In a passing league, certain skill-position players — namely wide receivers — have more value than ever before. Inherently, NFL teams scour the football world for as many talented wideouts as they can find — the more, the merrier — with the intention of putting together a 1-2 punch that’ll force opposing secondaries into coverage conundrums.
I spent the first eight of my 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts lining up across from Marvin Harrison. With future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning under center and Edgerrin James in the backfield, our offenses were some of the best in history (Football Outsiders can back me up here). In taking a closer look at our receiver roles, Marvin and I were able to have success because of how we approached practice. I can’t ever remember taking a rep off. We treated drills like we were in a game, building on-field chemistry along the way. In pushing each other daily, the games became the easier part.
With free agency and the draft in the rearview, I surveyed the NFL’s receiver duos heading into the 2017 season. Here are my top five:
5) Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, Jacksonville Jaguars
Robinson in 2016: 73 receptions for 883 yards and six touchdowns.
Hurns in 2016: 35 receptions for 477 yards and three touchdowns (in 11 games).
I know this tandem’s production significantly dropped from 2,431 combined yards in 2015 to just 1,360 in 2016, but I like the way these two play. This pair has accomplished a lot in spite of inconsistent quarterback play from Blake Bortles. After missing the final five games of 2016, Hurns is healthy and should return to 2015 form. The Jaguars selected Leonard Fournette in the draft and will likely put more emphasis on the run game, opening up the field for the Allen boys to make a splash in 2017.
4) Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, Oakland Raiders
Cooper in 2016: 83 receptions for 1,153 yards and five touchdowns.
Crabtree in 2016: 89 receptions for 1,003 yards and eight touchdowns.
Cooper and Crabtree emerged as one of the NFL’s best receiving tandems in their first season together (2015) — but they took it to an even higher level during Derek Carr’s MVP-caliber 2016 campaign. Last year, Carr showed he was the leader of a dynamic Raiders offense, but his two receivers showed flashes of brilliance, proving they can carry the team in big games. Cooper and Crabtree had 172 combined receptions in 2016, tying for most in the league by a tandem with Green Bay’s Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams. (The Raiders’ pair finished third in combined receiving yards with 2,156.) Looking ahead, I’m not sure how defenses will handle Oakland’s offense now with Marshawn Lynch in the backfield because we all know you can’t overlook him. But you can’t slight Cooper and Crabtree, either.
3) Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Evans in 2016: 96 receptions for 1,321 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Jackson in 2016 (with Redskins): 56 receptions for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns (in 15 games).
The Bucs made a brilliant move signing DeSean Jackson. It gives Jameis Winston’s offense the best of both worlds. Jackson, who averaged nearly 18 yards per catch last season, is a fast deep threat with rare home-run ability. Meanwhile, Evans is a big-bodied guy who can come down with a jump ball and dominate the middle of the field. Evans proved himself as one of the best wideouts in the game in 2016, with 81 percent of his receptions resulting in first downs.
2) Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
Thomas in 2016: 90 receptions for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns.
Sanders in 2016: 79 receptions for 1,032 yards and five touchdowns.
Thomas and Sanders each managed to rack up 1,000 receiving yards with below-average quarterback play in 2016 and 2015. Everybody knows I love Peyton Manning, but in his final year in the league, his arm wasn’t the same as when he was dropping dimes left and right to Marvin and me. In 2016, the Broncos’ tandem finished in the top five among receiving duos in combined receptions (fourth with 169) and receiving yards (fourth with 2,115). These two aren’t necessarily the flashiest guys, but they have a proven track record of being at the top as far as WR duos.
1) Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall, New York Giants
Beckham in 2016: 101 receptions for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Marshall in 2016 (with Jets) : 59 receptions for 788 yards and three touchdowns (in 15 games).
Brandon Marshall might be the best red-zone receiver in the league (along with Jordy Nelson), and the Giants sure could use the help in that category. Big Blue ranked 22nd in red-zone efficiency a year ago, only converting touchdowns 51 percent of the time. OBJ has been a star since he entered the league. He has yet to have a season with less than 1,300 receiving yards. He’s a home-run hitter and can score at any time — racking up 534 yards after the catch (YAC) in 2016. Both of these players demand the full attention of opposing defenses. It’ll be interesting to see if anyone can stop this tandem.