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Predicting the NFL’s Passing, Receiving, and Rushing Leaders in 2017

Can Aaron Rodgers remain on top with Tom Brady back for a full season? Will Odell Beckham Jr. dominate even more than he usually does?

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

The appreciation for and utilization of advanced NFL stats has exploded over the past decade, and metrics like DVOA, ANY/A, air yards, running back success rate, and receiving yards per route run have all increasingly become a part of the mainstream football lexicon. But while these stats provide an extra layer of nuance and context that traditional counting stats cannot, there is still plenty of value in looking at total yardage and touchdown totals. The league leaders in passing, rushing, or receiving categories benefit from a high volume of opportunities, sure, but it’s a combination of incredible consistency, physical resilience, and extraordinary skill that puts these players at the top.

2017 NFL Preview

It’s tough enough to finish out in front of the field in any of the major statistical categories once, and it’s even tougher to do it two years in a row. Can any of last year’s offensive stat kings hold on to their thrones in 2017?

Passing Yards

2016 Leader: Drew Brees (5,208 yards)
2017 Prediction: Drew Brees

Just about the only way Brees—who’s won the passing-yards crown the past three seasons and a total of seven times in his career—doesn’t win it again in 2017 is if he misses time to injury. Even then, he could still come out on top, like he did in 2015 after missing one game with a shoulder injury.

The Saints signal-caller threw for 5,208 passing yards last year, with the next closest challenger, Matt Ryan, finishing a distant 264 yards short. It was Brees’s fifth 5,000-yard passing year, an incredible feat considering every other quarterback in the history of the game has combined for a total of four of them (and none of those four have thrown for more than 5,000 yards more than once). Brees threw the ball 673 times for the Saints in 2016 (most in the NFL) and completed 70 percent of his passes (second). To get a clear picture of that incredible efficiency, consider this: Brees threw the ball one more time than Joe Flacco did last year, but ended up with 891 more yards and 17 more touchdowns.

There’s really no point in trying to come up with a dark-horse or sleeper candidate in this category. Though he is 38 years old, Brees heads into 2017 as the clear favorite to repeat. And even though he’ll be without one of his top targets in Brandin Cooks (who was traded to the Patriots), he’s still got a collection of talented pass catchers to distribute the ball to—Michael Thomas remains his go-to guy, Willie Snead’s still dangerous in the slot, free-agent acquisition Ted Ginn provides a nice deep threat, and tight ends Coby Fleener and Josh Hill and running backs Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson, and rookie Alvin Kamara round out his passing-attack options nicely.

Touchdown Passes

2016 Leader: Aaron Rodgers (40 touchdowns)
2017 Prediction: Tom Brady

Brady won this category in 2015 (with 36 touchdown passes), and Rodgers claimed the belt in 2016 (40). The two of them head into 2017 the two clear favorites once again, and it’s a race that’s likely to come down to the wire.

Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws a pass in a preseason game against Denver Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Rodgers has now averaged 36 touchdown passes per year over the past three seasons, and there’s little reason to doubt he’ll approach that number again in 2017. But one thing that could hamper his ability to get back to the 40-touchdown mark he hit last season is that Green Bay is looking to get more balanced on offense this year. The Packers ran the ball just 374 times last year (29th in the NFL), a huge shift from previous seasons—they finished with 436 rush attempts in 2015 (12th), 435 attempts in 2014 (14th), and 459 attempts in 2013 (12th)—and as a result, Rodgers threw the ball a career-high 610 times. That number should regress toward the norm this year, and a renewed focus on the ground game could lead to a few more rushing scores and a couple fewer via the air. Of course, it’s worth noting that this is still the same quarterback who threw 45 touchdown passes on just 502 attempts (a ridiculous 9 percent TD rate) in 2011, 39 scores on 552 passes in 2012, and 38 on 520 attempts in 2014. A decrease in passing volume may not matter much when it comes to Rodgers’s touchdown total. He’s just that good.

Still, I’m predicting that Tom Brady reclaims the passing touchdowns title in 2017. The Patriots signal-caller finished his Deflategate-shortened 2016 season with 28 touchdown passes, a rate that would’ve put him somewhere between 37 or 38 for a full season. It doesn’t help that Julian Edelman is out for the year with a torn ACL, but New England’s passing attack could still take a big jump forward in 2017 with the return of a fully healthy Rob Gronkowski, the continued integration of Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell, and the additions of Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen, and an excellent pass-catching running back in Rex Burkhead. Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels may have to change up the offensive approach a bit, utilizing tight ends and running backs instead of Edelman over the middle of the field in order to move the chains, but that shouldn’t slow the offense down much. It isn’t Brady’s arm that makes the 40-year-old unstoppable, it’s his brain—the future Hall of Famer knows how to pick apart a defense.


2016 Leader: Larry Fitzgerald (107 receptions)
2017 Prediction: Odell Beckham Jr.

Antonio Brown is a good bet here: The Steelers pass catcher has lapped the field over the past four seasons—his 481 catches in that stretch put him a full 83 receptions ahead of his next closest challenger (Demaryius Thomas with 398). After finishing second last year to Larry Fitzgerald, expect Brown to once again challenge for the title. Even if he loses a few targets due to the return of Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant from suspension, Brown will still see a heavy dose of screen passes and will remain Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite downfield target. But my money would be on Giants pass catcher Odell Beckham Jr. not only starting and playing in Week 1 despite the ankle injury he suffered last week, but making a big jump in efficiency—and coming out on top in this category.

Beckham was basically the Giants’ entire pass offense last year, and the former LSU receiver saw 169 targets (second only behind Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans), finishing with 101 catches (third) for 1,367 yards (third) and 10 touchdowns (fifth). But with a lack of other options in the passing game, Eli Manning consistently forced the football to a double- or triple-covered Beckham, and a tepid 59 percent catch rate (which ranked 124th leaguewide) meant Beckham wasn’t able to fully capitalize on his incredible amount of opportunities.

Beckham has averaged 10.6 targets per game during his short career, and that number may dip a bit with the addition of another big-play threat in Brandon Marshall and a dangerous seam-running tight end in Evan Engram. But as defenses are forced to account for more options in the Giants passing game, the explosive 5-foot-11, 198-pound playmaker could see his catch rate jump back up to his rookie-season mark of 70 percent. A 70 percent catch rate on a conservative guess of 150 targets would put Beckham at 105 catches, which could be enough to run away with the catches title; that catch rate on 160 targets would put him in the vicinity of 112 catches, and on 169 targets—his number from last year—he’d come closer to 118 catches. Against more single coverage, I’m expecting Beckham’s efficiency to spike, and his catch total along with it.

Receiving Touchdowns

2016 Leader: Jordy Nelson (14 touchdowns)
2017 Prediction: Tyler Eifert

Tyler Eifert catches a touchdown pass Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Touchdowns, like say, sacks, are a low-frequency, high-variance statistic: A different player has finished atop this category in every season this decade: Dwayne Bowe (15) in ’10; Rob Gronkowski (17) in ’11; James Jones (14) in ’12; Jimmy Graham (16) in ’13; Dez Bryant (16) in ’14; Doug Baldwin, Allen Robinson, and Brandon Marshall (14) in ’15; and Jordy Nelson (14) in ’16. Predicting which big-time playmaker comes out on top this year, then, is a bit of a roll of the dice, but I’m putting my chips in on Cincinnati’s Tyler Eifert.

With a combination of elite size (6-foot-6, 255 pounds), top-end athleticism, and strong, reliable hands, Eifert is one of the game’s premier red zone threats—and the rate at which he’s scored touchdowns over the past two years has been unmatched. The Bengals’ talented pass catcher was targeted just 74 times in 2015 but caught 13 touchdowns, and caught another five touchdowns on 47 targets last year—both top-tier touchdown-to-target rates that explain how he’s found pay dirt 18 times in his past 21 games. This prediction assumes that Eifert can stay healthy all year (a big “if”), but until it’s proved that his extraordinary catch rate on end zone targets has been a fluke, he’s my pick to lead the league in this category.

Rushing Yards

2016 Leader: Ezekiel Elliott (1,631 yards)
2017 Prediction: LeSean McCoy

With Elliott due to miss the first six weeks of the season to suspension, he’ll almost certainly be supplanted in this category. And there are plenty of intriguing runners who could do so. From the Cardinals’ David Johnson to the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell, the Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi, or the Bears’ Jordan Howard, each elite back has the opportunity to run away with the rushing-yards title. But there’s one guy that stands above the rest: With the rate in which Buffalo has either let go, discarded, or lost its established receiving talent over the past few months (including Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin via free agency, Sammy Watkins via trade, and Anquan Boldin via retirement), the Bills may have no choice but to remain the league’s most run-heavy team in 2017. Behind an excellent run-blocking line, and beside one of the best running quarterbacks in the game in Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy is my clear favorite to become the rushing champ this year.

The Bills’ superstar rushed for 1,267 yards (sixth) and a 5.4 yards-per-carry average (third) last year, finishing second in both DVOA (behind only teammate Mike Gillislee) and DYAR (behind only Elliott) as the linchpin of Buffalo’s unpredictable rush attack. The Bills finished the year as the league’s leader in rushing yards (2,630) with an NFL-best rush DVOA, and with Gillislee and his 101 carries from last season off to New England, McCoy’s set to inherit more than a few of those opportunities. As long as he can stay healthy, the elusive, explosive McCoy is going to be the guy to catch in this category.

Rushing Touchdowns

2016 Leader: LeGarrette Blount (18 touchdowns)
2017 Prediction: David Johnson

Like the receiving touchdowns category, the rushing touchdown title is typically a game of musical chairs. The running backs at the top of this group this decade include: Arian Foster (16) in ’10; McCoy (17) in ’11; Foster again (15) in ’12; Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles (12) in ’13; Lynch and DeMarco Murray (13) in ’14; Adrian Peterson, Devonta Freeman, Jeremy Hill, and DeAngelo Williams (11) in ’15; and Blount (18) in ’16.

Blount’s not likely to match his output in a far inferior offense in Philadelphia this year, but last year’s runner-up, Johnson, who rushed for 16 scores, looks like a good bet in an Arizona offense that is expected to bounce back from a down year in a big way. Johnson’s still the bell cow in the Cardinals offense, and at 6-foot-1, 224 pounds, he’s still going to get most, if not all, of the goal-line opportunities. Only Blount (22) got more carries inside the 5-yard line last year than Johnson (21), and the Cardinals’ third-year bruiser turned those opportunities into 12 scores. Expect more of the same in 2017.