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former college teammates in nfl

Former College Teammate Pairings in NFL Rising

  • Jack McKessy
  • May 12, 2022
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A new trend has been sweeping across the NFL. I’m not talking about the heightened tendency for coaches to go for it on fourth down or attempt two-point conversions. Nor am I talking about the willingness for teams to “protect” talented rookie quarterbacks by keeping them on the bench for a year—or, in the 49ers’ case, maybe two.

Although those are all things happening more often in today’s game, one of the biggest recent developments—one that almost a fifth of the league has done—is pair their young quarterback with a former college teammate.

There are some obvious pairings that you’re probably already thinking of right now.

The Bengals paired wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase with quarterback Joe Burrow—former LSU teammates—last year in a highly scrutinized move that left Burrow without a premier tackle in front of him. Miami drafted Jaylen Waddle one pick after the Bengals took Chase to catch passes from Tua Tagovailoa like he did at Alabama.

Four picks later, the Eagles traded up to take wide receiver DeVonta Smith and pair him with Jalen Hurts to form another former Alabama duo. Even the Jaguars used their second first-round pick to bring running back Travis Etienne to Duval County alongside newly drafted quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Perhaps it was a coincidence that all those players—with the exception of Etienne, who was out for the year—were all top-4 finishers in receiving yards among rookies. They were all early draft picks, after all.

The most likely explanation, though, is that pairing quarterbacks with their college teammates really works. Teams don’t have to wait for incoming quarterbacks to try and build chemistry from scratch with the receivers who are already there. Instead, bringing in a college teammate allows an NFL team to try and replicate the systems that made those guys successful at the collegiate level.

In an era with little patience for young signal-callers to struggle, there are always teams trying to find out if their new starting quarterback has the potential to be their franchise guy. The sooner a team gets that answer, the sooner they’re able to move forward and either build the rest of their team around him or start looking for a replacement. Otherwise, they risk being stuck in a purgatory, unsure of a future direction.

So, what better way to get a quick answer than to give that quarterback a weapon he already has chemistry with?

After seeing the success the Bengals, Dolphins and Eagles enjoyed doing just that in 2021, other teams have started to follow suit.

The first copycat move happened earlier this offseason, when the Raiders acquired wide receiver Davante Adams in a trade with the Packers. The pairing may have flown under the radar since Adams has already established himself as an elite receiver and his quarterback isn’t a young guy, either.

However, quarterback Derek Carr and Adams were teammates at Fresno State in 2012 and 2013. During that time, according to NFL Research, Adams led all FBS players in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, while Carr led all FBS quarterbacks in passing yards and passing touchdowns.

Naturally, both Carr and Adams are ecstatic about getting the chance to play together again. Considering each players’ respective pedigree, it shouldn’t be long before we see them return to dominating their opponents once again. Now that both quarterback and receiver are locked into long-term deals as well, the Raiders should be able to enjoy the benefits of that pairing for a while. If their chemistry allows them to produce at the same level as, say, Burrow and Chase, Las Vegas will be very happy with the move.

Adams’ move wasn’t the only one reuniting college teammates on the west coast. While no drafted players were paired up with their college quarterbacks in this year’s draft, the Cardinals made a trade on draft night to reunite receiver Marquise Brown with quarterback Kyler Murray.

Unlike some other moves, the trade and resulting reunion might have more of an ulterior motive: keeping Murray happy as contract negotiations loom.

Still, Brown could end up thriving in the desert with his college teammate. He struggled to be a big-time producer in his time in the Baltimore Ravens’ system, which leans on their tight ends and run game more than receivers like Brown.

Murray could use some pass-catching help on the outside too now that DeAndre Hopkins has been suspended for the first six games of the 2022 season after violating the NFL’s PED policy. Having a college teammate join the fold to help out there is an ideal situation for Murray and he’ll probably be happier to stick around and negotiate an extension with Arizona.

If the newly reunited quarterback-receiver duos work as well as reunions did in Cincinnati, Miami and Philadelphia, more teams may continue to hop on the trend. Not having to worry about chemistry between a quarterback and a new receiver to the team can be a huge weight off of teams’ shoulders. The last thing any team wants is a disaster like wide receiver Kenny Golladay’s first season with the Giants, in which he had one of his worst years right after signing a big contract.

What’s interesting is that we may already be seeing one team setting up a reunion in the opposite direction—bringing in a wide receiver first and preparing to draft their college quarterback next year.

The Detroit Lions made an aggressive trade up to grab Alabama receiver Jameson Williams with the 11th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

They didn’t add a quarterback in the draft despite speculation they were looking to move on from Jared Goff. Could it be they’re gearing up for a reunion with Williams and Alabama quarterback Bryce Young?

It’s not impossible, especially with so much momentum toward this new trend.

Whatever the future holds for teams still in need of a franchise quarterback, it feels likely that there will be more moves to follow in the Bengals’, Dolphins’ and Eagles’ footsteps around the NFL.