NFL training camps are in session and the calendar just turned to August, which means one very important thing ...
It's officially PREDICTIONS SEASON!!
Well, actually, I am a bit of a stickler for calling the output of my models projections, as opposed to predictions. When you refer to something as a prediction, it sound like speculative judgments are involved on some level. But with my models, I strive to eliminate as many biases as possible from the mathematical framework. Alright, with that bit of housekeeping out of the way ...
Below, you'll find my model's projected league leaders in each of the major individual statistics. It's 2022, so I ran 22,000 simulations for each of the 272 regular-season games (5,984,000 total sims!) to get these results. I've also included some extra nuggets on players who, though they don't necessarily project to rank first, are poised to produce outputs that are interesting for fantasy and/or team (win total) purposes.
As we get closer to the regular season, I'll update my models, and these numbers can change. But let me know how you feel about today's projections ... Do you agree? What are your predictions? And of course, if you've created a model to project your own stats leaders, please tweet the results at me so we can all see your receipts come January!
Passing yards: 4,950
This number is primarily driven by the Bengals' improved offensive line, which I rank as the ninth-best unit (up from 25th at the end of 2021), along with a very difficult schedule that includes a bevy of potential game scripts with high passing volume. According to Next Gen Stats, Burrow was the league's best quarterback under pressure when it came to yards per attempt (9.7) and completion percentage (64.3), and he owned the second-best completion percentage over expected (+8.7) in this area. That said, the third-year signal-caller shouldn't face as much heat in 2022, thus exposing him to fewer hits and more higher-probability passing situations. More time to throw equals more yards on deep passes. And on that front, Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase just led the league with 11 touchdown connections on passes of 10-plus air yards -- the highest single-season total of the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016).
Burrow narrowly edges out Patrick Mahomes in this projection. Tom Brady, Derek Carr and Justin Herbert round out the top five. (Note: Given the Chargers' defensive improvements this offseason, Herbert shouldn't need to eclipse 5,000 yards passing again.)
Passing touchdowns: 40
I can make a strong case for NFC quarterbacks with prolific projections being good preseason MVP choices. There are a ton of excellent QBs in the AFC, so it'll be quite hard to stand out over there. Not to mention, Brady finished second in MVP voting last season. Brady's O-line health will matter here -- his 2.2 sack rate last season was the third-lowest for a QB in any season since 2016, per NGS -- so the Ryan Jensen injury definitely hurts the veteran QB, who's turning 45 this week. If Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Julio Jones and Russell Gage can all get healthy at the same time, Tampa will have the highest win-share value at a position group in my models in at least five seasons.
Patrick Mahomes comes in second in this projection, too, with 38 TD strikes. One thing that's worth noting: Next Gen Stats show that Mahomes has only been sacked on 15.2 percent of dropbacks under pressure since 2018. That's the lowest rate in the NFL. However, his 20 passing TDs while under pressure over this time are second to Brady's 31.
Rushing yards: 1,950
Do I love this situation? No. What do I mean by that? Well, with no more A.J. Brown out wide, opposing defenses will be able to fully focus on "King Henry." That said, the Titans RB certainly isn't unfamiliar with extra attention. Since 2016, computer vision show that Henry has faced stacked boxes or special formations to assign multiple defenders to him on 64.3 percent of his rushing attempts -- that's 12.4 percent higher than anyone else! NGS shows that his 2,376 rushing yards and 42 rushing touchdowns against eight or more box defenders is the most in the NFL since 2018. And with 5,118 rushing yards after contact since 2016, he's nearly 1,000 yards clear of the next-closest back (Ezekiel Elliott, 4,205).
Rushing touchdowns: 14
Taylor edges out Derrick Henry in this category thanks to his superior offensive line, which helps drive the kind of efficiency -- especially in the red zone -- that is required to score 14 rushing TDs. Last season, Taylor set the NGS single-season record for rushing yards over expected (481). According to Pro Football Focus, a whopping 1,272 of Taylor's league-leading 1,811 rushing yards were earned after contact. For context, Nick Chubb finished second in the league in rushing with 1,259 total yards. Computer vision shows that Taylor's lateral movement speed last season eroded the least of any back in my five-year sample (i.e., when he wasn't running straight, he slowed down the least). Matt Ryan's projected proficiency in the play-action game, especially with Indy's O-line, is the reason Taylor falls short of Henry in the category just above. But this man's gonna hit paydirt a whole lot in 2022, breaking tackles for large gains and maximizing his central role in the Colts' red-zone packages.
I realize this number is 34 catches fewer than Kupp's league-leading total last season, but the Rams figure to have better running back health in 2022. And don't forget about Allen Robinson's arrival in Los Angeles. Sean McVay should look to spread the ball around a bit more. Or maybe he shouldn't. When Matthew Stafford targeted Kupp last season, Next Gen Stats calculated a figure of +115 expected points added -- the highest QB-WR mark of the NGS era. For context, Drew Brees and Michael Thomas previously held the record at +85.2, set during Thomas' prolific 2019 campaign. The slot was Kupp's most dangerous area in 2021, as he led the league in receptions (89), yards (1,321) and touchdowns (nine) from this alignment.
One sleeper candidate for this category: Chargers veteran Keenan Allen. I love this NGS nugget on him: Allen has generated 112.8 total expected points added when targeted on third down since 2017, third-most in the NFL. One more: Last season, Allen averaged 3.0 yards of separation on 58 targets of 10-plus air yards, also third in the NFL.
Receiving yards: 1,450
Jefferson has 97 catches on targets of 10-plus air yards since 2020. By Next Gen Stats' count, that's 24 more than any other player. Last season alone, he earned 1,255 yards on such passes, leading the NFL. Another area where he paces the league over the past two seasons, per NGS: 946 receiving yards on targets with an expected completion percentage of less than 50 percent. Computer vision shows that Jefferson's ability to adjust to passes without losing speed ranks second in the NFL over the past two seasons among qualified pass catchers.
As for the rookies, the one with the strongest probability of eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark is the Falcons' Drake London, who earned a projection of 1,050 from my model.
Receiving touchdowns: 13
Tom Brady has connected with Evans for 13 touchdowns of 10-plus air yards since 2020, the most for any QB-WR duo, per Next Gen Stats. NGS also credits Evans with 113 catches since 2016 on passes with an expected completion percentage of less than 50 percent, leading the NFL. Computer vision shows that Evans has been able to catch the most passes (84) when his hips were not facing the ball since 2016. Red-area usage, especially with Rob Gronkowski's retirement, and some teammate injury concerns really drive this TD projection.
Total touches: 393
Total touchdowns: 16
Opponent O-lines and game scripts do a lot to decide this category. The first two games of the season (at Bears, vs. Seahawks) should help Bosa get off to a strong start. Since entering the league in 2019, Bosa's 15.2 percent pressure rate ranks sixth among qualified defenders (min. 500 pass-rush snaps, per NGS). Bosa has 141 total pressures over that time span, which is tied for 14th -- and remember, he missed 14 games in 2020.
I also love that new Raider Chandler Jones earns at least 10 sacks in 59.3 percent of simulations. (Think of 58 as my magic number for a strong chance.)
When I look at win totals and the volatility related to those figures for each team, the Dolphins have a pretty sizable spread between the top quartile and bottom quartile. This just means they have some questions at key positions (mainly QB), but the Miami defense has a nice pressure front where the heat can come from many places. This is the type of thing that causes opposing quarterbacks to get a little loose with the football. And computer vision shows Howard is quite adept at keeping speed while tracking the ball and staying close to his man, which helps drive this projection. According to Pro Football Focus, Howard's 86.3 coverage grade since 2020 ranks third among 105 qualifying defenders (min. 500 coverage snaps). And his nine interceptions in man coverage during this span trail only J.C. Jackson's 11.
One other fun note: James Bradberry forecasts to snag three picks in Year 1 as an Eagle.
BONUS! Sacks by a rookie: 7
According to PFF, Hutchinson earned a 93.5 pass-rush grade in 2021, the highest mark among FBS edge defenders (min. 300 such snaps). Also, he generated 74 total QB pressures last season, tied for the third-most among FBS edge defenders. Computer vision shows Hutchinson's burst (velocity off the line of scrimmage over 3 yards traveled) rates in the top 14 percent of my 10-season sample, and his ability to change direction and move inside on a tackle ranks in the top 15 percent. Side note: His run-stopping results in college also rate in the top 25 percent at the position. This guy's good.
Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.
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