NFL Players Who Could Put Up Shocking Stats in 2017
The NFL is a league rooted in shock and awe.
Both can come in many forms, whether it's the deep sailing ball that unexpectedly settles into a safe set of hands or the running back who's suddenly galloping downfield. As those plays add up throughout a season, records begin falling or young studs take massive leaps forward.
Plenty of both could be coming in 2017. New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is only now entering his prime years at the age of 24, and he'll likely break a record which Randy Moss holds. Arizona Cardinals ball-carrier David Johnson is a multipurpose dynamo who could redefine what it means to be a pass-catching running back. That is, unless the Steelers' Le'Veon Bell beats him to it.
On the breakout side, Antonio Gates is passing the Los Angeles Chargers' tight-end torch to Hunter Henry, while the Miami Dolphins can't stop talking about the third-year potential of wide receiver DeVante Parker.
Here's a look at who could make you do double takes in 2017 as you flip through box scores.
Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is set to turn 29 in early July. At worst, he likely has three more prime seasons before he begins to fade. While Brown is fast, he doesn't rely on pure speed. He instead finds his success through precise route running, putting him in position to age more gracefully.
However, it's difficult to project how many more years Ben Roethlisberger has left. The 35-year-old quarterback has already flirted with retirement, which means Brown needs to chase the single-season receiving-yards record in 2017. Defenses will have plenty to worry about elsewhere after the Steelers drafted wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster and got fellow wideout Martavis Bryant back from a suspension.
The single-season receiving-yards record has recently been under constant fire because of the modern NFL's emphasis on passing. Jerry Rice finished with 1,848 yards in 1995, a mark that stood for 17 years. Former Detroit Lions standout Calvin Johnson broke Rice's record in 2012 with 1,964 receiving yards, and Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falcons wasn't far behind in 2015 with 1,871 yards.
During that same 2015 season, Brown was well within reach as well. He's one of only four receivers in league history to compile 1,800-plus receiving yards in a season, according to Pro Football Reference. He finished just 130 yards shy of Johnson's record in 2015, a season in which Roethlisberger missed four games and running back Le'Veon Bell appeared in only six games.
If the Steelers offense can stay healthy around him in 2017, Brown has a chance to post historic numbers.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
There was an immediate ripple through the fabric of the football universe in late March. Surely you felt it, and the tectonic shift was especially unavoidable if you have Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson on your fantasy team.
It came when Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said he wants to get Johnson around 30 touches per game in 2017, according to ESPN.com's Josh Weinfuss. That led to a question: Can Johnson set a new single-season yards-from-scrimmage record if Arians does feed him that often?
Johnson averaged 23.3 touches per game in 2016, an already hefty workload. He only topped the 20-carry mark six times last season, but that didn't hold him back from finishing with a top-40 all-time yards-per-scrimmage mark. Johnson finished with 2,118 yards, only 391 yards behind all-time leader Chris Johnson.
That isn't a massive gap for a soon-to-be third-year running back who just averaged 132.4 total yards per game, and it can be bridged if Johnson's workload does indeed increase.
Hunter Henry, TE, Los Angeles Chargers
Even the most talented tight ends often need time to adapt to the NFL. Hunter Henry didn't have that problem as a rookie in 2016, which puts him in position to make a significant impact in only his second year.
Henry is expected to ascend to the top of the Los Angeles Chargers' tight end depth chart, as ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams noted in late May. Antonio Gates is still on the roster and will get some short-yardage and goal-line work, but Henry's snap count should spike dramatically from the 573 he received in 2016.
As such, the 22-year-old's production should shoot up as well after he led the team with eight touchdown catches in 2016. The 6'5", 250-pounder's efficiency demonstrated how much of a bounding red-zone threat he is, as he needed only 36 catches to haul in those eight scores. Henry also finished sixth among tight ends in yards per route run during his rookie season, according to Pro Football Focus, which further illustrates his efficiency and ability to create consistent separation.
Assuming Henry plays more snaps in 2017, his touchdown total should jump as well. Gates has logged seven seasons with 90-plus targets during Philip Rivers' time as the Chargers' starting quarterback, which speaks to how much Rivers tends to lean on his tight ends. If Henry supplants Gates as the apple of Rivers' eye, he could be in for a monster season.
Adrian Peterson, RB, New Orleans Saints
What happened the last time you decided not to believe in Adrian Peterson? He recovered in miraculous time from a torn ACL and MCL and came within an eyelash of setting a new single-season rushing-yards record.
That was back in 2012, and in the NFL, five years can feel like about 15 with the way hits add up, particularly for a running back. Peterson now finds himself in a crowded New Orleans Saints backfield, and he had to spend part of his offseason recovering from a torn meniscus.
Football generally isn't kind to 32-year-old running backs. But is it outlandish to think Peterson could separate himself during the competition for touches with Mark Ingram en route one of the best-ever seasons at his age? No, it's not, especially when Peterson is inserted behind a top-tier offensive line that just added first-round pick Ryan Ramczyk.
The best season for a running back age 32 or older was John Riggins' 1,347-yard campaign back in 1983, according to Pro Football Reference. If that feels out of reach, remember Peterson is only one season removed from leading the league with 1,485 rushing yards. He could easily post a top-five season for his age, which would mean besting Frank Gore's 1,025 yards in 2016.
There's plenty of uncertainty around the Saints backfield. But Peterson's teammates and coaches have been gushing about him during OTAs, too.
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, New York Giants
It feels like New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. is quickly trending toward the same status as New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. They're both generational talents, and we don't pause often enough to recognize how watching the prime of their careers is a special privilege.
Let's not take it for granted if Beckham pushes aside another unfairly athletic receiver in 2017: Randy Moss.
Moss holds the record for the most receiving yards during the first four years of a receiver's career, according to Pro Football Reference. From 1998 to 2001, Moss tallied 5,396 yards through the air, averaging a remarkable 1,349 yards per year.
Through three NFL seasons, Beckham has averaged 1,374 yards. He needs only 1,275 yards to break Moss' record, which has stood for 16 years.
Beckham has Moss firmly in his crosshairs even though he missed five games over his first three seasons. Moss didn't miss a game during the first four years of his career.
It also can't hurt that the Giants added Brandon Marshall this offseason. Marshall should see time opposite Beckham, which should stress defenses looking to solely lock down Beckham and force them to be more conservative in coverage. Talk about a scary thought.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Cleveland Browns
Similar to Henry, Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell did a lot with his few opportunities in 2016.
During his third season, he finished 15th in the league with 952 rushing yards. That might not sound overly impressive until you realize Crowell was the only ball-carrier among the top 20 in rushing yards last season with fewer than 200 attempts.
Crowell didn't have many opportunities with the Browns frequently trailing as their season careened off a cliff, and Duke Johnson siphoned off a chunk of carries as well. But the 24-year-old showed he's capable of much more in a larger role by averaging an impressive 4.8 yards per carry.
Crowell is a fast-moving prickly bush when he runs, stinging defenders with his physicality while proving difficult to drag down. His 3.18 yards after contact was the third-highest in 2016 among running backs with 100-plus carries, per PFF. He'll now benefit from an improved offensive line after the free-agency additions of guard Kevin Zeitler and center J.C. Tretter, along with the return of a healthy Joel Bitonio at guard.
It's easy to see why Crowell thinks he'll produce a "monster year," as he told Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon-Journal. The added motivation of a contract year will also help him reach that extra gear.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Like so many modern players at his position, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell is called a running back because, well, he needs a title. In truth, he's been part of the movement to reshape our view of a running back's job description.
Bell lines up in the slot and sometimes on the outside as well. When he does so, he functions and looks like a wide receiver running routes rather than a plodding running back stumbling around. His movements are fluid and deceptive.
That unique skill set has led to his consistently high volume of targets and receptions. Bell has averaged 4.8 catches per week over his 47 career regular-season games, and he pulled in a single-season high 83 receptions in 2014.
Despite missing four games in 2016, Bell finished with 75 receptions on 94 targets. Over a 16-game season, he would have been on pace to finish with 100 grabs, just shy of Matt Forte's all-time record for single-season receptions by a running back (102).
That record-book entry is well within Bell's grasp with the help of the stacked Steelers offense.
DeVante Parker, WR, Miami Dolphins
At some point, the nitro boosters on the DeVante Parker hype train kicked in this offseason. It was probably when offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald he expects Parker to have a "gigantic year."
During the dreary offseason dog days of June, teams are normally more guarded with young players who have flashed potential without stringing together consistent production. But the Miami Dolphins haven't shied away from pushing third-year expectations for Parker into another stratosphere.
It's not hard to see why. While Parker's stats in 2016 don't leap off the page—744 yards on 56 catches with four touchdowns—he had standout plays and games that demonstrate how much he's oozing with talent.
Parker recorded two 100-plus-yard receiving games in 2016, and his catches often came in grand fashion. He hauled in four 45-plus-yard receptions and also had a 37-yard catch during the Dolphins' playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He has the size (6'3" and 212 pounds) and leaping ability to mature into the Dolphins' top outside receiver while demanding a high target volume. But potential eventually needs to become reality, and the Dolphins are at that point in 2017.
Parker could easily become Miami's best receiver, but he could just as easily start his slow fade from the NFL.
Here are a few more players who could put up huge numbers in 2017.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back: Martin may have rediscovered himself this offseason, and a flashback to his muscle hamster ways could be coming. A three-week suspension may not quite allow him to post his third career 1,400-plus-yard rushing season, but regardless, look for Martin to put up eye-popping numbers when he returns.
Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans quarterback: The Titans have given Mariota a treasure trove of new weapons to try out. He can now fill the sky with throws aimed at wide receivers Eric Decker, Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor, all of whom join an offense that already featured Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker and one of the league's best backfields in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. If Mariota avoids any setbacks while recovering from the broken leg he suffered late last year, he could be among the league leaders in passing touchdowns.
Micheal Thomas, New Orleans Saints wide receiver: The Saints now have a deep backfield after adding running backs Adrian Peterson and Alvin Kamara in free agency and the draft, respectively. They'll make defenses wary of a power-running attack, which will allow Thomas to go about replacing the 117 targets that left when the Saints shipped fellow wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots. Thomas will likely finish among the top five in receiving yards, and he could perhaps threaten to lead the league.