Best duos in today’s NFL

Everybody loves a good one-two-punch. After declaring Jacksonville’s Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye as the league’s best cornerback-duo in my position rankings a week ago, I thought about who the best tandems at all the other positions are. Obviously, this list only includes pairs players, who are on the field at the same time or alternate heavily. So you won’t find any quarterbacks here. Neither did I mention any combination of tight-ends since very little teams use multiple TE-sets, at least in the passing game, anymore. To make this list, both players have to be active right now. This led to two dynamic duos not making the cut. I also mentioned a couple of challengers for the group after each paragraph. Here’s what I came up with:


Ingram & Kamara

Running backs – Mark Ingram & Alvin Kamara, Saints

The Saints running backs complement each other perfectly. This backfield included a future Hall of Famer in Adrian Peterson at the start of the season, but Sean Payton clearly wanted to put the ball in Kamara’s hands more. So AP was traded to Arizona and the rookie has been sensational with more opportunities. Ingram is the early-down inside thumper, while the rookie stresses the opponents more from east to west and as a pass-catcher for New Orleans. You can really see the play-calling change depending on which of the two is on the field. With Ingram in the line-up the Saints run mostly power-schemes, trying to tire out the defenses, while switching to more zone- and stretch-running when Kamara is in. Drew Brees and his offense have completely changed their identity with those two guys as the focal points. They pound opponents early on with their veteran RB, then they try to get their star-rookie onto the edges and if necessary, like it was on Sunday, their all-time great QB takes games over. Versus Buffalo a couple of weeks ago, the Saints ran the ball 24 straight times for 169 yards and two touchdowns. This has kept their defense on the sideline more and with the infusion of some young talent, they have really turned it around.

Also considered: Devonta Freeman & Tevin Coleman (Falcons), Jay Ajayi & LeGarette Blount (Eagles), Jordan Howard & Tarik Cohen (Bears)


Diggs & Thielen

Wide Receivers – Adam Thielen & Stefon Diggs, Vikings

When you think of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and others, you can’t help but think those guys make their receivers a whole lot better. Yet, in Minnesota, there’s two guys who clearly have made their quarterback look so much better than he has done at any point of his career. Stefon Diggs has missed eight of his 42 career games and he has played banged up for a lot more as well, but when he is right he’s one of the absolute best guys at the wide receiver position in the entire league. He’s just filthy. He won’t wow anybody with measurements or combine numbers, but he’s football-fast, fluid, really tough, has outstanding ball-skills and he just smokes DBs with his route-running. His partner in crime – Adam Thielen – on the other hand has exceeded all expectations by a mile. We all know his story by now, working his way onto the roster through regional try-outs, but he’s so much than just a great story. He is the only player to catch at least five passes over all ten games so far this season and he’s second only to Antonio Brown with 916 receiving yards already. Both those Minnesota pass-catchers can line up either outside or in the slot and they have been a huge reason for Case Keenum’s as well as the Vikings’ success.

Also considered: Antonio Brown & JuJu Smith-Schuster (Steelers), Demaryius Thomas & Emmanuel Sanders (Broncos), Julio Jones & Mohamed Sanu (Falcons)


Lewan & Conklin

Offensive Tackles – Taylor Lewan & Jack Conklin, Titans

A year ago, I thought the Titans had the best offensive line in the league outside of Dallas. This year, with the Cowboys having to shift around their front quite a bit with Ronald Leary leaving in free agency and Doug Free retiring, I gave Tennessee a good chance to move into the top spot. So far the Titans hasn’t established the identity they had a year ago, as they are 12th in the league in rushing yards and middle of pack as far as sacks allowed goes. If Jason Peters was healthy, the Eagles would run away with the title of best tackle-tandem in the league, but since he’s not, Lewan and Conklin win by default. Going into the year, those two would have been my choice, but they haven’t quite lived up their potential. Don’t get me wrong, they both get after it in the run game and they have only allowed a combined 4.5 sacks on the year, but they have already surrendered almost as many QB hurries as they did in 2016 and I just set the bar extremely high for them. You forget how young those two are when you think of how good they already have been. Lewan is in his fourth season and Conklin was an All-Pro at right tackle as a rookie just a year ago. Funny how great the former Wolverine and Spartan have been together and will be for the next decade.

Also considered: Joe Staley & Trent Brown (49ers), Taylor Decker & Rick Wagner (Lions)


Foster & DeCastro

Offensive Guards –Ramon Foster & David DeCastro, Steelers

You can talk all you want about Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown, when I watch the Pittsburgh Steelers play, I pay attention to their offensive line. They have given up just 14 sacks all year and they are third in QB hits allowed, despite their offensive scheme revolving heavily around deep shots in the passing game. When I look at Bell’s poor per-attempt average of 3.8 yards, I think their lack of threatening anybody with that passing attack over the top has been a big reason for that number. Big Ben just hasn’t been the same he was in recent years, at least until last week’s Thursday Night matchup. Opposing defensive coordinators aren’t afraid of bringing that extra guy in the box and daring the 35-year old to kill them deep. Let’s see what happens after Roethlisberger’s excellent performance against the Titans, because this offensive front is outstanding. Especially their interior three guys impress me. I won’t include center Maurkice Pouncey in this discussion, but his athleticism is an important component to Pittsburgh’s offense. With the Ravens’ Marshal Yanda out for the season, DeCastro might be the best guard in the league. He’s a gritty blocker, who gets after people in the run game. Foster specializes more as a pass-protector, having allowed just two sacks since the start of the 2016 season. He was named the second-best guard in the NFL by Pro Football Focus a year ago and together the Steelers guards are my top duo as of right now.

Also considered: Josh Sitton & Kyle Long (Bears), Kevin Zeitler & Joel Bitonio (Browns)


Bosa & Ingram

Edge Rushers – Joey Bosa & Melvin Ingram, Chargers

Those two guys couldn’t be more different in character, but when they are on the field, they are both hunters. Bosa is this quiet guy, who turns into a pitbull when he puts on a uniform, while Ingram is always hyped up and cracking jokes. Their playing style is also pretty contrasting. Last year’s Rookie of the Year wins his matchups with technique and relentless pursuit. He has an excellent club and strings his hands together very well to rip through or swim past his opponent. But even if that primary move doesn’t hit, he will keep working and hustling until he gets to the ball-carrier, as he led all defensive players in tackles for loss a year ago and has been even better in his second season. Ingram, on the other hand, exposes offensive tackles with his speed around the edge and tries to stay low to the ground to give offensive tackles a minimal area to put their hands on. During Sunday’s contest versus the Bills, when they were all over Buffalo’s QBs and combined for a strip-sack plus fumble return touchdown. FOX showed a statistic that Ingram and Bosa have already combined for 92 quarterback pressures – by far the most by any duo in the league, being at number one and three on that list respectively. Those two guys are just unbelievable together and the biggest reason I believe the Chargers could recover from a horrible start to the season and still make the playoffs.

Also considered: Yannick Ngakoue & Calais Campbell (Jaguars), Everson Griffen & Danielle Hunter (Vikings)


Donald & Brockers

Interior defensive linemen – Aaron Donald & Michael Brockers, Rams

Let’s be honest – if you have Aaron Donald next to you, your chances of building one of the top interior D-line combinations is pretty high. Yet, Michael Brockers has been quite a player in this new 3-4 scheme under Wade Phillips. I’ve stated many times that I think nobody in the league combines the kind of power and quickness Donald does. You could easily argue that he is the best defensive player in all of football. He disrupts everything and the coaching staff has allowed him to keep attacking, by lining him up in the 3- or 4i-technique, where he can get upfield. Brockers, on the other hand, plays more of the traditional 5-tech, head up with the offensive tackle. In their base alignment, Brockers is supposed to control two gaps, shed his blocker and gets hands on the ball-carrier. In reality, LA runs a hybrid scheme. Most of the time, they bring two extra guys to the line of scrimmage and play more of a 5-2. Out of that, they slant and blitz quite a lot on passing downs. Additionally, they like to let Donald rush from the edge and bring Brockers inside as a shed nose-tackle. I believe Wade Phillips has always been one of the best defensive minds and when he took his job, I knew right away he wouldn’t make his All-Pro defensive tackle play two-gap and keep linebackers clean. Donald wants to spend his team in the opposing backfield, while the guy across from him can be a rock at the point of attack and take away lanes for the ball-carrier.

Also considered: Fletcher Cox & Timmy Jernigan (Eagles), Grady Jarrett & Dontari Poe (Falcons)


Kuechly & Davis

Standup linebackers – Luke Kuechly & Thomas Davis, Panthers

This was one of the hardest decisions for me, but I had to go with those two guys in Charlotte once again. Right now, Bobby Wagner might be the best overall linebacker in the entire league. He is just a dog in this depleted Seahawk defense. Yet, I still believe Thomas Davis is the best 4-3 SAM linebacker and better than K.J. Wright is at WILL. So I gave them the nod. I love nothing more than watching Davis beat up on tight-ends in man-coverage. When Jimmy Graham was still in New Orleans, I felt like the 12-year vet cleaned his clock every single time they met. I don’t have inside-the-huddle access, but from watching him communicate pre-snap and from reading different stories, I don’t think there’s a better quarterback on defense than Luke Kuechly. Outside of getting everybody else on his defense in position to be successful, the former Defensive Player of the Year is a true play-maker himself. He’s unbelievably instinctive, fast and tough. Both those guys play downhill constantly and the Panthers’ new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks blitzes on almost 40 percent of their snaps. With Kuechly out for a large portion of 2016 and many other factors, the Panthers defense has a bit of a down year in 2016, but this season they are once again third in rushing and fourth in passing yards allowed.

Also considered: Bobby Wagner & K.J. Wright (Seahawks), Kwon Alexander & Lavonte David (Buccaneers), Telvin Smith & Myles Jack (Jaguars)


Ramsey & Bouye

Cornerbacks – Jalen Ramsey & A.J. Bouye, Jaguars

Like I said already, the Jaguars have the best cornerback-duo in the league right now. Last year’s fifth overall pick Jalen Ramsey came into the draft as my highest-rated DB in years and after a strong rookie campaign, he has become one of the elite players at the position in his second year. A.J. Bouye, on the other hand, is a player nobody really knew about before last season. In his first three years with the Texans, he only started eight games, before playing as well as almost anybody at cornerback in his fourth season out of UCF. That earned him a huge contract with Jacksonville to be Ramsey’s running-mate. I mentioned last week, in my cornerback rankings, how well those two guys complement each other. Ramsey is an athletic freak with excellent length and physicality, while Bouye has outstanding change-of-direction skills and gets his hands on a ton of balls. The cornerback-duo supreme has combined for six interceptions and 26 pass-deflections on the year. More importantly, working together with a ferocious pass-rush, super-fast linebackers and two great safeties, the Jags defense is number one in the NFL in terms of passing yards, total yards and points allowed. It’s a new dawn in Sacksonville and those two guys on the outside bring the swagger and competitiveness to be able to play with anybody.

Also considered: Xavier Rhodes & Trae Waynes (Vikings), Chris Harris & Aquib Talib (Broncos)


Weddle & Jefferson

Safeties – Eric Weddle & Tony Jefferson, Ravens

This title would definitely go to the Seawhawks’ Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor if they were healthy together. You can make an argument for ET being the premiere center-fielder and Kam as the prototypical box-safety and tone-setter in the league. With the big hitter out for the rest of 2017, you have to look around a bit and there’s several contenders out there. I decided to hand it to the Ravens newly formed safety tandem. Eric Weddle was the second-rated safety overall by Pro Football Focus a year ago and should have clearly been on an All-Pro team. He is one of the most complete players at the position out there. The ten-year vet constantly moves around before the snap and disguises coverages. He can drop in the box and defend the run, he’s an excellent blitzer and he gets his hands on a ton of balls in coverage (4 INTs and six pass-deflections). Jefferson had a tremendous 2016 campaign as well and earned himself a big contract with Baltimore. While he has always been an outstanding run-stopper and around the line of scrimmage in general, the free-agent addition has been able to show off more in the Ravens’ coverage schemes, in which he is asked to play a lot more deep zone-coverage. You can tell those two guys communicate very well and you see them rotating spots a lot to make things tough on opposing signal-callers.

Also considered: Malcolm Jenkins & Rodney McLeod (Eagles), Micah Hyde & Jordan Poyer (Bills), Tyrann Mathieu & Tyvon Branch or Antoine Bethea (Cardinals)



 

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