When the Jaguars locked up emerging young wideout Allen Hurns with a four-year contract extension a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like a logical move. The Jaguars likely failed to extract enough of a discount on the extension by virtue of already having Hurns signed for two more years on artificially low salaries, but the idea of having Hurns around for a long time makes total sense. In combination with quarterback Blake Bortles and wideout Allen Robinson, Hurns gives the Jaguars a set of triplets the team hasn't had since the days when Mark Brunell was throwing to Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith.
You remember the famous Cowboys triplets, of course: That was in the early 1990s, when Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin formed a big three of offensive weapons as part of Jimmy Johnson's Dallas dynasty. That combination was a quarterback, running back and wide receiver, but it seems silly to limit our idea of triplets to that in the pass-happy world of 2016, when most teams pay their second wideout or tight end more than their running back. Hurns and Julius Thomas are both more important to the Jaguars than Chris Ivory or T.J. Yeldon.
With that in mind, I started thinking about Jacksonville's trio and where it stands in the league. It probably isn't the best set of triplets in football, but is it far off? Then, in the way that one does during the dead of the NFL offseason, I started ranking each team's triplets. I've started this week with the offensive triplets around the league; next week, I'll get to each team's defensive triplets.
To try to estimate each team's (totally arbitrary) strength, I chose their three most useful and important skill-position players for 2016. One quarterback was mandatory, but the other two spots were up for grabs.
I factored in injuries and suspensions for players who already have those on their record; for everyone else, I considered what their typical season might be like in terms of injuries, based on their historical record. A quarterback like Eli Manning, who has never missed a start, had very little risk of injury. (Joe Flacco can attest to why that risk isn't nil.) Ben Roethlisberger, meanwhile, is far more likely to miss a couple of games in a typical season thanks to injuries.
And while the 2015 season was the most important in estimating a player's talent level, it isn't the only relevant season, which matters for players such as Andrew Luck or Gary Barnidge, for whom 2015 was an outlier.
Speaking of Barnidge, that's where these rankings begin ...
32. Cleveland Browns
This won't be the only time the Browns finish last in a list this year, and finishing at the bottom of this one won't qualify them for future draft picks. The nicest thing you can say about Cleveland's woeful collection of skill-position talent is that it's relatively young and with upside. RG III is just 26, having been born the same year (1990) as the still-blurry picture of Brock Osweiler, so it's fair to say his long-term fate as a professional quarterback remains unresolved. Coleman, the first of five receivers the Browns drafted this year, seems to be the one decision Cleveland made during draft week that everyone agrees upon. And while Barnidge is already 30, he quietly produced a stretch of Rob Gronkowski-esque play last season despite some of the league's worst quarterback play. What's most amazing, perhaps, is that the Browns have significantly upgraded their skill-position talent from a year ago and are still last.
Just as you could make a case that new Browns coach Hue Jackson is the sort of offensive wizard capable of making his bottom-ranked triplets look better, Chip Kelly should be able to take the limited weaponry he has in San Francisco and scheme it into a better season. This is a guy who made Nick Foles-to-Riley Cooper the most devastating passing combination in football for a moment in 2013, remember? Smith, who was anonymous during a 33-catch debut season in San Francisco, has the sort of downfield speed Kelly's teams seemed to lack in Philadelphia after DeSean Jackson left town. Kelly could rehabilitate him. You could say we're still waiting for Hyde to break out, but truthfully, he has mostly been broken: Halfway through his rookie deal, Hyde has just 198 carries to his name. He has shown little as a receiver, which won't endear Hyde to a coach who loves to use his running backs in the passing game. And while I made the case earlier this year that Kelly would be a great match for Colin Kaepernick, every report out of San Francisco has suggested that the organization prefers to hand the job to Gabbert.
You could make a case that this group should include tight end Zach Ertz over either Mathews or, um, Matthews, but the offense's relative strength is depth as opposed to top-level talent. New coach Doug Pederson has useful second-tier weapons such as Ertz and Darren Sproles, and it's too early to count out 2015 first-rounder Nelson Agholor, who struggled through his rookie season with a high ankle sprain. There are three viable starters at quarterback, but the problem is that none of the three options -- Bradford, Chase Daniel and rookie Carson Wentz -- would project to be above average if given the reins in 2016. Philly will need its offensive line to return to form and its front seven to stay healthy to take a leap forward during Pederson's first season.
29. Tennessee Titans
While coaches like Jackson and Kelly are likely to make their personnel better by putting them in situations designed to play to their respective strengths, that doesn't appear to be happening in Tennessee, where Mike Mularkey spent most of the offseason trying to shove the wildly talented Mariota under center. That's not Mariota's fault, of course, but it's not going to make things any easier for the former Oregon star as he enters his Year 2. While Mariota's cupboard is relatively full with options, the only option without flaws is the versatile Walker. Tennessee can expect growth from Dorial Green-Beckham, who showed flashes of dominance as a rookie, and we're not far removed from the time when Kendall Wright was one of the league's more promising young receivers, but the "exotic smashmouth" the Titans intend to build around will involve a heavy dose of Murray, who was a mess during his lone season in Philadelphia.
28. Los Angeles Rams
How much can one running back be worth? That's the question with Gurley, last season's Offensive Rookie of the Year and the focal point of the Los Angeles offense. Gurley was a big-play machine in 2015, but the next step will be to pick up steadier gains: He was 36th in Football Outsiders' success-rate statistic, suggesting that he wasn't keeping the Rams' offense on schedule frequently enough in 2015. That will be critical in making life easier for the rookie Goff, who offers more promise than Nick Foles or Case Keenum would have, but it's fair to expect Goff to take a year or two to get up to the speed of the NFL game, even if he starts from day one. One of the worst receiving corps in the league won't help matters.
27. Baltimore Ravens
Even if you assume that Flacco comes back from a torn ACL mostly the same, there are major question marks about the players around him. Smith, 37, was having a Pro Bowl-caliber season in what was supposed to be his final campaign before retirement, but the list of players in his age bracket who have recovered from a torn Achilles to look like their former selves is virtually nonexistent. The Ravens did add Mike Wallace, although the beginning of Breshad Perriman's season is in doubt after the 2015 first-rounder underwent a knee scope this week.
26. Detroit Lions
The Lions are transitioning to the post-Calvin Johnson era after the future Hall of Famer retired in February. It's hard to overstate just how dramatically that changes their offense. Remember that we've barely seen Stafford throw passes in Detroit without at least the threat of Megatron on the outside, and that Tate's breakout since coming over from Seattle has been with Johnson attracting attention on the other side of the field. The promising thing for Lions fans is that Tate produced a pair of 150-yard games while Johnson was injured in 2014, but those games also came against the Saints and Falcons, who were two of the six worst pass defenses in the league that year. Jones will help, and secondary weapons such as Eric Ebron and Theo Riddick also will shoulder some of the load, but the drop-off from Megatron to Jones is obvious.
25. Miami Dolphins
You would think this could be a set of triplets that looks better this time next year. That starts with Parker, who battled foot injuries for most of the 2015 season before showing what he could do. Over the final six games, Miami's first-round pick accrued 445 yards and three touchdowns; prorated over a full season, that yields 1,186 receiving yards and eight scores. Landry is already a fully formed No. 1 wideout, a target machine who played a role unlike any other receiver in football last season. The real growth may have to come from Tannehill, and while the hope is that new coach Adam Gase will unlock more of Tannehill's potential, he's not the first to try. Joe Philbin had an excellent reputation after working with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. Mike Sherman was supposed to aid Tannehill in the pros after coaching him at Texas A&M. Tannehill lost faith in him. Bill Lazor got the most out of Tannehill in 2014, but by the time the Dolphins fired him in 2015, Tannehill seemed pleased to see him leave. If a Tannehill breakout is going to happen, it needs to happen soon.
24. New York Jets
There weren't many one-two punches at wideout better than Marshall and Decker were in 2015. Combined production isn't necessarily a perfect measure of performance, but if you look at each team's top two wideouts and add up their receiving totals, the league looks up at the Jets. Their imported duo finished No. 1 in receptions (189) and touchdowns (26) and was second in receiving yards (2,529), trailing only the Steelers. Even if you expect the 32-year-old Marshall to slip a bit in his second year with the Jets, this is a great combination. The problem, of course, is that the Jets don't have even a top-50 quarterback option on the roster. Even the pre-2015 Ryan Fitzpatrick would be a comfortable upgrade on the replacement-level talent the Jets currently have lined up at quarterback and would push them into the teens.
23. Seattle Seahawks
This is a triplet combination which would have looked far more imposing last year, when Wilson would have been joined by Marshawn Lynch and Jimmy Graham. A year later, Lynch is retired and Graham is coming off of a devastating knee injury. There's promise here: In 2015, Wilson had what was by far his best season as a passer. Rawls was wildly effective on a per-carry basis, posting a league-best 62 percent success rate before snapping his ankle in December. And Baldwin had an incredible stretch during the second half, catching 11 touchdowns in five games between Week 12 and Week 16. Even if Baldwin produces like a borderline No. 1 wideout in an expanded Seahawks passing game, he's not going to average two touchdowns a game again for any material length of time.
22. Chicago Bears
The aforementioned Gase did yeoman's work in restoring Cutler's reputation after a dismal 2014. You would expect Cutler to look worse in 2016 as a result, but there are reasons to think he might look more like the league-average quarterback from last year, even without Gase and Martellus Bennett. Zach Miller was useful and returns as the tight end, but more important, Cutler's offensive line should be improved with Bobby Massie in at right tackle and Kyle Long shifting back inside to guard. Most important is the arrival of White after missing all of his rookie season with a fractured shin. Even if the No. 7 overall pick from last year's draft takes some time to get comfortable, he should be an enormous upgrade on the combination of Eddie Royal and Marquess Wilson alongside Jeffery.
21. Buffalo Bills
What the Bills and offensive coordinator Greg Roman did last year -- turn a replacement-level veteran option like Taylor into a productive starting quarterback -- virtually never happens and was one of the more astounding things to happen in the NFL in 2015. Outside of injury, there's no real reason to think that Taylor won't be able to maintain that level of performance. If his production was fluky or the product of a gimmicky offense, we would have expected him to decline as the season went along, but that wasn't the case. Taylor posted a 65.7 Total QBR over his first seven starts and actually upped that to a 69.4 QBR over his final seven. The Bills' major concern at this point is Watkins, who is out indefinitely after undergoing foot surgery.
Peterson is arguably the only running back in football single-handedly capable of propelling an offense forward, as he did during his MVP campaign in 2012 and, to a lesser extent, during Minnesota's run to the playoffs last year. The Vikings were eighth in rushing DVOA and 19th in passing DVOA despite the fact that teams knew they wanted to run as much as possible and stuffed the box accordingly. Norv Turner's passing attack was compromised by preseason injuries to starting offensive linemen John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt; with the line far deeper this year, Bridgewater should have a chance to produce his best season. Diggs, who averaged 105 receiving yards per game during his first four contests and failed to top 66 yards in his nine ensuing games, would be the beneficiary -- and perhaps the cause -- of a step forward from Bridgewater.
19. Denver Broncos
Remember when we looked at the Jets and how good their receivers (and triplet combination) would be if they just had a competent quarterback? The Broncos are an improved version of that mess, with Sanchez as a very good backup who is likely stretched as the starter on a contending team. He has lived a charmed professional life -- Sanchez now goes back to a team with a dominant defense like the one he had during his early days with the Jets -- but the former USC star has an obvious ceiling after more than 2,000 career NFL passes. That prevents the Broncos from rising much higher in these rankings.
18. Oakland Raiders
If these rankings had appeared a year ago, the Raiders would have jumped as high in the charts as any other team in football. The addition of Cooper was the rare move that seems to make sense on paper and totally unlock an offense in the process, but it was the under-the-radar acquisition of Crabtree that gave the Raiders a second weapon. Crabtree had been written off by most of the league after failing to fully recover from his torn Achilles in 2013, but the Raiders took a low-risk, high-reward shot on a one-year, $3.2 million deal and hit the jackpot. Crabtree caught 85 passes for 922 yards and nine touchdowns in a resurgent campaign, and general manager Reggie McKenzie was smart enough to look at the moribund free-agent market for wideouts and sign Crabtree to a four-year extension in December.
17. Houston Texans
Hopkins made the mistake of having a transcendent year during a season in which Julio Jones and Antonio Brown each posted career campaigns, but he was comfortably the third-best wideout in football last season. That goes even further when you remember that Hopkins had Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett throwing him passes and nobody more impressive than a 32-year-old Nate Washington alongside him to draw away attention. Miller was effective for the Dolphins in a limited role and should be an improvement upon Alfred Blue. Osweiler is still a fascinating mystery. This is a trio that could very well be fifth or 25th in the triplet rankings this time next year.
16. New York Giants
If this were rankings of the best offensive combinations in football, the duo of Manning and Beckham would be in the top 10. In adding a third player, though, the Giants can't keep up. Vereen is the best in a group of bad options. Rashad Jennings? Will Tye? Second-round pick Sterling Shepard? If Victor Cruz could come back from knee and calf injuries to look like his former self, he would form an excellent third wheel, but even if he makes it back into the lineup for the Giants in September, it will have been nearly two years since Cruz contributed. Chances are that he won't be the same player. If that's the case, the Giants will have an enormous drop-off between Beckham and the rest of their offensive weaponry.
One of the more unexpected breakout combinations of 2015 was Cousins-to-Reed. Heading into the season, Reed was a backup tight end and Cousins had been benched the previous season for Colt McCoy. But each made the other better. Cousins cut his interception rate in spectacular fashion and was downright dominant in the red zone, throwing 22 touchdowns without an interception. Reed was the biggest reason why. After failing to catch a touchdown pass on 50 receptions in 2014, he was tied for the league lead in red zone receptions (16), led the league in red zone receiving yards (133) and was third in red zone touchdowns, with 10 of his 11 scores coming inside the opposing 20-yard line. Both improved so dramatically that you would expect them to give back some of their gains this year, but even if they do, Cousins and Reed should still be useful weapons in 2016.
Hopkins was the third-best receiver in football, but that's only because Allen missed the final eight games with a lacerated spleen. The work the newly signed veteran put in was staggering in hindsight. He finished those first eight games with 67 catches for 725 yards and four touchdowns, numbers virtually identical to those of Marvin Jones (65 catches, 816 yards, four scores) in 16 games. Allen's projected totals -- 134 catches, 1,450 yards, eight scores -- would leave him just below Brown and Julio Jones as football's third-most productive receiver. And while Gordon was a mess in his first season and underwent microfracture surgery on his knee, it's too early to count him out; running backs such as Le'Veon Bell and Devonta Freeman were spectacular in their sophomore seasons after anonymous, underwhelming rookie campaigns.
Here's where it's important to look past last year. The duo of Luck and Hilton would have been ranked in the top 10 and approaching the top five this time last year. Things have changed a bit, with Luck struggling through an injury-scarred 2015 after managing to stay upright through a staggering number of hits in previous seasons. But it's unlikely that the talent of young players like Luck and Hilton has suddenly disappeared. If anything, there's more reason to be concerned about Gore, 33, who stayed healthy but seemed to lose much of his burst and finished 42nd in success rate without many big plays to compensate.
The flip side to the Colts' assessment is that the most recent year is the most important in terms of evaluation. It's all we have for Winston, who should get better in his second season after improving as a rookie. (Remember that pick-six to start the year against Tennessee?) It was a disappointing season for Evans, who struggled with his concentration and finished with a league-high 11 drops, but it was a remarkable campaign for Martin. I'm skeptical of his contract extension, given that he had been anonymous thanks to injuries in each of the previous two seasons, but Martin was a wildly effective big-play back for the Bucs last year. One of the league's youngest offensive cores should continue to rise in 2016.
Smith has run an efficient, reliably above-average offense since arriving in Kansas City three seasons ago; he has thrown his average pass 6.88 yards in the air, nearly a full yard shorter than any other qualifying passer in the NFL, but it has worked for the Chiefs. Charles has been a devastating playmaker when healthy, and Maclin's body control and hands make him capable of incredible catches. The problems are injuries (for Charles and Maclin) and a total lack of depth behind them in playmaker roles, outside of tight end Travis Kelce. The Chiefs were able to get by with Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware as a running back rotation once Charles went down last season, but they're hardly star contributors, and Albert Wilson and Chris Conley were stuck playing meaningful snaps at wide receiver.
The Saints are in turmoil elsewhere on their roster, but it's hard to place a combination featuring Brees very low on a list like this one. Brees' performance barely slipped despite struggling with an early-season shoulder injury that seemed to sap his arm strength and even his confidence to make the sort of throws he would typically make at times. He's going to look past his prime at some point, but at 37, we're still waiting for it to happen. Brees got some help from Cooks, who took over as the No. 1 wideout and caught 84 passes for 1,138 yards and nine scores. (The Saints might still wish they had held on to the draft picks they used to trade up for Cooks in 2014 and just taken the guys Arizona ended up drafting, safety/linebacker Deone Bucannon and wideout John Brown.) With Ingram maturing into a solid-if-unspectacular running back over the past two seasons, this is a competent trio.
QB Blake Bortles, WR Allen Robinson, WR Allen Hurns
The Jags' passing trio winds up here, although it has plenty of time to continue growing, given that none of the three are older than 24. Robinson, the youngest of the group at 22, might have been the best red zone receiver in football last year; while Reed led all targets in receiving yards, the thing you want in the red zone is touchdowns, and Robinson beat out Reed and Tyler Eifert with a league-high 12. If anything, with the Jaguars expected to improve in 2016, the triplets' numbers might be a victim of their team's own success. Some of those throws to Robinson will become Ivory runs, and the Jags will likely throw less frequently if their record improves. Bortles threw 193 passes in the fourth quarter last year, just behind Tannehill's league-leading 196.
It's not much of a surprise that Jones, who averaged an absurd 116.9 receiving yards per game, would have produced record-threatening numbers as the primary receiver in a Kyle Shanahan-led offense. And in a way, given what relatively anonymous backs such as Alfred Morris and Arian Foster were able to accomplish after stepping into Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme, it's not necessarily a surprise that Freeman put together a stretch where he looked like a touchdown machine. He scored 10 times in five games before scoring just once in the ensuing six contests. Instead, the biggest surprise was how uncomfortable Ryan looked; the Falcons will hope that the arrival of Alex Mack to shore up the interior of the offensive line will create more stable pockets for Ryan in 2016.
The Bengals would be higher if it weren't for the fact that Eifert underwent ankle surgery to address a problem that had bothered him since the Pro Bowl. He might miss the season opener and struggle to get back up to speed as the season goes along. It's also fair to wonder if Dalton's career year in 2015 was a leap he'll maintain from here on, or if it was an outlier buoyed by an offensive coordinator (Hue Jackson) who left for Cleveland.
Here's the difference between basing expectations on players staying healthy and players suffering a typical amount of injury. We have no idea about Elliott's propensity for injury heading into the pros, but we know that Romo's style of play and history suggests that he's going to struggle to stay healthy. Even if Romo's offseason collarbone surgery does prevent the longtime Dallas starter from suffering another fractured clavicle, Romo's style, advancing age and repeated back issues suggest that he's still likely to miss time, even if it's not the vast majority of the season. And while the Cowboys are hopeful that Bryant will recover from a fractured foot that ruined his 2015 campaign, those sorts of injuries have a way of recurring. If everyone stays healthy, this could be one of the three best triplet combinations in football, and comfortably the best the Cowboys have had since that famous Aikman-Smith-Irvin combo from the 1990s. That's just a big ask.
You could swap out Brown for Michael Floyd or promising halfback David Johnson, but any grouping of Arizona's triplets has to include Fitzgerald, who underwent a career renaissance after moving into the slot on a more regular basis. Fitz was up to 66 targets in the slot last year, with those targets producing 52 catches (for a ridiculous 78.8 percent catch rate) and three touchdowns. Fitzgerald averaged 75.9 receiving yards per game, topping 75 yards per game for just the second time since his career season in 2008. You might expect Palmer, 36, to decline after a standout 2015 campaign, but that seemed to be the case after 2014, when Palmer played well before tearing his ACL, and he only got better instead. Even if Palmer doesn't lead the league in Total QBR, as he did with an 82.1 mark last year, the Cardinals should be a devastating downfield attack yet again under Bruce Arians.
It's hard to imagine a group that looks as different from Arizona's trio as these Panthers, but of course, Carolina has managed to manage to make it work. Olsen seems to somehow get more productive on an annual basis, with both his receiving yards (1,104) and touchdowns (seven) improving last year. Over the past four seasons, he has 303 catches and 3,771 receiving yards; that's just about even with Fitzgerald (325 catches and 3,751 receiving yards) and narrowly ahead of Graham (304 catches, 3,691 receiving yards). Olsen hasn't missed any time over those past four years, but health is a skill too. The Panthers also might be able to swap out Stewart in this triplet combo for Kelvin Benjamin, who showed flashes of dominance during his rookie season before missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL. And you don't need me to reiterate what Newton did last year.
Rodgers is the best quarterback on the planet, but the decline in the Packers' offense with the absence of Nelson from a torn ACL last year was a useful reminder that Rodgers' receivers aren't exactly fungible. Nelson's route-running, acceleration and seemingly preternatural connection with Rodgers went unmatched amid the various receivers Rodgers threw to in 2015. It might be reasonable to suggest that Rodgers has slipped a bit from his ridiculous peak, but a closer look suggests otherwise. With Nelson ready to go, the Packers should look a lot more like the passing attack that was borderline unstoppable in 2014.
What's remarkable about New England's star trio, in one way, is how unwanted these players were. Brady famously was a sixth-round pick. Gronkowski was a second-rounder. Edelman was a seventh-rounder and a college quarterback; when he hit free agency for the first time in 2013, the Giants were the only team to even bring him in for a meeting, let alone make him an offer. (If you prefer, you can swap out Edelman for Dion Lewis, who was out of professional football for the vast majority of 2014.) Of course, now, it's too late for the opposition. Remember the final drive of that playoff game against the Broncos last year where everybody in the stadium knew Brady was going to go to Gronkowski on fourth down and it still worked? And then it worked on the next fourth down too?
QB Ben Roethlisberger, RB Le'Veon Bell, WR Antonio Brown
And yet, by the narrowest of margins, the Steelers have to be my top team for a few reasons. One is positional scarcity: While Gronkowski is better than the rest of the league's tight ends to a greater extent than Brown is better than the rest of the league's wideouts, a dominant wide receiver is more valuable than even a transcendent tight end. There's a reason Graham wanted to be paid like a wideout: The market suggests that they're worth more.
It's true that Edelman plays a position (wide receiver) that is far more valuable than Bell's (running back), but the other factor in comparing these two is that the ceiling for the Steelers is just a tiny bit higher. Edelman is a fantastically useful receiver, but there will never be a day when anybody without a Patriots tattoo says he's the best wide receiver in football over Brown or Julio Jones, if not three or four more guys. You can make a case, given his versatility and sheer impact as a receiver, that Bell was the best running back in football in 2014. Granted, that was a year mostly without Adrian Peterson, but a healthy Bell is near the top of the charts in a way that Edelman won't be.
Even if you give Brady (who you have to project as missing the first four games) a slight edge over Roethlisberger (who is likely to miss a game or two because of injury), the chances of having the best running back and best wide receiver in football at the same time are enough to push the Steelers to the top of the offensive triplet charts.