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Projecting NFL's 2021 stat leaders: Christian McCaffrey set for bounce-back year

August really only means one thing ...

It's officially prediction season!

Well, actually, I am kind of a stickler for calling the output of my models projections rather than predictions. The distinction, to me, is that I've tried to eliminate as many biases as possible from my mathematical framework, whereas calling something a prediction makes it sound like speculative judgments were involved on some level. The names and numbers you see below are the players who rank first in each category based on their projected performance. There are also some extra informational nuggets on interesting results regarding players who, though they don't necessarily rank first, figure to produce an output that is interesting for fantasy or team (win total) purposes.

As we get closer to the regular season, I'll update my models, and these numbers might change. But let me know if you agree or disagree with today's projections -- and let me know if you're predicting this, or if you've created a model to project your own stats leaders! You can hit me up on Twitter: @cfrelund.

Passing yards: 5,115

Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · QB

One of my favorite Mahomes stats -- and there are a lot -- is that he's averaged a league-best 9.1 yards per attempt when facing the blitz since 2018, per Next Gen Stats (min. 1,000 attempts). No quarterback has been better when throwing off-platform in that time frame, according to computer vision. Mahomes edges out other top quarterbacks because of what has happened and forecasts to happen in the first 20 plays of a game and on first downs in this Chiefs offense. No team spreads the field vertically or horizontally more than the Chiefs. The downfield chances they take early on set up a different cadence for the rest of the game. With a revamped and improved offensive line, the opportunity to move the ball through the air increases. Mahomes is the only QB projected to average at least 300 passing yards per game.


Bonus intel: Josh Allen is projected to rank third in this category (4,571 yards) and Matthew Stafford is projected to rank fifth (4,501 yards). Allen has improved his passer rating when throwing off platform by 20 points in each of the past two seasons and no QB has had a better passer rating on the play after being pressured than Stafford over the past five seasons.

Passing touchdowns: 38

Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · QB

Brady completed 31-of-89 deep passes for 1,099 yards with 9 touchdowns last season, his most yards and TDs on such throws in the NGS era (since 2016). Deep passing efficiency forecasts to stay high for Brady again this season with all of the team's starters returning. A suspect defense is usually part of what drives TD leaders, but that isn't the case here, as Todd Bowles' defense projects to be one of the league's best.

Note: Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers ranks second in total projected passing TDs with 37.  

Rushing yards: 1,662

Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · RB

Henry amassed a league-high 412 yards over expected in 2020, per NGS. He also earned 6.3 yards per rush inside the tackles (third most in the league) and forced 75 missed tackles (most in the NFL, per PFF). With a new offensive coordinator in Todd Downing, and the blockbuster addition of Julio Jones, Henry will have the opportunity to be even more efficient on the ground in 2021. For example, Henry faced a stacked box on 34.6 percent of rushing attempts on first down over the past two seasons, according to NGS. In 2020, he earned 6.5 yards per rush in those situations, a vast improvement from 2019, when he earned 4.6 yards per attempt. Keeping defenses off balance, especially on early downs, is an area that forecasts to be even more favorable for the Tennessee offense this season. It's a lot harder to bring Henry down when he reaches full speed. Seeing fewer light boxes would mean an increased chance for him to get that full head of steam.

Notable: Dalvin Cook ranks second in projected rushing yards at 1,495.

Rushing TDs: 12

Nick Chubb
Cleveland Browns · RB

Chubb was the only player to gain four-plus yards per rush after contact (4.1) in 2020, per NGS. Computer vision shows that he also earned the most yards per rush when contacted multiple times (3.0). But Chubb narrowly edges out Henry for the top spot in this category due to a stronger win share O-line that will create more red-zone opportunities.


One more thing: Antonio Gibson projects to rush for nine or more touchdowns in 59 percent of simulations.

Receptions: 97

Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings · WR

Topping Calvin Ridley (forecasted to post 94 receptions), Jefferson is projected to lead the league in catches in just his second season. He was one of just two players who earned 100-plus receiving yards on seven different routes in 2020, per NGS (the Chiefs' Travis Kelce was the other player to do so). Jefferson's ability to separate, which improved by 0.8 yards in the final eight games of the 2020 season (biggest increase over the final eight weeks, per computer vision) forecasts to start and stay very strong in 2021.

Receiving yards: 1,334

Davante Adams
Green Bay Packers · WR

My model loves Adams, from his floor to his consistency to his ceiling. NGS shows that his 3.1 receiving yards per route led the league in 2020 (min. 150 routes), and his 83.6 percent reception rate on slot targets ranked second-highest.

Fun fact: DeAndre Hopkins ranks second with a projection for 1,306 yards. 

Total touches: 404

Christian McCaffrey
Carolina Panthers · RB

Topping his 2019 total by one touch (yes, I know there is an additional regular-season game this season) McCaffrey is my model's top choice for Comeback Player of the Year (slightly ahead of Dak Prescott). McCaffrey earned 5.0 yards per rush on inside runs (second-most in the NFL) in 2019, per NGS. Computer vision shows that in 2019, defenses averaged 6.7 yards fewer of vertical depth when McCaffrey was on the field, meaning he helped draw the defense closer to the line of scrimmage. While this doesn't capture Joe Brady and Matt Rhule's ability to create for him (since the 2020 season was their first in Carolina) it does show that defenses respected him. Brady and Rhule's strategy will help drive a total of 1,994 yards from scrimmage for McCaffrey as a follow-up to a season in which he was active for just three games.

Total touchdowns: 16

Christian McCaffrey
Carolina Panthers · RB

In 2019, McCaffrey rushed for 10 touchdowns on runs inside the tackles, which tied for the most in the NFL. Computer vision shows us that space -- or the lack thereof -- is a big deal. Looking at the A and B gaps (spaces between the center and guard and then guard and tackles, respectively), when there was a defender within one yard of each, McCaffrey earned an average of 0.64 yards, which was 0.2 yards more than the next-closest back in 2019. In the red zone, this number ballooned to 1.1 yards (which was 0.3 yards more than the next-closest back). Touches (volume) plus efficiency means elite production and top RB potential.

Sacks: 15

Chase Young
Washington Football Team · Edge

Young amassed 26 QB pressures in Weeks 11-17 (tied for third-most in the league over that span, per NGS) and netted four turnovers caused by pressure (tied for fourth-most) on his way to earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2020. Computer vision shows that his bull rush and motion rush (proxy for spin and stunt moves) pushed blockers (single or double team) back at least two yards twice as often after Week 11. His ability to win at the line of scrimmage, along with a supporting cast that can draw some attention away from him, drive this projection.

Obligatory note on the reigning Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Donald still projects to earn the most total pressures in the league again this season with 77. He's either tied for the lead or led the league in pressures in two of the past three seasons. 

Interceptions: 7

Tre'Davious White
Buffalo Bills · CB
Stephon Gilmore
New England Patriots · CB

It might look familiar to see these two players at the top, as they tied for the league lead in picks in 2019 with six apiece. Admittedly, interceptions are a fickle beast to predict, so this should be read as a projection for the top pass disruptors. Computer vision shows both players rank in the top four in limiting yards earned by their targets (passes intercepted plus batted down plus limiting yards after the catch) over the past two seasons. Based on their opponents, Gilmore and White have the potential to see the most disruptable and interceptable balls. 



Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons: Falcons WR Calvin Ridley forecasts to rank among the top five players in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in at least 56.7 percent of my models. A big reason for his projected success is the arrival of Pitts, who happens to have the best odds in this class of becoming an All-Pro within his first three seasons. The former Florida star forecasts to have the highest usage of any rookie in the red zone, which drives his TD-leading stat line, narrowly edging out the Steelers' Najee Harris (7 TDs), who has to contend with a questionable O-line. 


Kwity Paye, DE, Indianapolis Colts: One of my favorite things to track is how Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus creates pressure opportunities from a multitude of places, and Paye looks like an excellent fit for this system. Pressures create sack opportunities, which drives Paye's rookie-leading sack forecast. With DeForest Buckner rushing from the interior, Paye's potential (based on his speed) to surprise drives his projected production. Paye's average burst (measured by the time it takes him to travel two yards from the line of scrimmage) was the second-fastest in college football this past season among players at his position (0.64 seconds).

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter @cfrelund.

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