Top 10 NFL duos entering 2023 season: Chiefs pair leads way once again as AFC teams dominate list

Last week, my colleague Jeff Kerr identified the best two-man duos on each NFL team. It was a fun exercise. We’re once again 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 three of them — two head coaches and one coordinator, all of whom land inside the top three duos. 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.

Did I technically cheat with one duo to get more players on the list? Yes, I did. Do I care about any complaints that come as a result of said cheating? No, I do not.

10. Justin Herbert and Austin Ekeler, Chargers

The Chargers are probably hoping that Herbert throws the ball to Ekeler a little bit less often this season. They want to start pushing the ball downfield with greater regularity, and rightfully so. But coming off a season in which he ran for 915 yards and 13 touchdowns while also catching 107 passes for 722 yards and seven scores, it’s clear that Ekeler is the focal point of the team’s offense in the run and pass game. Herbert is already one of the league’s best quarterbacks, able to both minimize mistakes and make big plays — though he needs to be willing to take more risks to do the latter more often. Still, his ability to avoid both sacks and interceptions by finding Ekeler late in the down makes things so much easier on an offense than they could be, and the synergy the two players have quickly developed is unrivaled among quarterback-running back duos.

9. T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward, Steelers

This duo came in No. 5 on our list a year ago, but age (Heyward will play this season at 34 years old), injuries (Watt missed seven games last year) and the outrageous performances of a few other duos on the list knocked them down a peg. That’s no slight to Watt and Heyward, who have now combined for 132 sacks over the past six seasons — an average of 22 per year despite their having combined to miss 13 games during that time. Watt is annually a front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year award, and Heyward was one of the league’s best interior rushers long before he started belatedly getting Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods. These guys are the foundation of Pittsburgh’s defense, which should again be one of the NFL’s best in 2023.

8. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, Dolphins

This is the most explosive pair of wideouts in the NFL — and possible the two most explosive wideouts, period. Hill and Waddle finished first (Hill, with 45) and tied for fifth (Waddle, with 33) in receptions of 15-plus yards last season, according to Tru Media, and first (Waddle, 28.2%) and second (Hill, 26.5%) in the share of their targets that turned into explosive gains. They also checked in first (Hill, 3.21) and fourth (Waddle, 2.59) in yards per route run, and first (Waddle, 0.62) and 14th (Hill, 0.35) in expected points added per target. If you’re less into advanced measurements of receiver play, consider that Hill finished the season with 119 receptions for 1,710 yards and seven touchdowns, while Waddle piled up 75 catches for 1,356 yards and eight trips to the end zone. No receiver duo in the league can match that production.

7. Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed, Jets

The Jets were one of two teams that netted multiple players on our list of top 10 cornerbacks for 2023, with Gardner and Reed checking in first (Sauce) and sixth (Reed). Some might balk at Reed’s inclusion on such a list, but he is one of just four players to rank in the top 15 in Pro Football Focus’ coverage grades in each of the past two seasons, checking in ninth and 11th, respectively, and has allowed passer ratings of 76.2, 66.0 and 75.7 on throws in his direction over the past three years. Gardner, meanwhile, allowed only 45.9% of the passes thrown his way to be completed, for a 53.9 rating. He led the league in forced incompletion rate and pass breakups, and only allowed a reception once every 18 coverage snaps — the best mark in the NFL. He has as good an argument as anybody for being the league’s top coverage player.

6. Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs, Bills

Since Diggs arrived in Buffalo, he ranks second in the NFL in targets (484), tied for first in receptions (338), fourth in receiving yards (4,189) and fifth in receiving touchdowns (29). He’s seventh in adjusted yards per route run (which gives more credit for first downs and touchdowns) during that span, as well as eighth in first downs per route, and eighth in success rate. He wins at every level of the route, from the release to the stem to the break to the catch point to the run after reception. He and Allen have developed remarkable chemistry in the quick game, but they’re also able to hit deep plays as Diggs has the fourth-most receptions of 15 or more yards (85) during his three years with the Bills. That the Bills don’t have another receiving threat anywhere near as dangerous as Diggs and are still able to get him the ball with such consistency and efficiency is a testament to both players, and how they make each other better.

5. Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson A.J. Brown and De’Vonta Smith, Eagles

So, yeah. I cheated with this one. But we’re going with a duo of duos that make the Philadelphia offense so tough to deal with. The protection in the passing game provided by the Kelce and Johnson-led offensive line, plus the way they are able to clear lanes in the running game, helped take Jalen Hurts’ game to new heights. The acquisition of Brown to play across from Smith gave Hurts two of the league’s elite coverage-beaters, both of whom can take the top off the defense and one of whom is one of the most imposing physical mismatches in the NFL. The way these duos work in synergy to elevate their quarterback, who already has a rare skill set of his own, is what makes the Eagles such a unique challenge for opposing defenses.

4. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase, Bengals

I’ll let Jeff handle this one since he already stated pretty much everything I would have written about these guys:

This duo will pace the Bengals for a long time as Cincinnati has already made two AFC Championship games in the two years they’ve been together. Over the last two seasons, Burrow is second in completion rate (69%), second in yards per attempt (8.1), third in passing touchdowns (69) and first in passer rating (104.2) amongst quarterbacks.

Chase has been Burrow’s No. 1 target, ranking sixth in receiving yards (2,501) and tied for second in touchdowns (22) over the last two seasons despite missing five games. He still had a 1,000-yard season despite missing five games in 2022.

All that, and the arrow is only pointing upward. The Bengals even found a way to adjust to opponents trying to take away their one-on-one shots on the perimeter, and did so on the fly during the season. The sky is the limit here.

3. Kyle Shanahan and [Insert YAC God Here], 49ers

No play-caller in the NFL creates space for skill-position players quite like Shanahan, and no team in the league is more stocked with pass-catchers able to take full advantage of said space than San Francisco. In his six seasons as head coach of the 49ers, the team has ranked 16th, first, first, first, first and tied for first in yards after catch per completion, according to Tru Media. Last season, there were 140 players who averaged at least two receptions per team game. Among that group, the four Niners on the list ranked second (Deebo Samuel), 12th (Christian McCaffrey), 32nd (George Kittle) and 42nd (Brandon Aiyuk) in YAC per reception. That puts every one of them in the 70th percentile or better leaguewide, with two in the 90th percentile or higher. It’s a perfect match between scheme and talent, and it’s what makes the San Francisco offense so dangerous no matter who is under center.

2. Dan Quinn and Micah Parsons, Cowboys

In just two seasons, this duo has become essentially unstoppable. Even while not being a full-time pass rusher, Parsons ranks third in the NFL with 157 pressures over the past two seasons. The only two players ahead of him on the list, Maxx Crosby (182) and Nick Bosa (165), have gotten 419 and 220 more opportunities, respectively, to rush the passer. Among the 132 players who have rushed the passer on at least 500 snaps since he entered the league, Parsons’ 20.8% pressure rate is the best in the league by nearly 2 full percentage points. Among the same group of players, Parsons also has the fastest time to pressure, getting to the quarterback in an average of 2.33 seconds. He’s obviously an outrageous talent and would almost certainly be finding success no matter who the Cowboys‘ defensive coordinator was, but the way Quinn moves him around the formation and creates matchups on a play-to-play and week-to-week basis only makes him more dangerous.

1. Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs

I hate to copy and paste myself from last year, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do, with annotated changes:

In four-five seasons together, Reid and Mahomes have gone to (and hosted) the AFC title game five times, winning two or three of them, along with two Super Bowls. They have finished those four-five seasons ranked first, sixth, first, and third and first in yards; first, fifth, sixth, and fourth, and first in points; first, third, second, and third and first in DVOA; and first, second, third, and second and first 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 league history.

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