Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he casts an eye on the best duos across the NFL ...
We have reached the point of the offseason in which seemingly every player steps to the microphone to tout his greatness or his team's immense potential. Despite head coaches around the league urging players to refrain from putting up boastful bulletin board material, it is hard for players to resist the urge to shout their beliefs and predictions from the mountaintop.
Denver running back Melvin Gordon joined the fray this week in an appearance on NFL Network's Good Morning Football, proclaiming the Broncos' running backs to be one of the best units in football. After he and Javonte Williams each rushed for 900-plus yards in 2021, the veteran expects the duo to put up big numbers this season.
"We're gonna go crazy, man," Gordon said. "We gotta go crazy. The young bull got so much talent, and we push each other every day in practice. We even got (Mike) Boone, who's a good player, too, that's going to help push us. I'm expecting the run game to be a lot better than it was last year for sure."
I love hearing confidence from players at this time of year, but Gordon's declaration -- along with other, similar promises around the league -- prompted me to head to the film room to see which duos at every position are the best in the business. I looked at 11 key groups and identified the best pairs of teammates at each.
Although I am sure that I will catch some flak for my rankings, here is my list heading into the 2022 season:
The Bills made a great situation better when they added Keenum, a blue-chip backup, to a quarterback room that already featured the NFL MVP front-runner in Allen, securing the most important position on a team harboring Super Bowl aspirations. Although the 34-year-old journeyman has some limitations, Keenum has played at an all-star level when surrounded by premier talent (see: his 22:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 98.3 passer rating and 11-3 record in Minnesota in 2017), and that is more than enough for the Bills to win if No. 17 misses games due to injury. Allen, 26, is arguably the best quarterback in the game, possessing a unique set of skills as a runner and thrower that makes him a nightmare to defend, both inside and outside the pocket. Even as he continues to evolve as a playmaker, the 2020 Pro Bowler is looking like the new prototype for the position.
The Browns' backfield is one of the most feared offensive units in football. Chubb and Hunt are five-star playmakers with the individual and collective skills to take over a game at any point. As an old-school workhorse runner with exceptional size (5-foot-11, 227 pounds), strength and power, the 26-year-old Chubb runs through opposing defenses like a bull in a china shop. The fifth-year pro runs with a physicality that sets the tone for the offense while zapping the life from opponents. Hunt, 26, is a rugged complementary back with the ability to pick up the tough yards between the tackles while also flashing the wiggle and burst to play in space. With Hunt -- who led the NFL in rushing yards as a rookie in 2017 -- having shown the capacity to carry the load in the past, the Browns have a pair of Clydesdales in the stable that no one wants to face on game day.
The Chargers' super-sized pass-catchers make life easy for quarterback Justin Herbert with their ability to win 50-50 balls down the field. Allen (6-2, 211) and Williams (6-4, 218) excel at coming down with contested catches, but there is so much more to each of their games. As a crafty route-runner with an array of street-ball moves at the line of scrimmage, the 30-year-old Allen is nearly impossible to defend in a one-on-one match-up in the slot or out wide, as evidenced by his four 100-catch seasons in the past five years. The five-time Pro Bowl selectee is a high-end chain-mover with a knack for making the big play in the clutch. Not to be outdone, Williams delivers splash plays on the perimeter as an extra-large vertical threat. The 27-year-old has averaged over 16 yards per catch throughout his career, with 26 career touchdowns in five seasons. Given the challenge this tandem poses to defenses on the perimeter, they are an easy choice as the No. 1 duo in the league.
Do not let the modest numbers put up by this veteran tandem in their first season together in New England (50 catches, 603 yards, nine TDs for Henry; 28 catches, 294 yards, one TD for Smith) overshadow their immense talent and potential. Henry, 27, and Smith, 26, are outstanding pass-catchers with the route-running savvy and instincts to find voids in coverage. In addition, they are interchangeable seam runners with the speed and quickness to scoot down the hashes on a variety of play-action passes that lure linebackers and safeties to the line of scrimmage. With quarterback Mac Jones expected to take his game up a notch after playing at a Pro Bowl level as a rookie, the Patriots' dynamic duo could create plenty of headaches for opponents ill-equipped to deal with a versatile "12" personnel package.
The Eagles' bookends possess the size, length and athleticism to stymie elite pass rushers on the edges. Johnson (6-6, 325) is an ultra-athletic blocker with exceptional skills in the run or pass game. The 32-year-old veteran is a rarity as a mauler/brawler with nimble feet and quick hands. With the Eagles transitioning to a run-heavy offense behind a dynamic quarterback with outstanding running skills, Johnson will get a chance to showcase his diversified game. Mailata (6-8, 365) is an extra-large blocker with a strong punch and a nasty finish. As a former rugby standout with exceptional athleticism for his size, the 25-year-old fifth-year pro (who did not play in 2018 or '19) is a unicorn at the position with the potential to become a perennial all-star. Considering how well the veteran and youngster have meshed as a tandem on the edges, it is not a coincidence the Eagles have emerged as one of the premier rushing teams in the league.
Interior offensive line
The Colts are an ultra-physical offense behind the dirty work done by Kelly and Nelson at the point of attack. Kelly displays outstanding snap and punch quickness while shadowboxing with defensive tackles at the line of scrimmage. The 29-year-old veteran peppers opponents with jabs while also displaying the strength, balance and body control to anchor against power players. Nelson, 26, is a bully with heavy hands and a nasty demeanor. The three-time All-Pro pummels opponents in the running game but is also an exceptional blocker in pass protection. Nelson's dominance at the line combined with Kelly's consistent play have helped the Colts' offense maintain its rock-solid status despite the recent revolving door at quarterback.
The Buccaneers' defense is strong down the middle due to the presence of massive, disruptive tackles at the point of attack. Vea overwhelms opponents with his size, strength and power as a 347-pound super athlete. The 27-year-old routinely forklifts interior blockers into the backfield while registering tackles for loss and sacks. Plus, his ability to single-handedly create chaos at the line of scrimmage enables a fleet-footed set of linebackers to run to the ball unobstructed. Hicks, who signed a one-year deal with the team this offseason, is nearing the twilight of his career, but the 32-year-old remains a disruptive player at the point of attack. The former Pro Bowler is capable of walking blockers into the quarterback's lap on bull rushes or power maneuvers but also flashes enough athleticism to occasionally win with finesse. As a run defender, Hicks is an immovable object with the strength, power, balance and body control to hold the point against single blocks or double-teams. With Vea and Hicks capable of dominating on their own, the Bucs' version of the Wonder Twins should help Todd Bowles' defense re-emerge as a top-five unit this season.
It should not surprise anyone in the football world to see the Browns at the top of this list with a pair of former No. 1 overall picks positioned on the edges. Garrett, 26, and Clowney, 29, are five-star athletes with impressive sets of physical tools that challenge elite blockers in space. As explosive defenders with outstanding first-step quickness and burst, each player is capable of winning with speed around the corner. Garrett in particular is a monster off of the edge with a combination of pass-rush skills that has helped him record 51.5 sacks over the past four seasons. He single-handedly destroys pass-protection schemes while creating opportunities for others to feast on one-on-one matchups. Clowney has been a better run defender than pass rusher for most of his career but remains a viable threat off the edge. As an explosive straight-line athlete with long arms and heavy hands, he routinely wins his one-on-ones on the backside utilizing his superior athleticism and improved effort. As teams are forced to pick their poison when determining which way to slide the pass protection, the Browns' disruptive duo makes it impossible for the offensive coordinator to make the right choice.
If you covet heat-seeking missiles on the second level, it is hard to find a better tandem than White and David at linebacker. Each defender racks up a ton of tackles on sideline-to-sideline pursuits like playground kids playing cops and robbers at recess. The individual and collective speed and quickness of the Buccaneers' second-level defenders is impressive to watch, and it is one of the key factors in the defense's dominance over the past few years. White, 24, is a dynamic blitz rusher with an uncanny ability to slip through cracks on the way to the quarterback. Although David, 32, does not register as many splash plays as his counterpart, he is a disruptive defender with a nose for the ball. The Buccaneers' linebacker tandem is the best in the business, and it shows up in film study and on the stat sheet.
The Dolphins have invested heavily in the cornerback position, and it has paid off with an outstanding performance on the perimeters. Howard and Jones excel in man-to-man coverage schemes, and the defense's success is predicated on their ability to put wideouts in straitjackets. Although the 28-year-old Howard is more of a ballhawk than shutdown corner, the perennial Pro Bowler has mastered the art of taking the ball away. Whether he snags the ball on a tip or overthrown pass or makes an aggressive break after reading the route, the veteran has a knack for coming down with picks. Jones, 29, does not possess the ball skills and instincts to register huge turnover numbers, but he is a sticky defender in coverage. As a decathlete with outstanding speed and leaping ability, the veteran provides blanket coverage against WR2s on the other side of the field. With a pair of high-end corners at his disposal, third-year defensive coordinator Josh Boyer can unleash the hounds on opponents with his aggressive blitz schemes.
Every defensive coordinator covets smart, tough and productive safeties in the defensive backfield. The Bills are the envy of the league with a pair of veterans at the position with high IQs, outstanding ball skills and rock-solid tackling ability. Hyde, 31, is the leader of the group with a versatile game that enables him to roam from the deep middle to the slot as a designated playmaker. The former cornerback-turned-safety is an exceptional defender with a knack for finding the ball. Poyer, 31, is a crafty defender with outstanding instincts and anticipation. The All-Pro quickly diagnoses the action and finds a way to get to the ball. As interchangeable defenders with the capacity to fill a variety of roles based on matchup or game plan, the Bills' safety tandem has helped key the team's resurgence as a title contender.