Ranking the Best QB-WR Duos of the 2021 NFL Season so Far
Great chemistry between a quarterback and wide receiver is akin to a romantic relationship. The significant other often knows what their partner is thinking or feeling without the need to be verbalized. A quick glance or specific look may be all it takes to say so much between one another.
Those two being on the same page often translates to the field because a level of trust exists between both parties.
"The key is ... being reliable and earning my trust," Rodgers once told the Wisconsin State Journal's Jason Wilde. "I never feel like there's been a real difficult recipe or plan. It's you know what you're doing; you're in the right spot at the right time; and you don't make repeat mental mistakes."
The little things matter. Reliability is the causeway toward a successful long-term relationship. Greatness is born out of the minutiae.
It won't always be perfect. The ebb and flow of daily NFL life change over time. For example, the Buffalo Bills' Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs formed a bond in 2020 and hit amazing highs playing alongside one another for the first time. However, their overall performance has taken an ever-so-slight step back through the first five games of the '21 campaign.
The following duos are still flying high and connecting on a regular basis as the best quarterback-wide receiver combinations the pass-first league currently has to offer.
7. Patrick Mahomes-Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
Life is becoming more difficult for Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs' offense as opponents try to force the quarterback into being more patient and allow fewer explosive plays.
Mahomes already threw six interceptions through five games after not passing for more more than six in each of the last two seasons. The quarterback is even questioning himself after an uneven start.
"I have to re-evaluate where I'm at, what decisions I'm making," the Chiefs quarterback told reporters after Sunday's loss to the Buffalo Bills. "… I have to cut it out."
How can Mahomes and Hill still be considered an elite duo despite some disappointment? What they deem a disappointing start is all relative.
The Chiefs are still the fourth-ranked offense. Mahomes still has a league-leading 16 touchdown passes and 75.0 QBR. The quarterback ranks among the top eight in competition percentage, passing yardage and quarterback rating. He's simply operating against an impossible standard.
The same applies to Tyreek Hill. The 27-year-old is widely considered the game's fastest person and its greatest deep threat. But he's never been a one-trick pony. Hill is a complete target and one of the league's best. The Chief is still tied for second with 37 receptions, fourth with 516 receiving yards and tied for seventh with four touchdown receptions.
Kansas City may have gotten off to a rough start, but the Mahomes-Hill combination continues to click.
6. Matthew Stafford-Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams
Matthew Stafford's transition from 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions to the Los Angeles Rams has been seamless. The quarterback fit right in with his new team. Cooper Kupp's performance is a significant reason behind Stafford's early success.
"He's a really talented player, he understands the game really well," Stafford said of Kupp last month. "I think it's probably just more a testament to him, than anything. I think he's one of those guys that's about as overlooked as anybody in the league. ... He's a really talented player and I'm just happy I get to work with him."
Kupp produced at a high level before Stafford came onto the scene. Over the last two seasons, the 28-year-old target averaged 93 receptions and 1,068 receiving yards.
The wide receiver is on a different trajectory at the moment, though. Kupp is currently tied for second with 37 receptions and five touchdown catches and third with 523 receiving yards. If he maintains his current pace, he'll amass 125 catches for 1,778 yards and 17 touchdowns—all three of which would set new career-highs. Even if Kupp's production tapers off to a degree, he's still in line for a career year.
The Rams' passing attack is helped by the fact Stafford's natural arm talent expands the playbook and stretches a defense both vertically and horizontally, which creates more space for Kupp to operate. Stafford currently ranks second among quarterbacks who have played the majority of the season with an average of 9.2 yards per attempt.
5. Justin Herbert-Mike Williams, Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers' Justin Herbert isn't just a good young quarterback; he's already one of the league's best signal-callers at 23 years old. Much like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson before him, Herbert continues to ascend in his second season with a possible MVP trophy awaiting him.
So far, the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year has three games with 337 or more passing yards. He threw three or more touchdowns in each of his last three contests (all victories against the Kansas City Chiefs, Las Vegas Raiders and Cleveland Browns). The Chargers' signal-caller is the league's best quarterback on third and fourth downs, per Pro Football Focus. Plus, he holds the league's third-best grade among starting quarterbacks.
Herbert is special. But all great talents need those around them to maximize their capabilities.
For years, Keenan Allen served as the Chargers' go-to receiver. The 29-year-old target still leads the squad with 34 receptions. But Mike Williams has become the real threat as he develops alongside Herbert.
The rapport between the two has only gotten stronger as Williams improved. His six touchdown receptions currently lead the league. The 6'4" target has turned into more than a downfield threat.
"The guy's a fantastic receiver," head coach Bradon Staley told reporters after Sunday's victory. "He's a complete receiver. He can beat you in the deep part of the field, he can beat you in the first or second level. He can move throughout the formation and what you're seeing is a guy who, when you need a win, can. He can."
4. Tom Brady-Mike Evans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The world keeps turning and Tom Brady continues to play great football. At this point, his age shouldn't even enter the equation because Brady hasn't showed any signs of slowing down.
Through five games, the seven-time Super Bowl champion is the league's highest-graded quarterback, per Pro Football Focus' Jarad Evans. He's yet to throw a turnover-worthy pass. Brady's understanding of the game and where to go with the ball based on pre- and post-snap reads is as good, or better, than anyone else who's ever stepped onto a football field. As such, he doesn't need to be the greatest athlete or have the biggest arm. The 22-year veteran picks defenses apparent because of his aptitude for playing the position and dedication to his craft.
Still, the fact Brady leads the league with 1,767 passing as the orchestrator of the game's No. 1 passing offense borders on absurd. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers average 349.4 passing yards per game. As long as Brady stays healthy throughout the new 17-game regular season, he'll obliterate Peyton Manning's single-season passing record of 5,477 yards.
The Buccaneers have the weapons on the outside to achieve this historic task.
Brady spreads the wealth between Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Antonio Brown. Of the three, Evans, who currently leads the squad with 393 yards and four touchdowns, is the biggest threat because of his size (6'5", 225 pounds), which makes him nearly impossible to cover down the field and in the red zone.
Evans wasn't much of a factor in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, but he has 26 catches for 369 Yds and four scores during the subsequent month of play.
3. Joe Burrow-Ja'Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
A supernatural link seems to exist between Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and rookie wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase. Their mind-meld allowed the LSU Tigers to run roughshod over every other college football team during the 2019 campaign in one of the most impressive season-long performances the game has ever seen.
They've picked right back up at the professional level.
Chase was clearly the top wide receiver prospect in the 2021 NFL draft, and the Bengals selected him with this year's fifth overall pick. Usually, the position needs at least a slight adjustment period, but Chase's ability coupled an already established comfort level with his quarterback gave him a distinct advantage over most rookies.
Chase joined Randy Moss as the only player in NFL history at the age of 21 or younger to record 400 receiving yards and five touchdown catches in their first five games, according to CBS Sports. The first-year target has absolutely demolished single coverage, too, as Pro Football Focus' Chris Collinsworth noted.
As well as the rookie has performed, Burrow is currently the Bengals' highest-graded performer. The second-year quarterback bounced back from last season's knee injury and he's currently ranked among the top-10 quarterbacks in completion percentage (71.7), yards per attempt (8.8), touchdown passes (11) and passer rating (106.4).
"You can tell they've played together," offensive coordinator Brian Callahan told reporters this summer. "Just like you see with Joe now and TB (Tyler Boyd) and Tee (Higgins) after a year of time together playing. They communicate clearly. They know what’s expected on routes and Joe sees their body language."
2. Kyler Murray-DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals
DeAndre Hopkins grew accustomed to being one of the league's most productive wide receivers. He's not this season, though.
The three-time, first-team All-Pro is still an elite target but he's not being force-fed the football for the first time since his rookie season. Why? The Arizona Cardinals feature a complete offense, and quarterback Kyler Murray can throw to others like Christian Kirk, A.J. Green and Rondale Moore.
"I feel great about it. I would say this is my first time being on a team where there's other receivers that are reliable, consistently. So, for me that's great, that's championship football," Hopkins told reporters last week, "when you got four other guys that go out there, take that pressure off of me and make plays when they're one-on-one."
Two days later, Hopkins snagged a victory-securing touchdown in the fourth quarter against the rival San Francisco 49ers. When Murray needs a receiver to make a play, the quarterback knows where to look, hence why Hopkins still leads the squad with 23 receptions, 312 yards and four receiving touchdowns.
Plenty of opportunities exist for all of the Cardinals receivers because Murray should be considered the early frontrunner for league MVP.
Murray is the third quarterback in NFL history with 1,500 passing yards and a 75 completion percentage through the first fives games, per ESPN Stats & Info. The other two? Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. Murray's 75.2 competition percentage currently leads the league.
Maybe Hopkins hasn't posted the same monster numbers as previous years, but he's still capable of doing so and Murray is playing as well as any quarterback.
1. Aaron Rodgers-Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers
Earlier, Rodgers discussed what it takes to earn his trust. No duo better exemplifies the bond between quarterback and wide receiver than the reigning MVP and his right-hand man, Davante Adams.
Rodgers is already well-established as a future Hall of Fame inductee. He's one of the very best we've ever seen play the position. Adams is on the same trajectory.
"He is the ultimate competitor," Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur told reporters after the team's Week 3 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. "I think he's the best receiver in the National Football League."
Statistics back up the coach's claim.
Currently, the four-time Pro Bowl selection leads the league with 42 receptions and 589 receiving yards. His effectiveness goes well beyond traditional production. He's currently the league's highest-graded wide receiver by a good margin, according to Pro Football Focus' Jarad Evans.
Adams continues to build a resume that grows more impressive with each passing season. He's averaged 137 targets and 12 touchdown receptions per year since the start of the 2016 campaign.
Defenses can play man, use a safety over the top or bracket Adams. None of it works. He's going to be targeted by Rodgers and the receiver will create separation to snag catch after catch.
"Every time I run a route, I'm gonna try to murder you," the wide receiver told reporters about his down-by-down mentality.
Rodgers, meanwhile, started slowly after an offseason of discord. He needed exactly one game to knock off the rust and get back into rhythm. Over the last four contests, Rodgers posted a 68.1 competition percentage and 10-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.