Even with passing numbers soaring sky-high across the NFL, electric quarterback-receiver combinations like these stand out for their dazzling proficiency. Take Ryan and Jones, for example. As dynamic as Atlanta's offense was last season, when the chips were down, you knew Ryan would look to Jones.
With a number of receivers and quarterbacks changing uniforms or pairing up for the first time in 2017, I thought I'd compile a list of rising QB-WR combinations with a good chance to join the upper echelon of aerial partnerships. The QB-WR combinations listed below meet the following criteria:
A) I expect the quarterback and receiver to both play the majority of their team's games together this season.
B) I expect each receiver listed to both lead his team in targets and generate 1,000-plus receiving yards for the first time in his working relationship with the listed quarterback.
Below are the rising QB-WR combos to watch in 2017:
1) QB Tom Brady and WR Brandin Cooks, New England Patriots
When I first met Cooks at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, he impressed me with his love for football. As a pro, Cooks reminds me a lot of Antonio Brown, only faster. It's true that when Bill Belichick traded for him, Cooks became just one more receiver on a multi-faceted offense with a number of other players poised to compete for catches. However, I think Cooks will separate himself from the pack because of his run-after-the-catch ability. As much as Brady trusts the sure-handed Julian Edelman, I think Brady will come to see that the younger, faster Cooks -- who also does not drop the ball -- provides a better chance to produce big plays on a per-catch basis than Edelman.
2) QB Alex Smith and WR Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs
For the past three seasons, Smith has compiled a passer rating of 90-plus and a yards-per-attempt mark of 7.2 -- good numbers, but not Super Bowl-caliber. There's a need for Smith to produce more, and that starts with Hill, who will have a much bigger role in this offense after a breakout rookie season in which he scored touchdowns in practically every manner possible. Smith will look to Hill early and often as he tries to stave off rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and I think Hill will elevate himself in this offense, despite the presence of tight end Travis Kelce.
3) QB Carson Wentz and WR Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles
Wentz faded after a fast start to his rookie season. Since then, he's had vision correction surgery and worked privately on mechanics and footwork. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman presented Wentz with the best offseason gift, signing Jeffery and Torrey Smith. Jeffery is a very underrated player who has been hampered mostly by lower-body injuries, which the Eagles think they have a plan in place to correct. Jeffery has the ninth-most receiving yards in the NFL since 2013 (4,182), along with 43 plays of 25-plus yards, tied with Julio Jones for the fifth-most in that span. I really like this pitch-and-catch duo to have a big season -- Wentz is good, and Jeffery will make him that much better.
4) QB Kirk Cousins and WR Terrelle Pryor, Washington Redskins
Cousins' passing totals have been rocketing upward since 2015. Pryor is coming off the 11th-best receiving season in Cleveland Browns history (1,077 yards). We saw signs of the former quarterback learning the position as the 2016 campaign went on, improving in his route-running and cutting down on drops. Cousins is practically a lock to top 5,000 passing yards, and with Pryor stepping into the void left by departed free agents Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson -- the top two most-targeted Redskins last season -- he's got a great chance to seize a prominent role. Jordan Reed, Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder will get their targets, but Pryor has an opportunity to reach the 1,500-yard mark.
5) QB Marcus Mariota and WR Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans
The Titans haven't had a wide receiver reach the 1,000-yard mark since 2013 -- but that streak should end with Davis in the fold. The fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft has the tools to become the true No. 1 on a depth chart filled with No. 2s and No. 3s like Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe and Harry Douglas. Davis is a big target with exceptionally good hands and the determination to win 50-50 balls. I think he'll help Mariota take a big step forward this season by further boosting an offense that already had a good running attack.
6) QB Deshaun Watson and WR DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Hopkins is a proven stud who has averaged 1,122 yards per season in his four-year career, despite the parade of failed quarterbacks that have gone through Houston. The new element is Watson. Can he become the Texans' starter by Week 1 and provide the best QB play Hopkins has ever seen with the Texans? I think the answer is yes. He's accurate, smart, confident and a proven winner who should form an electrifying connection with Hopkins.
7) QB Sam Bradford and WR Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings
I know Bradford extremely well, going back to his time at Oklahoma -- when I'd go talk to the team, Bradford was always the guy who sat in the front row, in the first seat, attuned to everything. After a surprisingly long stretch of up-and-down production, Bradford had something of a breakout last season in Minnesota. With a full offseason to prepare this time around, Bradford should be able to potentially take another step forward. Diggs has very large hands, plenty of speed and quickness and loads of talent, and I like him to reach new highs in his young career.
8) QB Joe Flacco and WR Breshad Perriman, Baltimore Ravens
Perriman's career has yet to get going, but he has big hands and the ability to become an outstanding receiver in the NFL. He has the potential to become an explosive talent, something special -- perhaps the best receiver Joe Flacco has ever played with. Flacco should be throwing to Perriman early and often, with Steve Smith and Dennis Pitta now both out of the picture in Baltimore.
9) QB Jared Goff and WR Robert Woods, Los Angeles Rams
Woods was a steady but unremarkable presence over four years in Buffalo, never topping 65 catches or 699 yards in any given season. But he's only 25 and has a golden opportunity to break through with a Rams team sorely lacking in proven receiver talent. New coach Sean McVay will be trying to give Goff a go-to target in Goff's second NFL season, and Woods is easily the strongest candidate on hand, with Tavon Austin yet to show he can be a viable No. 1. I liked Woods, who I saw as an excellent route-runner worthy of a potential first-round pick, coming out of USC, and I think he'll step up in this situation.
10) QB Brian Hoyer and WR Pierre Garcon, San Francisco 49ers
These two veterans are somewhat known quantities, though they've never fronted an offense together like they will in San Francisco. Garcon isn't just the best receiver on the roster, he also has the benefit of previous experience with coach Kyle Shanahan in Washington. The main question here is, can Hoyer stay healthy and start an entire 16-game season? If he can, he'll be connecting with Garcon regularly, as the rebuilding Niners will likely be passing a ton just to stay in games.
11) QB Cam Newton and WR Curtis Samuel, Carolina Panthers
This pair is a bit of a wild-card, with a multitude of options -- Greg Olsen, Kelvin Benjamin, Christian McCaffrey and Devin Funchess -- competing for targets in Carolina. There's also the fact that Newton is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. But I think he'll bounce back, especially after having surgery to correct a shoulder injury that likely helped mar 2016. And I think Samuel has the talent to distinguish himself from the rest of the pass-catching crowd. He looked like Secretariat among plow horses at his pro day. These are two talented players, and Samuel has a chance to have a Percy Harvin- or Stanley Morgan-type impact as a rookie.