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Why Has the NFL Become Obsessed With Reuniting QBs and Their College Receivers?

From Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase to Derek Carr and Davante Adams, teams across the NFL are scrambling to re-create prolific college connections. What’s behind this movement? And does it offer a glimpse of the team-building blueprint of the future?

Getty Images/Associated Press/Ringer illustration

Over the years, many of us fall out of touch with our friends from college. We move to new cities, start careers and families, and suddenly have less time for friendships centered on pounding Keystone Ice at 3:30 p.m. on a Tuesday. People you used to see every day are now people you see once every two or three years. Luckily, this problem no longer faces NFL quarterbacks, several of whom get to hang out with their closest buds without waiting for a 10-year reunion. Five NFL teams have paired their QB1 with a top wide receiver from their college roster.

We started to see this trend develop in the 2021 NFL draft, when three teams used first-round picks on receivers who went to college with the team’s existing quarterback. The Bengals brought Ja’Marr Chase to Joe Burrow, reuniting the pair that led LSU to a national championship and helped Burrow set the all-time FBS passing touchdown record. The Eagles drafted DeVonta Smith, who developed a close friendship with Jalen Hurts at Alabama after Hurts hosted Smith on his official recruiting visit. (Instead of partying, they worked out.) And the Dolphins took Jaylen Waddle to play alongside Tua Tagovailoa, ignoring that Waddle had said his favorite QB at Alabama was Mac Jones. (Waddle later explained that he was trying to boost Jones’s draft stock.)

Suffice it to say, the strategy worked. The Bengals reached the Super Bowl behind Burrow and Chase, with the wideout finishing among the top five in the league in both receiving yards (1,455) and touchdowns (13). Smith and Waddle also ranked among the top 30 in receiving yards as rookies, a sign that they’re already WR1s with plenty of room to grow.

The 2022 draft didn’t bring any reunions for incoming rookie receivers. The Bears could have tried to add former Ohio State standouts Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson, but apparently decided to continue their strategy of making life as difficult as possible for Justin Fields. However, two NFL teams made trades this offseason to acquire their QBs’ favorite college (on-field) hookup partners. In March, the Raiders traded for Davante Adams, who would have represented a hell of a boost for any quarterback in the league. But Adams was especially meaningful for Derek Carr, who tore up the Mountain West in 2013 by throwing to the receiver at Fresno State. Carr led the FBS in passing yardage that season while Adams racked up 24 touchdowns, the fourth most ever in a college season. And during the draft the Cardinals completed a deal to bring in Marquise Brown, who led Oklahoma in receiving yards in 2018 when Kyler Murray won the Heisman Trophy. Now we just need to get Gus Johnson onto some Cardinals broadcasts to scream HOLLY … WOOOOOD … BROWN:

The same strategy has worked in the college football transfer portal. Last season, Western Kentucky rebounded from a 5-7 season in 2020 by simply adding another team’s entire offense. It snagged the offensive coordinator, quarterback, and top three receivers from Houston Baptist, an FCS school that had shocked the college football world by nearly taking down Texas Tech. “It was like they had been together forever,” Western Kentucky head coach Tyson Helton told The Athletic of this grouping. “It was right off the bat, instant cohesiveness. You’re out there in spring practice realizing we’ve got something special here.”

The quarterback, Bailey Zappe, broke Burrow’s single-season passing touchdown record in 2021 by throwing for 62 scores despite playing in one fewer game at Western Kentucky than Burrow did at LSU in 2019. Zappe also broke an FBS single-season passing yardage record (5,967) that had stood for 18 years. His top wideout, Jerreth Sterns, led college football in receptions (150) and receiving yards (1,902), and tied for the lead in receiving touchdowns (17). Zappe was drafted in the fourth round by the Patriots, who foolishly let Sterns sign with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent.

Of course, not every quarterback-receiver reunion in the NFL is successful. In 2018, the Steelers used second- and third-round picks on James Washington and Mason Rudolph, respectively, after the two had prolific careers together at Oklahoma State. Neither blossomed into a starter for the Steelers, and the duo didn’t seem to have chemistry in the rare instances when both were on the field. In fact, two of the best games of Washington’s NFL career came in the weeks after Rudolph went out in 2019 and third-stringer Devlin “Duck” Hodges replaced him. In 2019, the Washington Commanders used first- and third-round picks on Ohio State teammates Dwayne Haskins and Terry McLaurin. The two shared a special bond, as evidenced by McLaurin’s heartbreaking message after Haskins’s tragic death in April, but their college production didn’t translate to the pros.

Judging from the past few years, it might seem that reuniting quarterbacks with their college receivers is fairly commonplace. Surely this type of thing happens all the time, right? Wrong! There are relatively few instances in NFL history of a quarterback throwing to his wide receiver from college.

In May 2021, Chase Stuart of Football Perspective found that only eight pairs of college teammates had connected for 10 or more receiving touchdowns in league history—and that includes running backs, tight ends, and players from the 1940s. The all-time NFL record for touchdown passes thrown from one college teammate to another was set by Tobin Rote and Billy Howton … Rice alumni who played for Green Bay in the 1950s. They linked up for 26 touchdowns, which feels attainable; after all, Blake Bortles has thrown 22 career touchdown passes to Allen Robinson II.

Since 2000, only three college combos have connected for more than 10 touchdowns: Vanderbilt’s Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett, who played together with the Bears; Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Coby Fleener, whom the Colts picked in the first and second rounds of the 2012 draft; and LSU’s Burrow and Chase, who have already tallied 13 touchdowns, halfway to Rote and Howton. If Burrow and Chase stay healthy, they will easily become the top NFL passing-receiving tandem to have played together in college.

So only a handful of teams in NFL history have experienced any success with a college quarterback-receiver combo—and now five of the league’s 32 teams are trying it out simultaneously, including some of the premier pairings in the game. Is this a coincidence? Or is it a glimpse of the NFL team-building blueprint of the future?

The benefits of this trend seem plainly obvious. Playing quarterback is about more than just executing throws, and playing wide receiver is about more than just running routes. The two must understand each other in so many ways: Where does the receiver like to catch the ball? Who goes where when a given play breaks down? Can the two trust each other to make the correct choices on option routes?

With college teammates, there’s less of a learning curve in this respect. “They came into this thing being on the same page, understanding each other,” Bengals receivers coach Troy Walters said of Burrow and Chase ahead of the Super Bowl in February. “Joe knows exactly what Ja’Marr is going to do in terms of his release, where to throw the ball. Ja’Marr understands where Joe is going to put the ball. It’s just uncanny.”

This comes through in the tape. In January, I broke down how Burrow and Chase were regularly connecting on the same type of touchdowns that they scored in college. LSU’s social media team went the extra mile and spliced together videos to demonstrate how Burrow-to-Chase looked exactly the same in the pros as it did in college.

Meanwhile, Carr said a few weeks ago that throwing to Adams, his former college teammate, in practice has felt “like riding a bike.”

Beyond the on-field familiarity, there’s another explanation for this trend: NFL teams can’t afford to wait around for quarterback-receiver chemistry to develop. Quarterback has always been the most expensive position in the league, with QBs occupying the top 12 spots on Spotrac’s average annual value leaderboard. But five of the top eight non-quarterbacks on that list are receivers, so there’s a case to be made that receiver has turned into the sport’s second-most-expensive position. Paying a top-tier quarterback and a top-tier receiver is nearly impossible. The Packers and Chiefs traded Adams and Tyreek Hill, respectively, this offseason because they were unwilling or unable to foot that bill, breaking up quarterback-receiver duos who had both teams on the verge of championships. And the Titans traded away A.J. Brown and will attempt to replace him with 2022 first-round pick Treylon Burks. The importance of succeeding while having a QB on a rookie deal has long been stressed in NFL salary cap circles—the same may now hold true for receivers.

When a franchise drafts a quarterback or a receiver, the clock starts ticking until their first big payday. So teams want to spend as little time as possible waiting for those players to develop. Reuniting a college duo can speed up the process and beat that clock, maximizing the potential for success while both quarterback and receiver are still on rookie deals.

For the few teams that are willing to shell out top dollar at both positions, quarterback-receiver reunions still make sense. If you’re going to spend $70 million annually on just two guys, you’d better be sure that they will jell. The Raiders’ reunion of Carr and Adams comes with a built-in guarantee. We know these guys work well together—just ask the poor suckers on UNLV and New Mexico who tried to stop them a decade ago.

These reunions presumably have other benefits too. Carr and Adams have tossed around the phrase “best friends” to describe each other. Hurts told GQ’s Tyler Tynes that he once cooked pigs’ feet for Smith; Smith told the NFL Network that they still cook for each other. “We bond together outside of football,” Smith said, “and when you have a connection like that, when you get on the field, it makes things a whole lot easier.” How many NFL teams have fallen apart simply because the quarterback and top wide receiver didn’t like each other?

Murray, notably, is in a contentious contract dispute with the Cardinals. Then the front office traded for Brown, a player whom Murray privately chatted with about a potential reunion. Maybe he’ll be more inclined to stay with the franchise if his college friend is also in town.

The final factor that explains why so many quarterback-receiver reunions are happening now is the evolving landscape of the college game. More and more top-level talent is coalescing at the few elite programs. Alabama and Ohio State get to the College Football Playoff practically every year. Georgia just broke the record (15) for most players selected in one NFL draft … snapping a mark that was set by LSU merely two years earlier. If the best quarterback and the two best wide receivers go to Alabama every season, the NFL will eventually feature 32 former Bama quarterbacks throwing to 64 former Bama receivers.

NFL history may not feature many college teammates linking up in the pros—but it seems like this trend is here to stay. There are often good reasons you aren’t as close with your college friends as you used to be: You have different lives now, as both of you have grown apart from your once-shared passions, like intramural ultimate frisbee and seeing what household items can be transformed into bongs. But those quarterbacks and receivers still have the same shared passion—scoring touchdowns. Given how college football and the NFL continue to evolve, expect more teams to keep arranging these types of reunions.