NFL's top 10 QB-pass catcher combos in 2021: Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase fueling Bengals' breakout

The pass-first NFL is filled with dynamite quarterbacks who populate the league’s plentiful advertisements due to their ability to produce points. They’re all brand names: Brady, Rodgers, Mahomes, Wilson. The list goes on and on.

But these guys aren’t throwing the ball to themselves. Every passer needs a receiver to complete this majestic process — and that chemistry is what we’re here to study today.

Who are the NFL’s best pitch-and-catch combos right now?

With the help of Next Gen Stats, we’re sorting through these pairings to compile a list of the league’s premier connections. The stats can tell us a lot about the ability of these duos, perhaps more than any other examination.

A few things jumped out from the numbers: Kyler Murray has been excellent at exceeding expectation when targeting his receivers. He’s over +13 percent when targeting A.J. Green and Christian Kirk, and stands at +8.5 percent when throwing in DeAndre Hopkins’ direction. In fact, no quarterback popped up more near the top of this list than Murray, so it’s no surprise the Cardinals remain undefeated.

Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill have been productive in terms of total yards (608), but the Chiefs quarterback has also gone to Hill more than anyone on this list except for the Matthew Stafford-to-Cooper Kupp and Aaron Rodgers-to-Davante Adams connections.

In an attempt to compile the best possible ranking here, we’re also relying on total expected points added, which helps measure both how productive a pairing is and how efficient it has been. That’s why combinations like Jalen Hurts and DeVonta Smith don’t make the list, as they currently own a -4.7 total EPA.

Then again, it’s not just about the numbers. Rodgers and Adams don’t have an extremely high total EPA through seven weeks, but we’d be foolish to leave that pairing off the list. The tape speaks for itself.

Alright, enough preamble. Here are the NFL’s top 10 passing duos through seven weeks of the 2021 season.

The intensely debated decision between drafting a top tackle to protect Joe Burrow and selecting the quarterback’s old running mate at LSU feels like it happened years ago. Burrow and Chase have formed an incredibly explosive duo in their first seven games together in the NFL, racking up 754 yards and six touchdowns on 35 completions. For you math wizards at home, that’s an average of 21.5 yards per reception, an incredible clip that has Chase atop all pass catchers in the metric. It’s built on the big play, of course, with Burrow and Chase teaming up to record more yards (354), yards after catch (91) and touchdowns (4) on deep passes (20-plus air yards) than any other duo in the NFL this season. Chase has quickly established himself as a game-breaking talent, with this past Sunday’s 82-yard touchdown reception proving he’s not just a winner of downfield one-on-ones, but a catch-and-run threat who singlehandedly flipped the momentum in favor of the Bengals in the franchise’s biggest win of 2021.

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Get your brunch jokes in now, if you must, but those morning meetings are paying off for Stafford and Kupp. The duo has teamed up to record the most receiving yards and receptions between quarterback and pass catcher in the entire league through seven weeks, and Kupp leads the NFL in receiving touchdowns with nine. Their total EPA is second only to that of Burrow and Chase. The Rams’ dynamic duo is especially potent downfield, with Stafford posting the NFL’s highest passer rating (152.1) and completion percentage over expected (+37.2) on deep passes to Kupp (minimum 10 passes). Stafford has unlocked another element of Los Angeles’ offense, and Kupp has been the primary beneficiary to this point.

Murray and the Cardinals have been incredibly explosive, so much so that his work with three different targets — Hopkins, Christian Kirk and A.J. Green — rank among the top 11 in the league in total EPA. His most lucrative connection has been with Hopkins, who has already exceeded his receiving touchdowns total from last season (six) by snagging seven in as many weeks. They’re exceeding expectation at an impressive rate of +8.5 percent and own a stellar passer rating (137.4) when working together, too. And when it comes to converting when they absolutely must, Murray and Hopkins have been money, tying with Carson Wentz and Mo Alie-Cox for the most short-touchdown completions (defined as 0-9 air yards, per NGS) on third down of any pairing in the league with two. This is shaping up to be a potential MVP season for Murray, who wouldn’t get there without Hopkins.

I’m diverting away from relying as much on total EPA for this selection; while Rodgers and Adams don’t rank in the top 20 in the category, they’ve still been spectacularly productive. There’s a reason why the betting line swung multiple points when Adams hit the COVID-19 list before this week’s Packers-Cardinals tilt: He’s the linchpin to Green Bay’s passing offense. Rodgers has targeted Adams 73 times, the second-most targets to any one pass catcher behind only Kupp. They’ve produced what we’ve come to expect from this duo: 52 completions, 744 yards and three touchdowns. They’re also exceeding expectation by +6.7 percent of completions, and though their touchdown total isn’t quite as high as we might expect, it doesn’t take more than a game’s worth of tape to understand how vital Adams is to the Packers’ offense. He remains a premier receiver playing with a future Hall of Fame quarterback, and they’re continuing their stellar careers spent together powering Green Bay’s air attack. Just not this week on Thursday Night Football, unfortunately.

This combination has produced some interesting Next Gen results since they began playing together last year. At one point in 2020, Evans was dominating the numbers when it came to touchdown receptions from 5 or fewer yards from the line of scrimmage, illustrating his elite jump-ball skills, and he’s doing it again in 2021. Tampa Bay is finding success by matching up Evans with smaller defenders, leading to the most receiving touchdowns (six) from a receiver aligned wide of any quarterback-pass catcher duo this season. Overall, they’ve hooked up 37 times for 496 yards and seven touchdowns, with Brady boasting a blemish-free interception total of zero on throws to No. 13. They’re not quite completing as many passes as expected, but we can overlook that when comparing it with their total EPA of 30.2 — tied for the fifth-most in the NFL among quarterback-pass catcher duos. Brady knows at this point where to go when Tampa Bay gets close to the end zone, and it’s paying off for the one-loss Bucs.

We spent a decent amount of the offseason hype machine’s fuel talking about the potential of Williams in new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi’s offense, and it has come to fruition so far this season. Williams has already scored the second-most receiving touchdowns in a season in his career with six, and certainly hasn’t shied away from the big play. The big-bodied receiver has made it easy for Herbert to look his way downfield, posting the highest open-target rate (26.3) on go routes in the league this season. Williams has found plenty of room to run via a few broken plays, but his 2021 totals — 33 receptions, 498 yards, six touchdowns — haven’t been a fluke. The former top-10 pick is thriving with Herbert, matching Brady-Evans’ total EPA at 30.2. These Chargers certainly are electric when throwing in Williams’ direction.

A week after landing atop my tight end rankings, Andrews is the only TE on this list. The former third-round pick has again become a primary target for Jackson in the Ravens’ passing game, and it has proven to be a productive connection. Andrews and Jackson have connected 37 times for 516 yards and three touchdowns, and they’re exceeding expectation at a rate of +5.5 percent. Their total EPA falls only slightly behind that of Herbert-Williams and Brady-Evans, and they’re doing so by taking advantage of Andrews’ athleticism to find open space at intermediate levels. Andrews has recorded the most receiving yards on crossing routes of anyone in the NFL this season, and he’s been a trusty target when in a big spot. Just look at Andrews’ performance in Baltimore’s come-from-behind win over the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football. In the final 10 minutes of regulation, Andrews caught two touchdown passes — and two two-point conversions! — to ultimately send the game to overtime. He’s far from finished, especially as the Ravens rely more on the passing game each week.

I can confirm that Year 2 is the breakout campaign for Ruggs, and it has plenty to do with Carr’s arm and trust in his young receiver. In the wake of general manager Mike Mayock publicly calling out Ruggs to improve his route running last January, the 2020 first-rounder has reaped the rewards from offseason work, becoming a legitimate threat downfield. He and Carr own the highest completion percentage over expected (+35.4) on post routes, and their big-play potential has keyed multiple Raiders wins to this point. Drafted 12th overall for his rare explosiveness, Ruggs is putting that ability to good use, catching 24 passes for 469 yards (19.5 yards per reception) and two touchdowns. He and Carr’s total EPA would be higher if he’d reached the end zone more than twice, but there’s plenty of season left to improve in that department. Above all, Ruggs is no longer an underused weapon — and Carr is having his best season of his career.

Stafford is back on this list for a second time with the man known lovingly as “Bobby Trees,” and for good reason. Kupp’s superstar turn has been surprising, no doubt, but most everyone expected Stafford to establish a connection with the Rams’ most consistent pass catcher in the last few years. They’ve done that, hooking up 35 times for 423 yards and three touchdowns, and they’ve made the most of these completions, posting the third-best total EPA at 32.8. Woods has maintained his reputation for reliability, teaming with Stafford to help him post the highest passer rating on hitch routes (139.9) of any duo this season (minimum 10 such passes), which explains his lower yardage total. The Rams certainly aren’t just Stafford and Kupp, and it sure helps to have a receiver who is highly skilled at getting open and securing passes at shorter distances, opening up the deeper portion of the field for Kupp to run wild.

Jefferson nearly won Offensive Rookie of the Year last season by being a big-play threat, but he’s adjusted his output ever so slightly in 2021. Jefferson is averaging 13.2 yards per reception this season by using his presence to force defenses to account for him over the top, and feasting in the space left open underneath. Cousins and Jefferson have teamed up to record the most completions (17), yards (288) and the highest completion percentage over expected (+28) on intermediate passes this season. Instead of just streaking down the sideline or the middle of the field for long completions, Jefferson is winning at shorter distances, running the sharp routes that made him a first-rounder in the 2020 draft. It’s the ideal fit for an offense built off wide-zone schemes and play action, allowing the young pass catcher to produce at a stellar rate once again.

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