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 starters 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 began on Thursday with the bottom half of the league, and finish up below with the top. Without further ado…
QB: Derek Carr RB: Josh Jacobs TE: Darren Waller
It’ll be interesting to see how Carr performs after the Raiders gutted the offensive line that has kept him so well-protected over the last few years. Among 39 qualified passers, the 29.8% combined pressure rate Carr faced from 2018 through 2020 ranked fifth-lowest. Considering his struggles with pressure, that’s quite important. Jacobs has been solid as a runner but the Raiders clearly don’t feel that good about him in the passing game, given how often they’ve brought in other backs to fill that role. Waller is probably the best non-George Kittle or Travis Kelce tight end in the NFL, and remains underrated.
QB: Jameis Winston RB: Alvin Kamara WR: Michael Thomas
We had to make a judgment call here, and chose to go with Winston over Taysom Hill as the Saints’ quarterback. Given their respective pedigrees as passers, it seems likely that choosing Winston ended up boosting the Saints’ ranking rather than lowering it. Kamara is one of the small handful of best pass-catching backs in the NFL, but without Drew Brees to target him with pinpoint accuracy, we don’t yet know how he’ll play in 2021. Thomas, meanwhile, is coming off an injury-ruined season, and also moving from Brees to a new QB. This feels like a group with a lot of volatility.
QB: Joe Burrow RB: Joe Mixon WR: Ja’Marr Chase
This feels somewhat high for this group, but there’s apparently a lot of confidence in this trio of young players. Burrow looked like he was on his way to a strong rookie season when he tore his ACL, but he also tore his ACL. The Bengals chose Chase over an offensive lineman at No. 5 overall. His connection with Burrow should ensconce him as the No. 1 target in this offense fairly early in the season, but the Bengals might still be playing with fire with their offensive line. Mixon, meanwhile, is now the clear-cut workhorse in the backfield after the Bengals cut Giovani Bernard (who signed with the Buccaneers).
QB: Ryan Tannehill RB: Derrick Henry WR: A.J. Brown
As you can see from the averages, this looks like the start of a new tier. The difference in average ranking between the Bengals and Titans (3.5) is the largest between any two teams on the list. Meanwhile, the next six teams — from the Titans at No. 13 to the team at No. 8 — are separated by just 2.5.
That said, I thought the Titans would be higher than this. Henry has been the best running back in the league in each of the last two seasons, and while players with his workload typically break down sooner or later, they typically are not Henry-sized players. It wouldn’t necessarily be surprising if he slowed down too just because there’s a very long history of that happening, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if he broke the mold. Brown is an absolute monster, like a new-age Julio Jones. (And he might actually end up playing alongside Julio Jones, which would be awesome.) Tannehill, I guess, does not get enough respect. The dude has just been really good since arriving in Tennessee. We’ll see if that’s still the case without Arthur Smith and Corey Davis.
QB: Kyler Murray RB: Chase Edmonds WR: DeAndre Hopkins
Chase Edmonds out-playing Kenyan Drake last year likely played at least a bit of a role in pushing the Cardinals up the board here. He was better as both a runner and a pass-catcher in 2020, and now he should enter the season as the team’s No. 1 back. Murray’s dual-threat capabilities make him an extremely dangerous player, and he showed off strong chemistry with Hopkins last year. (But almost none of his other wideouts.)
QB: Baker Mayfield RB: Nick Chubb WR: Odell Beckham Jr.
The Browns suffer from the triplets format, because the strength of their team is their offensive line and running back duo. Chubb is terrific, but the Browns also have Kareem Hunt behind him, and that makes them different from other teams with Chubb-caliber running backs. Beckham was injured for much of last season and Mayfield actually played better once he was out, but let’s not kid ourselves here: he’s still the best pass-catcher on the team. That said, there are still major injury concerns with him, as well as consistency concerns with Mayfield. Still, this spot feels about right for Cleveland.
QB: Matthew Stafford RB: Cam Akers RB: Robert Woods
You could go with Woods or Cooper Kupp and the Rams would likely rank about the same. They’ve got an above-average quarterback who will be dropped into the best offensive environment he’s experienced in quite some time. They’ve got a running back coming off a strong finish to his rookie season. And they’ve got one of two wide receivers who are essentially Co-No. 1 and No. 2 options, with either one of them looking like the top guy in the pecking order depending on the week or the matchups. If all goes well, this ranking will look low by the end of the season.
QB: Lamar Jackson RB: J.K. Dobbins TE: Mark Andrews
Jackson obviously took a bit of a step backward last season, but I think the degree to which he was unsuccessful has been overblown. Jackson still finished the year eighth in QBR and tied for 13th (with Stafford) in EPA per pass attempt. Throw in his value as a runner and it’s clear he was still quite good. He should remain good this season, and now that the Ravens have given him some more weapons, he should have more room for his throws. He also seems unlikely to have as poor a deep-ball season as he did last year, considering that had long been one of his strengths. Dobbins should split carries with Gus Edwards but he seems likely to be the lead guy, and the one who is targeted in the passing game. Andrews remains an excellent over-the-middle weapon, even if he doesn’t play quite as many snaps as some other top tight ends.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9.1)
QB: Tom Brady RB: Ronald Jones II WR: Mike Evans
Maybe you’re more of a Chris Godwin guy. I could be, depending on the day. But Evans (19.3%) and Godwin (19.1%) were targeted on almost exactly the same percentage of their routes run last season, so it doesn’t much matter here. They’re both really good, and they’re both catching the ball from the GOAT. With the Bengals having brought in Bernard to be the pass-catching back, the split of touches and role between Jones and Fournette is up in the air, but they seemed to prefer Jones for most of last season before he was injured and Fournette became Lombardi Lenny down the stretch. We’ll see what happens this year.
QB: Josh Allen RB: Zack Moss WR: Stefon Diggs
This is quite a jump for the Bills, who ranked 23rd heading into last season. That’ll happen when you have maybe the most improved player in the NFL, and that player is your quarterback. Allen was a considerably below-average player during his first two NFL seasons. Last year, he was a legitimate MVP candidate. With the whole offensive line coming back, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll somehow not getting a head coaching job anywhere, and the receiving corps still intact (with Emmanuel Sanders replacing John Brown), he should remain productive this year. Diggs is absurdly good, and damn near impossible to cover. The Bills don’t utilize their backs all that often, but it’s not difficult to see them being ranked higher if people had more confidence in Moss or Devin Singletary.
QB: Justin Herbert RB: Austin Ekeler WR: Keenan Allen
Who would have thought these guys would be here, before last season? Herbert put together one of the best rookie quarterback seasons we’ve ever seen, and looks like a star in the making. Ekeler has long been a remarkably efficient runner, and he’s an even better pass-catcher. Allen is one of the best receivers in the league, and the reigning captain of the Always Open Club. We’ll see what changes this offense makes with Joe Lombardi calling the plays, but the talent here is extremely high level.
QB: Kirk Cousins RB: Dalvin Cook WR: Justin Jefferson
Jefferson just had perhaps the best rookie season in the history of wide receivers. Think about that for a minute. He broke Randy Moss’ record for receiving yards in a rookie year, and added 88 catches and seven touchdowns to go along with his 1,400 yards. Cousins was obviously at the helm for that fantastic season, and will be again this year despite the presence of third-round pick Kellen Mond on the roster. Cook is one of the best two-way running backs in the NFL, and he’s been mostly healthy the last two years after struggling with injuries early in his career.
QB: Russell Wilson RB: Chris Carson WR: DK Metcalf
The Seahawks finally decided to Let Russ Cook last season… for a few weeks. He was the leading MVP candidate for a while, but then after a couple turnover-happy games, they went back to their run-oriented ways. It’d be nice if we could assume they’d go back to letting Wilson control the offense, but that seems unlikely. Still, there are few teams with higher-level talent at these positions. Carson is a powerful runner who can also contribute in the passing game, and Metcalf is, well, a ridiculous physical specimen and receiving talent.
QB: Dak Prescott RB: Ezekiel Elliott WR: Amari Cooper
The Cowboys were one of only three teams to receive at least one first-place vote here. Prescott’s ankle injury was scary and gross, but given that it was a joint injury and not something having to do with a ligament or tendon, it hopefully shouldn’t linger and affect the remainder of his career. Cooper still seems like his No. 1 target, but CeeDee Lamb or Michael Gallup could end up overtaking him at some point this year or next. (Gallup is a free agent after the 2021 season, while Cooper’s contract doesn’t contain much more guaranteed money after that. It seems likely that only one of the two will be on the roster in 2022.) Elliott was not as effective as backup Tony Pollard last season, but the Cowboys are committed to Elliott financially and through Jerry Jones’ ego and love for marketing, so he’ll likely still be the team’s lead back.
QB: Patrick Mahomes RB: Clyde Edwards-Helaire TE: Travis Kelce
Mahomes is still the best quarterback in the NFL. He may not have had the best 2020 season, but he’s got the most talent, and the most talent at his disposal. Andy Reid will put these guys in position to succeed, and succeed they will. Edwards-Helaire, billed as a perfect fit for Kansas City’s offense, did not necessarily look like one last year, but his skill as a pass-catcher should still make him a valuable contributor this season and beyond. Whether you want to use Kelce or Tyreek Hill for the pass-catcher spot, the Chiefs would still end up at or near the top of these rankings.
QB: Aaron Rodgers RB: Aaron Jones WR: Davante Adams
So, there’s obviously a question mark here. I was tempted to run two versions of our rankings with everybody grading the Packers as if Rodgers was the quarterback and as if Rodgers wasn’t, but instead we decided to just use the incumbent. The Packers are still maintaining that they won’t trade him, and his contract makes it financially disadvantageous for them to do so. It’s somewhat surprising that Jones ended up back in Green Bay given that they Packers drafted A.J. Dillon in the second round last year, but they elected to re-sign him instead of Jamaal Williams, and they’ll be better off for it — at least on the field. Adams, meanwhile, was the league’s best receiver last season and due to his intense connection with Rodgers, has a good shot to be just that again in 2021.