Analysis

Which notable NFL records could fall in 17-game season? Top candidates to make history?

The NFL announced Tuesday that it will be changing the number of games in the regular season for the first time in over four decades.

On March 29, 1977, the NFL voted to increase the regular season from 14 to 16 games, beginning in the 1978 campaign. On March 30, 2021, the league officially adopted a 17-game regular season, beginning in the coming '21 season.

Naturally, this immediately raised one question for us at NFL Research:

How will another regular-season game affect the league's record books?

With that in mind, we wanted to take a look at which records could soon be broken -- and provide candidates primed to break them.

The last time the NFL expanded the regular season, increasing the slate by two games in 1978, we saw one record quickly fall: Jets QB Joe Namath's 4,007 passing yards, set in 1967. Over nearly the first six decades of the NFL's existence, Namath was the only QB to pass for 4,000-plus yards. By the end of the 1980 season, there were two more. Chargers QB Dan Fouts surpassed that mark in 1979 with 4,082 yards, and again in 1980 with 4,715 yards. Browns QB Brian Sipe also joined the 4K club in 1980 with 4,132 passing yards. Since 1979, the league has featured at least one 4,000-yard passer in all but three seasons (the 1982 and '87 strike-shortened campaigns, and 1997).

One important factor in the explosion of those passing records, apart from the extra games, was a rule change adopted in 1977 that prohibited defenders from making contact with eligible receivers more than once per play. That, and the 16-game season, opened up the air game and helped set new records.

Still, not all records were swiftly rewritten. The single-season record for receiving yards, an eye-defying 1,746 by Charley Hennigan in 1961 (of the AFL's Houston Oilers), stood until 1995, when future Hall of Famers Jerry Rice (1,848) and Isaac Bruce (1,781) both topped it. While the record was not immediately broken, overall production did increase. In 1977, the receiving yards leader was Cowboys wideout Drew Pearson, who paced the NFL with 870 receiving yards. In 1978, eight players passed that mark, including four who went over 1,000 yards receiving.

One particular thing to look out for in 2021 and beyond: an increase in 5,000-yard passers. Right now, just eight players in NFL history have crossed that threshold in a single season (most recently, Jameis Winston in 2019). In the last five seasons, four quarterbacks have hit 5,000-plus passing yards (one each by Winston, Patrick Mahomes, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees). But in that same span, we've seen 15 single-season averages of 295-plus passing yards per game, a pace that would equate to 5,000-plus yards over a 17-game season.

Alright, enough preamble -- let's get to the good stuff. As your tour guide in this exercise, I, Dante Koplowitz-Fleming, will explore which notable records could fall in the 17-game season, and who might be in line to accomplish each feat.

Passing yards: 5,477 (Peyton Manning, 2013)

Manning passed former record-holder Drew Brees (5,476 in 2011) by 1 yard in 2013, but nobody has come within 250 yards of Manning's record since then. Those 2013 Broncos averaged a Super Bowl-era record 37.9 points per game, and Manning won his league-record fifth MVP award. His average of 342.3 passing yards per game that season remains the NFL record to this day. However, the mark appeared to be in jeopardy in the early going last season ...

Cowboys QB Dak Prescott averaged an insane 371.2 pass yards per game in 2020, but he had his season cut short in Week 5 due to an ankle injury. (NOTE: Prescott fell just two pass attempts short of the NFL's official single-season passing qualifier of 14 attempts per team game.) In Prescott's four full games played last season, he piled up an astonishing 1,690 passing yards -- the most in any four-game span in NFL history. He had 450-plus passing yards in three straight games (Weeks 2-4), becoming the only player to ever accomplish that feat. If we want to look at what he could do over a full 17-game season, we need only look at his last 17 games played: 5,615 passing yards, over 100 more than Manning's record set in 2013.

Prescott and the Cowboys agreed to a four-year, $160 million contract extension this offseason, ensuring he will have another shot at the passing-yards record, something he may need to aim for if the Cowboys are to make the playoffs in 2021. Last season, Dallas allowed 29.6 points per game (fifth-worst in the NFL), the worst mark by the Cowboys since their inaugural 1960 season (which resulted in an 0-11-1 finish). The 54 touchdowns allowed and opponent passer rating of 100.4 in 2020 were both low points in franchise history.

Maybe the Cowboys' D can improve with newly-hired coordinator Dan Quinn at the helm, but with safety Keanu Neal and defensive ends Tarell Basham and Brent Urban being the only free-agent additions to the defensive roster with guaranteed money of at least $1 million, the unit's still a big question mark heading into the 2021 NFL Draft.

One thing in Dallas is for sure: Prescott can sling the ball. With a 17th regular-season game -- and hopefully a fully healthy 2021 -- he's the top candidate to break Manning's yardage record.

Passing touchdowns: 55 (Peyton Manning, 2013)

Another record set during Manning's historic 2013 campaign was the single-season passing-touchdowns mark. In the history of the NFL, there have only been three instances of a player reaching 50 scoring strikes: Manning in 2013, Patrick Mahomes in 2018 and Tom Brady in 2007 (Mahomes and Brady both had exactly 50 passing touchdowns). The closest any player got in 2020 was Aaron Rodgers, who threw 48 passing touchdowns en route to his third MVP. But even with a 17th game, Rodgers' pace would have put him at 51 touchdowns. In fact, Rodgers would have needed to play 19 regular-season games at his pace of 3.0 touchdowns per game to break Manning's record.

So, who is primed to pass 55? If anyone is "likely" to break an unlikely record, it's Mahomes. The 2018 NFL MVP has done nothing but set records: fastest to 100 touchdown passes, tied for most touchdown passes in his first 50 games played (despite only playing in 46), only player under age 30 with 50-plus pass touchdowns in a single season ... You get the point.

Mahomes -- who is coming off one of his worst career games in Super Bowl LV, the only NFL game he has started where the offense did not score a touchdown -- has reasons to be optimistic for this coming season. The Chiefs paid a premium to sign former Patriots guard Joe Thuney to a five-year, $80 million deal (a record average per year of $16 million for interior offensive linemen) and added former Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long (who took 2020 off to get healthy). In Super Bowl LV, Mahomes was pressured 16 times when the Buccaneers sent four-or-fewer pass rushers, tied for the second-most such pressures he's faced in a game in his career, according to Next Gen Stats. His 497 yards traveled before throwing the ball or being sacked in that game were the most scramble yards by any QB in a game in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). The Chiefs released starting tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, who both missed Super Bowl LV due to injury, this offseason. While the tackle position is still a big question mark for KC, the offensive line is in a better position than it was for the Super Bowl, with Thuney and Long inside.

So, improved pass protection is one reason for Mahomes being primed to break Manning's touchdowns record. Another? He plays the AFC North this season. While that may seem counterintuitive, as the AFC North features the Steelers and Ravens (two of the top-three scoring defenses last season), here's why it's a positive for Mahomes: In six career regular-season games vs. the AFC North, Mahomes has thrown for 22 touchdowns (against just three interceptions) and 2,195 yards (365.8 yards per game). He is 6-0 in those games. Mahomes' average of 3.7 touchdown passes per game against the AFC North is the highest by any QB vs. a single division since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger (minimum two such games).

If Mahomes' average of 3.7 pass touchdowns per game against the AFC North holds up, he should throw for 14 touchdowns over those four games this season (rounding down from 14.8). That'd leave him needing 42 touchdowns over his other 13 games to set the record (just over 3.2 touchdowns per game). While averaging 3.2 touchdowns per game is by no means an easy task, Mahomes' career average of 2.5 pass touchdowns per game is the highest in NFL history (next highest: Rodgers' 2.1 pass touchdowns per game). At worst, he has a shot.

Rushing yards: 2,105 (Eric Dickerson, 1984)

Let's not make this one more complicated than it needs to be: King Henry.

Derrick Henry rushed for 2,027 yards in 16 games last season, becoming the eighth player in NFL history to hit 2,000 yards on the ground. He was just 79 yards away from breaking Dickerson's 1984 record, which was almost 100 yards fewer than Henry's per-game average over the final quarter of the season (177.5 rush YPG in his last four games). Henry had three games with 200-plus rushing yards in 2020, and they were all against division opponents (twice against Houston, once against Jacksonville). Henry will now face the Texans sans J.J. Watt twice this year.

In every season of Henry's career, he has rushed for more yards than the last (490 as a rookie in 2016, 744 in '17, 1,059 in '18, 1,540 in '19 and 2,027 in 2020). And he gets more prolific as the season goes on (as a starter: 65.5 rush yards per game in Games 1-4, 71.5 in Games 5-8, 121.2 in Games 9-12 and 127.3 in Games 13-16). In fact, he set a career high with 250 rushing yards in last year's regular-season finale vs. the Texans. A 17th game could be a record-setter for Henry.

The only thing standing in Henry's way is history (and a lack of precedent). No player has ever rushed for 2,000-plus yards in consecutive seasons (or multiple times in their career, for that matter). The average rushing-yardage total for a player after his 2,000-yard season is just 1,099. The most ever following such a season: 1,491 by Barry Sanders in 1998.

Receiving yards: 1,964 (Calvin Johnson, 2012)

Megatron, the newly-minted Hall of Famer, broke Jerry Rice's then-record 1,848 receiving yards in 2012 in his 15th game. It took a couple of 200-plus yard performances, but Johnson's record 1,964 yards are the closest the NFL has come to a 2,000-yard receiver.

For a player to reach 2,000 yards in a 17-game season, he would need to average about 118 yards per game. Only three players in the last 10 seasons have averaged at least 115 receiving yards per game: Johnson in 2012, Josh Gordon in 2013 and Julio Jones in 2013 and '15.

In 2020, Davante Adams led all players with 98.1 receiving yards per game, and Stefon Diggs led all players with 1,535 receiving yards (Adams missed 2 games due to injury). Neither player's average would be close to Johnson's record, even with a full 17 games. Adams' average would put him on pace for 1,668 receiving yards over 17 games, and Diggs' average would put him at 1,630.

Maybe one of the younger pass catchers will take a leap this year. Be it rookie record-setter Justin Jefferson or the ascending DK Metcalf, there are plenty of candidates to top 2,000 yards through the air in the near future.

Receptions: 149 (Michael Thomas, 2019)

In Thomas' last healthy season (2019), he put up a record 149 receptions, passing Marvin Harrison's 2002 record of 143 receptions.

Drew Brees' retirement may seem like a roadblock to Thomas breaking his own record, as the void created by the departure of the NFL's all-time leader in too-many-stats-to-list is undeniable ... but Brees' replacement(s) could be enough for Thomas.

In Weeks 11-14 last season, with Taysom Hill as starting QB, Thomas led the NFL with a 33.3 percent target share. He caught 30 of New Orleans' 82 receptions and averaged 7.5 receptions per game despite the Saints throwing the ball just 16 times in one of those games (Week 12 at Denver, when the Broncos used practice squad WR Kendall Hinton at QB in a 31-3 loss for the home team). Even if the Saints are passing less with Hill at QB than with Brees, Thomas commanding such a large workload means he'll still have ample opportunity to catch 150-plus balls.

But what if Jameis Winston is the Saints' starter this year? Having the NFL's most recent 5,000-plus-yard passer can't be a bad thing for a star wide receiver's shot at breaking records.

If the NFL's first player with 150-plus receptions in a season is not Thomas, Stefon Diggs has to be the next-best candidate.

In Diggs' first year with the Bills, he led the NFL with 127 receptions, the most by any player in his first season with a team in NFL history. If Diggs, who was traded to the Bills from the Vikings in March of 2020, was able to average almost eight receptions per game in his first season in offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's system, it should be reasonable for him to improve on that total. Diggs would need to average a little under nine receptions per game (over 17 games) to pass Thomas' mark of 149 receptions. With Josh Allen's ascension, and another year in Daboll's system, Diggs and 150-plus receptions shouldn't be an unlikely pairing.

Sacks: 22.5 (Michael Strahan, 2001)

Don't forget: The NFL didn't start officially recording sacks as a statistic until 1982, so this is a relatively limited field. Strahan's sack record, set in the 2001 NFL season, resulted in a Defensive Player of the Year award. At the time, it was the first 20-plus sack season since Derrick Thomas' in 1990.

Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald has nothing else to prove as a defensive tackle. He is the only DT with 20-plus sacks in a single season (20.5 in 2018). He is the only DT to win three-plus Defensive Player of the Year awards. His 85.5 career sacks are the most by a DT in his first seven NFL seasons. He's been named first-team All-Pro for six consecutive seasons. Donald is the asterisk.

And he is the player -- not just defensive tackle -- most likely to break Strahan's record.

In 2018, when he racked up a career-high 20.5 sacks en route to his second consecutive DPOY award, Donald didn't register his first sack until Week 4. He would have needed just 2.5 more sacks that season to break Strahan's record, and given that he had three games with at least that many sacks that season, it's fair to say a 17th contest puts him in range of hitting 23 sacks.

For what it's worth, a 23-sack season would likely net Donald his fourth Defensive Player of the Year nod ... which would move him past Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt for the most DPOYs in NFL history.

Speaking of Watt, his younger brother, T.J., warrants a mention here. Last season, he led the NFL with 15 sacks, and while that total isn't remarkably high (it was the lowest by a sack leader since the late, great Kevin Greene's 14.5 in 1996), it's not hard to imagine him improving on that number this season. With fellow edge rusher Bud Dupree leaving for Tennessee in free agency, Watt could have more opportunities for sacks in the future (with fewer to share).

In each year of his career, Watt has accumulated more sacks (7.0 as a rookie, 13.0 in '18, 14.5 in '19 and 15.0 last season). His 15 in 2020 came in just 15 games, and they weren't empty-calorie sacks. Watt's 71 QB pressures were tied with Donald for the most in the NFL, and his 16.3 QB pressure percent last season (percent of pass rushes that registered a pressure) was the highest rate among 193 players with 400-plus pass rushes in a single season in the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016).

It probably doesn't hurt that Watt's brother is the only player in NFL history with multiple seasons of 20-plus sacks. Maybe the younger pass rusher learned some tricks of the trade during the Watt brothers' offseason workout/ice bath session in March.

Follow Dante Koplowitz-Fleming on Twitter.

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