Fast Connections: Mayfield, OBJ should connect deep

In an NFL increasingly dominated by the passing game, the connection between the quarterback and receiver has become of paramount importance. That also holds for fantasy football, where wideouts routinely figure into the first round and those that come off the board early typically work alongside a star signal-caller.

As the league's 100th season begins, it seems to have more highly productive quarterback-receiver connections than at any other time in its history. In 2018, 21 receivers crossed the 1,000-yard threshold. Even more impressively, 11 players hauled in more than 100 passes, the most ever in a single year.

Accordingly, fantasy managers have more options to choose from than ever when it comes to building their team. While no one tandem can guarantee fantasy glory, identifying quarterback-receiver connections with high upside at relatively affordable prices remains key to building a complete roster.

Baker Mayfield to Odell Beckham Jr., Cleveland Browns

Unlike the QB-WR connections to be discussed, Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr. have yet to play a meaningful game together. The Browns acquired Beckham in one of the biggest moves of the offseason, augmenting an offensive supporting cast that already featured running back Nick Chubb, wideout Jarvis Landry and tight end David Njoku. Mayfield's fantasy output fluctuated as a rookie, but he averaged over 19 points once Cleveland installed Freddie Kitchens as offensive coordinator. That figure would have ranked just outside the top 10 among quarterbacks. Now, with a top-flight wideout at his disposal, Mayfield looks to join the upper echelon of signal-callers.

Next Gen Stats says ...

Mayfield took little time establishing himself as a quarterback willing to take shots down the field. He finished 2018 ranked eighth in average yards to sticks -- the average amount of air yards ahead or behind the first-down marker per attempt -- among passers with at least 200 attempts.

That approach should mesh well with a receiver like Beckham. Among high-volume wideouts (100 targets or more), Beckham ranked eighth in average air yards per target (11.5). When he runs deeper routes, which should happen often, Mayfield will already have his eyes trained down the field.

Philip Rivers to Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers

Between free-agent defections, injuries and holdouts, the Chargers offense lacks some of the firepower it had a season ago. Still, the crux of the unit remains the connection between quarterback Philip Rivers and wideout Keenan Allen. Rivers continues to perform at an elite level entering his 16th season while Allen has established himself as a premier route runner in recent years. Together, the duo has combined for 12 touchdowns and nearly 200 receptions and 2,600 yards over their last two seasons, a top-10 fantasy connection in both points-per-reception and standard-scoring leagues.

Next Gen Stats says ...

While the Chargers can't expect many clean pockets from their offensive line during left tackle Russell Okung's absence, Rivers ranks among the NFL's best at getting the ball out quickly. In 2018, he threw the ball in 2.62 seconds on average, the sixth-shortest clip among passers with at least 200 attempts. Rivers' quick throws should mitigate some of the protection issues around him.

And while the majority of those passes will hit their mark, Allen does plenty to help his quarterback on more difficult throws. Per Next Gen Stats, the wideout converted his targets 4.6 percent above his expected catch rate.

Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

Among the myriad reasons the Steelers traded enigmatic star receiver Antonio Brown this offseason, few ranked of higher magnitude than the development of JuJu Smith-Schuster. The young wideout improved off an already stellar rookie season, hauling in seven touchdowns and a team-best 111 catches for 1,426 yards in 2018. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might not display the consistency he once did, but the presence of a young stud receiver like Smith-Schuster should help stave off regression, as well as the loss of Brown's production, in 2019.

Next Gen Stats says ...

Of Smith-Schuster's 166 targets, more than 56 percent of them came from the slot. The Steelers could deploy him in a similar manner in 2019 given the depth of their receiving corps. But with Brown out of the picture, the coaching staff might prefer to use Smith-Schuster more as a boundary weapon. Though he would draw the defense's top cornerback more frequently, Smith-Schuster actually performed better lined up wide last season, averaging 9.1 yards per target there as opposed to 8.6 in the slot.

Regardless of where the Steelers put Smith-Schuster, the offense should pummel him with targets. Pittsburgh led the NFL in pass attempts last season and that doesn't figure to change much in 2019. Even if the increased coverage on Smith-Schuster reduces how frequently he creates separation (nearly 40 percent of targets last year), Roethlisberger throws into tight windows more than all but a few quarterbacks (16.9 percent of throws in 2018). That dynamic should keep the tandem productive moving forward.

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

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