The aerial evolution of the NFL has made it imperative for elite offenses to feature multiple playmakers on the perimeter. While most teams enter the season with an idea of who will play the key role as the designated WR1, over the course of the fall, surprise connections develop into crucial components of winning teams.
Over the last couple of seasons, we've seen Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley become vital contributors in a Cowboys passing game anchored by Dez Bryant. The previously unheralded playmakers have made a number of critical plays in key situations (on third down and in the red zone) that have helped Dallas combat the various tactics opponents use to neutralize Bryant's impact.
With that in mind, I thought I would survey the NFL landscape to see which surprise connections could emerge as heavyweight hookups in 2015. Here are 10 to watch this season, listed in alphabetical order by team:
Arizona Cardinals: Carson Palmer to John Brown
The Cardinals' passing game largely runs through big-bodied wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, but Palmer could help Brown become the next small receiver to take the NFL by storm. The Pittsburg State product got lost in the shuffle of an all-time rookie receiver class last season, but he made quite a splash in his own right, hauling in 48 receptions for 696 receiving yards and five touchdowns in a part-time role. Brown is an exceptional deep-ball threat with blazing speed (he posted a 4.34-second 40-yard dash at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine), quickness and burst. He isn't a polished route runner at this point, but Brown is such an explosive athlete that Palmer will be able to target him whenever he spots a favorable matchup against an inferior CB3.
Chicago Bears: Jay Cutler to Eddie Royal
The Bears are hoping Cutler can quickly rekindle his chemistry with Royal in the Windy City. The silky-smooth receiver enjoyed a spectacular rookie campaign with Cutler in Denver back in 2008, snagging 91 passes for 980 yards and five touchdowns. Cutler was just as impressive that year, passing for a career-high 4,526 yards and earning his only Pro Bowl nod to this point. With the Bears needing Cutler to take his game up a notch to help the offense get back on track, the mercurial passer could rely on his former Broncos teammate to spark Chicago's passing game in critical moments. Royal showed signs of life as a WR3 with the San Diego Chargers a season ago; he could deliver plenty of big plays for the Bears with Cutler poised to feed him the ball early and often between the hashes.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams
Whenever an offensive lineup features a pair of Pro Bowl pass catchers on the perimeter -- see: Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in Green Bay -- it is easy to overlook the WR3. But the football world quickly will grow to love Adams' game when he steps onto the field in 2015. The second-year pro started to flash near the end of his rookie season (hauling in seven catches for 117 yards and a touchdown in the playoff win over Dallas), exhibiting the ball skills and running ability to wreak havoc on quick-rhythm throws against man coverage. Given Adams' advantages over opposing CB3s, Rodgers could turn to his young pass catcher at critical junctures this season.
Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck to Donte Moncrief
The offseason arrivals of Andre Johnson and Phillip Dorsett have dominated the headlines, but it is the continued emergence of Moncrief as an explosive playmaker that's poised to make the Colts' offense one of the most difficult units to defend in football. The 6-foot-2, 221-pounder is an electric athlete with exceptional speed (having posted a 4.40 40-yard dash at the 2014 combine) and leaping ability (he recorded a 39.5-inch vertical jump and 132-inch broad jump), and he is quickly developing into a polished vertical route runner on the perimeter. Moncrief uses a variety of clever stutter-steps and hesitation moves at the top of his routes to lull defenders to sleep, allowing Luck to target him on deep balls when opponents roll coverage in T.Y. Hilton's direction. With the Colts suddenly trotting out a star-studded lineup featuring dynamic playmakers all over the field, Moncrief's ability to win against one-on-one coverage could make him a highly productive WR3.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles to Allen Robinson
The Jaguars have their franchise quarterback in place, but they are waiting on one of their young pass catchers to emerge as a legitimate WR1. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns are certainly viable candidates for the role, but Robinson's game is ideally suited for the top spot in the pass game. The second-year pro is a fine route runner with outstanding hands and ball skills. Robinson excels at doing the dirty work between the hashes, yet is also effective sneaking down the boundary on vertical routes. Although injuries limited Robinson's role as a rookie, the fact that he made a solid impact early in the season (48 receptions for 548 yards with two scores in 10 games) suggests he is ready to make his mark as the Jaguars' WR1.
Miami Dolphins: Ryan Tannehill to Kenny Stills
There's little doubt first-round pick DeVante Parker will occupy the top spot in the Dolphins' aerial attack, but Stills could carve out a key role as a designated home-run hitter. Stills thrived in a similar role during his two years with the Saints, amassing 11 receptions of 40-plus yards and posting a spectacular average of 16.5 yards per catch on 95 receptions. Although Tannehill is prone to conservative play from the pocket, the young QB must find a way to maximize Stills' talents as an accomplished downfield playmaker.
Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater to Charles Johnson
The arrival of Mike Wallace during the offseason has fueled speculation that the former Pro Bowler would immediately assume the WR1 role in Minnesota, but Johnson's breakout showing during the second half of last season cannot be overlooked. In Bridgewater's rookie campaign, Johnson averaged 15.3 yards per catch and scored a pair of touchdowns as a surprise contributor for the Vikings. The third-year pro is a solid route runner with terrific balance, body control and burst. Johnson has a keen sense of timing, allowing him to mix a variety of stutter moves into his routes to separate from defenders out of the break. With Bridgewater adept at reading the body language of his receivers, Johnson's creative route-running skills could make him the Vikings' top receiver, despite the presence of a few big names (Kyle Rudolph, Cordarrelle Patterson and Wallace) on the perimeter.
New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees to Josh Hill
When the Saintstraded away Jimmy Graham in March, skeptics wondered which pass catcher would assume the No. 1 role in the passing game. Conventional wisdom suggests Brandin Cooks will fill the vacancy based on his pedigree as a first-round selection, but former undrafted free-agent signee Josh Hill could emerge as Brees' top target by the end of the season. The 6-5, 250-pound playmaker is an underrated athlete capable of separating from defensive backs and linebackers on vertical routes, yet he also displays the patience and route-running discipline to win on underneath routes against man or zone. This was evident in 2014, when Hill scored five touchdowns in limited action as the Saints' TE3. He could become a 60/900/10 guy with more opportunities as a third-year pro.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger to Martavis Bryant
Antonio Brown is firmly entrenched as the Steelers' WR1, but Bryant is poised to push Markus Wheaton for the No. 2 role in the passing game. The 6-4, 211-pound wideout came on like gangbusters during the final half of his rookie season, finishing with 26 receptions for 549 yards and eight touchdowns in just 10 games. Most impressively, Bryant notched five receptions of 40-plus yards in limited action and emerged as a legitimate red-zone weapon in Year 1. If Bryant can clean up his route running and master the nuances of the position, the Steelers' young stud could become a household name by season's end.
St. Louis Rams: Nick Foles to Tavon Austin
Austin, the No. 8 overall pick in 2013, has not produced as expected in his first two NFL seasons, with just 71 receptions and four touchdown grabs to his name. But Rams fans should expect the diminutive playmaker to carve out a much bigger role in Frank Cignetti's offense. The Rams' new play caller is intent on maximizing Austin's skills as a dynamic multipurpose threat on the perimeter. Austin has worked diligently to improve as a route runner, which is essential to success for a catch-and-run specialist in a quick-rhythm passing game. Foles could tap into those skills and take advantage of Austin's explosiveness by targeting the youngster on slants, sticks and option routes during early downs.