Earlier this week, my colleague Jeff Kerr identified the best two-man duos on each NFL team. It was a fun exercise. We’re here to identify the best duos in the entire league, period — but with a bit of a twist.
While Jeff identified the best player-player duos, we’re allowing coaches to be considered here, too. And coaches will factor heavily into this list, which features four of them — three head coaches and one coordinator. We’re otherwise going to use the same criteria Jeff laid out for his list:
- Play (or coach) on the same side of the ball
- Contribute to the team’s offensive or defensive success
- Can be from the same position, but not a prerequisite
- Can be the two best players (or coaches) on that particular side of the ball
We’re also allowing only one duo per team. Otherwise, this would just be a list of players and coaches from the small handful of best teams in the NFL, and that’s not any fun.
10. Dan Quinn and Micah Parsons, Cowboys
This duo only has a one-year track record, but that one year was so electric that it’s good enough to land them a spot on this list. Quinn built his defense — which ended the season ranked second in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and third in the TruMedia version of EPA per play — around a dynamic rookie who is unlike any player in the league today. Parsons ranked sixth in the NFL in sacks and eighth in total pressures (sacks plus hits plus hurries) despite getting at least 135 fewer opportunities to rush the passer than any player in front of him. He generated pressure on more than 22% of his pass-rushing snaps, which was so far ahead of the next-closest player that it’s not even worth mentioning who it was. He picked up plenty of tackles flying to the ball in the run game, and he held his own in coverage. The Cowboys will continue to move him all over the field, Quinn will continue to generate advantageous matchups for him, and he will continue to make plays in the backfield.
9. Justin Herbert and Austin Ekeler, Chargers
Herbert has quickly established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and while he has two excellent receivers to whom he throws the ball quite often, his true partner in the offense is Ekeler. One of the most efficient and effective pass-catching backs in the NFL, Ekeler is capable of not just working in the checkdown game, but as a primary target for his quarterback. Despite his slight stature, he packs surprising power in his legs, and he’s tough to take down on the first attempt. Herbert can hit every spot on the field with his throws due to his otherworldly arm strength, but his accuracy and ball placement on underneath and perimeter throws to Ekeler allows him to create yards after the catch with incredible frequency.
8. Tom Brady and Mike Evans, Buccaneers
In two seasons together, this duo has connected for 70 catches for 1,006 yards and 13 touchdowns, and 74 catches for 1,035 yards and 14 touchdowns. They’ve added 28 connections for 440 yards and four more scores in their six playoff games. Oh, and they won a Super Bowl in there, too. That’s pretty special stuff.
7. Kyle Shanahan and Deebo Samuel, 49ers
It’s tough to find a duo more perfectly matched than this one. Shanahan is one of the NFL’s most creative play-designers, and Samuel is a player for whom you can design literally any play. He’s a deep threat, he’s a YAC monster, he’s tough over the middle of the field, and oh yeah, he’s apparently one of the best running backs in the league, too. Nobody has ever had a season like the one Samuel just put together, wherein he had 77 catches for 1,405 yards and six touchdowns, leading the NFL in yards per reception; and also had 50 carries for 365 yards (6.2 per carry!) and eight more scores. With Shanahan figuring out new and exciting ways to get the ball in his hands, Samuel became nigh-unstoppable last season. It was incredibly tough on his body and the volume of carries is likely to slow down (especially if the Niners pay him on a long-term deal), but it was also incredibly thrilling.
6. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals
In their last two seasons together (one in college and one in the pros), Burrow and Chase have combined to connect on 165 passes for 3,235 yards and 33 touchdowns, along with one national title and one AFC championship. Chase has only been in the NFL for one season and Burrow for two, but they’re already among the best quarterback-receiver combinations in the game.
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5. Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt, Steelers
The backbone of one of the NFL’s best defenses over the past several years, this duo has combined to total 115 sacks over the past five seasons — an average of 23 per year. Watt had nearly that many himself last season, with a record-tying 22.5 of them. He’s led the NFL in quarterback takedowns and tackles for loss in each of the past two seasons and just won his first Defensive Player of the Year award. Heyward is the unsung hero of Pittsburgh’s defense, playing every spot along the interior of the defensive line, pushing pockets and getting after the quarterback. He’s made five consecutive Pro Bowls while Watt has made four in a row, and two appearances on the All-Pro first team in the last three seasons while Watt has made three in a row. You won’t find a better duo along the defensive front.
4. Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs, Bills
Allen and Diggs have only been together for two seasons, but those two seasons have been terrific, as Allen has become one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and Diggs has shined even more brightly than he did in Minnesota. Diggs led the NFL with 127 catches and 1,535 yards during his first year in Buffalo, adding eight touchdowns to his ledger that season. The “down year” he followed it up with consisted of 103 grabs for 1,225 yards and 10 scores. Allen was at the controls for those two monster seasons, and his ability to find Diggs down the field with his rocket arm and ability to extend plays with his legs is nearly unmatched. He’s the best non-Lamar Jackson running quarterback in the NFL at the moment as well, with 224 carries for 1,184 yards and 14 scores in the last two seasons.
3. Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur, Packers
Rodgers has won back-to-back MVPs running LaFleur’s offense, which ranked first and second in DVOA and first and first in EPA per play during those seasons. I don’t think we need to say more than that.
2. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, Rams
The NFL’s best defensive player, Donald is totally unblockable. Interior defenders simply are not supposed to be able to do what he does, and he does it anyway, with metronomic consistency. Paired with arguably the NFL’s best defensive back, the duo kept the Rams firmly in the mix for titles even while Jared Goff was under center, and helped propel them to the Super Bowl once the team added Matthew Stafford last year. Stafford and Cooper Kupp had a magical season in their first year together, but this is still the best duo on the Rams until Donald decides to hang up his spikes for good.
1. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs
In four seasons together, Reid and Mahomes have gone to (and hosted) the AFC title game four times, winning two of them, along with one Super Bowl. They have finished those four seasons ranked first, sixth, first, and third in yards; first, fifth, sixth, and fourth in points; first, third, second, and third in DVOA; and first, second, third, and second in EPA per play. Mahomes is arguably the most talented quarterback to enter the league, Reid is one of the best coaches of his or any generation, and they have created one of the most consistently explosive and efficient offenses in recent memory.