Roundtable: Which September stat leaders will stay atop the league?
The 2015 season isn't even a quarter of the way over, but some of the NFL's early standout performances have set the tone for the playoff hunts and awards races that lie much farther down the road as the calendar turns to October.
There were some familiar names atop the most prominent statistical leaderboards: Tom Brady has more passing yards than anyone else, Adrian Peterson has the inside track on the rushing title, and Julio Jones is on pace to set all-time records with his league-leading receiving production so far. But there's a lot of football left to be played and plenty of time for the pack to close the gap or for another star to raise his game.
Which September stat leaders are most likely to finish the season on top of the league in their respective categories? SI's NFL writers and editors make their predictions within this week's roundtable.
Don Banks: Adrian Peterson, rushing yards
There are no sure bets in the NFL, but a highly motivated Peterson churning out another league rushing title this year is as close as it gets to a lock. Peterson’s lost 2014 season has re-ignited his drive to be seen as the NFL’s premier running back, and the results are already starting to look very familiar.
After a tepid 31-yard performance in Minnesota’s Week 1 loss at San Francisco, Peterson has ripped off games of 134 and 126 yards in wins over the Lions and Chargers the past two weeks, and his average gain per carry has risen every week, from 3.1 yards against the 49ers, to 4.6 versus the Lions, to a whopping 6.3 in 20 carries against the Chargers.
Peterson is back, and all we needed to see as proof of it was that vintage 43-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter against San Diego, where he broke outside to his right, dropped one of his trademark stiff-arms on a Chargers defender to make the corner, then cut the run back inside to his left diagonally and beat everyone in a footrace to the end zone. That play displayed the vision, toughness and explosiveness we’ve come to expect from Peterson but haven’t really witnessed since the 2013 season.
Peterson’s 291 yards on 59 carries (4.9 average) gives him only a 15-yard lead over the Bears’ Matt Forte for the rushing crown through the season’s opening month, but he’s out front again, where he belongs, and about to put some distance between himself and the pack. Just watch how Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner construct game plans that become increasingly Peterson-centric.
Doug Farrar: Julio Jones, receiving yards
Through Atlanta's first three games, Jones has set a frenetic pace: He's caught 34 passes for 440 yards, and he's on pace for 2,346 yards, which would break Calvin Johnson's single season record of 1,964 yards by a fairly decent margin. Whether Jones is able to keep that pace or not, he's got a great chance to become the NFL's first 2,000-yard receiver. He's the primary target of a great quarterback, and he's in a newly-open offense that allows Matt Ryan to sling the ball around at a more efficient pace. Moreover, Jones’s only real challenger at this point is Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, who lost his starting quarterback to injury for several weeks. Brown was on pace for a 2,325-yard season after three games but caught five passes for just 42 yards against the Ravens on Thursday night with Michael Vick at quarterback, edging ahead of Jones before the Falcons played their fourth game.
Chris Burke: Tyler Lockett, kick return yards
The Seahawks rookie has produced 240 yards on seven attempts, a 34.3 per-return average that is buoyed by his 105-yard touchdown in Week 3. The next closest challengers so far are two more rookies, Detroit's Ameer Abdullah and Green Bay's Ty Montgomery, at 189 yards apiece.
Neither has the combination of shiftiness and speed that Lockett does. Abdullah can break ankles, but he doesn't often pull away; Montgomery is a burner without as much escapability. With Devin Hester hobbling early this season, Lockett already has established himself as the league's most dangerous return man.
The only way I could see him sliding from the top spot is if teams completely avoid him, as Detroit has hinted it may do in Week 4, ideally via touchback but by pooch kick if necessary. Otherwise, when Lockett has the ball in his hands, he'll pile up the yards.
Michael Beller: Aaron Rodgers, TD-to-INT ratio
Brady leads the NFL in basically every passing statistic, but Rodgers has one more touchdown pass through three games. Both of these star quarterbacks, however, have yet to throw an interception. It would be mathematically incorrect to say Rodgers leads the league in TD-to-INT ratio because his ratio is undefinable since you can’t divide by zero. Luckily, we’re not that constrained by the numbers here.
There is some luck that goes into posting a gaudy TD-to-INT ratio, but Rodgers seems to take all fortune, good or bad, out of the equation, especially when he’s at Lambeau Field. Brady could end up nipping him in touchdown passes, but no one will be quite as careful with the ball, while also being as prolific in finding the end zone, as Rodgers. He’ll be the league leader in TD-to-INT ratio at the end of every month this season.
Bette Marston: Stephen Gostkowski, points scored
There are plenty of benefits that come with being the kicker for one of the NFL’s most high-powered offenses, one of them being racking up a boatload of points. Through Week 3, Gostkowski leads the league with 35 points scored, and I think the league’s highest-paid kicker will emerge with the title for the fourth straight season. Gostkowski is perfect on the season so far, nailing seven field goals with a long of 50 yards and hitting 14 extra points, increase in distance be damned.
It's been no surprise the Patriots' offense has been electric this season, taking down the Steelers, Bills and Jaguars in succession. New England leads the league in yards per game (32 yards above the second-place Bengals), and sits second in total points scored behind Arizona. If last week’s game was any indication—the Patriots scored on every single drive in a blowout win over the Jaguars—Gostkowski is going to have the chances he needs to hang onto the scoring title.
Eric Single: Broncos, turnover margin
Year over year, turnover margin is a tough category to dominate. A hyper-aggressive defense (the Seahawks have finished in the top five for four consecutive seasons) or an efficient quarterback (the Patriots have posted a top-5 margin in four out of the past five years) can only get teams so far before a few bounces and split-second margins even out their luck somewhat. But over a 16-game sample in which most teams don't have time for a midseason philosophical overhaul, it's a little easier to tell who's going to stay hot.
Denver's plus-six turnover margin through three weeks is already better than the plus-five mark posted under John Fox last season, and the Broncos’ suffocating pass rush won’t be letting up on opposing quarterbacks any time soon. Behind that vicious front seven, the playmaking acumen of Aqib Talib, Chris Harris and Bradley Roby in the secondary takes all the pressure off the still-sharp Peyton Manning and his offense in this race.