Predicting NFL Stat Leaders for 2018
Statistical leaders don't always lead their teams to winning seasons. However, the numbers show that they pulled their weight regardless of their teams' win-loss records.
For some individuals, being a stat leader is confirmation of their skills. Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard logged 19 interceptions at Middle Tennessee State, but his eight picks during the 2017 season solidified him as a ball hawk and All-Pro. Someone just needs to tell Deion Sanders.
Some players rank among the leaders of box-score categories every year, which speaks to their consistency and value. Not surprisingly, most on this list are usual suspects. However, a rookie made the cut.
Let's take a look at early projections on leaders for nine categories.
Passing Yards: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints front office acquired two pass-catchers over the offseason to boost the No. 5 passing attack in yards. In other words, quarterback Drew Brees will have more options when attacking defenses with his pinpoint accuracy.
Third-rounder Tre'Quan Smith led Central Florida in receiving yards and touchdowns with 1,171 and 13, respectively, as a junior. Cameron Meredith racked up 888 receiving yards and four scores with the Chicago Bears during the 2016 campaign before missing the 2017 season with an August ACL tear. He should be an immediate contributor as long as he fully recovers.
Furthermore, running back Mark Ingram will serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. Head coach Sean Payton doesn't plan to increase tailback Alvin Kamara's workload in the meantime.
"The mistake would be that Alvin gets 15 more carries," Payton said in May, per the New Orleans Advocate's Joel A. Erickson. "That's not the direction we would expect to go."
Regardless of who fills Ingram's role, the Saints can rely on Brees, who's completed at least 70 percent of his passes over the past two seasons.
The additional assets in the aerial attack and potential need for more passing without the team's leading rusher for four games should elevate Brees' statistics. Look for the 39-year-old to lead this category for the fourth time in five seasons.
Brees' Projected Total: 4,714 passing yards
Runner-Up: Matthew Stafford
Passing Touchdowns: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
He's back. Assuming Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is healthy for the entire season—he missed nine games with a collarbone injury in 2017—the 34-year-old should lead this category for the second time in three terms.
Rodgers won't have a familiar touchdown target in wideout Jordy Nelson, who signed with the Oakland Raiders during free agency. However, tight end Jimmy Graham joins the offense as an immediate red-zone threat. The former Seattle Seahawk logged 10 scores last year, which propelled quarterback Russell Wilson to the top spot in touchdown passes with 34.
In addition to Graham, wideout Davante Adams will maintain a prominent role in the passing attack. He leads all pass-catchers with 22 touchdown receptions over the last two seasons.
Ty Montgomery and Jamaal Williams also pose as threats out of the backfield, giving Rodgers short-distance pass targets when the ground attack sputters near the goal line. The two-time MVP should light up the scoreboard with the receiving assets around him.
Rodgers' Projected Total: 38 passing touchdowns
Runner-Up: Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers
Rushing Yards: Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers have a new offensive coordinator in Randy Fichtner, but the switch from Todd Haley to the former quarterbacks and wide receivers coach bodes well for Le'Veon Bell.
Fichtner isn't a stranger to maximizing NFL talent at running back. As an offensive coordinator at Memphis, the program ranked 32nd, 18th and fifth in rushing yards per game between the 2003 and '05 seasons—the final three years of DeAngelo Williams' collegiate career.
Former Memphis assistant coach Pete Roussel praised Fichtner for speeding up Memphis' offensive tempo at the collegiate level, per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler. "As a play-caller, Randy never got credit for this publicly, but he was one of the pioneers of tempo and the one-word play calls."
Under Fichtner, the Steelers offense could run more efficiently and at a faster pace, which would create more opportunities for Bell, who has eclipsed 1,200 rushing yards in three of the last four seasons. At this point, Bell doesn't have a long-term deal in place, and he's set to play under the franchise tag for consecutive seasons. Look for him to show his best through a contract year.
Bell's Projected Total: 1,387 rushing yards
Runner-Up: Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams
Rushing Touchdowns: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys parted ways with wideout Dez Bryant, and tight end Jason Witten retired and took a job in the Monday Night Football booth. Both pass-catchers served as big-bodied targets in the red zone in recent seasons. They combined for 11 of the team's 22 receiving touchdowns last year.
Nonetheless, the Cowboys offensive line, which featured three Pro Bowlers in 2017, should help maintain a strong ground attack.
All eyes will follow quarterback Dak Prescott's progression, but running back Ezekiel Elliott clearly projects as the focal point of an offense that now includes receivers Tavon Austin, Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson.
Expect Elliott to get the majority of the touches at the end of drives. He's logged 22 scores on the ground in 25 contests. The third-year ball-carrier should lead the category as a reliable option running behind a strong front five.
Elliott's Projected Total: 14 rushing touchdowns
Runner-Up: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
Receiving Yards: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
After quarterback Deshaun Watson tore his ACL during a practice in November, the Houston Texans offense took a nosedive, but wideout DeAndre Hopkins continued to flash as a bright light.
The Texans recorded 30-plus points in five contests with Watson at the helm but only reached that mark once without him. Hopkins managed to log three 100-yard performances with Tom Savage and T.J. Yates under center.
According to Houston Chronicle reporter Aaron Wilson, Watson looks "ahead of schedule" in his recovery process, which bodes well for Hopkins. In their last game together, the All-Pro wideout snatched eight receptions for 224 yards and a touchdown at CenturyLink Field.
Last season, Hopkins logged 955 more receiving yards than Will Fuller V, who was second on the team in the category. Opposing defensive backs knew the Clemson product would see plenty of targets but failed to come up with a solution to cover him downfield. Now, with a healthy full-season upgrade at quarterback, expect the 26-year-old to rack up yards on explosive plays and lead his peers in yardage.
Hopkins' Projected Total: 1,404 receiving yards
Runner-Up: Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants
Receiving Touchdowns: Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots
According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the league upheld wideout Julian Edelman's four-game suspension for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy. Quarterback Tom Brady loses one of his most reliable receiving assets for the short term.
Between the 2013 and 2016 seasons, Edelman logged 20 receiving touchdowns and then sat out the 2017 term with a torn right ACL. While most expect Chris Hogan and Jordan Matthews to fill the void at wide receiver, Rob Gronkowski should see plenty of early season looks.
The ninth-year tight end has dealt with various injuries in the recent past, but he's managed to deliver in the end zone. Gronkowski leads the league in touchdown receptions with 76 since his 2010 draft year.
There's no doubt Edelman's absence will lead Brady to spread the ball around, but when it's time to cap the drive, he's going to look toward Gronkowski's familiar face and rangy catch radius to rack up points. The 29-year-old gets a head start in the scoring category and pushes through one of his most productive seasons as a receiver.
Gronkowski's Projected Total: 12 receiving touchdowns
Runner-Up: A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
Tackles: Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds will deliver a rookie shocker as the leader in tackles. The Virginia Tech product took first-team reps in the middle of the defense during the first week of organized team activities and remained at the spot through minicamp.
At 20 years old, Edmunds takes on a huge role as the signal-caller of the defense. Nonetheless, his teammate, cornerback Tre'Davious White, stamped his early approval on the rookie's readiness to succeed in the upcoming season, per Good Morning Football (h/t the team's official website):
"Since the first day he got here, man, he's commanded the huddle on the defensive side of the ball. You can tell, by OTAs and the offseason, he's been getting tremendously comfortable in the playbook, and every day he's getting better and better. By that first game, he's going to be knocking folks around."
Linebacker Preston Brown, who led the league in tackles with 144 last season, signed with the Cincinnati Bengals during free agency. Edmunds possesses the quickness to cover ground sideline to sideline. He ran a 4.54 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Under head coach Sean McDermott, who coached linebacker Luke Kuechly as a defensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers, Edmunds will also have the guidance to help translate his physical tools into production.
Kuechly could very well lead this category, but the Bills offense will feature an inexperienced quarterback prone to mistakes, whether it's AJ McCarron, Nathan Peterman or Josh Allen.
Edmunds holds a key starting position, and a subpar offense likely means more time on the field for the defense. As a result, the rookie should have a fair shot at racking up an abnormally high number of tackles.
Edmunds' Projected Total: 136 tackles
Runner-Up: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
Sacks: Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders
In 2015, defensive end Khalil Mack finished second in sacks with 15. Over the past three seasons, he's logged 36.5 as the shining star across the Raiders front line. Bleacher Report's Doug Farrar ranked him No. 2 among the most unblockable pass-rushers.
Head coach Jon Gruden made the most crucial hire at the defensive coordinator position. Paul Guenther takes over a defense that's sputtered on all three levels in recent seasons.
The Raiders drafted defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, a 3-technique interior lineman capable of shooting gaps, which suits Guenther's defensive scheme. It's too early to draw the comparison, but think about Geno Atkins' impact as a pass-rusher on the inside. The coaching staff will also move Bruce Irvin to full-time defensive end.
The two aforementioned moves should divert some attention away from Mack. As a rookie, Hurst's influence looks uncertain, but Irvin, who's logged 15 sacks in two seasons with the Silver and Black, will garner attention at the line of scrimmage.
Finally, according to The Athletic's Vic Tafur, Guenther plans to move Mack around the formation, which adds much-needed unpredictability to the scheme. "We're going to move him around. He might be on the right side, he might be on the left side ... we might line him up over a guard."
Assuming Mack and the Raiders hammer out a new deal, Guenther's vision for the defense should push the two-time All-Pro to another level as the 2018 sack leader.
Mack's Projected Total: 15 sacks
Runner-Up: Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
Interceptions: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
Typically, opposing quarterbacks avoid optimistic cornerbacks waiting to snag interceptions in coverage. In that scenario, the defender on the opposite side of the field would see plenty of targets.
When staring down the Jacksonville Jaguars defense, quarterbacks looking toward the perimeter must choose to target one of two Pro Bowlers in A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey. They combined for 10 interceptions in the previous season and nearly split the total in half.
In 2017, Ramsey finished with four picks, but his versatility as a defensive back who can move around the formation like a chess piece should allow him more opportunities to increase his total if opposing passers attempt to avoid his side of the field.
The All-Pro cornerback also takes pride in locking up and agitating the opponent's best wide receiver—just ask Bengals pass-catcher A.J. Green. Ramsey's competitive nature puts him in a great position to create turnovers through the air at the highest rate.
Ramsey's Projected Total: 7 interceptions
Runner-Up: Casey Hayward, Los Angeles Chargers