Projecting The Leader Of Every Major NFL Stat Category For The 2017 Season

The NFL is a fickle beast. Its difficult to predict from one year to the next for a multitude of reasons. Whether its age, injury, morale, the NFL has a way of shaking up who leads what every year. For example, Richard Sherman nabbed 16 Interceptions in 32 games from 2012-2013, but has only nabbed 10 in the 48 games since. In this list I put what I felt was every stat category that was fair. I shied away from things like Punt Returns/Kick Returns because of the inherit nature of them, not because they aren't huge parts of the game. For that same reason I left out tackles, a stat that is difficult to find truth in because of the subjectiveness of it. Who decides what a tackle is? I chose to stick more to the concrete stats. And with that, I give you predictions for Every Major NFL Stat Category:

20 Passing Yards: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

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Remember how I said its difficult to predict who leads what? Drew Brees is the exception to that rule. Drew Brees has ridiculously won five of the last six passing crowns. He has done that by averaging 5,140 passing yards per season during that time frame. To put that in perspective, the NFL record is 5,477 (Peyton Manning, 2013). Drew Brees comes 337 yards shy of the record, on average. While Brees did lose one of his favorite weapons in WR Brandin Cooks(Who was traded to New England along with the Saints fourth rounder in exchange for New Englands first and third round picks), I feel its safe to say its how Brees utilizes the weapons that make them what they are, not the other way around. Not that Cooks isn't a great player, its just that the last time Brees lost his favorite weapon (TE Jimmy Graham, who Brees helped set the TE receiving yards record with in 2011 and was traded to Seattle in 2015) he went out and threw for 4,870 yards... in 15 games. Expect more of the same, at least for one more year.

19 Surprise pick: Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

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Andy Dalton isn't given the credit he deserves. People often focus too much on the fact that he has gone 0-5 in the post season, and not the fact that Bengals have made the playoffs more times in his six years than they did from 1983-2009. Throw in the fact that Andy Dalton is averaging 257 Yards Per Game (YPG) the last two years, and there is quite a bit to like. While the Bengals do play in the competitive AFC North, known for its defense in previous years, they also added one of the fastest players in the game in Wide Receiver John Ross(Washington) with the 9th overall pick in this years draft. Ross broke the 40 yard dash record at this years combine (4.22 seconds, beating Chris Johnson's 4.24). Throwing him into a group that already had AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, and Brandon LaFell could mean big things for Dalton(and the Bengals) in 2017.

18 Passing Touchdowns: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

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Aaron Rodgers is a guy that's always going to put up a lot of TDs. The Packers love putting the ball in Rodgers hands, and now with a running game that might get worse, there is no reason to think that won't be the case this year. Rodgers isn't a super high yardage guy(having thrown for 4,500+ yards just once in his career) but he has never thrown for less than 28 Touchdowns in any season where has played 16 games. Assuming he plays the whole year, which isn't too big of a stretch seeing as he hasn't missed a game since 2013, it would be fairly surprising if he wasn't in the top three in passing touchdowns. The Packers offense will keep rolling, the only real obstacle for Rodgers being someone else having an incredibly year, speaking of which....

17 Surprise pick: Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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The Buccaneers have seemed like a team that would break through for years now. From the surprising 10-6 team in 2010 that missed the playoffs or when they started 4-2 in 2011 before losing the next 10 games. Before, it was Josh Freeman who was expected to become the all-pro franchise savior the Bucs need. While Freeman is gone, they have a new contender. QB Jameis Winston, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, is the leader of an offense that has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL.  The Bucs added the duo of receivers DeSean Jackson and Josh Huff, both formerly of the Eagles. Jackson is older but still an excellent deep threat and while Josh Huff has failed to live up to what teams thought he could be, he still has a chance to become the consistent play maker he has shown he could be. Winston threw 28 TDs last season and adding two talented play makers to replace the one they lost(Vincent Jackson, now a free agent) could mean big things for Winston. It wouldn't be surprising to see him throw for 40+ touchdowns in 2017.

16 Passer rating: Tom Brady, New England Patriots

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Who else but Tom Brady? Sure, you could go with reigning champion Matt Ryan(QB, Atlanta Falcons) but Brady finished second in passer rating in 2016 and the Patriots offense is built around him. With Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Dion Lewis along with Super Bowl hero James White the Patriots offense is built on a "YAC Attack". YAC (Yards After Catch) based offense means top passer rating opportunity, and being Tom Brady doesn't hurt either. The biggest risk to this pick is how will Brady play in 2017? He is going to be 40 years old (!) when the season starts but in the last game he played he led the greatest comeback in NFL history. I feel confident taking Brady, at least until he shows he isn't the player who has dominated for nearly two decades.

15 Surprise pick: Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys

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Dak Prescott took the NFL by storm last year, due in large part to an outstanding O-line and a ridiculous running back trio of Alfred Morris, "Zeke" Elliot, and Darren McFadden. The good part for Prescott of having people think he was carried is that all the pieces that "carried" him are back. With a year of experience under his belt, the returning pieces, and adding some pieces to the Cowboys D, Prescott shouldn't be asked to do too much. That's not to say he won't(he will) but what it is to say is that Dak Prescott could easily end up leading the league in Passer Rating by a wide margin. Considering he finished third in 2016 with a 104.9 rating, it's not difficult to imagine him having continued success. The bad news is that all the teams in the NFC East got better, especially on defense with the Eagles and Redskins adding two top notch Defensive Ends in the 2017 draft (Derek Barnett and Jonathan Allen, respectively) and the Giants having spent a ton of money on Defense the last few years. That being said, its still very possible for Prescott to be #1.

14 Rushing Yards: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

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Jordan Howard had an amazing rookie season, and yet most fans don't know who he is. Allow me to fill you in.  Howard, drafted in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, finished second in the NFL in rushing yards (1,313, trailing only Ezekiel Elliot's 1,631) and while Elliot did it behind an offensive line with 3 Pro-Bowlers and an All-Pro wide out, Howard did it on a bears team that finished 3-13. The knee-jerk reaction to this is to assume volume stats(running for 2,000 yards.... On 1,000 carries) but that isn't the case. Howard did run 252 times, but he still averaged an excellent 5.2 YPC average. With the Bears being in full rebuild mode and having either Mike Glennon or Mitch Trubisky walking into a rough(for now) project, expect the Bears to lean heavily on Howard and Pro Bowl Guard Kyle Long. Also expect that to work very well.

13 Surprise pick: Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins

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Second year running back Jay Ajayi came out of nowhere in 2016, having rushed for just 187 yards his rookie season. That all changed in week 6 of last year, when Ajayi turned in a 204 yard, two touchdown performance against the Steelers. And then the next week, when he turned a 214 yard performance against the Bills. Ajayi ended up finishing the year with another 200 yard performance, giving him three on the year and an additional 100 yard game. So why is a guy who played like that on a playoff team a "surprise pick"? Because of the fact that of  Ajayi's 1,272 yards in 2016, nearly half of them came from those three games. Worse, two of them were against the same team (The Bills in Weeks 7 and 16). However, it is impossible to deny that turning in a 200 yard performance against a team in the playoff hunt whilst your starting QB is injured shows you do have something to show. With Tannehill coming back after missing the final 4 games (Weeks 14-17, then the AFC Wild Card) and Ajayi entering as the unquestioned starter for the Dolphins, it's possible he turns in a huge season.

12 Rushing Touchdowns: David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

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David Johnson is a touchdown machine, and he may well be the best running back in the NFL. Though he lacks the star power of an Elliot or an Adrian Peterson or LeVeon Bell, he has arguably outplayed them. Touchdowns are what Johnson specializes in. Since coming into the league after being drafted by the Cardinals in the third round of the 2015 draft, Johnson has scored 32 Touchdowns (24 rushing, 8 receiving) and last year he accumulated over 2,000 yards of offense. Under Bruce Arians' offense the Cardinals like to go deep, especially with an arm as talented as Carson Palmer's. This results in a lot of yards for Palmer, and a lot of Touchdown opportunities for Johnson. Johnson came into his own last year, and if he could go off for 20 TDs, 2,000+ total yards, and a 4.2 average for the worst Cardinals team of the Arians era, imagine what he can do if they bounce back.

11 Surprise Pick: Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers

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Melvin Gordon, the former Wisconsin Badger who the Chargers grabbed at #15 overall in the 2015 draft, had an abysmal rookie year. After scoring 32 Touchdowns in his senior year of college, Gordon failed to score a single time his rookie year. After addressing some O-line issues in the 2016 offseason however, Gordon showed us all what he could do in the right scenario. Gordon rushed 254 times for 997 yards (3.9YPC) and 10 Touchdowns in 13 games last year. Now, we saw the "right" situation, but will we see it again? Phillip Rivers, the long time QB for the Chargers, is another year older. The Chargers are moving for the first time in franchise history. They play in a tough division, a division that had three teams with winning records in 2016 (Chiefs 12-4, Raiders 12-4, Broncos 9-7) and two of those teams had very good defenses. However, if all goes right, the pieces are there for a good season, especially when you have Phillip Rivers to take the top off of a defense.

10 Receptions: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers

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Antonio Brown has been ridiculous for the Steelers in the last five years. Brown has averaged, averaged, 120 Receptions per year since 2013. To put that in perspective, in Wes Welker's best season he caught 123 passes (2007). While starting Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is another year older and will be 35 when the season starts, there is no reason (as of yet) to think Brown won't continue to dominate this category. The Steelers love to pass, and with the Steelers new "Killer B's"(QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Antonio Brown, and Runningback LeVeon Bell) why not? Do what works, and passing the ball works for the Steelers. While it is tough to maintain the level of dominance that Brown has, barring injury(which is true for every player), expect the domination to continue. At least until Big Ben retires, though it appears they're already grooming his replacement in QB Joshua Dobbs(Drafted in the fourth round from Tennessee). If Dobbs works out, expect domination for the next 5-10 years.

9 Surprise Pick: Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles

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The Philadelphia Eagles nabbed a top player this year in Alshon Jeffery. When Jeffery was part of a tandem with WR Brandon Marshall, he caught 89 balls for 1,421 yards and 7 touchdowns (2013). He did that while he played with two different QBs (Jay Cutler and Josh McCown). Regardless of what your opinion of those two QBs are (I personally like both), putting together the kind of season Jeffery did while not being able to get into a groove with one guy shows he can do it. Hopefully he can get into a groove this year with his new QB, Carson Wentz. Wentz (and the Eagles as a whole) had a decent year in 2016, but the WR position really hurt them. The Eagles WR group struggled mightily all season, and a ton of drops, ill-timed penalties, and game changing (not in the good way) plays led to the Eagles seeking Jeffery's services. The Eagles have a very good O-line (with Pro Bowlers at both tackle slots) and a couple of decent pieces to draw coverage away from Jeffery, along with a QB hungry for a guy to force feed the ball to. That all adds up to a great opportunity for Jeffery and the Birds. Whether they take advantage of it remains to be seen.

8 Receiving yards: Odell Beckham, New York Giants

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Odell Beckham, Jr. or "OBJ" is easily one of the most recognizable players in the league. That's fair, because he is also one of the few "game changers" that consistently puts his team in position to win, at least with his play. Beckham has faced criticism for foolish antics not related to football, like punching a kicking net out of anger only for the net to give as good as it got. Or the infamous "Ship Wrecked" photo, showing Beckham and other Giants receivers partying on a boat the week of a playoff game (which they lost). All that being said, Beckham's talent can't be denied. Beckham has caught at least 1,300 yards worth of passes every year he has been in the league. With Beckham focusing, and Eli playing like it's his last season (which it might be), look for Beckham to put up some big numbers. The Giants added Even Engram(Mississippi) in the first round of the 2017 Draft, which should lighten the load and increase the productivity of OBJ.

7 Surprise pick: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

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As I discussed in the Brees write up, I'm a firm believer in Brees being more important to his weapons than the other way around. Michael Thomas isn't particularly well known outside of Saints' fans, but he had an outstanding rookie year. The 6'3", 212 lb Receiver caught 92 passes for 1,137 yards last year. Now Thomas' biggest rival for targets (Cooks) is gone and Drew Brees and Sean Payton are still here. That will mean big things for Thomas. But the question is, how big are they going to be? While Brees has posted crazy stats, he also spreads the ball around and it is Brees known for the big numbers, not the Wide Receivers he throws to. Though Jimmy Graham posted great stats, no New Orleans Wide Receivers have broken 1,250 yards with Brees. With Thomas' size however, its not difficult to imagining him bucking that trend and grabbing some huge numbers.

6 Receiving Touchdowns: Davante Adams, Green Bay Packers

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Davante Adams has never broken 1,000 yards receiving. He has never gone to a Pro Bowl. So why am I picking him to be the NFL receiving touchdown leader? Because he catches Touchdowns. Adams became the player Green Bay knew(hoped?) he could become last year, at least for most of it. Though Adams came three yards shy of breaking 1K (997) he finished second in Touchdowns with 12. As I picked Aaron Rodgers to be the guy who leads the league in Touchdowns thrown, its logical to pick the guy who should be catching them. As Adams becomes the focus of the Packers receiving core, he should also begin to grab the lions share of Touchdowns from Jordy Nelson. Last year Nelson and Adams finished one and two respectively in Touchdowns, with 14 and 12. I see those numbers switching and unlike most on this list Adams benefits from not (technically) being the #1 on his team at the position, which should help his stats.

5 Surprise Pick: (R) Corey Davis, Tennessee Titans

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The 5th overall pick in this years draft was Corey Davis. Davis spent his last year in college helping with one of the greatest turn arounds in College Football, Western Michigan. From 1-11 in 2013 to 13-1 (and a final AP Ranking of #15) in 2016, the Titans are hoping for a similar transition. Davis grabbed 19 touchdowns for WMU in 2016, and going into a situation with a QB as good as Marcus Mariota in a pass heavy offense could mean a surprising number of TDs. What is important to remember is how modest a lot of TD leaders are. For example, the last time a receiving TD leader had more than 16 was 2011 (Rob Gronkowski, 17). All it would take is a great first year and a down year in receiving TD production for a guy like Davis to be at the top. While it isn't likely, and rookies leading the NFL in touchdown catches doesn't happen too often for people not named Randy Moss, it is still quite possible. And if it does happen, expect it to be Davis.

4 Sacks: Von Miller, Denver Broncos

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Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller is a sack master. In seasons where Miller plays at least 10 games, he averages 14 Sacks per year. Playing in the AFC West should grant him plenty of chances, too. Two of the teams are pass happy (Chargers and Raiders) and one of those teams has a shaky O-line. The Broncos know how to use Miller, which makes him even scarier. There is no "potentially" with Miller, as there are with a lot of pass rushers. Nothing has to "click", or "go right", etc. Miller just has to go out there and play. The Broncos are committed to getting Miller help to replace now retired DE DeMarcus Ware. They seemingly accomplished that by grabbing another DeMarcus, this time Defensive End DeMarcus Walker. The DE will take some of the pressure off Miller, but Miller is one of the few players who doesn't need that. Miller is a truly elite talent in every sense of the word. That is why he'll lead the NFL in sacks in 2017.

3 Surprise Pick: Dee Ford, Kansas City Chiefs

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Dee Ford finally broke out for the Chiefs, becoming the much needed third head of the Chiefs pass rushing team that includes OLBs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. Ford finished with 10 sacks for the Chiefs as Hali and Houston under performed due to either age or injury. While Hali's best days are likely behind at him at 33, Houston remains a top talent when he can stay on the field. Ford will be asked to do more in 2017 and he seems up to the task. When you have the kind of duo that Ford gets to play with, it makes your job much, much easier. Even if Houston and Hali can't perform like the Chiefs want, they make more than able distractions/decoys for Ford. If that is the case in 2017, look for Ford to pick up big sack numbers for the Chiefs playing that position of guy who actually gets to take the QB down. Ford works really, really well as a situational pass rusher, and if the Chiefs replicate that on a huge scale, well... It will be a lot more than 10 sacks.

2 Interceptions: Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs

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Another Chief on this list is corner back Marcus Peters. Peters, a 1st round selection in 2015 at #19 overall, has already established himself as the best ballhawk in the game. Already a 2x All-Pro (1st team 2016, 2nd team 2015) nobody has more interceptions than Peters' 14 in the past two seasons. Playing on a team with an excellent pass rush in a division with two gun slingers (Rivers, Carr) and an unknown(whoever starts at QB for the Broncos) should add up to big interception totals. Peters plays against three of the top interception leaders from 2016 (Phillip Rivers, who led the league with 21, plays twice against Peters. Eli Manning who was #5 in the league with 16 plays against him, as does Carson Wentz, who had 14 which was good for #9). He also plays against teams with unknowns at QB like the Broncos, Jets, and Texans, which should also boost his stat line. It could be the perfect storm for Peters, if anyone dares to throw at him.

1 Surprise Pick: Artie Burns, Pittsburgh Steelers

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The Steelers nabbed a pretty good ballhawk in Artie Burns when they drafted him in the first round last year. Burns, a world class hurdler who is also a good size at 6'0, nabbed three picks in 2016. Burns athletic ability is obviously incredible. If he can begin coming down with more passes he can easily lead this category. Burns finished 22nd in passes defended with 13, even though he only started nine games. Burns will likely become a starter this year which should afford him plenty of opportunities, especially seeing how the Steelers offense is good enough that you often have to play catch up and pass frequently, and even though he is a "surprise pick" don't be shocked if he ends up dominating this category.

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