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Brett Duke/Associated Press
We often expect to see superstars atop the list of most NFL statistical categories. In some cases, budding playmakers will catch your attention with standout seasons.
In 2020, wide receiver Stefon Diggs had a breakout campaign, earning his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods as the league leader in catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535).
Sure, Diggs had a handful of productive seasons with the Minnesota Vikings, but he solidified his spot as one of the best receivers in the league last year.
Is anyone else primed to break into the elite ranks and produce eye-popping numbers for 2021? How might established superstars such as Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Donald fare?
We’ll project the stat leaders and a runner-up for major offensive and defensive categories. Let’s see who will continue to shine and which players are ready to evolve.
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
Coming off ankle surgery, Dak Prescott has to clear physical and mental hurdles.
The quarterback has participated in spring practices and said he’s “buried the injury.” That’s good news for a Dallas Cowboys offense that will have to score a lot if new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn needs several weeks to strengthen a unit that gave up the fifth-most points in 2020.
Before going down in Week 5 last year, Prescott had been on pace to throw for 5,939 yards. He showed the ability to put the offense on his back and rack up big numbers.
If Amari Cooper doesn’t experience lingering issues with his ankle, Prescott will have one of the NFL’s best wide receiver trios, with Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb as the second and third options.
Last season, left tackle Tyron Smith, right tackle La’el Collins and right guard Zack Martin played in 12 total games. With a healthy offensive line, expect Prescott to remain upright and aggressive while throwing downfield.
Of course, running back Ezekiel Elliott will have standout performances on the ground. Nonetheless, in his first year on a new $160 million deal, Prescott will show that he drives the offense. Pencil him in for 5,200-plus passing yards, slightly more than Patrick Mahomes, who may defer to the run with more in-game leads on a Super Bowl-caliber team.
Prescott’s Projected Total: 5,295 yards
Runner-up: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (5,248 yards)
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Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press
Josh Allen transitioned from an underwhelming top-10 draft pick to a budding star in a year. If you look at his 2020 performance as a fluke, he’ll prove you wrong, as the Buffalo Bills signal-caller will benefit from continuity in multiple areas.
Diggs had his best year with the 25-year-old Pro Bowler, who will work with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll for a fourth consecutive campaign.
Behind an offensive line that features four returning primary starters and Cody Ford, who played with the first unit in seven contests, Allen should carve up defenses again in 2021.
The Bills also signed wideout Emmanuel Sanders, who’s recorded at least 61 receptions in each of his last three seasons, to serve as a No. 2.
Greg Cosell, a renowned film analyst, wrote on Football Morning in America that Allen is the “most physically gifted quarterback in the NFL.” We’ll see the mobile, strong-armed signal-caller’s attributes on display while he throws for 40-plus touchdowns, topping his 37 from last year.
With that number of passing scores, Allen will likely push for league MVP. That’s enough motivation for him to pick apart defenses for a full 17-game slate. In addition, the Chiefs may have the luxury of resting Mahomes in the season finale if they wrap up the No. 1 seed in the AFC, which is something they did last year.
Allen’s projected total: 43 touchdowns
Runner-up: Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs (42)
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David Berding/Associated Press
If not for Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry’s second rushing title behind a demanding workload (378 carries), Dalvin Cook would probably have more buzz heading into the 2021 campaign.
In 2020, the Minnesota Vikings back finished second in three rushing categories: yards (1,557), attempts (312) and touchdowns (16).
Despite Cook’s numbers, the Vikings finished 7-9 and missed the playoffs primarily because their defense struggled, ranking 29th and 27th in points and yards allowed, respectively.
This year, Cook will get his first rushing title as Tennessee balances its offense with the addition of wideout Julio Jones, which should lighten Henry’s workload.
Under new offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, who succeeds his father, Gary, expect the Vikings to remain a run-heavy team. They have no incentive to change their philosophy since the club recorded the fourth-most yards and ranked 11th in scoring with Cook as the focal point of the offense last season.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins has a top-level wide receiver tandem in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, but the Vikings don’t have to tinker with what worked in 2020.
Cook will rush for about 400 more yards than Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who’s coming off an injury-riddled 2020 campaign and may lose some touches to rookie fourth-rounder Chuba Hubbard late in the season.
Cook’s projected total: 1,678 rushing yards
Runner-up: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers (1,272)
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Sean McVay doesn’t intend to place boundaries on Cam Akers, who led the Los Angeles Rams’ tri-headed backfield in carries (145) and yards (625) despite playing in just 13 games last season.
The Rams head coach raved about Akers’ versatile skill set to Kevin Modesti of the Los Angeles Daily News in early June, saying: “He’s obviously a great runner, but he’s got ability as a pass-catcher coming from the backfield, and we can displace him and put him in the slot or the outside receiver location. There’s not any limitations, but we’ll see how it comes to life.”
Based on that and some roster shifting, the second-year running back has a clear pathway to a heavy workload on the ground.
With Malcolm Brown’s departure, Akers and Darrell Henderson Jr. will likely share a majority of the touches out of the backfield.
He’s also shown a nose for the end zone. In his final collegiate season at Florida State, Akers recorded 14 rushing touchdowns even while posting 30 receptions. The Rams can depend on him to finish drives. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford hasn’t thrown for 30 or more touchdowns in a season since 2015.
Akers will record one more touchdown than Henry, whose workload could dip after he logged a whopping 681 rush attempts over the past two years.
Akers’ projected total: 15 rushing touchdowns
Runner-up: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans (14)
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
DK Metcalf will climb another rung on the stardom ladder in 2021.
New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron could reinvigorate the Seattle Seahawks offense, which went stale down the stretch last season. The 41-year-old play-caller served as the Los Angeles Rams passing game coordinator from 2018 to 2020, and in two of those seasons, the club ranked top-10 in yards through the air.
Although Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has talked about the importance of an efficient run game, Seattle should have a balanced attack with Metcalf and Tyler Lockett on the perimeter.
In two seasons, Metcalf hauled in 141 receptions for 2,203 yards and 17 touchdowns. He also averaged 15.6 yards per catch. Because of his big-play ability, the 23-year-old is a prime candidate to lead the league in receiving yards, a category he finished seventh in last year with 1,303. If quarterback Russell Wilson starts and finishes the season on a strong note, his most explosive wideout will reap the benefits.
Because of Metcalf’s clear on-field rapport with Russell, he has an advantage over New Orleans Saints wideout Michael Thomas, who will play with a new full-time starting quarterback in Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill.
Metcalf’s projected total: 1,610 receiving yards
Runner-up: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints (1,584)
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Quarterback Kyler Murray and receiver DeAndre Hopkins didn’t take long to build a strong rapport. The latter caught 115 passes for 1,407 yards and six touchdowns in 2020 during his first year with the team.
Hopkins doesn’t extend plays with speed, but he‘s a reliable receiver deep downfield because of his ability to pluck a ball out of the air at its high point. Just ask the Buffalo Bills.
The Cardinals signed A.J. Green, but he scored just twice in 16 games last year. He may not click right away with Murray, which leaves the door open for Hopkins to dominate the red-zone targets.
In 2017, Hopkins recorded a league-leading 13 touchdown receptions. He could finish atop the category again as the go-to target in the Cardinals offense as Murray continues to evolve in his third year.
Hopkins edges New York Giants wideout Kenny Golladay, who has to build chemistry with quarterback Daniel Jones in their first season as teammates. Big Blue also has viable secondary receiving options who will command a decent number of targets in Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard and Evan Engram.
Hopkins’ projected total: 16 receiving touchdowns
Runner-up: Kenny Golladay (14)
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Brett Duke/Associated Press
With the transition at quarterback from Drew Brees to Winston or Hill, the New Orleans Saints’ aerial attack could take a few weeks before it gets in sync.
Furthermore, with the departure of wideout Emmanuel Sanders and tight end Jared Cook, Winston or Hill could lean on more help out of the backfield early in the season.
Alvin Kamara isn’t a workhorse ball-carrier, but he’s coming off a career-high 932 rushing yards in 2020. The dynamic tailback has also eclipsed 700 receiving yards in three out of four seasons.
Last season, Kamara racked up 1,688 scrimmage yards. Expect that number to go up because of his involvement in the passing game as he soaks up some of the targets that would’ve gone to Sanders or Cook.
Austin Ekeler is an intriguing runner-up. He’s a dual-threat playmaker, and the Los Angeles Chargers don’t have a clear-cut No. 2 tailback.
In 2019, Ekeler caught 92 passes for 993 yards and eight touchdowns, but he’s yet to handle more than 132 rushing attempts in a season. Kamara topped that number in each of the last three campaigns. He’ll probably see close to 300 touches, which could result in 1,000-plus yards on the ground and through the air.
Kamara’s projected total: 2,147 yards from scrimmage
Runner-up: Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers (1,980)
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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
Aaron Donald is the obvious choice. He’s led the league in tackles for loss in two of the last three seasons.
The 30-year-old looks like an unstoppable force on the defensive line. He’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who constantly faces double-teams in the trenches.
Everyone knows the Rams star wreaks havoc after the snap, but offensive linemen still struggle to slow him. Opposing teams may attempt to run the ball in an effort to avoid cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams on the perimeter, but Donald might force offensive coordinators to reconsider that approach.
He takes the top spot over Pittsburgh Steelers edge-rusher T.J. Watt, who led the category last year with 23, because the latter may see extra attention following the departure of Bud Dupree.
Donald’s projected total: 24 tackles for loss
Runner-up: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers (22)
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David Dermer/Associated Press
As one of the league’s top young pass-rushers, Myles Garrett has tallied 42.5 sacks through four seasons. And at 25, he’s still an ascending talent.
Over the past two seasons, Garrett has missed eight games because of a suspension and a couple of weeks on the reserve/COVID-19 list. For 2018, he logged 13.5 sacks. In a 17-game season, we could see him eclipse that number.
Garrett will line up opposite offseason addition Jadeveon Clowney, who will command some attention on his side of the defensive line. Clowney isn’t an elite pass-rusher, but he can be a disruptive force near the pocket. The three-time Pro Bowler recorded 30 quarterback pressures in 2019.
Joey Bosa gets a runner-up mention, as he’s logged 47.5 sacks through five seasons.
Though, unlike Garrett, the Chargers standout doesn’t have an accomplished defender on the opposite side of the defensive line. Until Uchenna Nwosu makes a consistent impact, Bosa could see double-teams on passing downs.
Garrett’s projected total: 18 sacks
Runner-up: Joey Bosa, Los Angeles Chargers (16)
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Charles Krupa/Associated Press
J.C. Jackson heads into the 2021 campaign as arguably the league’s best-kept secret.
He has snagged 17 interceptions through three seasons, including finishing No. 2 in the NFL with nine picks last year, but he hasn’t gotten a Pro Bowl or All-Pro nod. That could change if the 25-year-old continues to force turnovers at a high rate.
Over the past three seasons, Jackson split snaps with Jason McCourty on the boundary. In 2021, the former will probably play 90 percent or more of the defensive snaps while the latter suits up for the Miami Dolphins.
Jackson hasn’t played more than 84 percent of his team’s defensive snaps in a season. But with his responsibilities likely to expand, he could see a slight bump in interceptions.
Still not a household name, Jackson may see a lot of action in coverage, especially if the New England Patriots settle Stephon Gilmore’s contract dispute with an extension, as teams are likely to avoid throwing at the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year.
Tyrann Mathieu lines up in various positions across the secondary and in the box for the Chiefs. Typically, he’s around the ball, but the three-time All-Pro defensive back isn’t restricted to coverage duties.
In 2020, Mathieu logged a career-high six interceptions, but Jackson’s ball-hawking tendencies as an outside cover man give him the edge in this category.
Jackson’s projected total: 10 interceptions
Runner-up: Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs (7)
Statistics via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.