When reviewing the numbers in preparation for this piece, I noticed something interesting: 807 fewer passes were thrown league-wide in 2017 than in 2016, while 434 more runs were attempted. The percentage of pass attempts also decreased for the first time in 10 seasons, from 55.9 in 2016 to 53.9 in '17. Without digging into what that might mean in terms of broader, long-term trends, I've adjusted my projections for the 2018 individual stat leaders accordingly.
Without further ado, here are my predicted leaders in nine key statistical categories for the 2018 season:
Passing yards: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
Will finish with: 4,596 passing yards.
2017 rank: No. 4, with 4,334.
Brees led the NFL in this category for three straight seasons before 2017, when he dropped below 4,600 yards for the first time since 2009. Not coincidentally, his attempts total (536) was his lowest in a season since that same 2009 campaign, when he threw 514 passes, and it was his lowest total in a 16-game season since 2005. Brees' reduced workload was, of course, largely precipitated by the emergence of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara as a monstrously effective running back duo. Still, I expect Brees to ramp up the pace enough during Ingram's four-game suspension to push himself back to the top of the passing-yards mountain for the sixth time in eight seasons.
Also considered:Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers; Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions; Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers; Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers.
Passing touchdowns: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
Will finish with: 35 passing touchdowns.
2017 rank: No. 24, with 16.
Excluding the injury-marred campaigns of 2013 and '17, Rodgers has averaged 34.9 touchdowns per season since becoming the Packers' starter in 2008, so it's exceedingly reasonable to expect him to hit this total in 2018. Jimmy Graham -- coming off a 10-TD season in Seattle, which marked the fourth time he reached double digits in his eight-year career -- will join with Davante Adams (10 touchdown catches in '17) to give Rodgers a pair of end-zone-friendly targets to work with. After all, Rodgers loves throwing to tight ends. If I knew for sure Carson Wentzwould be ready to start for the Eagles in Week 1, I might think of picking him for this category.
Also considered:Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks; Tom Brady, New England Patriots; Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons; Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers; Philip Rivers, Los Angeles Chargers; Jared Goff, Los Angeles Rams.
Rushing yards: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
Will finish with: 1,400 rushing yards.
2017 rank: No. 6, with 1,122.
This might seem like kind of a reach, given that the league leader in rushing over the past five seasons has averaged 1,579 yards, while Howard barely topped 1,000 in 2017. But I happen to think the Bears will run the ball a lot this season, to protect second-year QB Mitchell Trubisky. And Howard is a very, very good runner. Don't forget that first-year Bears head coach Matt Nagy, in his role as offensive coordinator of the Chiefs, helped Kareem Hunt lead the league in rushing last season while also pushing Kansas City QB Alex Smith to 4,042 yards (eighth in the NFL) on 505 attempts (13th). So even if Trubisky takes on more of the offensive burden than he did as a rookie, it's conceivable that Howard could still produce at a prolific rate under Nagy.
Also considered:Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys; David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals; Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers; Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams; Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs; Saquon Barkley, New York Giants.
Rushing touchdowns: Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars
Will finish with: 15 rushing touchdowns.
2017 rank: No. 3 (tie) with nine.
The Jaguars ran the ball an NFL-high 527 times in 2017 -- exactly the same number of times they passed it. And in the red zone, Jacksonville ran the ball 79 times, seventh-most in the league, plus 19 more times in the playoffs, more than any other team, according to Pro Football Reference. The bottom line is, the Jaguars are going to give Fournette the ball in scoring opportunities, and he's a powerful guy operating behind a strong offensive line. He tied for third in the NFL last season with nine rushing touchdowns despite playing in just 13 games as a rookie, so it stands to reason we should see him breaking the plane plenty in '18.
Also considered:Todd Gurley, Los Angeles Rams; Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears; Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers; Saquon Barkley, New York Giants; Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys; David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals.
Receiving yards: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
Will finish with: 1,600 receiving yards.
2017 rank: No. 1, with 1,533.
Brown has led the NFL in receiving yards twice before, including last season, but never in consecutive years. That has a good chance to change in 2018. He's an exceptional receiver with abundant speed and quickness as well as a knack for making impossible catches. He also has a quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger who knows how to get him the ball. With Martavis Bryant now in Oakland and the promising but inexperienced JuJu Smith-Schuster locking down the secondary receiver role, Brown will continue to get a monster workload.
Also considered:Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers; Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons; DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans; Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants; Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints; Adam Thielen, Minnesota Vikings.
Receiving touchdowns: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Will finish with: 15 receiving touchdowns.
2017 rank: No. 1, with 13.
In the seven games for which quarterback Deshaun Watson was healthy last season, he and Hopkins connected on seven of Hopkins' league-leading 13 touchdown catches. Assuming Watson is able to come back without incident from the ACL tear that ended his rookie campaign, Hopkins should be able to score in bunches again. He's the best route-runner in the league and has plenty of speed.
Also considered:Davante Adams and Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers; Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns; Alshon Jeffery, Philadelphia Eagles; Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons.
Tackles: Joe Schobert, Cleveland Browns
Will finish with: 146 tackles.
2017 rank: No. 1 (tie), with 144.
Historically, linebackers have been a big part of coordinator Gregg Williams' defenses. Schobert made the Pro Bowl last season while manning the middle for Cleveland's 14th-ranked D. With Myles Garrett heading into his second season and additional reinforcements (like first-rounder Denzel Ward at cornerback, Damarious Randall at safety and linebacker Mychal Kendricks) joining up, the group should be even better. Schobert is the kind of Wisconsin linebacker who plays like he knows what's going to happen before it does. I'd expect him to continue performing at a high level and piling up the tackles, even with Kendricks being added to the linebacker group.
Also considered:Preston Brown, Cincinnati Bengals; Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks; Blake Martinez, Green Bay Packers; Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons; Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints; Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Interceptions: Darius Slay, Detroit Lions
Will finish with: Nine interceptions.
2017 rank: No. 1 (tie), with eight.
Slay tied for the league lead last year with eight picks, and I think he'll continue to rack up interceptions in new coach Matt Patricia's defensive scheme. He's probably the best one-on-one cover guy in the league right now, with his athletic ability, speed, toughness and recognition, although Marshon Lattimore is close.
Also considered:Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans; Eric Weddle, Baltimore Ravens; A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars; Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints; Malik Hooker, Indianapolis Colts; Tyrann Mathieu, Houston Texans.
Sacks: Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers
Will finish with: 15 sacks.
2017 rank: No. 7, with 12.5.
Bosa is a fabulous football player and competitor. He's operating in a defense that is really set up for him to rush the passer. The presence of Melvin Ingram on the other side makes it very difficult to pay extra attention to Bosa, which will lead to plenty of juicy opportunities for Bosa to bring down the quarterback. Of course, as you can see in the "also considered" section, pass rusher is crowded with talent league-wide.
Also considered:Chandler Jones, Arizona Cardinals; DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas Cowboys; Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars; Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins; Cameron Jordan, New Orleans Saints; Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, Minnesota Vikings; Melvin Ingram, Los Angeles Chargers; Von Miller, Denver Broncos; Vic Beasley, Atlanta Falcons; Khalil Mack, Oakland Raiders.