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Roethlisberger-Brown, Rivers-Allen among top QB-WR duos

The passing game still runs the National Football League. To succeed, your team needs to throw the ball efficiently and prevent the opposition from doing so. Yes, this is something that's been mentioned before in this series. It's worth reiterating because it's a simple, crucial truth. Just look at how this past season played out. Super Bowl LII came down to a team with the greatest quarterback of all time against a team with a pass rush that made life hell for those it faced. Some of the best teams in football during the 2017 campaign chased a title with a pair of players entrenched on offense to spearhead the goal of winning through the air.

We can use the objective Next Gen Stats data gleaned from the tracking chips placed inside each player's shoulder pads to uncover layers of powerful insight about some of the top passing weapons in the NFL. Whether it be how much quarterbacks lean on their most effective wideouts or how they perform in crucial segments of the game, we can now quantify aspects of football that we've always just talked about anecdotally. Here, we'll run through the 10 best quarterback-wide receiver connections from the 2017 NFL season. (Yes, this means duos that are expected to change because of offseason player movement were considered for their efforts with their 2017 teams.)

*NOTE: Unlike the rest of the pieces in the "Next Gen Top 10" series, the ranking in this one was decided purely by my subjective decision. All of the data provided was gathered without bias from the tracking chips, but I decided how to order the players. You can actually get mad online at me this time. *

After a slow start to the year, Ben Roethlisberger finished the 2017 regular season as hot as he's been in the last three years. Antonio Brown looked like a potential MVP candidate before going down with a leg injury in Week 15. The Steelers duo was particularly effective on difficult passes along the sideline: Brown led all wideouts with 229 yards gained on boundary targets (within 1 yard of the sideline). He and DeAndre Hopkins were the only players to clear 200 yards on such plays. Roethlisberger's precise ball placement and Brown's ultra-sticky hands make even the most challenging throws look routine. Both players will return for 2018 to further bolster resumes that will land them in Canton someday.

Philip Rivers played like he was downright gleeful to have his top wide receiver back, and he helped Keenan Allen win Comeback Player of the Year. Allen -- who missed all but one game in 2016 because of a torn ACL -- quickly reestablished himself as one of the game's premier route-runners this past season. Over half of his receptions (56 of 102) came on plays where he was wide open (that is, where there was at least 3 yards of separation when the ball arrived). Even when defenders attempted to get in his hip pocket, Allen quickly eluded them. Rivers had a 134.1 passer rating on throws to Allen after he was pressed at the line of scrimmage, leading all players with at least 25 total targets. The Chargers duo will look to try and vault the franchise back into the postseason in their second season in Los Angeles.

Drew Brees has made a habit of taking almost any wide receiver the Saints roll out for him and turning him into a productive player. However, in Michael Thomas, Brees has found a complement that will more than meet him halfway. Since being selected in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Thomas has done everything in his power to cement himself as an elite wideout. He took over as the unquestioned No. 1 receiver this year, with Brandin Cooks being traded from New Orleans to New England in the offseason, and Thomas was every bit up to the task. The 24-year-old led all wide receivers with at least 25 total targets with a 72 percent catch rate vs. press coverage. Brees and Thomas saved their best work for the Wild Card Round, where Thomas carved through the Panthers' secondary with ease (eight catches for 131 yards). He needs to be in the conversation about the top five players at the wide receiver position.

Case Keenum was, without question, one of the top stories of the 2017 NFL season, legitimately fantastic by almost any measure. Keenum was a top-three tight-window passer and posted the best adjusted yards per attempt (9.8) on throws coming outside the tackle box. All that said, his burden was light in his first season with the Vikings, playing alongside one of the best wide receiver duos in the game. Minnesota hero Stefon Diggs, of course, deserves mention, but Adam Thielen was the passing game's metronome all year. Thielen played fantastic football in all phases, averaging 2.9 yards of separation at the quarterback's release point and securing 50 percent of his targets when he had less than a yard of separation. While Keenum might hit the open market, both Thielen and Diggs will return to make the life of whoever takes snaps for the Vikings quite a bit easier.

The Alex Smith- Tyreek Hill connection is the lone hookup on this list that we know for sure will not be seen again in 2018, given that the veteran passer is headed to Washington via trade. They earned their spot in 2017 with their propensity for hitting big plays. Smith threw a deep pass (20-plus air yards) to Hill just 1.8 times per game -- and still, the flashy wideout led the NFL with 628 yards on deep catches. After spending his rookie year in a gadget role, Hill showed the ability to be a full-fledged wide receiver. He caught 53.8 percent of his tight-window targets, and Smith had a 99.0 passer rating when throwing to him on those plays. Both figures cleared the NFL average. The electric receiver will try to put up an encore with a far more impressive physical specimen in Patrick Mahomes behind center.

The football world at large didn't give enough credit to either Matthew Stafford or Marvin Jones for their incredible seasons. The duo mastered its connection in close quarters after some lulls in the players' first year together in 2016. Stafford was one of the best tight-window passers in 2017, and Jones was his top weapon. The Lions wideout led the league by a country mile with 529 yards gained on tight-window receptions, with no other player clearing 300. Jones led the team with a 34.1 percent share of Stafford's intended air yards, while Jones' teammate, Golden Tate, did his work in the short areas of the field.

We didn't get to see this duo operate for a full season, but what Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins flashed when streaking across our skyline earns them a spot here. Hopkins owned a 38 percent share of Watson's intended air yards, as the rookie learned quickly he could lean on the All-Pro wideout. While Hopkins was still productive after Watson went down for the season in early November, the tune wasn't quite as strong. Watson posted a 104.1 passer rating on his throws to Hopkins. Tom Savage, on the other hand, managed just a 70.6 rating. The Texans' franchise quarterback is already up and running again and should be set to return in 2018 for a dominant encore performance alongside Hopkins, quite likely climbing this list next offseason.

This placement might catch some fans off guard, but Jared Goff and Robert Woods absolutely earned this spot with their work this past season. Woods enjoyed a career year in his first season with the Rams. He averaged 3.04 yards of separation on his routes in 2017, the highest among the top four receivers on the team. Goff had a 114.9 passer rating on passes to Woods this year, third-highest among all quarterback-receiver connections with at least 60 targets. Despite the team's higher-profile additions in big-name Sammy Watkins and rookie Cooper Kupp, it was Woods who proved to be the most effective target. Woods was electric in the Rams' postseason loss, dog-walking the Falcons' top cornerback, Desmond Trufant, up and down the field for 107 yards on six catches.

It wasn't the best year for this duo, thanks to a low touchdown total. Julio Jones only scored three times all year, and Matt Ryan only provided two of those scores. The third came on a throw from fellow receiver Mohamed Sanu. Nevertheless, Ryan and Jones were still among the 10 best pairings in the league this season. The Pro Bowl receiver hauled in 45.2 percent of his targets in tight windows, a top-10 rate among receivers with at least 20 such attempts. Despite the underwhelming touchdown total, Jones was still the engine of the Atlanta passing game. He owned a 44.7 percent share of the team's intended air yards, which led all wide receivers this season. The Falcons will hope some touchdown progression hits this pairing next season, and that the final results look a bit closer to what they offered in Ryan's MVP campaign of 2016.

The Seahawks missed the postseason this year, but Russell Wilson and his top receiver were hardly near the top of the culpability list for that. Doug Baldwin is the master of creating space, as he averaged a whopping 3.24 yards of separation on his routes when Wilson released the football. Playing with the improvisational quarterback is a task that requires an extra layer of skill for pass-catchers, as they need to be ready to break off-pattern when he scrambles. Baldwin has made an art form out of it. Wilson was the lone quarterback to throw more than 100 passes (136) outside the tackle box in 2017. Almost 30 percent of the yards he gained on those throws went to Baldwin, for a passer rating of 106.9. The Seahawks head into the offseason with quite a few questions to answer -- but at least they have a franchise quarterback and passing-game anchor in place.


Tom Brady and Brandin Cooks just missed the cut. Ultimately, since tight end Rob Gronkowski is the top target for Brady and the biggest difference-maker in the New England Patriots' pass-catching corps, Brady and Cooks fell behind Wilson and Baldwin. However, Cooks deserves a bundle of credit for sliding right into a prime spot in the rotation after being traded to New England last offseason and thriving, something that hasn't always happened with new receivers on this team. Cooks led all wide receivers this season with 16 deep-ball receptions. His presence brought a vertical influence to the New England offense, as Brady saw his intended air yards average rise to 9.4 last season after finishing at 8.6 in 2016.

Follow Matt Harmon on Twitter _@MattHarmonBYB_.

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