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Bold predictions for NFL stats leaders in 2018

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford on Monday Night Football against the Green Bay Packers could be one of the NFL stats leaders in 2018

In looking ahead to the 2018 season, we thought it would be fun to make some bold predictions about which players could surprisingly emerge as NFL stats leaders.

We’re going away from the obvious choices here. For instance, Tom Brady and Drew Brees were automatically not options for passing yards, because those two guys are always among the top in this category.

So, with that in mind, let’s dive into some bold predictions!

Passing yards: Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

It’s pretty crazy that Stafford, who is setting a career pace in terms of yardage we’ve never before seen, has not yet once led the league in passing yardage in a single season. Looking at his two top seasons (2011 he had 5,038 yards and 2012 he had 4,967), Drew Brees trumped Stafford both times.

Looking ahead to 2018, Stafford once again has an elite receiving corps at his disposal. Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, rising star Kenny Golladay and running back Theo Riddick are all very talented at making big plays in the passing game, and the Lions feature an improving offensive line to boot. Now that Brees has a stellar running game and defense to rely on, he’s no longer threatening to throw for 5,000 yards every year. This could finally be Stafford’s time to shine.

Passing touchdowns: Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings

Kirk Cousins is one of the NFL stars facing the most pressure in 2018

There are a number of reasons to think Cousins could have a career year in Minnesota, if he can stay away from turnovers.

First and foremost, Cousins has never had a group of pass catchers like the one he inherits with the Vikings. Stefon Diggs, Adam Thielen, Kyle Rudolph and Dalvin Cook are all capable of taking any pass the distance for six points. Then there’s Minnesota’s offensive scheme itself, which will be designed by John DeFilippo and is extremely quarterback friendly. Finally, Cousins will have so many more opportunities than he did in Washington to score thanks to Minnesota’s outstanding defense, which is adept at creating scoring opportunities for the offense.

Though he’s never before eclipsed the 30-touchdown threshold, Cousins should have no trouble reaching that mark and then some in 2018.

Total touchdowns for QB: Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

Looking at what Watson was able to accomplish as a rookie in 2017, it’s not hard to imagine he’ll have a monster 2018 season if the Texans can keep him off the turf. If you extrapolate Watson’s numbers from last year — 21 touchdowns in less than seven full games — you’re looking at 48 touchdowns for a full 16-game season. No other quarterback can touch that kind of production.

The best part is that Watson has the weapons to make it happen. The Texans are loaded on offense with some elite pass catchers and two solid running backs, which puts stress on the entire defense and leaves room for Watson to make big plays, both on the ground and through the air.

Completion percentage: Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers

The sample size is very small when looking at what Garoppolo has accomplished in the NFL so far. In seven games as a pro, he’s completed 67.3 percent of his passes. That’s well above average, but it doesn’t come close to what Brees did last year (NFL record 72 percent), it’s not hard to imagine that Garoppolo will be over 70 percent in his first full season as the starter in San Francisco.

Consider that last year, coming into a brand new system without much time to assimilate or gain rapport with his receivers, Garoppolo completed 67.4 percent of his passes. Now he’ll have an entire offseason under his belt in the dynamic Kyle Shanahan offense, and he has some very talented receivers to work with, too. Sure, this prediction is bold, but there’s reason to believe Garoppolo will be among the league’s best passers in 2018. Period.

Rushing yards: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears

Chicago Bears running back Jordan Howard against Pittsburgh Steelers in NFL Week 3

Everyone in Chicago is excited about what the arrival of head coach Matt Nagy, not to mention all the talent the team brought in to catch passes this offseason, will do for young quarterback Mitch Trubisky. And there’s plenty of reason for optimism on that front.

That said, the person who will likely benefit the most from all that receiving help, and from Nagy’s scheme, is Howard. No longer will he be running into eight and nine-men fronts, which is something he’s endured since his rookie season two years ago. Yet all this former fifth-round pick out of Indiana has done the past two seasons is rush for 2,435 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Now that he’ll have more room to roam, we expect big things from Howard in 2018.

Rushing touchdowns: Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars

The big caveat here is that, in order for Fournette to lead the NFL in rushing touchdowns, he’ll need to stay healthy. That’s been a struggle for him going back to college, and he missed three games as a rookie while dealing with lower-body issues.

Still, Fournette managed to punch in nine rushing scores last year, including one that was the longest run of the entire 2017 season (watch here). Jacksonville is going to be featuring a brand new receiving corps this year, too, meaning Fournette could be counted on even more to tote the rock for this defensive-minded squad.

Total yards for RB: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

What Kamara did as a rookie last year for the Saints was nothing short of remarkable. He split time with Mark Ingram and still managed to finish the regular season with 1,554 yards from scrimmage, along with 13 total touchdowns.

The Saints won’t have Ingram for the first four games this year, and after his suspension was announced a report emerged that Kamara was going to become the lead back, anyway. As long as this phenomenal young man stays healthy, nobody should be surprised to see Kamara end up with over 2,000 yards this coming season.

Receiving yards: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

Hopkins is one of the most underrated players in the league, being that he’s rarely mentioned as one of the top-five receivers yet has produced amazing numbers even while playing with some downright awful quarterbacks. Last year, he led the league in touchdown catches, with 13, and went for 1,378 yards, despite playing in just 15 games and despite the fact that Tom Savage and T.J. Yates were throwing him the ball more than half the time.

For a small glimpse into just what Hopkins is capable of accomplishing with Deshaun Watson, look no further than the team’s narrow loss in Seattle last season, when Hopkins torched the vaunted Seahawks defense for 224 yards and a touchdown on just eight receptions.

Receiving touchdowns: Jimmy Graham, Green Bay Packers

Last year, only Hopkins caught more touchdown passes than Graham. This is remarkable because, if we’re being honest, Graham never really gelled with the Seahawks and quarterback Russell Wilson.

Now Graham is in a new offense with a new quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, who is the best pure passer in the game today. Rodgers has a knack for finding his receivers even when they’re seemingly covered. And as long as Graham and Rodgers both stay healthy, there’s no reason to think they won’t become one of the most dangerous red-zone duos in the NFL next season. Graham’s big body, long arms and soft hands make him the perfect weapon for Rodgers to utilize in that area, and they should make sweet music together.

Total tackles: Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons

Since entering the NFL as a second-round pick out of LSU, Jones has morphed from a burgeoning young stud to team leader in incredibly short order. The leap he took from his rookie campaign in 2016 to what we saw last year was just staggering. Now that he’s entering Year 3, we fully expect Jones to become one of the NFL’s elite all-around linebackers.

Last year he was fourth in the league in tackles, with 138. That was up by 30 from his rookie season, and he also added three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. This young man is a special player who is only just beginning to show what he’s capable of doing on the gridiron. The 2018 season will be his true coming out party.

Total sacks: Von Miller, Denver Broncos

Tom Brady and Von Miller

The 2017 season was one full of disappointment for Miller and the Broncos, but that doesn’t mean this speed demon pass rusher had a poor season. Despite “only” tallying 10 sacks, which ranked 18th in the NFL, Miller was the league’s most productive pass rusher according to Pro Football Focus.

Looking ahead to this coming season, Miller’s sack totals should once again swell into the teens (or better) as he works opposite rookie stud Bradley Chubb. These two pass rushers will likely represent the best duo the NFL has to offer, and they’ll be nightmares to defend.

Total interceptions: Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints

Lattimore was a revelation last year for the Saints as a rookie. His ability to lock down one side of the field allowed the rest of his defensive teammates to have more success, and there’s no doubt he’s already one of the league’s most impressive young defenders right now.

The Saints should be even scarier on defense this year, especially if rookie pass rusher Marcus Davenport lives up to the hype after his new team gave up so much to move up in the draft for him. A better defensive front means more opportunities for the guys in the secondary. This means that Lattimore’s five interceptions as a rookie could just be a taste of what’s to come.

Defensive touchdowns: Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks

It seems clear at this point that the Seahawks aren’t going to trade Thomas to the Dallas Cowboys. It’s also clear that Thomas isn’t happy about his current contract situation, as he’s making his point by not attending the team’s offseason workouts.

Given the way the Legion of Boom has fallen apart, and given that Thomas seems disgruntled right now, it would be easy to think that maybe the 2018 season won’t be great for this All-Pro safety. We’re actually going the other way here. He’s the team’s best playmaker in the secondary and has a knack for coming up with big plays. Thomas will also have a huge chip on his shoulder, and he’ll be playing for a new contract if he doesn’t land one with the Seahawks this summer. Watch out, opposing offenses.

Total points scored: Robbie Gould, San Francisco 49ers

Robbie Gould

We’ve already talked a bit about how effective Jimmy Garoppolo was last year for the 49ers, and why he’ll be efficient again in 2018. Here’s a bit of more context, which means a ton of chances for Gould as the team’s placekicker. Last year, no quarterback in the league had a better scoring drive efficiency, as Garoppolo led 30 scoring drives in 50 chances (h/t NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling).

It’s worth pointing out that Garoppolo only threw six touchdowns, and the 49ers only scored 12 touchdowns in games Garoppolo started. That means that, in just five games, Garoppolo gave Gould the opportunity to convert 12 extra points and knock in 18 field goals. Extrapolate that over a 16-game season and you’re looking at 211 points in a season, which would have been miles past last year’s top scorer, Greg Zuerlein of the Los Angeles Rams.

Kickoff return yards: Cordarrelle Patterson, New England Patriots

Anyone who’s studied Patriots head coach Bill Belichick knows what kind of emphasis he puts on special teams. He’s a fanatic about it. With that in mind, it’s not hard to get a bit excited about what Patterson could do this year as New England’s primary return man.

Last season with the Oakland Raiders, Patterson finished 12th in the NFL in kickoff return yards, despite only getting 19 chances. His average of 28.3 was by far the best of any return man who had at least 15 attempts. He should have a big impact this coming season for the Patriots.

Punt return yards: Will Fuller, Houston Texans

As we discussed with Leonard Fournette, there’s a caveat to this prediction in that Fuller needs to stay healthy in 2018 to be the top punt return man in the league. Based on his raw abilities, however, it’s not much of a stretch to think that Fuller could lead the NFL in return yards. In nine attempts last season, he averaged 15 yards per with a long return of 49 yards.

Fuller’s pure speed is something to behold. He’s lightning in a bottle. And he’ll get plenty of chances to return punts this year as Houston’s defense is back to full strength and one of the best in the business.

Total return touchdowns: Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

When the ball is in the air and Lockett is back to receive it, on punts or kickoffs, you have to just hold your breath. This diminutive speedster can break off huge gains in the blink of an eye, and he’s one of the most electric return men in the game today.

So far in three seasons as a professional, Lockett has three return touchdowns. But given his ability to make people miss in the open field, his raw speed and the consist chances he gets to return for Seattle, we’re picking him to break out with the first multi-touchdown season as a return man of his career.