Fast Connections, Week 3: Even at 36, Fitz won't quit


The early weeks of the NFL season generally present some surprises, and that includes the quarterback-receiver tandems. John Ross, a forgotten man during his first two years in the league, leads all players in receiving yards per game after building a connection with veteran signal-caller Andy Dalton. Elsewhere, Sammy Watkins leads all Chiefs in targets (24), receiving yards (247) and touchdown catches (three). Perhaps these and other fast starts will prove unsustainable, but they illustrate how non-star players can make a meaningful impact.

This week's Fast Connections include a mix of well-established quarterback-receiver tandems and some new duos that have started 2019 in impressive fashion.

Deshaun Watson to DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

Even after a quiet Week 2, DeAndre Hopkins remains among the NFL's best receivers. His play against a stingy Saints pass defense in the opener illustrates how even good coverage can't always slow down the All-Pro. Hopkins did his usual damage over the middle of the field, beating top cornerback Marshon Lattimore for two catches in the first half including the Texans' second touchdown. Though Hopkins doesn't create as much separation as other elite pass catchers, quarterback Deshaun Watson continues to trust his receiver to win contested catches. The duo's faith in one another paid off again during the third quarter when the two connected for a 16-yard touchdown.

Unlike other tandems, Watson and Hopkins play in a system that too infrequently creates easy completions to keep the offense out of unfavorable situations. In the long term, that style could limit the Texans' upside, especially in a competitive AFC South. Even so, Watson and Hopkins remain one of the top quarterback-receiver connections.

Next Gen Stats says ...

Partially indicative of the Texans' offensive system and their quarterback's tendencies as a player, Watson has held onto the ball an average of 2.87 seconds per pass attempt, one of the higher figures in the league. he uses some of that time to locate Hopkins, who creates 3 or more yards of separation on just 23.8 percent of his routes. Even so, the connection works because Hopkins can catch difficult passes (a catch rate 3 percent above expectation) and Watson gives him those opportunities.

Kyler Murray to Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals

Wide receivers, even ones destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, see their productivity drop off long before their 36th birthday. That doesn't seem to apply to Larry Fitzgerald, who has gotten off to his best start in years. In two games, Fitzgerald has already amassed nearly 30 percent of his yardage total from a season ago. Despite his age, Fitzgerald has somehow remained a relevant and reliable pass catcher worth a feature role.

Part of Fitzgerald's renaissance relates to Arizona's new scheme under head coach Kliff Kingsbury and rookie quarterback Kyler Murray. The air-raid system generates easy completions at volume, and Murray knows the offense well from his time at Oklahoma. Though the Cardinals' offensive efficiency has fluctuated, their performance during the second halves of each of their two games show how dangerous the team should become later in the season.

Next Gen Stats says ...

Murray has done a decent job delivering the ball quickly to help out his offensive line. He averages just 2.64 seconds per pass attempt, quickest among all rookie quarterbacks. It comes as little shock that the first-year signal-caller has already placed his trust in the future Hall of Fame receiver, especially near the goal line where Fitzgerald leads the team with four red-zone targets.

Case Keenum to Terry McLaurin, Washington Redskins

The success for the Watson-Hopkins and Murray-Fitzgerald combinations doesn't come as a surprise. Both quarterbacks rank among the most gifted in the NFL while the receivers have proven their worth countless times over. However, the third connection this week features a journeyman signal-caller on a new team and a mid-round rookie wideout most fans didn't know before the season.

In his first two games in Washington, Case Keenum looks like a different player than the one the Broncos saw during his one season in Denver. He ranks top-10 in touchdown percentage among starting quarterbacks and has built a strong connection with rookie wideout Terry McLaurin, a third-round pick out of Ohio State with modest expectations. Together, they've combined for 10 receptions on 16 targets for 187 yards and two scores.

Next Gen Stats says ...

On paper, it doesn't seem like Keenum and McLaurin would connect so frequently. Keenum has focused more on the short passing game this season, averaging just 7.4 air yards per target. Conversely, McLaurin served primarily as a deep threat in college, and that has held over in the NFL. The first-year wideout currently averages 17.8 air yards per target, more than 5 yards more than the next highest total on the team. Even when that figure regresses toward the mean, McLaurin should still rank as one of the more efficient vertical weapons in the league.

-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is a fantasy analyst for Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH



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