One of the more tantalizing aspects of all the player movement this offseason is the plethora of promising new connections between passers and pass catchers.
Will any newly acquainted pair of aerial partners join the ranks of prolific duos like Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in Atlanta or Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh? After considering the quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends who have changed teams, I've come up with a prediction for the eight most productive new QB-pass catcher connections in 2018:
1) Sam Bradford and Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona Cardinals
OK, I know: Bradford's extensive injury history looms over everything he does, especially given how close we still are to his lost 2017 season. But don't let that fool you into dismissing Bradford out of hand as a viable quarterback in 2018. It was only two years ago that Bradford made 15 starts while playing well for the Vikings. Arizona checked him out and is confident in its assessment of his health. He'll have a much better offensive line blocking for him in Arizona -- featuring four former first-round picks -- than he has in the past, and that should help him stay off the ground. When I visited Cardinals camp, Bradford looked great. He's talented and accurate, with a strong arm. Rookie QB Josh Rosen is going to be good, but to me, Bradford will be the starter in Arizona without question, provided he keeps away from the trainer's table.
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, catches everything thrown to him; only Antonio Brown has more grabs (343) than Fitzgerald (325) over the past three seasons. The veteran needs 92 catches to pass Tony Gonzalez for the second-most all-time. He's just so dedicated to his craft -- even after all he's accomplished, the 11-time Pro Bowler still spends 10 or 15 minutes after practice catching bad balls. There isn't really another proven pass catcher in Arizona, so Bradford will lean on Fitzgerald plenty. If the QB stays upright all year, I think this team could really surprise people, and the Bradford-Fitzgerald connection will take center stage.
2) Jared Goff and Brandin Cooks, Los Angeles Rams
Goff improved a ton from his first to his second season, making huge jumps in completion percentage (62.1 in 2017, up from 54.6 in 2016), yards per attempt (8.0, up from 5.3), touchdown-to-interception ratio (28:7, up from 5:7) and passer rating (100.5, up from 63.6). He should get even better in Year 3. Not only will Goff continue to benefit from the presence of outstanding head coach Sean McVay and dominant running back Todd Gurley, but he'll hit the 30-start mark, which is when quarterbacks really start to understand the game.
And, of course, he'll be throwing to Cooks, another ascendant player, who was acquired from the Patriots this offseason. Cooks, 24, is one of just five receivers to have topped 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons, joining the likes of Antonio Brown, Mike Evans, Julio Jones and Larry Fitzgerald. He's a serious playmaking threat, thanks to his blazing speed and excellent route-running ability. He'll take the place of the departed Sammy Watkins and outpace Watkins' 2017 output, giving the Rams a great return on the extension that was lavished on him this summer.
3) Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers
If the Packers are going to be any good -- and I think they will be -- the Rodgers-to-Graham connection will be a driving force. Rodgers, of course, only played in seven games last year, thanks to a broken collarbone. Graham, meanwhile, is coming off a fitfully productive tenure in Seattle, though it did end on a high note; in 2017, Graham was one of just three players -- along with DeAndre Hopkins and new Green Bay teammate Davante Adams -- to post double-digit touchdown catches.
Rodgers should be as effective as ever, and we can expect him and recently rehired offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to fully exploit Graham's ability to play in line or out wide. The last time Rodgers and Philbin worked together, in 2011, Jermichael Finley posted the best campaign by a Packers tight end in the last 10 seasons, racking up 767 yards and eight scores. I think the Rodgers-Graham-Philbin collaboration will be at least as productive, if not more so.
4) Kirk Cousins and Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings
2018 has been a great year so far for Diggs. After posting a career-high eight touchdown catches in 2017, he put a decisive stamp on the playoffs in January, thanks to his starring role in the Minnesota Miracle. Then, last month, he landed a five-year, $72 million extension. And, of course, his team seriously upgraded the quarterback position.
Things should only get better for Diggs once he and Cousins take the field together this fall. Diggs is quick and tough to cover, and new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo will line him up all over the field, in addition to getting him more downfield opportunities. Cousins, meanwhile, is a very accurate and experienced quarterback who is no doubt eager to prove he's worth the monster contract he signed this offseason.
5) Alex Smith and Josh Doctson, Washington Redskins
We're still waiting for Doctson to break out as he heads into Year 3. But Smith, who was acquired via trade, is a veteran with total command of the game, an accurate thrower who will know how to take advantage of Doctson's ability to make big plays. (Thankfully, Doctson appears to have escaped serious injury when he banged up his shoulder on Wednesday.)
6) Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns
Taylor is an undervalued quarterback who helped push the Bills to the playoffs last season, despite the fact that Buffalo was outscored by 57 points in the regular season. He's a good foot athlete and, crucially, simply does not turn the ball over. In the three years that he's been a starter, Taylor has thrown just 16 interceptions, the lowest mark in that span among quarterbacks with 40-plus starts. (Tom Brady is next with 17.) I know first overall pick Baker Mayfield is the future, but I think Taylor will be the man in Cleveland this year.
New Browns offensive coordinator Todd Haley knows how to make a passing attack go. And Taylor will be throwing to a fellow trade acquisition who clearly knows how to catch passes. Whatever happens with Josh Gordon, who is currently on the NFI list, Landry is a proven chain-mover who has great hands and the ability to get open. He's also racked up 400 catches, which is the NFL record for a player's first four pro seasons. Taylor and Landry will no doubt connect with great frequency in 2018.
7) Patrick Mahomes and Sammy Watkins, Kansas City Chiefs
Mahomes is still untested as a pro, having started just one game as a rookie, but he's got a big arm and loves to throw the ball downfield -- which is a good thing, because coach Andy Reid also loves to air it out. Mahomes is really Reid's type of quarterback. He's also athletic, which will press opponents into playing more conservatively on pass defense.
Watkins has the pedigree of a former first-round pick, but he's only posted one 1,000-yard season thus far. That said, he's a talented guy who still caught eight touchdown passes in Los Angeles last year despite battling injuries. And don't forget that the Ramsdidn't want to lose him to free agency. It's an encouraging sign that at least two teams wanted to be in the Sammy Watkins business this season. His production might be naturally limited to some degree by the bounty of weapons in Kansas City, but I still expect Watkins to thrive with Mahomes.
8) Mitch Trubisky and Allen Robinson, Chicago Bears
Trubisky will get better, but he's still a young, inexperienced quarterback. Robinson will no doubt have an impact in Chicago, but I do think the Bears are going to run the ball more than they'll pass it, so I don't expect Robinson to approach his output from 2015 in Jacksonville, when he caught 14 touchdown passes.
Robinson's signing generated justifiable buzz, but the bottom line is, this partnership is comprised of a relatively green passer throwing to a receiver coming off a serious knee injury. I think it's wise to have realistic expectations for this season.