Tuesday September 8th, 2015

As you’ve likely heard countless times, the NFL is becoming more of an offense-friendly league with each passing year. However, compared to previous years, 2014 produced a rather ho-hum campaign in terms of single-season individual records.

In 2011, both Drew Brees and Tom Brady beat Dan Marino’s single-season record for passing yards, with Brees ultimately winning the title with 5,476 yards.

In 2012, we saw Calvin Johnson set a new standard with 1,964 receiving yards, topping Jerry Rice’s previous mark by over 100 yards. Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson came agonizingly close to matching Eric Dickerson’s renowned 2,105-yard output.

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Then, in 2013, Peyton Manning found new heights in the Rocky Mountains, showcasing a mastery of Denver’s offense while besting Brees’s record by just one yard.

Last season, DeMarco Murray treated us with a record eight consecutive games with 100 rushing yards, but we didn’t see a serious run at any of the “big three” single-season offensive records. Is there another player waiting out there to chase those hallowed marks, or are these more unbreakable than they seem?

With the help of some PointAfter visualizations, I’ll examine the likelihood of each of those milestones being broken, as well as a prominent defensive benchmark and three potential career records that would cement an active player as one of the all-time best at his position.

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Single-season records

Passing yards

Record: 5,477 (Peyton Manning)
Contenders (previous best): Andrew Luck (4,761), Drew Brees (5,476), Tom Brady (5,235), Matthew Stafford (5,038), Manning

Luck’s odds at surpassing his Colts predecessor for this record have been getting a lot of buildup prior to this season, which makes sense on the surface. Indianapolis, of course, imported future Hall of Famer Andre Johnson and first-round speedster Philip Dorsett during the offseason to give Luck a few more options in the air to go with the already formidable trio of T.Y. Hilton, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. But there are a few logical counter-arguments to that gleeful optimism.

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Going by the combined 2014 record of its opponents, Indianapolis has the second-weakest schedule in the league. If the Colts run away with the AFC South like we’re all expecting, they might not need Luck to chuck the ball all game long.

Also, the Colts also brought in Frank Gore, a move that reflected the team’s wish for a more balanced offense following their playoff loss to New England in the AFC Championship. Luck’s 616 attempts in 2014 ranked third last year and tied for 25th all time. The only QBs who placed above him were on weaker teams that were playing from behind more often, which ties into my last point. 

Finally, Luck simply is not as good as Manning was back in 2013 yet. He still throws interceptions on 2.6% of his throws, a tick higher than the league average of 2.5%. Luck’s 61.7 completion percentage in 2014 was good, but it doesn’t come close to Manning’s 2013 mark of 68.3%. To break Manning’s record, Luck would need to extend drives more consistently.

All the other contenders on this list have either seen the quality of their targets or their own skill take a downturn since recording their previous highs, rendering a new personal best unlikely.

Think the MVP is getting overlooked here? Aaron Rodgers hasn’t eclipsed 4,700 yards before, even when he’s gifted with better receivers than he’ll have this year.

Rushing yards

Record: 2,105 (Eric Dickerson)
Contenders: Adrian Peterson (2,097), DeMarco Murray (1,845)

During a season when Jerome Simpson and Michael Jenkins saw the most starts at wideout alongside quarterback Christian Ponder, Peterson was Minnesota’s offense in 2012.

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He was also helped by an offensive line that was the league’s third-best run blocking unit, according to Pro Football Focus. They have since declined to the 10th-best group in that regard in 2014, a difference that’s starker than it sounds. Given the presence of a more competent quarterback and receiving corps around Peterson—not to mention the uncertainty surrounding the effects of sitting out a year will have on him—it’d be wildly optimistic to think Peterson will even come close to 2,000 yards this season.

I already laid out in March why Murray, in all likelihood, won’t replicate the success he had last year. Long story short: only two of the seven tailbacks who have been fed as many carries as Murray was last year even reached 1,000 yards the following season. If we look back at history, he’s more likely to suffer a leg injury.

That’s not to say he will, as the sample size here is quite small. But I wouldn’t bet on Murray, who’s had some injury troubles in the past, to hold up over a full season and find as much space to run as he did behind Dallas’ all-world offensive line last year.

Receiving yards

Record: 1,964 (Calvin Johnson)
Contenders:Odell Beckham Jr. (1,305), Julio Jones (1,593)

Beckham Jr. has captivated New York with his one-handed catches, explosive speed and gaudy numbers. Some are even saying he could top Megatron’s dominant 2012 campaign, when Johnson was at the top of his game as Detroit’s only reliable receiver (no other Lion topped 600 receiving yards that year, and no other Detroit wideout even eclipsed 400 yards).

If you extrapolate Beckham’s league-leading 108.8 yards per game in 12 contests last year to a full campaign, it comes out to 1,740 yards. That number balloons past Johnson’s record if you only count Beckham’s nine games as a full-time starter.

Even so, it’s a bit unrealistic to think Beckham can emulate prime Megatron in his first full NFL season. Opponents will be eyeing him like a hawk whenever he’s on the field, double-teaming him whenever possible. That extra attention, combined with the return of Eli Manning’s former favorite target, Victor Cruz, will likely thwart Beckham’s quest for history.

However, there’s another NFC receiver who I think has a better shot at edging past Johnson, and perhaps the best chance of any player to break a “big three” single-season milestone: Julio Jones.

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Like Johnson was in 2012, Jones is far and away Atlanta’s biggest offensive threat. Roddy White will turn 34 this season, rookie Justin Hardy probably isn’t ready for a starting job and Leonard Hankerson isn’t an inspiring No. 3 WR. The Falcons’ tight ends (Jacob Tamme, Levine Toilolo) won’t exactly make opposing defensive coordinators shake in their boots, either.

Jones is in a class by himself as it relates to the Falcons receiving corps, and Matt Ryan will basically be forced to help Jones best the 1,593 yards he racked up in 15 games last year. In doing so, the 26-year-old Jones could soon be seen in a class of his own across the rest of the NFL, too.

Sacks

Record: 22.5 (Michael Strahan)
Contenders:Justin Houston (22.0), J.J. Watt (20.5), Von Miller (18.5), Elvis Dumervil (17.0), Cameron Wake (15.0)

With Houston and Watt both threatening Strahan’s single-season sack record in 2014, three years after Jared Allen (22.0) also came devilishly close, this record seems bound to be broken in the near future. The reasoning is simple: as the NFL becomes more of a pass-happy league, there are more opportunities for elite pass rushers to punish quarterbacks.

It might be difficult to imagine Miller, Dumervil or Wake leaping into the elite space occupied by Houston and Watt. But Strahan had never collected more than 15.0 sacks in eight seasons before his record-setting campaign as a 30-year-old in 2001.

Career records

Passing yards

Record: 71,838 (Brett Favre)
Contender (current mark): Peyton Manning (69,691)

Last year, Manning surpassed Favre and became the all-time leader in passing touchdowns (530). This season, barring injury, he’s also going to leap Favre to become the standard bearer for passing yards.

Manning is only 2,147 yards behind Favre, a total the 39-year-old could probably put up across 16 games if he was throwing to a group of high school receivers.

Completions

Record: 6,300 (Favre)
Contender: Manning (5,927)

This record will be a little harder for Manning to break, as he has only completed the 373 passes necessary to pass Favre seven times in his 18-year career. However, he’s done so in each of the last five seasons, as the offenses he’s operated in have become more dependent on his arm.

Will Denver move some of that responsibility to the legs of C.J. Anderson, or will Manning still be counted upon enough to leap Favre in two all-time categories?

As Anderson emerged in the second half of last season, Manning averaged 23.4 completions per game in the Broncos’ final eight games. To pass Favre, he’d have to average 23.3 completions in 16 games this season. This one will come down to the wire.

Pro Bowls

Record: 14 (Manning, Tony Gonzalez, Bruce Matthews, Merlin Olsen)
Contender: Manning

Yes, another potential milestone for Manning. Prepare yourself: the thinkpieces comparing Manning to legendary QBs of generations past are coming.

If Manning can stay upright and lead Denver to another AFC West title, it’s almost certain he’ll become the first NFL player to receive 15 Pro Bowl bids. Heck, he might not even have to do that. After all Manning has done for the NFL, there’s a good chance his peers elect him to the game, regardless of his 2015 performance.

It’s an honor Manning has come to deserve since he was selected No. 1 overall by Indianapolis over 17 years ago. Over that period, he’s lived up to the hype and then some. Do you really expect 2015 to be any different?

More from Will Laws:

Power Ranking All 32 Starting QBs Heading Into the 2015 Season

Projecting the 2015-16 NBA Standings via Win Shares 

The Most Overpaid NFL Players at Each Position

PointAfter is part of the Graphiq network, a data aggregation and visualization website that’s collected all the information about Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos and put it all in one place so you don’t have to go searching for it.

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