It is the time of year when speculation rules the roost. It's the quiet before the storm, and there's nothing to really do but guess what might happen. I took a look at the history of eight critical areas of a football season and took a few educated guesses about what the outcome might be in 2007.
NEW LEADERS EVERY YEAR ... SO WHO WILL IT BE IN 2007?
Over the past four seasons there has only been one player to win back-to-back titles in the following major statistical categories. Shaun Alexander won the title of most touchdowns scored in a season in 2004 (20) and 2005 (28). When it came to passing yards, passing touchdowns, rushing yards, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, sacks and interceptions, every season there has been a different leader from the year before. I think it's safe to say it is next to impossible for a player to repeat. With that in mind, I'm going to take a chance on naming the next player to win each one of those important categories.
For example it might surprise the average fan to think that four different quarterbacks have led the NFL in passing yards in the last four years. Drew Brees did it in 2006, Carson Palmer in '05, Daunte Culpepper in '04 and Peyton Manning in '03. Over the past four years, the leading passer has averaged 4,378 yards, and since no one has done it twice, a new name is required here -- I'll go with Jon Kitna. He is in his second year under Mike Martz, he has terrific weapons in Roy Williams, Calvin Johnson and Mike Furrey, and the Lions should play from behind just enough to keep on throwing the ball.
As for passing touchdowns, Manning has done it twice in '06 and '04. Tom Brady led the league in '05, and Brett Favre did it in '04. It should take 36 touchdown passes to lead the NFL, and I'll say the addition of Randy Moss to an already strong receiver/tight end group will give Brady the nod.
I was surprised to see that LaDainian Tomlinson has only led the league in rushing once in the past four years (last year). In 2005 it was Alexander, in 2004 Curtis Martin and in 2003 Jamal Lewis. The leader should be someone new, and based on averages will gain 1,860 yards. The title has a good chance of going to Steven Jackson as he continues to show signs of being a great player.
The leading scorer in the NFL, excluding kickers, traditionally is a running back, not a wide receiver or tight end. LaDainian Tomlinson looked unstoppable in 2006 with 31 TDs and could very easily repeat. But since I committed to new faces at every category, I will go with Larry Johnson. Johnson is looking for a new contract bigger than Tomlinson's, and there's only one way to do that in this business: Hit the "pay dirt" more times than L.T.
When it came to receiving yards, I would have guessed Marvin Harrison had won that title at least once in the last four years, but discovered he hasn't. In order it has been Chad Johnson, Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad and Torry Holt. The average yardage over the past four seasons to win the title is 1,508, and my pick for 2007 is Roy Williams.
Touchdown receptions were another area I would have sworn Chad Johnson or Torry Holt won at least once in the last four years, but neither player accomplished that goal. Terrell Owens did it last season, preceded by a tie in 2005 between Steve Smith and Marvin Harrison. In 2004 it was Muhsin Muhammad, and '03 was Randy Moss. The average dictates that 16 trips to the end zone is going to take the crown, and this season I'll pick Chad Johnson to break through and be the winner.
Pass rushers are surely getting paid these days, and every year there's a new leader on the boards when it comes to dropping the QB. Shawne Merriman, Derrick Burgess, Dwight Freeney and Michael Strahan are the last four to be declared the best. The magic number will be 17, and the best in the league will be Julius Peppers, who should realize a bigger deal than the Dwight Freeney $72 million contract is waiting for him at the quarterback. There's also always the possibility that DeMarcus Ware in the Wade Phillips scheme could jump up and deliver a Merriman performance.
Interceptions are another area where your guess is as good as mine. Over the past two seasons, four different cornerbacks have boasted the best totals in the NFL. Asante Samuel, Champ Bailey, Ty Law and Deltha O'Neal all recorded 10 a piece in leading the league. In the two seasons prior (2003-04), safeties dominated the interception business when Ed Reed, Brian Russell and Tony Parrish picked off the QB nine times each. This year, I think there will be a tie between a corner and a safety with 9, and I like Rasheen Mathis of Jacksonville and Bob Sanders of Indianapolis.
The NFL is one tough place for the best of the best to repeat, and this season will be no different.
WHAT ELSE TO EXPECT
It's a shame that Samuel, the terrific cornerback for the Patriots, and Lance Briggs, an outstanding linebacker for the Bears, didn't arrive at the long-term deals they wanted before the league deadline this week. That being said, I expect both of them to play this season under the franchise tags they were assigned by their respective clubs. They may be late for camp, and if they are, they will be fined, but the relatively small daily fine is nothing compared to missing any of those 17 game checks they will surrender if they hold out into the season. Give or take a few thousand dollars, each player's game check under the franchise tag is close to $450,000 per week. A threat to hold out for ten weeks will cost each player about $4.5 million, and then they have to return to play the final six games to get credit for the season.
They need the season credit in order to attempt to reach free agency next season. If they decide to sit for ten weeks and then risk injury over the last six weeks, it leaves them short more money than they have ever made in their lives and they lose leverage on the open market in 2008 should they get hurt. The best thing they can do is come to camp, earn the entire $7.79 million (Samuel) or $7.2 million (Briggs), and hope the team can't afford to franchise tag them next season.