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Predicting the NFL’s Passing, Receiving, and Rushing Leaders in 2016

Aaron Rodgers is coming for Tom Brady, and Antonio Brown is coming for the NFL record book

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The evolution of advanced stats has placed an emphasis on efficiency and context at the expense of overall output — and rightly so. How a player does on a per-play basis and within a uniform context tells us way more than looking at a raw yardage or touchdown total. But there’s still some prestige in racking up the most passing yards or rushing touchdowns in a season. It requires an impressive level of consistency and the right amount of opportunity (and probably a little bit of luck, too). It’s tough to lead the NFL in any category, and it’s even tougher to do it two years in a row. Can any of last year’s statistical stalwarts claim their category again in 2016?

Passing Yards

2015 Leader: Drew Brees (4,870 yards)
2016 Prediction: Philip Rivers

Brees owns this stat. He’s won the passing-yards crown six times in his career: 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015. Last season, he outpaced all passers even after missing one game to a shoulder injury. Brees averaged 41.8 pass attempts per game last year — first among quarterbacks who started the majority of their team’s games — and completed 68.3 percent of his passes (second only to Kirk Cousins) while averaging 7.8 yards per attempt, which was bettered by just five passers.

If anyone’s going to knock Brees off his throne, though, it’ll be the guy with enough swagger to make bolo ties a thing again.

Rivers, who was last year’s runner-up, will have to improve his efficiency in 2016 (his 7.2 yards per attempt last year was his lowest mark since 2007), but getting his two favorite targets — Antonio Gates, who missed five games last year to suspension and injury, and Keenan Allen, who missed eight games to injury — back for the full 16 will help. Allen has averaged 72 catches in his three years in the league, and Rivers and Gates are the most prolific quarterback–tight end connection in history. Free-agent signing Travis Benjamin should replace Malcom Floyd as a deep threat, and second-round pick, tight end Hunter Henry, gives Rivers another big security blanket to go alongside Gates. Meanwhile, Danny Woodhead tied for the league lead in catches for a running back, and he outpaced all players with 688 yards after the catch.

The viability of San Diego’s run game remains a big question mark — Melvin Gordon averaged just 2.2 yards after contact per rush last year — so the Chargers will again rely heavily on their passing game. The team will probably be bad again, too — Vegas has set their over–under win total at seven — so they will likely be playing from behind frequently and passing the ball to catch up. Rivers attempted more passes in 2015 than any other quarterback (661), and that raw total might even increase this year.

Brees and Eli Manning — who both run volume passing offenses featuring elite receivers — will be nipping at Rivers’s heels. Ben Roethlisberger needs to stay healthy, but in 12 games last year, he averaged a league-high 328.2 passing yards per game, which would’ve translated to 5,251 yards over a full season. If you want a dark horse: Andrew Luck led the league in attempts per game among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts in 2015.

Touchdown Passes

2015 Leader: Tom Brady (36 touchdowns)
2016 Prediction: Aaron Rodgers

If Brady wasn’t suspended for the first four games of the season, he’d be the favorite to repeat. And while we hesitate to ever write him off, a quarter-season deficit will just be too much for the 39-year-old to make up.

Enter Aaron Rodgers.

In 2015, Green Bay lost its top wideout, Jordy Nelson, to an ACL tear in the preseason, and the offense, in its first season under the play-calling domain of associate head coach Tom Clements, sputtered badly. The Packers finished 11th in offensive DVOA, a huge dropoff from their no. 1 finish in 2014.

Rodgers is just too damn good for the 2015 season to represent a larger trend. His QB rating (92.7), yards (3,821), yards per attempt (6.7), and completion percentage (60.7) were his lowest totals for any season since taking over as a starter aside from his injury-shortened 2013 campaign, and his 31 touchdown passes represented his lowest full-season mark since 2010. Over his previous five full seasons, Rodgers had averaged 36 touchdowns to just over seven interceptions.

McCarthy relieved Clements of his play-calling duties in December, and will assume that responsibility again this season. A healthy Nelson returns to stretch defenses, Randall Cobb is still dangerous from anywhere on the field, Richard Rodgers is developing as a red zone threat, and the signing of Jared Cook gives Green Bay its first tight end with receiver speed since Jermichael Finley.

The usual cast of characters (Brees, Carson Palmer, Cam Newton) and a few young upstarts (Blake Bortles, Derek Carr) will push Rodgers in this category, but don’t be surprised if the Packers quarterback approaches 40 touchdown passes again in 2016.

Receptions

2015 Leaders: (tie) Antonio Brown and Julio Jones (136 receptions)
2016 Prediction: Antonio Brown

Brown and Jones were in a different class from the rest of the NFL last year. Brown got his 136 grabs on 193 targets while Jones saw 203 passes thrown his way, and both are unguardable at all three levels of the field. DeAndre Hopkins deserves an honorary mention for snagging 111 catches despite playing in a four-quarterback circus consisting of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden in 2015.

If he and his quarterback stay healthy, Brown is not only the favorite to lead the league in catches, but he might shatter a few receiving records, too. Even with Roethlisberger missing four games, Brown caught 136 passes last year. With Landry Jones and Mike Vick taking snaps in those contests, Brown totaled just 17 catches for 235 yards, while he caught 119 balls for 1,599 yards in games Roethlisberger played. Extrapolate those numbers to a full season, and Brown would’ve ended up at 159 catches for 2,132 yards — both of which would’ve been NFL records.

Of course, Jones likely won’t be far behind, and if Brock Osweiler proves to be even marginally better than what the Texans trotted out last year, Hopkins will make a push as well. Miami’s Jarvis Landry is going to get his catches — he’s been Ryan Tannehill’s go-to guy in the slot the past two years while racking up 278 targets over that stretch — as will the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. Also, keep an eye on New Orleans’s Brandin Cooks and Detroit’s Golden Tate, who are both likely to see career highs in targets thanks to the departures of Marques Colston and Calvin Johnson.

Receiving Touchdowns

2015 Leaders: (tie) Doug Baldwin, Brandon Marshall, and Allen Robinson (14 touchdowns)
2016 Prediction: Odell Beckham Jr.

Each member of this touchdown trio did it with a different skill set: The 6-foot-4 Marshall is the ultimate jump-ball red zone threat , Baldwin turned into one of the league’s most dangerous slot receivers (12 of his 14 touchdowns came from the inside), and Robinson is a premier deep menace (with a league-high 31 catches of 20-plus yards).

But Beckham combines all of that into his game: circus catches, precise route running, speed downfield, and raw explosiveness after the catch. He’ll set the pace for touchdown catches in 2016.

Beckham has seen more targets (288) in his first two years in the league than any other player in NFL history, and his 25 touchdowns to this point in his career ranks him third all time behind Randy Moss and Rob Gronkowski. Manning feeds him the ball (10.5 targets per game in 2015), the Giants pass a ton (38.9 times a game last year), and with the addition one of the most polished receivers in this year’s draft, Oklahoma product Sterling Shepard, and the return of Victor Cruz, defenses won’t be able to double-team Beckham quite as much.

As for the competitors: Marshall has averaged 11.25 touchdowns a year over the past four seasons, and Robinson will continue to see plenty of deep balls come his way. Even with Brady out for the first four games, stopping Rob Gronkowski remains damn near impossible. And the Kirk Cousins–Jordan Reed connection has looked strong in the preseason, and last year, no one was able to to match up with Reed, who turned 21 red zone targets into 16 catches and 10 touchdowns.

Rushing Yards

2015 Leader: Adrian Peterson (1,485 yards)
2016 Prediction: Adrian Peterson

Membership in the 1,000-yard rushing club reached a 24-year low with only seven players reaching that mark last year, but Peterson is the closest thing the NFL still has to a bell cow, three-down back. For the third time in his career, he led the league in rushing yards, and he did so by carrying the ball a league-high 327 times — a full game’s workload (39 carries) more than second-place Doug Martin.

The Vikings have lost Teddy Bridgewater to a torn ACL, and they’ll have to lean even more heavily on Peterson this season. He’ll almost surely lead the league in carries again, and with a revamped offensive line that added Alex Boone at left guard and Andre Smith at right tackle, Peterson looks good to eclipse last season’s yardage mark.

Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott could give Peterson a run for his money in 2016, but the Rams and Cowboys should avoid giving their young franchise cornerstones too many carries early in their careers. Dallas can distribute the workload to veterans Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris, while Benny Cunningham gives the Rams another solid backfield option. Although Peterson is 31 and has already notched more than 2,300 carries in his career, the Vikings don’t really have a choice but to keep feeding him the ball.

Rushing Touchdowns

2015 Leaders: (tie) Devonta Freeman, Jeremy Hill, Adrian Peterson, and DeAngelo Williams (11 touchdowns)
2016 Prediction: Ezekiel Elliott

At less than $1.5 million, Williams was the NFL’s best bargain last year, finding the end zone 11 times on 200 carries in relief of Le’Veon Bell. Hill served as Cincy’s power back, netting 11 scores on 223 carries. Freeman started hot before cooling late in the year, scoring nine of his 11 touchdowns in the first six weeks, while Peterson was practically Freeman’s inverse — he scored seven of his 11 touchdowns in the second half of the year.

If someone’s going to separate himself from the pack this season, it’s Elliott, who scored 41 touchdowns over his last two years at Ohio State. While the Cowboys may try to limit his overall workload, they’ll still rely on him to finish drives and make plays in the red zone. And at 225 pounds, Dallas won’t have any reservations about giving him carries on the goal line, especially with the knowledge that he averaged more yards after contact per rush than any running back in this year’s draft class.

No player had a higher percentage of his yards come on big runs than Gurley last year, and Peterson should find the end zone frequently based on sheer volume of touches. Same goes for the Texans’ new feature back, Lamar Miller, and it looks like the Cardinals are ready to pass the lead-back torch to second-year pro David Johnson, who will get plenty of chances at the end zone, too. The difference, though, is that none of them get to run behind the Cowboys’ elite offensive line.