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Predicting the NFL’s Passing, Receiving, and Rushing Leaders in 2018

Will Aaron Rodgers return to form? How about Odell Beckham Jr.? And can Antonio Brown keep doing his thing?

Getty Images/Elias Stein

Advanced analytics are everywhere these days, and rate stats like adjusted yards per attempt, elusive rating, running back success rate, DVOA, and expected points added often tell us more about the quality of a player than traditional counting stats can. But there’s still plenty of cachet in pure, unadulterated volume. Leading the NFL in key passing, rushing, or receiving metrics takes extraordinary skill, toughness, and consistency, and the players who do that are usually among the league’s best.

With the NFL regular season just around the corner, it’s time to make some predictions on who comes out on top of some of the league’s most prestigious statistical categories.

Passing Yards

2017 Leader: Tom Brady (4,577 yards)
2018 Prediction: Philip Rivers, Chargers

Brady came out on top of this category last year in his age-40 season—he won MVP honors, too, by the way—and as of right now, the 19-year pro is the odds-on favorite to repeat as the league’s passing yards champ. I’m not predicting that Brady’s going to fall off a cliff, but the combination of his age, all that turnover in New England’s receiver corps and the offensive line, and Rob Gronkowski’s ever-present injury risk is going to make it hard for Brady to be the most prolific passer in the league for the second year in a row. Instead, I’m going to with a relative darkhorse choice in Rivers. The 36-year-old Chargers signal-caller finished 2017 second in both pass attempts (575) and yards (4,515), posting a career-low 1.7 percent interception rate while taking a career-low 18 sacks and an NFL-best 3 percent sack rate. Rivers is having a late-career renaissance and if he can keep that sack rate low this year, he’ll have a great chance to reclaim the passing yards title for the first time since 2010.

If Rivers leads the league in passing, his chemistry with Keenan Allen (102 catches, 1,393 yards, six touchdowns last year) will be a big reason why. Allen has developed into one of the best route runners and most dominant pass catchers in the league, the perfect complement to a quarterback like Rivers who is never afraid to throw the ball into tight windows. The loss of tight end Hunter Henry is a blow to the Chargers offense, but second-year receiver Mike Williams is healthy now and looks like he’s ready to break out. Add in an always underrated Tyrell Williams and speedster Travis Benjamin, plus a pair of dynamic running backs in Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler, and Rivers has plenty of weapons to work with. It shouldn’t hurt either that L.A. added former All-Pro center Mike Pouncey and gets guard Forrest Lamp back from injury.

Touchdown Passes

2017 Leader: Russell Wilson (34 touchdowns)
2018 Prediction: Aaron Rodgers, Packers

Rodgers led the NFL in touchdown strikes in 2016 (40) and was on pace to beat Wilson for the NFL lead in touchdown throws last year (he threw 16 in seven games, a 36-touchdown pace for a full season), but his season was shortened due to a broken collar bone. Through the last four seasons, only Brady has thrown more touchdowns (129) than Rodgers (125), and Brady played in five more games.

The Packers’ offense is going to look a little different this year—Jordy Nelson’s gone, meaning Geronimo Allison, Jake Kumerow, or one the team’s trio of rookie pass catchers may have to step up. But free-agent addition Jimmy Graham looks poised to pick up a bunch of slack, especially in the red zone, and the two have already shown some chemistry on the field:

Along with Graham, Davante Adams has developed into one of the most reliable end zone targets in the league. Add in a healthy Randall Cobb and versatile Ty Montgomery, and Rodgers isn’t short on playmakers in the passing game. The 34-year-old All-Pro looks poised to claim his second touchdown pass title in three years.

Receptions

2017 Leader: Jarvis Landry (112 receptions)
2018 Prediction: Antonio Brown, Steelers

Le’Veon Bell, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and rookie James Washington could eat into Brown’s bottom line a bit, but there’s little doubt that Ben Roethlisberger’s going to lean heavily on his favorite pass catcher again this year. Brown’s caught an absurd 472 passes in the past four seasons—that’s 61 more than the next closest player, Julio Jones—and had he not missed the final two games last season to a leg injury, he likely would’ve come away with the receptions crown (he was on pace for 115 catches before getting hurt).

Unless you’re worried Brown’s going to get hurt again (I’m not), it’s tough to bet on anyone else.

Receiving Touchdowns

2017 Leader: DeAndre Hopkins (13 touchdowns)
2018 Prediction: Odell Beckham Jr., Giants

It’d be easy to see Hopkins repeat in this category—catching 13 touchdowns in a year Tom Savage and T.J. Yates started 10 games for the Texans is pretty remarkable—and if second-year quarterback Deshaun Watson returns to the form we saw last year, he could run away with it. But I can’t shake the feeling that Beckham’s going to go off in 2018.

The 25-year-old pass catcher returns to the field after missing all but four games last year to an ankle injury, and should benefit from new play-caller Pat Shurmur. Yeah, Shurmur may spread the ball around a little bit, and the team may run more, which could cut into Beckham’s catch total slightly, but New York’s stale, far too predictable offense under Ben McAdoo is on the way out. The Giants will mix formations and personnel at a much higher rate while featuring more play-action (Case Keenum finished second in the NFL in play-action attempts last year, per Pro Football Focus, while Eli Manning finished 22nd in that category).

That could be a boon for Beckham, who’s got speed to get behind safeties and linebackers primed to stop Saquon Barkley. Shurmur had Beckham lining up more in the slot during training camp too, which could open up the fifth year pro for more catch-and-run opportunities over the middle of the field—and might give him more higher percentage red zone targets. Beckham posted double-digit touchdown totals in each of his first three seasons, and I think he’s going to do it again this year.

Rushing Yards

2017 Leader: Kareem Hunt (1,327 yards)
2018 Prediction: Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys

This one’s tough. Hunt’s one of the most elusive backs in the league, and as a centerpiece to Andy Reid’s offense, has a strong chance to repeat. Bell, Leonard Fournette, Todd Gurley, and David Johnson should all challenge, too. But ultimately I’m going with Elliott because of the way Dallas has built their offense around him. I expect Elliott will get more carries than any other running back in the league.

The Cowboys’ offensive line has a few question marks heading into the season—All-Pro guard Zack Martin has a knee injury, All-Pro center Travis Frederick was recently diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, and both La’el Collins and Tyron Smith have been banged up in camp—but that won’t stop the Cowboys from making the ground game as the focal point in that offense. Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing in 2016 and averaged an NFL-best 98.3 yards per game last year (he missed six games to suspension), might not end up being the most efficient runner this year, but he’s talented enough to turn all that volume into league-leading yardage.

Rushing Touchdowns

2016 Leader: Todd Gurley (13 touchdowns)
2018 Prediction: Leonard Fournette, Jaguars

Elliott might end up on top in this category, too, and Gurley, who led the NFL with 22 rush attempts from inside opponents’ 5-yard line last year (a league-high 10 of which he turned into touchdowns) is obviously in the mix. But I’m going with Fournette; the Jags are still wholly dedicated to their run game, just signed one of the best guards in football in Andrew Norwell, and a slimmer, more explosive three-down version of Fournette may see even more action than he did as a rookie.

That could be especially true in goal-line scenarios. The Jaguars led the NFL in rush attempts inside opponents’ 5-yard line (27) last year, but backup Chris Ivory somehow managed to snipe nine of those away from Fournette, who finished with just 12 inside-the-5 rushing opportunities (scoring seven touchdowns from that area, tied for third most in the NFL). But with Ivory gone, Fournette may assume the role as the team’s lone goal-line hammer. That could mean an uptick in scoring opportunities.