Predicting NFL Stat Leaders for 2020

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 4, 2020

Predicting NFL Stat Leaders for 2020

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    Superstar players come to mind when we think about statistical leaders. However, history has proven we should expand that list of potential top performers in high-impact categories.

    In 2019, turnover-prone Jameis Winston racked up the most passing yards with 5,109. Lamar Jackson experienced exponential growth in his second season, throwing for a league-leading 36 touchdowns en route to an MVP award. In his sixth campaign, first as a full-time starter, edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett won the sack title.

    Let's take a look at the players who will shine in 2020 because of their supporting casts or prospective opportunities. We'll project the stat leaders and runner-ups for 10 categories on offense and defense. 

    Will we see another crop of ascending playmakers emerge? Among the established household names, who's going to put together another dominant season?

Passing Yards: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

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    Whether Dak Prescott signs an extension or plays on the franchise tag, he's going to light up defenses on the field in 2020.

    In 2019, Prescott finished second in passing yards behind Jameis Winston with 4,902. This offseason, the Cowboys added another weapon to their second-ranked passing attack, selecting wide receiver CeeDee Lamb with the No. 17 overall pick.

    Lamb can make plays on short, intermediate and deep throws. He averaged 19.0 yards per catch as a collegian at Oklahoma. The 6'2", 198-pounder also forced a missed tackle on 42 percent of his receptions, per Pro Football Focus

    Prescott will have Lamb, four-time Pro Bowler Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup—who racked up 1,107 yards in 2019—in three-wide receiver sets. ESPN's Todd Archer suggested running back Tony Pollard also could see more action in the passing game.

    "With Ezekiel Elliott on the roster, Pollard will not get a lot of work," Archer wrote. "But he could be a multifaceted player in coach Mike McCarthy's offense who could compare to Ty Montgomery. Montgomery was a receiver who moved to running back. Perhaps Pollard can do the reverse, as he played receiver at Memphis."

    With Elliott and Pollard both potentially active in the passing game, Prescott could rack up 5,000-plus yards through the air.

    Prescott's Projected Total: 5,070 passing yards

    Runner-up: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (4,871)

Passing Touchdowns: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

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    The Kansas City Chiefs' explosive offense will help this club jump out to comfortable leads, which would allow head coach Andy Reid to take a more conservative approach once the game is out of an opponent's reach. As a result, Patrick Mahomes could fall short of 5,000 passing yards, though he can remain efficient in the red zone.

    Last year, Mahomes threw 11 touchdown passes and just one interception inside the opponent's 20-yard line. The Chiefs kept his pass-catching group intact. Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson form arguably the league's best receiving unit. 

    Kansas City added running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the No. 32 overall pick in April's draft. In his final term at LSU, he showed above-average receiving skills out of the backfield, hauling in 55 passes for 453 yards and a touchdown. 

    In 2019, none of the Chiefs ball-carriers had more than five scores on the ground. That shouldn't pose a problem in the upcoming campaign with a plethora of receiving targets capable of finishing drives.

    Mahomes' projected total: 40 touchdowns

    Runner-up: Tom Brady, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (35)

Rushing Yards: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

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    Saquon Barkley earned the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year award after he accumulated 2,028 yards and 15 touchdowns from scrimmage. In 2019, the Penn State product battled an ankle injury, missed three games and struggled with the "psychological toll" of the ailment, per Dan Duggan of The Athletic.

    Between his first two seasons, Barkley's rushing total dropped from 1,307 to 1,003 yards. Assuming he's overcome the mental hardship of his ankle injury, the third-year veteran could revert to his nimble rookie form. 

    The New York Giants selected tackle Andrew Thomas with the No. 4 overall pick in April's draft. At 6'5", 315 pounds with immense strength, he can seal the edge on run plays. Don't underestimate his ability to climb into the second level of a defense and ground the opposition, opening wide lanes for the rushing attack. 

    According to head coach Joe Judge (h/t NFL Network's Kimberly Jones), the Giants will run an offense that's similar to the Cowboys' scheme under former Dallas head coach and Big Blue's new offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett. 

    Each season between 2016 and 2019, Dallas ranked top 10 in rush attempts. The Giants could feature Barkley like the Cowboys did Ezekiel Elliott when he won two rushing titles (2016 and 2018).

    Barkley's projected total: 1,495 rushing yards

    Runner-up: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers (1,402)

Rushing Touchdowns: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

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    Going forward, the Tennessee Titans won't have quality run-blocking right tackle Jack Conklin after he signed with the Cleveland Browns in free agency. However, the ground attack still features 2019 rushing champion Derrick Henry, who's a 6'3", 247-pound battering ram on the field.

    Since 2018, Henry lists second in rushing touchdowns with 28. After he registered 303 carries in 2019, the coaching staff may lighten his load with rookie third-rounder Darrynton Evans on the roster. 

    Still, offensive coordinator Arthur Smith should continue to pound the ball with his lead ball-carrier within the red zone. Henry logged 13 rushing touchdowns inside the opposing team's 20-yard line last year. He epitomizes the Titans' physical offense, so we shouldn't expect the coaching staff to move away from him at the end of drives. 

    Henry may not win back-to-back rushing titles, but he can continue to truck his way through defenses near the goal line as the engine of a potent offense that ranked 10th in scoring last season. 

    Henry's projected total: 15 rushing touchdowns

    Runner-up: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns (13)

Receiving Yards: Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons didn't re-sign one of their top three pass-catchers for the 2020 season. Tight end Austin Hooper, who ranked third on the team in yards last year, inked a deal with the Cleveland Browns in free agency.

    Atlanta added dual-threat running back Todd Gurley to the backfield, but he saw a sharp decline in touches with the Los Angeles Rams last season. The two-time All-Pro passed the Falcons' physical, but the team could exercise caution because of his arthritic knee.

    With an uncertain workload for Gurley and tight end Hayden Hurst in his first year with the team after two seasons in Baltimore, quarterback Matt Ryan may lean heavily on Julio Jones in the passing game. 

    Jones has led the league in receiving yards twice (2015 and 2018). He hasn't shown signs of decline either, logging at least 1,394 yards in six consecutive terms. The seven-time Pro Bowler will deliver gaudy numbers with more targets likely coming his way.

    Jones' projected total: 1,630 receiving yards

    Runner-up: Cooper Kupp, Los Angeles Rams (1,477)

Receiving Touchdowns: Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Head coach Doug Pederson isn't shy about putting immense pressure on quarterback Carson Wentz to move the ball through the air. In recent years, the Philadelphia Eagles have fielded a productive aerial attack, which ranked 12th or better in touchdowns each of the last three seasons. 

    Since the Eagles drafted Wentz in 2016, Zach Ertz leads the club in receiving touchdowns with 26. He has become a reliable pass-catching option and a safety blanket for the team's young signal-caller. 

    And Philadelphia has notable question marks at wide receiver.

    Pederson told reporters he doesn't have a timetable for Alshon Jeffery's return from a Lisfranc injury. The Eagles should exercise patience with rookie first-rounder Jalen Reagor, who hasn't experienced a live practice because of coronavirus restrictions.  And DeSean Jackson hasn't had more than four touchdown catches in a season since 2014. 

    Wentz and Ertz could become a dominant duo throughout the 2020 campaign with injuries, uncertainty and low scoring production among the team's pass-catching group. Because the two have an established rapport, it's easy to see why the tight end may put together his best season by logging double-digit touchdown receptions.

    Ertz's projected total: 12 receiving touchdowns

    Runner-up: DeAndre Hopkins, Arizona Cardinals (11)

Yards from Scrimmage: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

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    As the Carolina Panthers incorporate offensive weapons into a new system under head coach Matt Rhule, running back Christian McCaffrey remains the most reliable playmaker on that side of the ball.

    Carolina will roll out a new quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater and fit former New York Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson into the fold. Although the latter played under Rhule at Temple at the collegiate level, the two will need a refresher in a completely different setting.

    In 2019, McCaffrey recorded a league-leading 2,392 yards from scrimmage. Rhule intends to tap into the All-Pro tailback's versatility, per Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic.

    "I don’t look at him as just a running back ... we see him as a 'weapon,'" Rhule said.

    Rodrigue also reports the Panthers don't want to leave McCaffrey on the field for the whole game. Nevertheless, his ability to rack up 1,000 yards on the ground or as a receiver makes him a favorite to put up huge numbers no matter how the coaching staff uses him. 

    McCaffrey's projected total: 2,285 yards from scrimmage

    Runner-up: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants (2,114)

Tackles for Loss: Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

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    Don't overthink this one. Aaron Donald registered the most tackles for loss in the league in each of the last two campaigns. Despite double- and triple-teams, he's an unstoppable force in the trenches against the run.

    Defensive end Michael Brockers' deal with the Baltimore Ravens fell apart because of a failed physical, and as a result, he re-signed with the Rams. The front office also added big-bodied nose tackle A'Shawn Robinson, who stands at 6'4", 330 pounds, meaning Donald will line up alongside a familiar teammate and a new gap-stuffer.

    Brockers and Robinson may take some pressure off of him as he attempts to penetrate holes on running downs. The star defensive tackle could see some one-on-one opportunities in the scrum and capitalize on those moments. 

    Arguably the best defender in the game and coming off his fifth consecutive All-Pro selection, Donald has 45 tackles for loss since 2018. At 29 years old and still in his prime, look for him to cause more chaos in opposing backfields. 

    Donald's projected total: 23 tackles for loss

    Runner-up: Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers (20)

Sacks: Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals

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    The Arizona Cardinals haven't played in many recent prime-time games, so most casual fans don't see much of Chandler Jones, who's one of the league's best pass-rushers. 

    Since Jones arrived in Arizona via trade from New England in 2016, he leads the NFL in sacks (60). In 2017, the two-time All-Pro ranked first in the league in sacks and came within a half-sack of tying Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Shaquil Barrett for the top spot last year.

    This offseason, Arizona acquired two pass-rushers who can divert some attention away from Jones on the edge. The Cardinals signed nose tackle Jordan Phillips and outside linebacker Devon Kennard, who combined for 16.5 sacks with their previous teams (the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions, respectively) last season.

    With the added help in the pass rush, Jones could find clear pathways to the quarterback or face some advantageous single matchups.

    Even if he continues to battle double-teams and help-out blocks, he's a viable candidate to win the sack title after logging at least 11 in five straight seasons. 

    Jones' projected total: 20 sacks

    Runner-up: Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints (17)

Interceptions: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Once the Pittsburgh Steelers acquired Minkah Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins, their secondary became a more opportunistic and stingier group. 

    Fitzpatrick put his ball-hawking skills on display—something we haven't seen since he snagged six interceptions during his sophomore year at Alabama in 2016.

    In 14 games with the Steelers, Fitzpatrick recorded five interceptions, taking most of his snaps at free safety. The versatile defensive back possesses natural instincts in off-ball coverage and can read the quarterback and force turnovers on the back end.

    Fitzpatrick seems happy in Pittsburgh, too. He sat down with Hall of Famer Kurt Warner and NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger and talked about his joy for the game.

    "It's so much fun playing with this team," Fitzpatrick said. "I say that all the time. It's probably the most fun I had in a real, real long time."

    Pittsburgh also has an aggressive pass-rushing defense that's ranked first or tied for the most sacks in each of the last three campaigns. With that type of pressure up front, Fitzpatrick can pounce on ill-advised or hurried throws. We may see him make more strides in his first full year with the Steelers.

    Fitzpatrick's projected total: 7 interceptions 

    Runner-up: Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos (6)