Top 5 Quarterback-Tight End Duos in the NFL for 2021

By Nick Sterling in NFL
| July 2, 2021 10:45 am PDT

When we talk about strong offenses in the NFL, we usually mention teams that have an elite quarterback, as well as a great running back or wide receiver. But what about the tight end position?

We’ve seen some teams really excel without a great wide receiver. That’s because they have a great tight end. That player can be as important – if not more important – than a great wide receiver.

Some quarterbacks use their tight ends better than others, though. To see which ones are the best, here’s a look at the top five QB-TE duos in the NFL for 2021.

5 – Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle (San Francisco 49ers)

Honestly, this ranking is about 80% George Kittle and 20% Jimmy Garoppolo.

Garoppolo came to the 49ers midway through the 2017 season. He started five games and averaged over 300 passing yards per game. After the 49ers started the season 1-10, Garoppolo led the team to five straight wins.

Because of the win streak, many people had high hopes for Garoppolo in 2018. However, he tore his ACL after just three games.

He had the best season of his career in 2019. Garoppolo passed for career-high 3,978 yards and 27 touchdowns (TDs). He led the 49ers to a 13-3 record, and the one seed in the NFC. The 49ers would go on to lose in the Super Bowl to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Garoppolo only played in six games in 2020 after suffering an ankle injury. For those who are counting, he played in 31 of 54 games since he joined the 49ers.

Kittle, on the other hand, has been a top-three TE for years. He didn’t do much in 2017, but he did have a 100-yard game with Garoppolo in the season finale.

Kittle had 12 receptions and 191 yards in three games with Garoppolo in 2018. He finished the season with 88 receptions, 1,377 receiving yards, and five TDs. His yardage total was an NFL record for most in a season by a TE. Travis Kelce has since broken the record.

Kittle played 14 games with Garoppolo in 2019. He finished the season with 85 receptions, 1,053 receiving yards, and five TDs. Kittle had three games over 100 yards that season.

Like Garoppolo, Kittle also struggled with injuries in 2020. The two played in just four games together. He had 20 receptions, 252 receiving yards, and one TD in those four games.

Kittle is no doubt Garoppolo’s top target, but I only have them at number five because Kittle has had success with other QBs. He has 1,773 receiving yards with Garoppolo compared to 1,806 yards without him.

4 – Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

If this was anytime from 2011-2018, Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski would’ve been number one in this top QB-TE duo breakdown.

The two played a big hand in the Patriots five Super Bowl appearances in that span and have an undeniable connection.

That connection is historic, too. Check out where this duo ranks in touchdowns in NFL history.

Rank Quarterback Receiver Touchdowns
5th Dan Marino Mark Clayton 82
4th Philip Rivers Antonio Gates 90
3rd Steve Young Jerry Rice 92
2nd Tom Brady Rob Gronkowski 101
1st Peyton Manning Marvin Harrison 114

Gronkowski joined Brady and the Patriots in 2010. Brady failed to reach 4,000 passing yards in 2010. He bounced back from that with a career-high 5,235 passing yards in 2011. He also threw 39 TDs.

That season coincided with Gronkowski’s best. He finished the season with career highs in receptions (90), receiving yards (1,327), and TDs (17). His 17 TDs are an NFL record for most in a season by a TE.

Brady put up back-to-back seasons over 4,300 passing yards. Meanwhile, Gronkowski played just 18 games across 2012 and 2013.

Gronkowski got back to his elite form with back-to-back seasons of over 1,100 receiving yards and 11 TDs.

Brady missed the first four games of 2016 because of a suspension. The two only played six games together after Gronkowski suffered a back injury. Gronkowski had three games over 100 receiving yards.

Brady continued his fantastic play with two more seasons over 4,300 passing yards in 2017 and 2018. He also passed for 32 and 29 TDs in each season, respectively. Gronkowski had his final 1,000 receiving yard season in 2017.

Gronkowski retired after the 2018 season.

The two teamed up once again in Tampa Bay in 2020. The Patriots had to trade Gronkowski because they still had his rights. Brady signed with the Buccaneers earlier in the offseason.

Brady had one of his best seasons in years with 4,633 passing yards and 40 TDs. Gronkowski had just 623 receiving yards and seven TDs, but he made his mark in the Super Bowl.

Gronkowski had six receptions, 67 receiving yards, and two TDs. Brady won Super Bowl MVP with 201 passing yards and three TDs.

The two are no longer the best QB-TE duo in the league, but they can still put up great numbers and win Super Bowls.

3 – Derek Carr and Darren Waller (Las Vegas Raiders)

Derek Carr and Darren Waller teamed up late in 2018, but they didn’t become an elite duo until 2019.

Carr’s first season with Waller didn’t disappoint. Carr finished the season with 4,054 passing yards, 21 TDs, and eight interceptions. He also posted a career-high 70.4 completion percentage.

Waller entered the 2019 season with a lot of uncertainty. He missed the whole 2017 season and converted from wide receiver to TE in 2018. His play in 2019 silenced any doubt about him.

Waller had five games over 100 receiving yards in the season. He ultimately finished with 90 receptions, 1,145 receiving yards, and just three TDs. For someone who had never played TE, he made it look easy.

Now that the duo had a year together, expectations were much higher in 2020. They put on a show for the second straight season.

Carr passed for a career-high 4,103 yards. He also set career highs in passer rating (101.4) and QBR (71.0). While Carr started all 16 games, he basically missed a whole game after getting hurt in the first quarter of the Raiders week 15 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Waller came back in 2020 and had an even better season than before. He finished the season with career highs in receptions (107), receiving yards (1,196), and TDs (nine). His 107 receptions were third-most for a TE in a season.

Waller went over 110 receiving yards in four of his last five games of the season. That includes a game with 13 receptions, 200 receiving yards, and two TD against the New York Jets.

Outside of the game Carr left early with an injury, Waller and Carr have played every snap together for two seasons. They’ve quickly formed a connection that is up there with the league’s best.

2 – Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews (Baltimore Ravens)

The Ravens drafted both Lamar Jackson and Mark Andrews in the 2018 draft.

Jackson started the final seven games of the 2018 season. He electrified the league with his dual-threat ability. He led the Ravens to a 6-1 record and a division title. Jackson wasn’t a big passer, averaging just 159.1 yards per game. However, he did throw five TDs to two interceptions in that seven-game span.

Andrews remained quiet his rookie season, but his two best performances came with Jackson. He had 74 receiving yards against the Raiders, and 83 against the Chargers.

Jackson and Andrews both had breakout seasons in 2019. Jackson started the season with 324 passing yards and five TDs against the Dolphins. He had his second five TD game against the Rams later in the season on Monday Night Football.

Jackson finished the season with 3,127 passing yards, 36 passing TDs, and six interceptions. Jackson became the second unanimous MVP in NFL history. The Ravens finished the season on a 12-game win streak. They entered the playoffs as the best team in the league at 14-2.

Andrews began the 2019 season with back-to-back games over 105 receiving yards. He failed to hit the 100-yard mark the remainder of the season, but he was very consistent. He finished the season with 64 receptions, 852 receiving yards, and 10 TDs.

That season alone arguably cements Andrews among the top NFL tight ends, too.

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Jackson took a bit of a step back in 2020. He failed to record a 300-yard passing game and didn’t have a game over three passing TDs. His final totals were 2,757 passing yards, 26 passing TDs, and nine interceptions.

In turn, Andrews’ stats took a hit. He finished the season with 58 receptions, 701 receiving yards, and seven TDs.

It wasn’t all bad for the Ravens though. They finished the season 10-6 and qualified for the postseason. They won their first playoff game of the Jackson era by defeating the Titans 20-13. The Ravens would lose the following week to the Bills.

The Ravens don’t possess a true number one wide receiver, so I expect Andrews to continue serving as Jackson’s top target.

1 – Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce (Kansas City Chiefs)

Did you really expect anyone else? Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce are the two best players at their position. If this were a list of best QB-pass catchers, they would have a serious case for number one.

Mahomes took over as the starting QB in 2018 and set the NFL on fire. He began his season by throwing 14 TDs and zero interceptions. He posted a career-high 478 passing yards later that season against the Rams. Mahomes finished the season with 5,097 passing yards, 50 TDs, and 12 interceptions. The stellar season earned Mahomes MVP honors.

Mahomes’ great season coincided with Kelce’s best to date. He had 103 receptions, 1,336 receiving yards, and 10 TDs. Kelce had five games over 100 receiving yards. This includes his career-high 168 yards against the Raiders.

Mahomes missed two games in 2019, but that didn’t slow him down any. He finished the season with 4,031 passing yards, 26 TDs, and five interceptions.

Kelce’s numbers dropped just a bit, but he still posted 1,229 receiving yards and five TDs.

The Chiefs won the Super Bowl that season, defeating the 49ers 31-20. The two were mic’d up for that game, and their personalities shined through, much like their connection on the field.

Mahomes won Super Bowl MVP by passing for 286 yards and two TDs. Kelce had 43 receiving yards and a TD.

Mahomes got back to his elite level play in 2020. He had two games over 400 passing yards. He finished with 4,740 passing yards, 38 TDs, and six interceptions.

Kelce had a record-breaking season. He tied his own record with six games over 100 yards in a season. That included a stretch of five 100-yard games in six games. He finished the season with 105 receptions, 1,416 receiving yards, and 11 TDs. The receiving yards were the most by a TE in a season in NFL history.

When you pair the best QB with the best TE, record-breaking things will happen. We could see some more records broken between Mahomes and Kelce.

Who Missed the Cut?

I considered Aaron Rodger and Robert Tonyan for this list. Rodgers has never been big on throwing to his tight ends, but Tonyan led all tight ends with 11 touchdowns this past season.

If these guys can put up big numbers for a second straight season, I’d definitely put them on the list.

Zach Ertz is still a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, but he’s expected to be traded. I could see him and his new quarterback forming a great connection, whether he goes to the Buffalo Bills, Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, or Los Angeles Chargers. Maybe that vaults them into the top five.

For now, though, the top five QB-TE duos stand out fairly well. Mahomes and Kelce are without a doubt the top QB-TE tandem, of course, and it’s arguable the rest can be shuffled in random order after that.

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