Predicting NFL Stat Leaders for 2019

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 4, 2019

Predicting NFL Stat Leaders for 2019

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    For some NFL statistical categories, it's easy to project front-runners who should finish near or at the top. Workhorse running backs will lead the league in rushing yards, and quarterbacks in pass-heavy offenses should come close to 5,000 yards. At times, a breakout star emerges to shake things up. 

    Last year, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was that star, transitioning from Alex Smith's backup to league MVP with 50 touchdown passes—only the third signal-caller to reach that mark.

    Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald recorded 39 sacks through his first four seasons, but he pushed his play to another level with a league-leading 20.5 sacks as an unstoppable force in the trenches.

    We'll take a look at 10 statistical categories and project the leaders and runners-up with exact numbers. Will we see the usual stars dominate, or can a new talent rise to the top?

        

Passing Yards: Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    Matt Ryan has the luxury of playing with one of the league's best wide receiver groups, featuring Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu. Ridley, the youngest playmaker of that trio, should help push the Atlanta Falcons quarterback to the top spot in this category.

    Last year, Ryan and Ridley built a strong rapport immediately. The 24-year-old wideout registered 64 receptions for 821 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first season. Assuming he builds on that impressive start, the Falcons could easily see two wide receivers eclipse 1,000 yards.

    Jones has logged 1,400-plus receiving yards in five consecutive seasons, and he led the league in two of those. Ridley could become 1A to the two-time All-Pro, forming one of the best wide receiver tandems in the NFL.

    Sanu has increased his receiving total every year with the Falcons since the 2016 campaign. On top of that, running back Devonta Freeman, who's a pass-catching threat out of the backfield, will return to action after missing 14 games because of various injuries last year.

    Returning offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's units ranked sixth, seventh and fifth, respectively, in passing yards during his first stint with the club between 2012 and 2014. He should be able to optimize this group's collective talent with air strikes all over the field. 

    Ryan's projected total: 5,072 passing yards 

    Runner-up: Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams

Passing Touchdowns: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

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    Quarterback Andrew Luck missed almost all of spring practices with a calf injury. Don't ring the alarm bells yet, though; head coach Frank Reich classified the ailment as a "tweak", per Fox 59's Mike Chappell.

    Luck was named the 2018 Comeback Player of the Year after tossing 39 touchdown passes to 15 interceptions, finishing just one score short of his career high of 40.

    Last year, Luck threw 639 passes, but the team may go conservative with his attempts and lean on the ground attack if he experiences increasing arm soreness. Keep in mind the eighth-year veteran missed the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury. 

    Nevertheless, as the Indianapolis Colts offense ventures into the red zone, Luck can target his primary wideout, T.Y. Hilton, or a trio of big-bodied tight ends.

    Jack Doyle has played five seasons with Luck and boasts a 77.2 percent catch rate. In 2018, Eric Ebron put together his best year, logging 66 catches for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns. According to the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer, Mo Alie-Cox showcased his refined pass-catching skills during practices.

    "Alie-Cox caught a steady diet of passes throughout the spring, often in heavy traffic, flaunting an improved route-running ability that should elevate his game come this fall," Keefer wrote.

    The Colts also signed wideout Devin Funchess, who should become a viable threat in the red zone due to his 6'4", 225-pound frame. With an array of big targets in the pass-catching group, Reich should feel comfortable putting the ball in Luck's hands inside the 20-yard line, resulting in a high number of touchdowns through the air. 

    Luck's projected total: 44

    Runner-up: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

Rushing Yards: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

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    Ezekiel Elliott met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Tuesday to discuss an altercation with a security guard that occurred in Las Vegas in May. Afterwards, Elliott issued an apology and acknowledged his "poor decision."

    The NFL won't suspend Elliott for the incident and released a statement regarding the conclusion of the meeting.

    The Cowboys will continue to rely on Elliott as the workhorse in the backfield. Quarterback Dak Prescott's rapport with wideout Amari Cooper could take some pressure off the ground attack, but the coaching staff shouldn't stray too far from their top offensive playmaker. 

    Multiple signs point to Elliott leading the league in rushing for the upcoming year. 

    Since his 2016 rookie season, Elliott has averaged more rushing yards per contest than any other running back (101.2). He also leads the league in carries (868) during that span. The interior of the offensive line will receive a boost with All-Pro center Travis Frederick returning to action after he missed the entire 2018 campaign due to complications stemming from Guillain-Barre syndrome. 

    Barring a suspension, Elliott could capture his third rushing title in four seasons.

    Elliott's projected total: 1,502 rushing yards

    Runner-up: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Rushing Touchdowns: James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers may split backfield touches among three running backs: James Conner, Jaylen Samuels and Benny Snell Jr.

    Conner proclaimed himself healthy after missing three games with a high-ankle sprain last season. He also acknowledged the tailbacks behind him will receive touches during an interview with NFL Network's John Schriffen:

    "I'm healthy, first and foremost, I'm 100 percent healthy now. We'll cross that bridge when we get there. But we got talent in that room. We got Samuels who's a tremendous receiver, a talented runner. We got Snell. We know the work that he did at Kentucky. He's a hard-bodied runner, so all those guys will get touches."

    Even if Conner gives up touches to Samuels and Snell, he'll probably see action near the goal line. Samuels (6'0", 225 lbs) and Snell (5'10", 224 lbs) have the size to handle carries inside the 10-yard line, but they lack experience in those crucial scenarios. Both ball-carriers would likely need to earn the coaching staff's trust first.

    In 2018, Conner tied Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry for third in rushing touchdowns (12). Without wide receiver Antonio Brown, who recorded 15 touchdowns last year, the Steelers may look to pound the ball when they're in striking distance.

    Conner's projected total: 16 rushing touchdowns 

    Runner-up: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

Receiving Yards: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

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    Quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver DeAndre Hopkins have a budding rapport that's become stronger since the 2017 campaign. The two-time All-Pro wideout recorded a career-high 1,572 receiving yards last season.

    Will Fuller (ACL), Keke Coutee (hamstring) and Demaryius Thomas (Achilles), whom the team acquired before last year's trade deadline, all struggled to stay healthy in 2018. The injuries factored into Hopkins' impressive numbers, but he also dealt with hardship, per John McClain of the Houston Chronicle:

    "Last year was tough, not just physically but mentally. It's the most banged up I've ever been playing football. I was dealing with serious injuries a lot of people would have sat down for … I tore ligaments in my shoulder completely off the bone. I tried to play even though I had only one arm. We had something good going, and I know they needed me."

    Houston Texans fans would prefer to see a healthy wide receiver corps, but Hopkins, who's now healthy, should continue to see a majority of the targets. The secondary options in the passing game could open up the field for him. If not, his connection with Watson should continue to grow, leading to a new career-best in receiving yards. 

    Hopkins' projected total: 1,610 receiving yards

    Runner-up: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

Receiving Touchdowns: Antonio Brown, Oakland Raiders

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    Don't worry about Brown's transition from Pittsburgh to the Oakland Raiders. After the trade became official, he's worked hard to build chemistry with Derek Carr on and off the field, even showing up at the quarterback's home. The wideout posted an Instagram video of their working progress on the deep ball.

    During a press conference, Brown talked about the importance of his growing bond with Carr.

    "It's extremely important to have a relationship off the field because playing football, you get mental tired, you get frustrated. You always want to have that respect for a guy to know where he's coming from, know what he stands for and know what's important to him so you guys can be on the same page and do what you desire to do and desire to win."

    Head coach Jon Gruden prefers shrewd route-runners capable of lining up at all three wide receiver positions, and Brown fits the bill. The Raiders should be able to move him around the offense and watch him beat linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks downfield.

    Brown isn't just an astute route-runner with exceptional hands. He also has tremendous body control with field awareness. More times than not, his feet remain in bounds on contested catches near the sideline. NFL.com's Bucky Brooks ranked him No. 2 among top red-zone targets:

    "The guy who is always up and going, who always does a great job no matter what he's doing, that's Antonio Brown. I believe the change in location doesn't affect his production. He had 15 touchdowns a season ago playing with Ben Roethlisberger. I think he probably hits that number this year playing with Derek Carr. Jon Gruden is always looking for a player that he can build that passing game around."

    The Raiders reconstructed their wide receiver depth chart over the last year. With new faces in the top spots, expect Carr to target the best wideout early, often and in crucial situations. After leading the league in receiving touchdowns last season, Brown may do so again in 2019. 

    Brown's projected total: 14 

    Runner-up: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers

Yards from Scrimmage: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

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    Running back Saquon Barkley became a focal point of the offense even before the Giants traded wideout Odell Beckham Jr. to the Cleveland Browns. Barkley was named Offensive Rookie of the Year and led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,028.

    The Giants signed wide receiver Golden Tate to replace Beckham, but quarterback Eli Manning's arm remains questionable going into his age-38 term. Furthermore, rookie Daniel Jones could start at some point in the upcoming campaign if Big Blue's passing offense goes through early rough patches. He would probably lean on the ground attack and short passes before finding his groove in the offense. 

    New York also should field an improved offensive line, which bodes well for Barkley.

    In 2018, the Giants offensive line ranked 29th in adjusted line yards (3.90), per Football Outsiders. General manager Dave Gettleman acquired Kevin Zeitler, a durable right guard, and patched up the right tackle spot with eighth-year veteran Mike Remmers. 

    Though it's a lofty prediction, Barkley could rack up 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards if Manning prefers to throw short or head coach Pat Shurmur goes conservative with his rookie replacement. 

    Barkley's projected total: 2,045 yards from scrimmage

    Runner-up: Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers

Tackles for Loss: Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills

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    The Buffalo Bills landed arguably the most athletic interior defensive lineman in this year's rookie class with the ninth overall pick. At Houston, Ed Oliver flashed a quick first step off the line of scrimmage and some explosive moves in his push toward the backfield.

    According to WKBW's Joe Buscaglia, Oliver put his quickness on display after he participated with limitations during a practice open to the media:

    "Oliver returned as a full participant in this practice and showed off that rare movement ability that he has for the defensive tackle position … if these spring workouts are any indication, it will be a treat to watch him during one-on-ones this summer at training camp. And as he continues to impress, it feels like only a matter of time until he moves ahead of Jordan Phillips on the depth chart." 

    Oliver logged 53 tackles for loss through three seasons in college, but as a member of the Bills, he has lined up with the second team during the spring. Buffalo's coaching staff would probably like to see him work his way into a starting role as opposed to walking into a first-unit position because of his draft status.

    As a top-10 pick, expect Oliver to start and wreak havoc on offensive lines in the upcoming season. He may not log double-digit sacks, but running backs may struggle to evade him because of his ability to read and react after the snap.

    Oliver's projected total: 22 tackles for loss 

    Runner-up: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

Sacks: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

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    After finishing third in the league in sacks (15.5) last year, defensive tackle Chris Jones didn't report to organized team activities (OTAs) and skipped minicamp in hopes of signing a new deal. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, negotiations stalled between the two sides.

    Assuming the Chiefs pay Jones, he's primed to match or top his 2018 sack number. Last year, under former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, the 6'6", 310-pound defensive tackle handled double-teams in a two-gap odd-man front. 

    Now, under new defensive play-caller Steve Spagnuolo's even-man front, Jones may see a fair amount of one-on-one matchups, especially with defensive end Frank Clark demanding attention on the edge.

    Working out privately, Jones looks slimmer and capable of "getting skinny" in the trenches to shoot interior gaps. He registered at least one sack in 11 consecutive contests in 2018. The 25-year-old could continue where he left off with another prominent pass-rusher on the front line. 

    Jones' projected total: 19.0 sacks

    Runner-up: Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos

Interceptions: Donte Jackson, Carolina Panthers

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    As a unit, the Carolina Panthers pass defense struggled in 2018, ranking 18th in yards allowed and surrendering 32 touchdowns through the air. On the bright side, cornerback Donte Jackson flashed throughout his rookie season, registering nine pass breakups and four interceptions.

    Known for his foot speed, Jackson can make up for false steps and close passing windows in the blink of an eye. During a post-practice interview, head coach Ron Rivera seemed pleased with the technical strides he made during the offseason:

    "It's not just about trying to bait a guy into throwing the ball, but making sure you're in position that when you do have to hit it, you can go get it. You see that a little bit more. Earlier you'd see him [slough off the receiver] a little bit, and he'd try and burst in and make that play, and that puts yourself in peril. But if you put yourself in the right position and you give yourself that strategic opportunity to make the play, you see a little bit more of that right now. So I'm kind of happy about that."

    Opposite James Bradberry, who's a solid three-year starter, Jackson will probably see more targets thrown in his direction. Going into his sophomore season, he'll have an opportunity to show off his refined coverage skills. If so, the LSU product could double his interception total from last season.

    Jackson's projected total: Eight interceptions 

    Runner-up: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars