Projecting stats out over an entire season is always somewhat unreliable. Using a small sample size of numbers to predict what a player is “on pace” for assumes that the things will remain the same for the rest of the season. Sometimes that can be useful, but more often those numbers are better suited for jokes like this ...
Kings on-pace to score 165 points per game this season and allow 0— Riley McAtee (@Riley_McAtee) October 18, 2018
... than they are for serious analysis. But after half of the NFL season, we have a large enough sample that on-pace figures can serve as more than Twitter fodder. This season, offenses are exploding; points, yards, yards per play, and first downs per team are projected to hit all-time highs. That uptick in production means that many single-season records are in danger of falling, and 2018 could be a record-shattering season like no other. Here are the records that are most likely to be broken this year, and the biggest obstacles that will stand in the way.
Current Record Holder: LaDainian Tomlinson (31, 2006)
2018 Contender: Todd Gurley II (15, on pace for 30)
When Gurley pulled a Brian Westbrook in Sunday’s game against the Packers and dropped to the turf instead of scoring a sure touchdown, jokes about ruined fantasy games and Vegas bets took off instantly. Of course, Gurley doesn’t care about your fantasy team:
If Gurley had raced into the end zone, no one would have blamed him. He’s currently chasing the touchdown record and an MVP trophy, so each trip to paydirt is crucial for him on a personal level. And as the Rams were already up two points in the game, scoring the touchdown wouldn’t have really hurt the team: The Rams would have gone up eight (pending an extra point try that could have put them up nine), meaning it would have taken a near miracle for Green Bay to come back. But by stopping short of the goal line, Gurley kept the clock running, extinguished the miniscule chance of disaster, and helped move the Rams to 8-0. For a guy who has said that he’s “coming” for Tomlinson’s record, Gurley’s decision to forego the score was a team-first display.
Gurley’s now on pace to finish one TD shy of Tomlinson’s record, but he’s still well within striking distance. He’ll need 17 scores over the final eight games to take the crown, which is the same number Tomlinson got over his final eight games in 2006. In fact, with 15 TDs already in the books this season, Gurley’s already out-paced Tomlinson’s 14 from the first half of that season.
Oh, and while this doesn’t count for the total touchdowns record, Tomlinson also threw two touchdown passes in 2006. Even if Gurley gets to 31, those passes should be in play for any tiebreaker scenario.
Biggest Obstacle: The Rams’ success
Has Sean McVay even thought about Gurley’s chance to break the TD record? Does it matter to him at all? In the past, the Rams’ head coach has been very particular about resting his players. This preseason, none of his skill-position starters took a single snap, and last year he rested his starters for Week 17, even though a win could have given the Rams the no. 3 seed in NFC instead of no. 4. At 8-0, the Rams are well on their way to the playoffs, and with a win over the Saints this weekend they could have a two-game lead (and head-to-head tiebreaker) over New Orleans for the no. 1 overall seed in the NFC. If they clinch that top spot early, McVay could do what Jim Caldwell and the undefeated Colts did in 2009 and rest his starters for the final two weeks of the season—even if the Rams are chasing 16-0 and Gurley is close to the TD record. It all depends on what McVay prioritizes: history or health.
The Rams have a tough upcoming schedule, with games against the Saints, Seahawks, Chiefs, Eagles, and Bears. If L.A. were to drop a couple of those games, it would put Gurley in the best position to break the record. Of course, as we saw Sunday, Gurley will do everything in his power to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Current Record Holder: Peyton Manning (55, 2013)
2018 Contender: Patrick Mahomes II (26, on pace for 52)
When Mahomes began the season with 13 touchdown passes in three games, it looked like he had a shot to shatter Manning’s record. That run turned out to be an example of when those fickle “on-pace” stats deserve a large grain of salt: Mahomes had just one touchdown throw in Weeks 4 and 5 combined and fell well off his early-season pace. But over the last three games, he’s inserted himself firmly back in the conversation, rattling off four touchdown throws in each contest.
One wrinkle to the Chiefs offense that could help Mahomes is the use of jet-sweep plays, some of which involve a flick of the football that technically counts as a passing touchdown, even though the play is designed more like a run. Mahomes has 19 passing touchdowns from inside the red zone this season and plays like the jet sweep keep the Chiefs’ running game from vulturing potential passing TDs in that area of the field.
Biggest Obstacle: Strength of schedule
Mahomes has a tough slate of pass defenses in front of him. Over the rest of the season, he’ll almost exclusively face teams that came into Week 8 ranked in the top half of the league in defensive DVOA against the pass: the Browns (first), Cardinals (11th), Rams (sixth), Ravens (10th), Chargers (15th), and Seahawks (third). The only saving grace is that he also has two dates with the Raiders, who rank 31st by that metric.
Then again, Mahomes just carved up the Broncos to the tune of four touchdowns on Sunday, and Denver ranks second in pass defense DVOA. He’s proven he can find the end zone, even against the best squads.
Current Record Holder: Peyton Manning (5,477, 2013)
2018 Contender: Matt Ryan (2,335, on pace for 5,337)
Ryan is quietly having one of the best seasons of his career. He ranks first in the league in passing yards per game on an efficient 8.53 adjusted net yards per attempt (sixth leaguewide). He’s thrown just two interceptions to 15 touchdowns and has a 114.2 passer rating. And he’s on pace to throw for the third-most passing yards ever in a single season.
If he wants to catch Manning, he’ll need to average 349.1 passing yards per game—nearly 16 more than he is right now—over his final nine contests. The good news is that he’ll have every incentive to throw the ball as much as possible. The Falcons currently rank 31st in defensive DVOA, so Ryan will have to make up a lot of the ground the defense gives up in order to salvage his 3-4 team’s playoff hopes.
Biggest Obstacle: The Falcons could figure out how to run the football
Atlanta is tied for 29th in the league in yards per carry (3.7) and 30th in rushing yards per game (83.3) so far this season. Much of the team’s lack of success on the ground can be attributed to the absence of Devonta Freeman, who has spent much of the season sidelined as he’s battled a groin injury. Freeman had surgery for that injury in mid-October and will be on injured reserve until at least Week 15. Meanwhile, the Falcons have also lost starting guards Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco to season-ending injuries.
Atlanta has yet to find a fix on the ground. Fourth-round rookie Ito Smith hasn’t been the answer (he’s averaging 3.0 yards per carry), and Tevin Coleman hasn’t looked too good himself (3.8). Head coach Dan Quinn has spoken openly about the need to improve on this side of the ball. If the Falcons can come out of their bye week and weather the storm on the ground, it may mean they won’t need Ryan to move the ball as much. With so many injuries, Atlanta won’t become a great rushing team this year, but even a slight improvement could end any chance Ryan has of breaking the passing yards record.
Current Record Holder: Drew Brees (471, 2016)
2018 Contender: Kirk Cousins (241, on pace for 482)
It must be nice to be Cousins. The Vikings passer has receivers who can make catches like this:
Cousins finds a familiar face in the end zone with a Diggs TD catch@Saints 7 - 7 @Vikings— BetAmerica Sports (@BetAmericaSport) October 29, 2018
Live betting lines from @BetAmericaSport
New Orleans -2.5
O/U 58.5#Skol #GoSaints #NOvsMIN pic.twitter.com/dUoAqrNiMn
Cousins has 341 pass attempts through eight games, which is only one fewer than the league leaders (Joe Flacco and Andrew Luck), but he has 16 more completions than the player directly behind him (Luck). Cousins’s success comes in large part because he throws to two of the best pass catchers in football: Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs. I mean, one of them literally has a commercial about how everything sticks to his hands. Add in tight end Kyle Rudolph and Cousins is in a perfect situation to break the completions record.
Biggest Obstacle: The Vikings find balance
Minnesota is the third-most pass-heavy team in the league, per Sharp Football Stats, throwing the football on 68 percent of its offensive snaps. While Dalvin Cook has been sidelined with a hamstring injury for much of the season, the team hasn’t been able to find success on the ground (they’re 28th in rushing DVOA). Plus, the defense (13th in DVOA) hasn’t been the same shutdown crew it was last season. Both of those units could rebound soon. Cook has said he’s “feeling great” and may be on the verge of a comeback (though we’ve heard that before this season), and defensive end Everson Griffen returned to the team this week after mental health concerns hospitalized him in the early part of the season. If even one of those two units rounds into form, Cousins won’t be airing the football out so often.
Current Record Holder: Marvin Harrison (143, 2002)
2018 Contender: Adam Thielen (74, on pace for 148)
With 74 receptions through eight games, Thielen has the most catches through the first half of a season in NFL history. He’s been a machine in Minnesota, with eight straight 100-yard receiving games, and has quickly become Cousins’s favorite target. Thielen is first in the league in targets, with 96 on the year, and his consistency and target share make this record well within range for him. All he has to do is keep chugging along, and he’ll crush the mark Harrison set in 2002.
Biggest Obstacle: The Vikings find balance
Like Cousins, Thielen’s production is directly tied to the Vikings’ need to pass the football. If something changes, his receptions will likely take a hit.
Current Record Holder: Calvin Johnson (1,964, 2012)
2018 Contenders: Julio Jones (812, on pace for 1,856), Adam Thielen (925, on pace for 1,850)
Two different receivers are neck and neck to break this record.
Jones somehow leads the league in receiving yards per game despite the fact that he has the same number of touchdown catches as I do this season. Jones is the best receiver in football between the 20s, but the Falcons never look for him at the end of the field. Seriously—he hasn’t gotten a single red zone target since Week 1.
Thielen, meanwhile, has 113 more yards than Jones but has played in one additional game, so he’s slightly behind Jones’s pace—but only by 6 yards.
Biggest Obstacle: The considerable ground to make up
Both of these players are more than 100 yards off pace for the record, which underscores how ridiculous Johnson’s 2012 season was. But, in looking at Johnson’s numbers from that year, it seems like Jones will have the better chance to break this mark. Johnson had four games where he recorded over 150 receiving yards but also four in which he had under 75. That boom-or-bust style is more like what we’ve seen from Jones over his career and why I’d give him the edge over Thielen. Jones has had 13 games in his career with more than 150 yards, and he usually slips in a 200-yard game at least once a year. If he can get one or two of those over the back half of the season, he’ll be right on Johnson’s tail. With the way Thielen has played, he’d need to show more consistent, game-to-game improvement.
Current Record Holder: Drew Brees (72.0 percent, 2017)
2018 Contender: Drew Brees (77.4 percent)
Drew Brees came into Sunday having completed an astronomical 77.3 percent of his passes on the season, and his completion percentage went up after his win over the Vikings. Now at 77.4 percent, Brees looks poised to shatter his own completion percentage record of 72.0 percent that he set just last season.
This category is probably the most meaningless on this list. Completing a high percentage of passes doesn’t mean that those passes are good passes, or that the quarterback throwing them is playing well. Brees ranks toward the bottom of the NFL in throws that travel at least 20 yards down the field, per Pro Football Focus, going deep on 8.6 percent of his throws (35th out of 37 qualified passers). Brees has been lethal with that approach this year—he’s second in the league in passer rating, for example—but his low depth of target does reflect that passing percentage is more about where you are throwing, not how well you are throwing.
Biggest Obstacle: Close games
Brees has a big lead on his old mark, but how long can he continue to throw the ball less than 9 yards down field? The Saints have had a few close games, but they haven’t really needed Brees to engineer any frantic comebacks. They’ve trailed by 10 or more points in just two games: against Tampa Bay and Baltimore.
If the Saints stay in control of games like they have been, Brees has a great chance of smashing the passing completion mark. But if his team ever ends up in a desperate situation, Brees may need to heave it down field more and his completion percentage could fall quickly. Note that the Saints’ upcoming schedule includes games against the Rams, Eagles, Falcons, and Steelers — all high-powered offenses that could demand Brees go toe to toe with them.