The NFL is a passing league. You know this. I know this. Just about everyone in the league knows this.
Because it's a passing league, quarterbacks are the most important players on the field. And just about every quarterback has that one pass-catcher he trusts more than anybody else -- the guy he wants to go to in key spots, with the game on the line. With that in mind, we used this space throughout last season to dig into some of the league's best passing-game combinations and what makes them tick.
We began by exploring the connection between Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, which is defined by how each player has raised the other's game since they came together. Next, we delved into Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins, whose partnership was defined by the degree of difficulty. Then, we went deep on the union of Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett, which is defined by improbability. After that, we detailed the collaboration between Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews, which is defined by opportunity maximization. In the next entry, we dug in on Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill, whose connection is defined by explosion. In the ensuing installment, we explored the ways Drew Brees and Michael Thomas became the most efficient duo in the league. Finally, we dove into the long-lasting connection between Tom Brady and Julian Edelman, which was defined by its metronomic consistency.
You may notice a star duo missing from that list: Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams. The plan was for that pair to get the same treatment at some point, but Adams missed four games due to injury and was limited in several others, while Rodgers' comfort in first-year coach Matt LaFleur's offense seemed to wax and wane. So, we put it off. A year later, though, it sure seems like a good time to give Rodgers and Adams their due. So, we'll use this opportunity to spotlight the Rodgers-Adams partnership, which is defined by the combination of volume and precision.
Let's begin here, with what we wrote about Adams in our entry on the top 10 wide receivers for 2020 ahead of the start of this season:
Since taking over as Green Bay's No. 1 wideout in 2016, Adams has averaged 96-1,197-11 on a per-16-games basis. (He's played 57 of 64 possible games.) He reached double-digit touchdowns in three of those four seasons, with his injury-marred 2019 campaign being the only one where he did not score 10 or more. The year he had in 2018 was legitimately one of the best wide receiver seasons in NFL history. He went for 111-1,386-13 (in just 15 games), putting him in a club that counts only Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Antonio Brown, Isaac Bruce, and Herman Moore as its other members.
He and Aaron Rodgers have remarkable chemistry, particularly on the kinds of perimeter isolation routes which have long been a staple of their offense. Adams is one of the best in the league at working the sideline and using his body to shield off defenders to catch back-shoulder throws, and he is a consistently reliable red zone target, which has kept him at or near the top of the touchdown leaderboards...
2020 Outlook: Adams should presumably be healthier in 2020 than he was in 2019, and with the Packers not adding much in the way of pass-catching talent to their roster, he could be in line with an even larger target share than ever before. He's the only wideout on the roster who has more than a smidgen of Rodgers' trust, and Rodgers has shown plenty of willingness to direct the ball his way as often as possible in the past. Green Bay does look interested in pursuing a bit more of a run-heavy approach, however, and Matt LaFleur's tendency to call run plays near the goal line, in particular, could mean the dip in touchdown production he saw last season sticks around.
Most of that has rung true this year. Adams actually had an injury that kept him out of two games and limited him in another, but his target share has been absolutely astronomical so far this year. According to Pro Football Focus and Tru Media, Adams has been targeted on 31.2 percent of his routes this season, the second-highest mark among wide receivers league-wide. Despite playing only three and a half games, Adams has a 36-449-4 receiving line, putting him on pace for a hilarious 136-1571-14 in just 14 games.
This is nowhere near out of the ordinary for Adams, who has been dominating targets in this manner for quite some time now. He's one of 167 players to see at least 150 total targets since 2016: among that group, Adams ranks seventh in targets, eighth in catches, sixth in receiving yards, and first in touchdowns despite 49 of those same 167 players appearing in more games than he has. Over the past four seasons, Adams is one of just seven wideouts to see a target on at least 25 percent of his routes run, per PFF and Tru Media, and he ranks seventh in the league in yards per route run.
Adams is at his most dominant when working against man coverage, which allows him to leverage his note perfect route-running skills and impeccable body control to both create and take advantage of space. And he doesn't just beat soft man coverage; he does most of this work against press. His 111 receptions against press coverage are fourth-most in the league since 2017, per PFF and Tru Media, while 15 touchdown catches against man coverage during that time are the most in the NFL. His 2.39 yards per route run average against man is elite, and nearly unmatched around the league.
The combination of his technical proficiency, Rodgers' elite accuracy, and the two players' trust in each other allows them to dominate the most difficult-to-access area of the field -- the space between the sideline and the numbers. Over the past four seasons, Adams has a ridiculous 171 catches on throws between sideline and the numbers -- second-most in the NFL behind only DeAndre Hopkins (172). He also has 18 touchdowns on those same throws, a total that ranks second behind only Tyreek Hill (21).
Watching Adams and Rodgers work the sideline together is a genuine thrill. Adams is among the best in the NFL and setting up his defender early in the route, using hop-skip steps to lure corners into a sense of security before bursting past them up the sideline. At that point, Rodgers already knows he has a completion.
The phrase "dropped that throw in the bucket" was seemingly created to capture the work these two do on sideline fades, but they're also extraordinarily proficient at the types of back-shoulder throws Rodgers perfected while working with Jordy Nelson over the years. Don't discount the possibility of their doing work on scramble drill throws, where Adams knows to get up the field and provide a window through which Rodgers can laser the ball, and then it's all up to the wideout's footwork. And of course, there are also simple corner routes they can go to, if they actually want to make things easy on themselves for a change.
Perhaps my favorite route to watch Rodgers and Adams torture teams with is the post-corner. Watching Adams run this route, you almost begin to feel bad for opposing defensive backs. What he does to them is just mean. What Rodgers does on these plays is equally rude, simply drifting in the pocket until his man breaks off the second cut, then snapping his wrist and lofting what are essentially fadeaway jumpers over the top of the defense, that almost always happen to land right in the arms of his intended target. It honestly looks like he's barely trying on some of these throws, and yet they're still reaching Adams as if guided to his hands on a frozen rope.
The trust Rodgers has in Adams to go up and get the ball in contested coverage results in a fabulous connection on "hole-shot" type throws. The ones where Rodgers zips the ball over the head of the corner and into Adams' arms before the safety can make it over from the middle of the field to provide help over the top. They'll hit these quite often when Adams is lined up on the perimeter -- against all kinds of coverages. And they'll even hit them from the slot, giving Adams even more room to take his route out toward the side of the field.
Perhaps the scariest thing about the Rodgers-Adams connection is that it should get even better throughout the rest of the year. Adams has been active for only four of the team's six games this year, and he exited halfway through one of them. In the two games he sat, Rodgers completed 48 of 65 passes for 610 yards, seven touchdowns, and no picks. This Sunday, they've got a rematch with the Vikings, whom they torched for 14-156-2 (Adams) and 364 yards and four scores (Rodgers) back in Week 1. Get ready for a wild ride the rest of the way.