You probably would not struggle to identify the NFL's best players, if asked. Any casual fan can point to the game's elite quarterbacks -- Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, etc. -- or pick a random starter from recent Super Bowl rosters. But what if you were asked to rank the best two players from each team? What if you could take one pairing from each of the 32 clubs? Well, we asked ourselves those very questions in an effort to procure the NFL's top duos entering 2021.
A couple of notes on our process before we get to the ranking:
- Consider this like a draft for the 2021 season. Sometimes that requires separating players from their context/actual situations. If you were building a team for 2021 alone and could draft this duo of a team's best players over that team's duo of best players, which would you rather have?
- We chose players for each duo based on past performance and future projection. So, for example, Kyle Pitts was in consideration for the Falcons, but we thought Matt Ryan and Calvin Ridley had big enough resumes and enough future promise to represent Atlanta. The Jaguars, meanwhile, have few players with as much upside as Trevor Lawrence, so he made it.
- Positional value matters, but it doesn't hold all the weight. We used this mindset in finalizing each duo and ranking said duos. Example A: Ryan Fitzpatrick may be an upgrade at quarterback in Washington, but Terry McLaurin and Chase Young ended up representing Football Team because they're more irreplaceable. Example B: Joe Burrow and Tyler Boyd may not presently be more proven/talented than Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard, but they're arguably more valuable because of their positions.
- This ranking does not fairly assess which teams are better than others. Just because someone has two elite players doesn't mean the rest of their roster is balanced or deep. It should, however, give some indication as to which clubs are better off than others. One Mahomes, after all, is equivalent to maybe two dozen other "top" duos.
And one final, albeit totally anecdotal and subjective, observation about the forthcoming ranking: Below are a few teams that had more or fewer elite-duo players to choose from than expected:
Teams with more "top duo" candidates than expected:
Teams with fewer "top duo" candidates than expected:
Now, without further ado, ranking 2021's top NFL duos, from worst to first:
32. Texans (WR Brandin Cooks, OT Laremy Tunsil)
At this point, the only reasonable thing to do is expect Deshaun Watson will either not be a Texan or not play a full season, regardless of whether his civil lawsuit case is settled prior to the fall. In that case, you're left with an underrated but injury-prone wideout best suited for No. 2 duties and a left tackle who's never once played a full season. Houston is hurting.
31. Patriots (OLB Matt Judon, CB Stephon Gilmore)
These are two bona fide defensive starters when healthy, but that's kind of the point: We're in the year 2021. Want to replace one with 31-year-old linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who missed all of 2020? Be our guest. New England may have a much higher floor this year, but it's still lacking in elite playmakers. Gilmore may or may not even be back as he enters his age-31 season.
30. Lions (OT Taylor Decker, C Frank Ragnow)
Nothing wrong with these guys. You could do a heck of a lot worse if you're building an offensive line, and the trenches are more important than most realize. But the plethora of playmakers ahead of them on this list prove how devoid of skill talent Detroit really is. If you want to argue for T.J. Hockenson here, that's fine, but it doesn't move the needle.
29. Broncos (OLB Bradley Chubb, S Justin Simmons)
Courtland Sutton, Von Miller, Garett Bolles and maybe even rookie Patrick Surtain II could fit as well. Like the Pats, however, they're pretty reliant on older or banged-up defensive talent. Chubb and Simmons can still be Grade-A starters for years to come, but the former has missed time in two straight seasons.
28. Jets (OT Mekhi Becton, DT Quinnen Williams)
Nothing splashy about this duo, but boy are you getting some beef on both sides of the ball. Becton has the looks of a short- and long-term fix at left tackle, and Williams is probably a bit underrated after an improved year rushing the passer in New York.
27. Eagles (OT Lane Johnson, DT Fletcher Cox)
The only reason they edge out the Jets is because they're safer bets to produce regularly in 2021. Both vets could easily be on the decline in the next year or two, though, and Cox isn't as steady as you'd hope. That said, the Eagles have a surprising amount of other candidates: Brandon Graham, Darius Slay, Jason Kelce and newcomer DeVonta Smith among them.
26. Giants (RB Saquon Barkley, CB James Bradberry)
If he's at full form, Barkley single-handedly makes New York better just because he's a freak of nature -- more than capable of changing a game. Bradberry is a No. 1 cover man. But is either guy really, deeply scaring you right now? Leonard Williams and Kenny Golladay could be swapped in, and New York's spot would probably remain the same.
26. Panthers (RB Christian McCaffrey, WR D.J. Moore)
Such a tough duo to rank. When healthy, McCaffrey is one of the game's top dual threats. Problem is, he plays a very replaceable position. Moore, meanwhile, doesn't get the credit he deserves but isn't necessarily a game-wrecker. Brian Burns and Derrick Brown are two other names who drew consideration here.
24. Dolphins (WR Jaylen Waddle, CB Xavien Howard)
Who else are you picking here? DeVante Parker, who's played a full season just once in six years? Waddle at least offers more explosive upside. Howard is maybe the league's premier ballhawk at corner but may or may not be back in Miami.
23. Jaguars (QB Trevor Lawrence, CB Shaquill Griffin)
This is almost entirely about Lawrence, who offers as much promise as any rookie QB and obviously gives you far more positional value than, say, Waddle or McCaffrey. As a whole, though, this is an extremely unproven duo. Plug in James Robinson or Josh Allen or Brandon Linder, and Jacksonville is still lacking star power.
22. Steelers (DE Cameron Heyward, OLB T.J. Watt)
Ben Roethlisberger is no longer the chief reason Pittsburgh is competitive. Heyward and Watt alone give you an All-Pro-caliber defensive line, and the latter is still ascending. Minkah Fitzpatrick or even Najee Harris also deserve mention.
21. Falcons (QB Matt Ryan, WR Calvin Ridley)
If you buy into the idea that Arthur Smith is going to turn Ryan into Ryan Tannehill, then sure, bump them up a few spots. But Ryan has been far more good, if not serviceable, than special lately. Ridley helps, boasting No. 1 play-making production. You could argue Kyle Pitts belongs here, but if Ryan's still a top 15 QB, that counts for a lot.
20. Raiders (QB Derek Carr, TE Darren Waller)
If you haven't noticed yet, so many of these bottom- and mid-tier duos could easily be shuffled and remain accurate. Carr and Waller are a Pro Bowl-caliber pairing at key spots, even if Carr has tended to fizzle down the stretch along with the rest of the Raiders.
19. 49ers (DE Nick Bosa, LB Fred Warner)
Trent Williams and/or George Kittle could easily be slotted in as well. But Bosa and Warner, much like the Steelers' pairing of Heyward and Watt, are golden building blocks for a feisty defense. Not as important as QB or other spots in 2021, but considering the ceiling for Bosa's pass rushing and Warner's field patrolling, you'd be hard-pressed to pass on them.
18. Colts (OG Quenton Nelson, LB Darius Leonard)
Another tough one to rank. Why? Because you aren't going to find many linemen better than Nelson or linebackers better than Leonard, and yet OG and LB are fairly far down on the totem pole of importance. Talent-wise, they're probably a top five or 10 duo. DeForest Buckner could probably be swapped in for Leonard, and the ranking would remain the same.
17. Bears (WR Allen Robinson, OLB Khalil Mack)
This exemplifies the positional value stuff. Most would agree Nelson and Leonard, in Indy, are better at their respective positions. But a No. 1 WR and No. 1 pass rusher is almost always a better deal than a No. 1 guard and No. 1 linebacker. The Bears may not have a good team, but these two are enviable talents. Just imagine if they played for the Buccaneers instead.
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16. Browns (RB Nick Chubb, DE Myles Garrett)
Would you put Baker Mayfield or Jarvis Landry or even Odell Beckham Jr. over Chubb? If so, the ranking probably stays the same. The Browns are more broadly talented than top-heavy, which partly explains why they're primed to be a contender. And yet this duo is still hot: Chubb is a guaranteed chain mover when healthy, while Garrett is one of the game's best at attacking the QB.
16. Washington (WR Terry McLaurin, DE Chase Young)
It's like the Bears, except with even more upside. You can't do much better than a big-play WR and elite pass rusher.
14. Bengals (QB Joe Burrow, WR Tyler Boyd)
You're going to start noticing a trend here, with QB-WR pairings. Jessie Bates III drew consideration, but Boyd has flown relatively under the radar since taking over as a full-timer. Swap in Ja'Marr Chase or Tee Higgins, and the result is the same: Burrow's upside at the most important position gives Cincy one of the most promising duos in the NFL.
13. Cowboys (QB Dak Prescott, OG Zack Martin)
Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and maybe even Tyron Smith could be swapped in for Martin, who remains one of football's steadiest interior men when healthy. But it's really Dak who makes this one, giving you a master of the pocket and guaranteed playoff-caliber starter. The floor is so high as long as he stays on the field.
12. Ravens (QB Lamar Jackson, CB Marlon Humphrey)
It feels wrong to have a duo with Jackson outside of the top 10, but you'll see how deadly so many of these pairings are below. Humphrey is an ascending young No. 1 on the outside (who could be swapped with Ronnie Stanley, if you prefer a top OT).
11. Buccaneers (QB Tom Brady, WR Chris Godwin)
If this were a draft for 2021 and beyond, we'd probably take Lamar Jackson's youth, but Brady is as clutch as they come, and you could swap out Godwin for any one of Devin White, Mike Evans, Shaquil Barrett or Lavonte David and still have the foundation for a championship run.
10. Titans (RB Derrick Henry, WR A.J. Brown)
Ryan Tannehill and Julio Jones would also like a word. Either way, Tennessee offers more grit than almost anyone.
9. Saints (RB Alvin Kamara, WR Michael Thomas)
Maybe you prefer Cameron Jordan over one of these guys, but this is an offensive coach's dream: A dynamic dual threat in Kamara, and a target machine in Thomas. You could have Joe Schmoe play QB and at least have a chance dumping it off to them.
8. Vikings (RB Dalvin Cook, WR Justin Jefferson)
The difference between Cook and Jefferson and the Saints' RB-WR duo is negligible. Jefferson just offers even more pop as a play-making specialist out wide. Danielle Hunter also deserves a mention because of his freakish abilities when healthy.
7. Rams (DE Aaron Donald, CB Jalen Ramsey)
The rare defensive pairing that tops even elite QBs. Donald and Ramsey are just so, so good at important positions, single-handedly carrying the front and back of their respective unit. You'd hardly have to worry about defense with these two playing to their potential.
6. Cardinals (QB Kyler Murray, WR DeAndre Hopkins)
Their track record in Arizona hasn't included big-stage wins, but separate them from Kliff Kingsbury for a second: There aren't many better, more athletic, more promising QB-WR pairings. The potential remains through the roof.
5. Seahawks (QB Russell Wilson, WR DK Metcalf)
From here on out, it's strictly championship-caliber material. Trade Metcalf for Tyler Lockett, and the Seahawks are probably still here.
4. Bills (QB Josh Allen, WR Stefon Diggs)
Tre'Davious White could be included instead of Diggs, but Allen's connection with the WR is electric and steady. We'd rather have Russ than Allen, but Diggs is the more refined wideout, balancing things out.
3. Chargers (QB Justin Herbert, WR Keenan Allen)
This might draw the most controversy, if only because Herbert has just one year under his belt. And don't get it twisted: These top five are all so, so close. But we see so much room for growth from Herbert and Allen -- who are already poised Pro Bowl studs as is -- that we'd be willing to bet on them over the Bills' duo, separated from their respective teams.
2. Chiefs (QB Patrick Mahomes, WR Tyreek Hill)
Doesn't matter if you swap Hill for Travis Kelce, Chris Jones or Tyrann Mathieu. You're not going to get much better than No. 15, whose otherworldly arm angles and pocket presence will forever give his team a chance.
1. Packers (QB Aaron Rodgers, WR Davante Adams)
We view Rodgers and Mahomes as darn near equals when it comes to 2021 QB value, so it comes down to Adams and Hill, and while the latter offers more explosive speed, we'd suggest the Packers' No. 1 target is the better all-around pass catcher. In any event, the Packers and Chiefs boast some of the game's best weapons ... assuming Rodgers suits up for Green Bay.