We’re entering the final NFL season of the decade, which means we’ll soon be inundated with all sorts of decade-based lists. But before we crown any official All-Decade teams, let’s take a look at the statistical leaders in various categories. Each year many of us pay attention to these races, to see who will lead the league in passing yards or sacks. This year we can actually follow the battles all year to see who has the honor of leading the league in a category for the whole decade.
This not about who I think is the best. I’m just sharing the cold hard numbers, whatever they tell us.
In July I wrote about the 2010s Iron Men, the 16 players with a chance to play every game for the full decade. Again, there’s some luck involved. I said at the time that it’s not Russell Wilson’s fault he was born in 1988 and drafted in 2012. Similarly we can’t fault DeAndre Hopkins for entering the league in 2013 or Chris Johnson for having his 2,000-yard season in 2009 and then turning 32 in ’17. Some players never make a list like this, despite maybe being the best in the league at their position for a 10-year span with different endpoints. Oh well! The Gregorian calendar is not here for your feelings.
For each stat, I’ll give you the leader for each decade since the 1970s (every full decade after the merger), plus the current leaders and the contenders who could catch them this season.
Here are nine statistical races to watch in 2019.
Current 2010s Leader: Drew Brees
Contenders: Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Tom Brady
Drew Brees has a sizable lead on the rest of the competition, up 3,427 yards on Matt Ryan. As will be the case for a handful of these, it would take an injury for a challenger to overtake the current leader. But the players who lead these categories are all veterans who could succumb to the injury bug, so we can’t rule it out. Still, Brees threw for 3,992 yards last season, and even just half a season in good health should be enough.
But if Brees goes down in the first third of the season, Ryan could overtake him. Should anything happen to Matt Ryan (who has never missed a game in his 11-year career), Philip Rivers and Tom Brady would both surpass Brees’s current mark by duplicating last year’s production.
We never know what will happen for sure, but I’m going to go ahead and call a 6,000-yard Eli Manning season just a bit out of reach.
Current 2010s Leader: Drew Brees
Contenders: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Matt Ryan
Brees is also the leader in touchdown passes since 2010, looking to join Fran Tarkenton (1970s) and Peyton Manning (2000s) as QBs to lead the NFL in both yards and touchdowns for a full decade. (Again, I’m only looking at seasons after the merger.) This time it’s Brady in second place, 26 touchdowns behind. It would take either an injury to Brees or the combination of a vintage Brady season and an awful lot of Alvin Kamara rushing TDs to close that gap.
Aaron Rodgers is hurt by a couple of half seasons, but let’s not discount the possibility of a 40-plus-TD season. Same with Rivers and 50, right? And somebody is going to have a 60-TD season someday, so why not Matt Ryan in 2019? Well it’s unlikely they’ll catch Brees, but I’ll throw them on the list just in case.
Current 2010s Leader: LeSean McCoy
Contenders: Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson
How many carries will LeSean McCoy get in 2019? He ran for a career-low 514 yards last season, and looked likely to cede carries in a crowded Buffalo backfield before he was released on Saturday. He found a home with former coach Andy Reid in Kansas City later that day, and now we won't know how he and Damien Williams will split up carries until we see them on the field in Week 1.
Can anyone catch him? Second place on the list, 782 yards behind, sits Frank Gore. Former teammates! For one magical summer in Pittsford, at least. Gore now remains in that Bills backfield, left to share the load with rookie Devin Singletary and fellow free agent signee T.J. Yeldon. Gore rushed for at least 800 yards in 12 straight seasons, until rushing for only 722 last year in Miami. Something would have to sideline McCoy early in the season for Gore to have a shot, and even that might not be enough. In a strange way, McCoy's move to Kansas City could both make it easier for Gore to register more yards himself, and make it harder for him to gain on McCoy. But anyway, McCoy should be able to do enough to stay on top.
Adrian Peterson had a bounceback year in 2018 and crossed the 1,000 yard threshold for the first time since 2015, but the odds of him gaining 1,135 yards on McCoy feel slim.
Current 2010s Leader: Marshawn Lynch
Contenders: Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Cam Newton, Mark Ingram, Todd Gurley
Lynch can enjoy his second retirement as the leader in rushing TDs this decade—for now. Peterson and McCoy should both find the end zone in 2019, so they may be battling each other once they pass Lynch.
Cam Newton is a great dark horse, sitting just nine touchdowns back. But he only has two double-digit seasons (14 as a rookie in 2011 and 10 in his MVP season in ’15) and seems more likely to preserve his health and give the ball to Christian McCaffrey.
Mark Ingram and Todd Gurley would need to set career highs, but they are on the list.
Current 2010s Leader: Antonio Brown
Contenders: Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones
Antonio Brown has a 57-reception cushion on the rest of the field, so a healthy season anywhere close to his normal production makes him uncatchable. Larry Fitzgerald followed up three straight 100-catch seasons with just 69 last year, but he now plays in a much faster offense. So his 82-catch lead over Julio Jones gives him the inside track should anything happen to Brown.
Jones would need 140 just to reach Brown’s current total. He and Brown tied for the league lead with 136 in 2015, a number topped only by Marvin Harrison’s 143 in 2002. It seems almost impossible for that record to remain standing, what with all the passing records being broken on an annual basis. Someday it’ll be broken by Brown, Jones, Michael Thomas or somebody else. But you can’t really expect Jones to have 140 more than Brown this year.
Current 2010s Leader: Antonio Brown
Contenders: Julio Jones
Brown again leads the pack in receiving yards, but this time by a more manageable 476 yards. Again, Brown would probably have to miss some time to be overtaken. But should that happen, it’s much more likely that Jones would catch him in yards.
It’s a two-man race though; let’s not pencil in Demaryius Thomas or Fitzgerald for a 2,000-yard season.
Current 2010s Leader: Rob Gronkowski
Contenders: Antonio Brown, Dez Bryant, Jimmy Graham
Moving on to touchdowns, Antonio Brown finally goes from the hunted to the hunter. Like Marshawn Lynch, Rob Gronkowski sits in the clubhouse with the lead. Brown led the league with 15 receiving TDs last season, and he seems likely to overtake Gronk. Dez Bryant, despite not playing a game last season, is just one behind Brown. But he’s still looking for a team for 2019. And it would take a major bounceback for Jimmy Graham to find the end zone enough times to enter the conversation.
Meanwhile, Calvin Johnson retired in 2015 and it’s fun to just remember how incredible he was.
Current 2010s Leader: Von Miller
Contenders: Cameron Wake, J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Justin Houston
Sacks didn’t become an official stat since 1982, or else Lawrence Taylor's total would be even greater. Von Miller is this decade’s leader, and his 14.5 sacks last year were his most since 2012.
Cameron Wake is 5.5 back, and had just 6 in 14 games last year. This season will be his first in Tennessee after 10 years in Miami, but he would likely need Miller to miss time for him to surpass the former Super Bowl MVP.
J.J. Watt is only half a sack behind Wake, and he had 16 last year. It’s pretty remarkable to see him within striking distance after totaling just 1.5 between 2016 and 2017 combined, but a pair of 20-plus sack seasons in 2012 and 2014 will do that for you.
Ryan Kerrigan is 13.5 back, and coincidentally had exactly 13 sacks in each of the last two seasons. Julius Peppers retired this offseason, and Justin Houston’s last 20-sack season is probably behind him. Still, he did have 22 back in 2014.
Current 2010s Leader: Richard Sherman
Contenders: Reggie Nelson, Earl Thomas, Brent Grimes, Aqib Talib, Eric Weddle, Marcus Peters
Our final stat to watch is interceptions. The leaders have the lowest totals, which means one outlier season could swing things more than in any other category. This is also the closest race, with Richard Sherman just a single INT ahead of Reggie Nelson. Nelson only has three over the last two seasons, but clearly this is in play.
Sherman’s fellow Legion of Boom teammate Earl Thomas has never picked off more than five passes in a season, but he’s just four behind. Brent Grimes and Aqib Talib would both need to match their career highs of six just to reach Sherman’s current number (and neither of them have hit that number in years). And everyone else would require an unlikely career year. Nobody in the league has picked off 10 passes since Antonio Cromartie in 2007. Will Marcus Peters? Probably not.
So there are nine stats worth keeping an eye on this year. The final stats will not be the only factor that matters when the NFL's official All-Decade teams are constructed, but it's still possible that 2019 goes a long way toward determining how we think about some of the best players of this decade.
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