Just as we did last year and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that, the crew here at CBSSports.com recently set out to rank each NFL team’s “triplets.” Why not, right? It’s the middle of the offseason and while this year (unlike in 2020) there actually is better stuff to do at the moment, it’s an offseason tradition over here.
So in the space below, we’re once again counting down the NFL’s best QB-RB-WR/TE trios, grading the expected starters at quarterback and running back and their presumed top pass-catcher for the 2021 season. Note that only rookies who are expected to begin the season as starters are included in this exercise, so Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson were considered the quarterbacks for the Jaguars and Jets, respectively, but Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, and Jimmy Garoppolo were considered starts for the Patriots, Bears, and 49ers.
Also note that we went back to the original format this year, with our team of writers and editors ranking each of the trios from 1-32. The number in parentheses is the average of the team’s ranking based on the votes of several of our staff writers and editors at CBSSports.com. The rankings reflect the collective wisdom of this crowd, while the corresponding analysis is mine.
We’ll begin today with the bottom half of the league, and finish up tomorrow with the top. Without further ado…
QB: ??? RB: David Johnson WR: Brandin Cooks
With the uncertainty surrounding Houston’s quarterback situation, it was not exactly surprising that the Texans checked in last here. They’d obviously move up considerably if we knew Deshaun Watson would be on the field, but given his legal situation and the possibility that the case could remain unresolved until after the 2021 season, we can’t make that assumption.
QB: Jared Goff RB: D’Andre Swift TE: T.J. Hockenson
It’s a step fall for the Lions, though that’s not surprising. They downgraded dramatically at quarterback with Jared Goff replacing Matthew Stafford. They’re talking up a timeshare at running back where Jamaal Williams is heavily involved. Their wide receiver group might be the worst in the NFL, with Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams looking like the best perimeter options.
QB: Drew Lock RB: Melvin Gordon WR: Courtland Sutton
It was tough to choose between Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams for the running back, and between Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy as the wide receiver. We ultimately went with the veteran in both cases, though it’s easier to see Williams supplanting Gordon early in the year than Jeudy overtaking Sutton as the team’s top receiver option, if Sutton is healthy. Still, it’s a group held back by its quarterback play. If a rumored deal for Aaron Rodgers comes to fruition, we may have to re-do these rankings.
29. New York Jets (28.8)
QB: Zach Wilson RB: Michael Carter WR: Corey Davis
The Jets have already built a better infrastructure around Zach Wilson than they ever did Sam Darnold, but their ranking here shows that they still have a ways to go. Obviously, Wilson himself factors in heavily, but a Day 3 rookie looks like their best option in the backfield and Davis isn’t necessarily a premier No. 1 wideout, so there’s definitely room for improvement.
QB: Tua Tagovailoa RB: Myles Gaskin WR: DeVante Parker
Jaylen Waddle figures to emerge as the team’s No. 1 pass-catching option at some point in the future, but it probably won’t be that early on given the depth the team has at the position. There’s Parker, Will Fuller, Preston Williams, Jakeem Grant, and Lynn Bowden Jr., plus tight end Mike Gesicki all still involved in the pass offense. Gaskin showed off a nice, well-rounded skill set last year and the Dolphins didn’t add much at the position, so he should open the season as the starter. This all comes down to how you feel about Tua. He was a highly-regarded prospect, but did not flash any type of ceiling potential during his rookie season. We’ll see if that changes.
27. New England Patriots (27.1)
QB: Cam Newton RB: Damien Harris TE: Hunter Henry
You can make the argument that maybe Jonnu Smith or Kendrick Bourne or Nelson Agholor should be listed as New England’s pass-catcher here, but I’m not sure it’d make much of a difference. Their ranking is more reflective of the group’s relative lack of confidence in Cam Newton, who had a solid first two games last season before he struggled badly following his return from a bout with COVID-19. Harris showed some skill as a runner but almost no value as a pass-catcher, which hurts in this type of exercise.
QB: Jalen Hurts RB: Miles Sanders TE: Dallas Goedert
I was surprised the Eagles checked in this low. I had them at No. 24 in my own submission, and that was the second-highest ranking anyone gave them. I suppose the idea is that Hurts created most of his value on his own as a runner, and did not necessarily prove himself as a passer just yet. Sanders had an inconsistent season as he missed time with injury, but running quarterbacks typically boost the efficiency of the backfield mater, so he should have a good shot at bouncing back. One would expect Devonta Smith to eventually emerge as the top receiver here, but Goedert’s proven himself a reliable option and quarterbacks with Hurts’ skill set typically tend to look to their tight ends more often than perimeter wideouts.
25. Chicago Bears (25.3)
QB: Andy Dalton RB: David Montgomery WR: Allen Robinson
Had Montgomery not exploded down the stretch of the 2020 season, I think the Bears might have ranked even lower than this. Dalton did not show much at all during his stint filling in for Dak Prescott in Dallas, and he’ll be working behind an offensive line that is just as weak as Dallas’ injury-marred unit last year and with a receiving that has Robinson and not that much else. (Apologies to Darnell Mooney.) It’ll be interesting to see where this group ranks next year, assuming Justin Fields takes over under center at some point during the season.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars (25.0)
QB: Trevor Lawrence RB: James Robinson WR: D.J. Chark
This seems about right for the Jags. The median expectation for a rookie quarterback — even one as highly-touted as Lawrence — is probably “below-average starter,” and given the questions along the offensive line and how little we know about what Urban Meyer’s offense will look like, that seems like a safe default assumption. Obviously, we’d expect Lawrence to be quite a bit better than that as he gains more experience, but it seems unlikely that he’ll be dominant right away. With the way Meyer has talked about Travis Etienne as a third-down back and a weapon, Robinson seems safely ensconced as the lead ball-carrier (for now), and Chark remains the top receiving option here.
QB: Carson Wentz RB: Jonathan Taylor WR: T.Y. Hilton
As you can see from the average ranking of the Jaguars (25.0) compared to the Colts (21.6), this looks like the start of a new tier in the rankings. The Colts’ trio is going to be put in good position to succeed thanks to their strong offensive line and head coach Frank Reich, but it’s been quite a while now since either Wentz or Hilton has flashed elite-level talent or production, and Taylor’s success as a runner only matters so much in this exercise. (And he was also working behind Jordan Wilkins for a stretch of his rookie season.)
QB: Sam Darnold RB: Christian McCaffrey WR: D.J. Moore
This feels like a situation where the running back and pass-catcher got too much weight relative to the quarterback. Sam Darnold will be in a far better ecosystem in Carolina than he ever was in New York… but boy was he bad in New York. I just don’t think we can really bank on his being an upgrade over Teddy Bridgewater, let alone an average or better starter this season. CMC should be healthy coming off his injury-ruined 2020 campaign and Moore is a stud, but the question marks surrounding Darnold have me thinking the Panthers should be ranked lower.
QB: Ben Roethlisberger RB: Najee Harris WR: Diontae Johnson
There’s an argument to be made that Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster should be listed as the pass-catcher here, but the relentlessness with which Roethlisberger targeted Johnson last season nudged us in his direction. It was tough to tell whether his inefficiency was a result of his own talent or Roethlisberger’s seeming inability or unwillingness to throw the ball downfield, but either way, it was not encouraging. Harris, meanwhile, is a terrific talent, but running behind a dramatically worse offensive line than what we’ve gotten used to seeing in Pittsburgh over the years.
20. San Francisco 49ers (20.1)
QB: Jimmy Garoppolo RB: Raheem Mostert TE: George Kittle
There’s not much faith in Jimmy Garoppolo around these parts, I don’t think. Kittle is either the best or second-best tight end in football and an absolute monster. Mostert is in his late-20s and might eventually cede ground to rookie Tre Sermon, but he should open the year as the lead ball-carrier. That’s a solid duo. But there’s a reason the Niners gave up two future firsts to move up for Trey Lance; Jimmy G isn’t cutting it. Again, it’ll be interesting to see where San Francisco lands next year, when Lance will presumably be entrenched under center.
19. Washington Football Team (19.4)
QB: Ryan Fitzpatrick RB: Antonio Gibson WR: Terry McLaurin
Fitz has a very high ceiling and a very low floor, so a ranking just slightly below-average seems about right for a team that he’s quarterbacking. Gibson looked electric as a runner at times during his rookie season, but the team strangely did not involve him in the passing game often enough — a surprise, considering he was a hybrid receiver/rusher in college. McLaurin is a true No. 1 wideout who now has some help on the outside in the form of Curtis Samuel, and should find himself operating in more space, more often this year.
QB: Daniel Jones RB: Saquon Barkley WR: Kenny Golladay
I think we might be able to just copy/paste the Panthers commentary right here. What have we seen from Daniel Jones that would lead us to believe he’s the right guy under center? Getting Golladay gives him a new weapon and Barkley should hopefully be healthier this year, but it feels like this group is ranked too highly.
QB: Matt Ryan RB: Mike Davis WR: Calvin Ridley
Welp. We had Julio Jones listed as Atlanta’s pass-catcher until he went on TV earlier this week and said he was outta there. It’s not too big a downgrade to Ridley, but losing Jones as an attention-drawer obviously makes thinks considerably more difficult. Matt Ryan hasn’t played a Julio-less season since 2010, so it’ll be a big adjustment for him as well. Davis filled in nicely for McCaffrey in Carolina last season, but he’s not the kind of top-end option that can make up for shortcomings elsewhere.
Stay tuned for Part II of our rankings Friday …