chance to show what they can do against the team that would know better than any other.