From the Saints’ curious quarterback pairing to the Titans’ superstar wide-receiver combo, The Ringer is highlighting the most important, interesting, and, in some cases, baffling NFL duos for the 2021 season. Today: the NFL teams that reunited college duos in the pros.
It’s easy to underestimate the human element in football. Players are hidden beneath pads and helmets, and the sport has become so numbers-driven―especially in the fantasy-obsessed age we live in―that fans have come to almost expect players to execute schemes and make plays with robotic precision. But football is, and always will be, a chaotic and imperfect sport in which intangible human variables like confidence, poise, and chemistry can and often do swing games.
That chemistry factor is a big reason it’s not uncommon to see NFL teams reunite players with their former teammates in free agency. We saw the Buccaneers take that approach prior to last season, trading for and coaxing Rob Gronkowski out of retirement while adding Antonio Brown in free agency, with both moves designed to give Tom Brady a few familiar faces to throw to. Familiarity is big, and coaches will favor former players in new locations, especially when it comes to quarterbacks, because of their background in schematic language and their knowledge of playbooks. That’s why, this season, Carson Wentz reunites with Frank Reich in Indianapolis, Andy Dalton is the bridge quarterback for Bill Lazor and the Bears, and Chase Daniel will be a backup for Joe Lombardi on the Chargers.
And, every once in a while, we’ll see teams look to pair former college teammates in the pros. The Colts took former Stanford teammates Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener with their first two picks of the 2012 NFL draft. James Washington and Mason Rudolph, who were teammates at Oklahoma State, have gotten to play together in Pittsburgh. And George Kittle followed his former college quarterback, C.J. Beathard, to the 49ers. Those are just a few recent examples, none of which ended up being particularly important pairings in the NFL.
This year, perhaps as a result of the past two COVID-affected offseasons, NFL teams seem to be increasingly intrigued by the benefits of pairing up former college teammates. In the early first round of the 2021 draft alone, four such reunions came together: The Bengals took Ja’Marr Chase to pair with his former college quarterback, Joe Burrow; the Jaguars used their two first-round picks to select college teammates Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne; the Dolphins grabbed Jaylen Waddle to pair with former Alabama teammate Tua Tagovailoa; and the Eagles selected Devonta Smith to match with former teammate Jalen Hurts.
Now, that might just be a coincidence, or the result of a concentration of talent at powerhouse programs like LSU, Alabama, and Clemson. But it could be a litmus test for how much that built-in familiarity and rapport matters. If that chemistry shows up on the field, we could see the beginnings of a leaguewide trend. Here’s a look at the teams testing out this theory, and why each experiment could pay off early in the year.
Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals
The Bengals’ decision to take Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth pick was hotly debated. Many fans and pundits believed the team made a colossal mistake in passing on Oregon tackle Penei Sewell, a mountain of a man who would’ve helped shore up the Bengals’ sieve-like offensive line and ultimately could have provided more long-term value to franchise quarterback Joe Burrow. The Cincy brain trust clearly favored the explosive Chase, though, and the fact that Chase was Burrow’s top target during his incredible national championship– and Heisman-winning season at LSU in 2019 factored into the decision-making process. As Bengals head coach Zac Taylor shared after the draft, Burrow gave the team’s front office a strong Chase endorsement. “I don’t know that I needed a lot of convincing,” said Taylor. “I just said, ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, what would be your excitement level if we added Ja’Marr Chase?’ And he said, ‘10.’”
Despite all the obvious arguments for taking Sewell, it’s really not too hard to see why the Bengals fell in love with Chase―and his ability to stretch a defense deep, create explosive plays, and basically just make Burrow’s life easier. Burrow’s overall numbers as a rookie were just okay: He averaged 6.7 yards per attempt with a 65 percent completion rate, throwing 13 touchdowns to five picks while tallying an 89.8 passer rating in 10 starts. But digging deeper, Burrow’s season can be described by the contrast between his success in the short and intermediate area and his bitter failures on anything deep. The Bengals signal-caller was efficient on passes of fewer than 20 yards, and as PFF’s Seth Galina points out, Burrow ranked fifth among all quarterbacks in PFF passing grade on those throws from a clean pocket, fourth in PFF’s passing grade on those throws on straight dropbacks, and fifth in that metric on throws on first and second downs. In other words, he was very good throwing in situation- and scheme-neutral plays.
On the other hand, Burrow’s numbers on deep passes were, well, extremely bad. There are plenty of difficulties in making the jump from the college ranks to the pros, but the bottom line is that Burrow completed just 9 of 48 deep-ball attempts as a rookie, per PFF, connecting on just one touchdown on those throws all season. His PFF passing grade on throws of 20-plus yards was a paltry 61.5, which ranked 35th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks. The Bengals clearly hope that Chase can be the key that unlocks that crucial area of the young quarterback’s game.
Burrow’s college tape suggests that a big second-year leap in the deep-passing category is possible. The LSU superstar was extremely aggressive and efficient downfield during his final season in college (a prolific campaign in which he totaled 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns to just six picks in 15 games), and a big part of his success stemmed from the trust he showed in his top receiver, Chase (who finished that season with 84 catches for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns). The two formed an almost automatic connection that showed up in just about every game, with Burrow notching an elite 98.2 PFF passing grade when targeting Chase 20-plus yards downfield. The pair connected on a national-best 14 deep touchdowns.
Burrow was partial to hitting Chase on back-shoulder passes deep down the field. Many of these throws were into tight coverage and showcased the faith that Burrow had that his receiver would look back and turn at just the right moment to separate late and come down with the pass.
Chase was a favorite target for Burrow in out-of-structure scramble drill situations as well. On these plays, the scheme’s design gets thrown out the window and the quarterback and receiver must improvise to get onto the same page. When the quarterback breaks the pocket, a million things can happen: Do his receivers break to the outside? Do they go deep? Or do they come back to the quarterback and give him help underneath? Burrow and Chase seemed to read each other’s minds in these situations on so many occasions at LSU.
Burrow also demonstrated complete trust in Chase to come down with the ball even in the face of blanket coverage. Those were situations that Chase won far more often than not, and he made a habit of bailing Burrow out when his throws were off target, too.
Burrow struggled mightily in all of these areas for the Bengals in 2020. And while Chase won’t provide an immediate fix for all of the Bengals’ deep-passing woes, reuniting the two former Tigers could dramatically speed up Burrow’s development. With an already-established rapport and trust on back-shoulder throws, scramble drill plays, and jump ball situations, the Cincinnati brain trust is banking on the idea that Burrow and Chase will pick up where they left off at LSU.
Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, Jaguars
Even for a once-in-a-generation quarterback prospect like Lawrence, expectations around early-career performance should be tempered. Most rookie signal-callers need some time to adjust to the speed and complexity of the pro game, where the synthesization of not just the playbook but of hundreds of chaotic on-field variables is probably a little like drinking from a firehose. One advantage Lawrence may have in 2021, though, is a built-in, battle-tested connection with longtime college teammate and fellow rookie Etienne.
The chemistry between Lawrence and Etienne will probably be less obvious than the connection shared by Burrow and Chase. But that doesn’t mean that their already-established relationship is a trivial thing. Even the simplest, most fundamental techniques―like, say, the handoff on a run play or the interaction between quarterback and running back on read option runs―can take time to truly master (and that’s especially true for players in brand-new schemes, where footwork or any number of techniques can be slightly different). Lawrence and Etienne have the advantage of having executed mesh-point handoffs or keeper plays a thousand times over the past few years, though: If Lawrence tries to pull the ball back and keep it himself a little late in the play, for instance, or if he holds it in his running back’s belly for a beat or two longer than usual to make his read on the defensive player, Etienne will be ready to react. That could help Jacksonville cut down on the types of unforced turnovers and fumbles we often see from first-year players.
That is, of course, a small thing. But the small things can all add up for an unseasoned first-year quarterback when a 280-pound pass rusher is running at them full tilt. Lawrence will need to speed up his reaction time in the pros, and the fewer things he has to relearn or recalibrate, the better. And his experience passing to Etienne in the screen game is another seemingly simple thing that could prove to be important. Lawrence leaned on Etienne as a dump-off option and screen-pass target during their time together at Clemson, particularly over the past two seasons. And it’s a huge boost that Lawrence knows what his running back will do on those plays; the depth Etienne likes to get toward the outside, the angles he likes to take, and the timing needed to hit him in stride all come into play. And while short throws may seem routine, some quarterbacks can turn into baseball pitchers who struggle to throw the ball to first base on these plays: They start to think about it, they try to aim it, their mechanics go out the window, and the ball either comes out at 100 MPH, hits the intended party in the shins, or flies over their head. That can be especially true when the defense is running a confusing stunt, or a defender is blitzing off the corner, or any number of unexpected things happen. At Clemson, Lawrence was consistent in feathering accurate, easy-to-catch passes to Etienne on these plays, and that rapport should carry over to the NFL.
Etienne has the speed to absolutely annihilate defenders’ pursuit angles in the open field, so it will help that Lawrence can lead his former Clemson teammate so he can catch and run in one smooth motion. The chemistry that these two players share could not only pay dividends when the pressure’s in Lawrence’s face, but it could also help Etienne turn well-blocked plays into touchdowns instead of short gains or incompletions.
Tua Tagovailoa and Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins
The Dolphins took a similar course to the Bengals with the sixth overall pick, passing on Sewell to take a field-stretching receiver who previously played with their budding young franchise quarterback. Waddle, like Chase, should immediately help unlock the Dolphins’ deep passing game thanks to a scintillating combination of speed and catch-point prowess. And, critically, the pick shows that Miami is determined to build its offense with Tagovailoa’s unique style and skill set in mind.
That wasn’t really the case in 2020, when the Dolphins brought in offensive coordinator Chan Gailey to run a scheme that catered to veteran bridge quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. When Tua was thrust into the starting lineup midway through the year, he was playing in a system that was designed for a different quarterback and, perhaps more importantly, Miami lacked true game-breaking playmakers. The Dolphins’ brass went to work rectifying those problems this offseason, signing free agent Will Fuller V and drafting Waddle with their first pick in the draft. Waddle in particular seems perfectly suited to help put Tagovailoa on the path toward stardom in the NFL.
The former Crimson Tide signal-caller flashed at times but ultimately posted middling numbers as a rookie, completing 64.1 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns, five picks, and an 87.1 passer rating in 10 games. Worryingly, Tagovailoa struggled when pushing the ball downfield as a rookie, completing just 10 of 29 attempts on passes of 20-plus yards, per PFF, connecting on two touchdowns while tallying a 76.7 passer rating—which ranked 30th out of 39 qualifying passers. A precision and timing passer who’s best when he drops back, hits his back foot, and releases the ball in rhythm, Tua never looked all that comfortable throwing the football in 2020. The game-tested chemistry that he shares with his explosive new receiver will help this season, as will the fact that Waddle might be the antidote for a good chunk of Tua’s struggles as a rookie.
For starters, Waddle brings a vertical element that none of the Dolphins primary pass catchers could last season. The 5-foot-9, 182-pound dynamo garnered a 142.3 career passer rating on targets of 20-plus yards at Alabama, which ranked tops in his class per PFF, and whether he’s running a slot fade, a go route up the sideline, or a deep crossing route, he’s almost impossible to track step for step by almost any defender. Oh, and Tua knows exactly how much to lead him down the field.
Waddle is far more than just a one-trick pony as a deep threat, though. He’s extremely elusive on short catch-and-run plays, and when he hits the gas in the open field, he can blow past pursuit angles with ease. Waddle’s value on slants, screens, and quick-hitting pass plays is, again, a perfect fit for Tagovailoa’s style―which is centered on rhythm and accuracy from the pocket.
Unsurprisingly, Tua and Waddle’s connection in camp has been obvious and consistent. Getting healthy and more comfortable in the team’s playbook will be crucial for Tagovaolia’s hopes for breaking out in year two, but I’m not discounting the familiarity with his former big-play threat as a major factor, too.
Jalen Hurts and Devonta Smith, Eagles
Philly’s decision to take Smith with the 10th overall pick was probably less motivated by the former-teammates narrative as some of the examples above; Smith was more closely linked to Tagovailoa and Mac Jones during his time at Alabama, and Hurts posted his most prolific college season after transferring to Oklahoma. But the two former Alabama stars practiced and played together more than enough during their collective time in Tuscaloosa and bring built-in familiarity to Philadelphia.
More importantly, Smith is exactly the type of go-to, alpha receiver that Hurts lacked in the Eagles’ offense last year, and the Heisman-winning playmaker could be the key that unlocks Philly’s passing game this year―and cements Hurts as the team’s future franchise player. Hurts showed off his dynamic dual-threat skill set as a rookie and brought a boost to the team with his legs after taking over as the team’s starter, but his passing efficiency left a lot to offer. He finished the season with a 52 percent completion rate, throwing six touchdowns and four interceptions while notching a ghastly 77.6 passer rating. Of course, that came behind a banged-up offensive line and in an offense that lacked a true no. 1 at the receiver position (it also probably lacked a true no. 2, a true no. 3, and so forth). This year, Smith drops down into the no. 1 receiver role, where his talent for separating as a route runner and winning at the catch point could be massive boosts for the team’s passing game.
With long arms and springy athleticism, Smith offers a huge catch radius and surefire hands. Even in their relatively limited time together on the field, Hurts showed total trust when making touch passes to Smith in tight coverage.
Smith also brings the ability to help Philly improve its quick-passing game, a weakness last year that really showed up in Hurts’s completion rate and efficiency numbers. The former Heisman winner is so quick off the line and so smooth after the catch that he could give Hurts more “layup” throws that still create big plays in 2021.
And critically, the Hurts-to-Smith connection could give the Eagles’ passing game some teeth on out-of-structure plays. Hurts’s ability to break the pocket and keep a play alive in the face of pressure is a nice bonus for a team with an uncertain offensive line situation, but he needs to keep the chains moving in those types of situations. That’s where his familiarity with Smith could really show up, especially early in the year. We got a few examples of that connection at Alabama.
It’s tough for me to imagine a better fit for what Hurts and the Eagles’ passing game needed than Smith. He’s a dangerous deep threat who can stretch a defense thin, a deceptively elusive runner after the catch, a reliable chains mover in the quick passing game, and a playmaker who can catch anything in his area code at the catch point. Add in an already established familiarity with Hurts, and this quarterback-receiver duo brings the potential to push Philly’s offense over the hump in 2021.