Will Reuniting College Football Stars Be the Next Big NFL Trend?

Alex KayContributor ISeptember 14, 2021

CINCINNATI, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 12: Ja'Marr Chase #1 and Joe Burrow #9 of the Cincinnati Bengals meet in overtime against the Minnesota Vikings at Paul Brown Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The NFL has long been known as a copycat league. Whenever a team finds success, rival coaches and general managers have little shame taking the strategy and employing it for themselves.

Examples of this in the last couple of decades include the proliferation of no-huddle offenses after Tom Brady and Peyton Manning successfully ran them, the spread of the Wildcat formation after the Miami Dolphins flummoxed foes with it and a hiring craze for young head coaches following the early success of Sean McVay with Los Angeles Rams.

A new trend now seems to be emerging around the league: Reuniting college quarterbacks with some of their top wide receivers.

In Week 1, there were three new batteries who played together at the collegiate level, now showcasing their talents for the same NFL team. This group includes Jalen Hurts and DeVonta Smith, Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase, and Tua Tagovailoa and Jaylen Waddle. All three of these connections were completed early in the 2021 draft.

Uncredited/Associated Press

Five of these six players were early first-round draft choices, with Hurts—a second-round selection by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2020—being the lone exception.

The Cincinnati Bengals have the most highly drafted players of the group, getting Burrow at No. 1 in 2020 before taking his LSU teammate Chase at No. 5 this year. The Dolphins aren't far behind, having drafted Alabama's Tagovailoa No. 5 two years ago before taking Waddle at No. 6 back in April. Smith was the final wideout to be reunited with his former college QB this year after the Eagles traded up to No. 10 to secure the Crimson Tide star's services.

So far, the decision to reunite these star players seems nothing short of brilliant.

Although each tandem has played just one game together, all three connected for touchdown passes and all three of their teams won in Week 1, a promising development for this emerging tactic.

The dynamic LSU duo of Burrow and Chase had the best statistical showing in the season-opener, creating five receptions for 101 yards and a score. The Alabama teammates weren't far behind, with Hurts and Smith combining for six receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown, while Tagovailoa and Waddle came away with six receptions for 61 yards and a TD.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 12: Jalen Hurts #1 of the Philadelphia Eagles high fives teammate DeVonta Smith #6 prior to the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 12, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

While pairing together college teammates at the pro level isn't a brand new concept, never before have so many high-profile players had this level of familiarity with a former teammate coming into the NFL.

One would have to go back to the early 1950s to find an example of players this highly regarded coming into the NFL and having immense success together. QB Tobin Rote and WR Billy Howton, members of the 1949 Rice Owls, were drafted in the first round by the Green Bay Packers in 1950 and 1951, respectively. The duo went on to set a still-standing record of 26 touchdowns together in the NFL.

No other collegiate connection has combined for more than 16 NFL touchdowns.

There are only a handful of modern examples involving college teammates having some modicum of success together in the pros.  The Indianapolis Colts are responsible for perhaps the most notable, drafting a pair of Stanford prospects in quarterback Andrew Luck and tight end Coby Fleener back in 2012.

Bleacher Report's Scott Kacsmar found that this was the only time in history that a franchise used its first- and second-round selections on a quarterback and pass-catcher from the same school.

The pair went on to record 14 scores together—failing to eclipse their 18-touchdown mark with the Cardinal—before Fleener left Indianapolis following the 2015 season.

The Arizona Cardinals are another team currently employing former college teammates at the QB and WR spots. 

Kyler Murray and Christian Kirk knew one another from seven-on-seven tournaments in high school before playing together at Texas A&M for the 2015 campaign. Although battery only worked together on a limited basis before being drafted, they have now hooked up for 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns on 120 receptions across 28 games with the Cardinals.

COLLEGE STATION, TX - OCTOBER 31: Kyler Murray #1 and Christian Kirk #3 of the Texas A&M Aggies celebrate the Aggies' 35-28 victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks in a NCAA football game at Kyle Field on October 31, 2015 in College Station, Texas. (Pho
Eric Christian Smith/Getty Images

There could be more instances of teammates being reunited in the near future. Coaches have even started asking for input from their current players before drafting one of their former teammates.

According to Mark Long of the AP, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said he reached out to Burrow to see how the signal-caller felt about bringing in Chase, who had opted out of the 2020 campaign.

The pair had played for two seasons together at LSU, combining for an impressive 107 receptions for 2,093 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2018-19, winning a national title in their final season with the Tigers:

"I don't know that I needed a lot of convincing," Taylor said. "I just said, 'On a scale of 1 to 10, what would be your excitement level if we added Ja'Marr Chase?' And he said, '10.' That's a pretty good answer."

Another interesting example involving skill position players from the same collegiate offense getting drafted together occurred early in the 2021 draft.

While the Jacksonville Jaguars didn't bring in a Clemson receiver to augment Trevor Lawrence, the franchise's No. 1 overall pick this year, they did use their second first-rounder to acquire another Tiger to ease Lawrence's transition into the NFL.

The Jags drafted running back Travis Etienne Jr.—the star running back who took handoffs and caught passes from Lawrence for his final three seasons at Clemson—at No. 25, making him the first back off the board this year.

However, we'll have to wait to see if this unique decision will pan out, as Etienne is beginning his pro career on the injured reserve after undergoing surgery on his foot. He'll be out for the entire 2021 campaign but can hopefully bounce back to support Lawrence in his sophomore outing.

Before going down for the year, Etienne told Long that playing with Lawrence provided a "sense of normalcy" while he was getting adjusted to life in the NFL.

No coach has been more apt to keep college teammates together lately than the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick. Long noted the legendary head coach has drafted 12 sets of collegiate teammates in the last 16 years, including in 2021, when he used the team's first two picks to bring in Alabama QB Mac Jones and DL Christian Barmore.

While Belichick wasn't able to land a Crimson Tide pass-catcher with any of New England's eight picks this year, the team could end up continuing the NFL's latest trend in 2022.

It's possible the Pats select someone like John Metchie III, a talented wideout who has the chance to be the next great 'Bama wideout, to bolster the receiving corps with a familiar face. Landing a player who the signal-caller amassed 916 yards and six touchdowns on 55 receptions during the 2020 season could be a huge boon for New England's offense.

If the Burrow-Chase, Tagovailoa-Waddle and Hurts-Smith batteries continue to be as successful as they started, personnel decision-makers around the league will take note. In this copycat league, the chances of more collegiate quarterbacks and receivers being reunited in next year's draft will skyrocket.