Dark Horse NFL Stat Leaders for 2017 (Fantasy Football)

by Scott Cedar | @scedar015 | Featured Writer
Jul 7, 2017

Will Mike Gillislee be a league leader with his new team?

Josh Gordon has more denied reinstatements into the NFL than touchdowns since 2013. His strategy to get through the NFL’s Substance Abuse Policy was to room with Johnny Manziel and become a regular on TMZ. Yet he’s still being drafted. In real drafts. In 2017. Two. Thousand. Seven. Teen.

Why don’t we know how to quit Gordon? Because in 2013, Gordon came out of nowhere to lead the NFL in receiving yards. Well, technically he came out of a two-game suspension, but the point is we’re still drafting Gordon all based on that one year.

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We love dark horses. By definition dark horse seasons are not foreseeable, but I’m going to do my best to unearth a few longshots to lead the league in various categories. I’m not saying these players will or should pull it offso don’t just rocket them up your draft board—but they all have a reasonable path to league-leading production.

Passing Yards: Andy Dalton (CIN)

Previous Leaders: Drew Brees (2012, 2014-16); Ben Roethlisberger (2014); Peyton Manning (2013)
5-Year Average:
5,137 yards

Drew Brees is that annoying kid ruining the curve for the rest of the class. Thus far Andy Dalton hasn’t approached the ~5,000 yards it’ll take to unseat Mr. Brees, mainly due to lack of volume. Cincinnati has finished top 10 in rushing attempts five of his six seasons and never lower than 17th.

That looks like a thing of the past. The Bengals’ first losing season since 2010 pushed Dalton into more passing situations last year, and he finished with 563 attempts (second-most of his career). The defense took a large step backward, and if anything was lucky it wasn’t worse. They ranked eighth in points allowed, but just 18th in DVOA. In other words, Cincinnati may need to air it out even more in 2017.

Even if they don’t need to, they may want to. Dalton has quietly become one of the league’s most efficient passers, improving from 6.5 AY/A his first four seasons to 8.1 AY/A the past two seasons. If Dalton can maintain that efficiency, he’ll only need around 630 passing attempts to flirt with 5,000 yards. That’s an increase of roughly four attempts per game from last season… a lot, but not unthinkable. Add in the deepest cast of receivers Dalton’s ever had and a line that will struggle to run block, and this may be the year he gets the volume needed to set the curve.

Other Candidates: Russell Wilson (highly efficient passer whose attempts have increased every year as the Seahawks have quietly turned pass-heavy); Jameis Winston (adds DeSean Jackson after finishing 3rd in air yards last year; coach wants to run, but offensive talent better suited to throw).

Passing Touchdowns: Eli Manning (NYG)

Previous Leaders: Aaron Rodgers (2016); Tom Brady (2015); Andrew Luck (2014); Peyton Manning (2013); Drew Brees (2012)

5-Year Average: 42.8 TDs

Of the many benefits of living in Hartford, CT, high on the list is having the Giants and Jets as my “local” teams. That means I got to see a lot of Eli Manning last year, and it wasn’t pretty. But even a dead cat bounces once, right?

The Giants only scored six rushing touchdowns in 2016, which was: (1) dead last in the NFL; and (2) so bad I had to spell out “six” so you didn’t think “6” was a typo.  Their offensive line is ranked 28th by Pro Football Focus. Paul Perkins, Shane Vereen, Wayne Gallman, and Orleans Darkwa aren’t exactly the Four Horseman. This team is going to struggle on the ground, and should be especially bad in short-yardage.

That means their scoring will come from Manning, and his receiving corps is well-equipped for the job. Odell Beckham has at least 10 touchdowns each of his three years in the league and can score from anywhere on the field (40% of his TDs were 30+ yards). Up close, Brandon Marshall (another potential dead cat bouncer) will be a red zone threat for as long as he can walk, and Sterling Shepard was highly adept out of the slot his rookie year (catching 10 of 13 red zone targets for six touchdowns).

I don’t generally bet on 36-year-olds to bounce back, but this may be a retro-Stafford 700 attempt season for Manning. With that volume, he doesn’t need to be good to approach 40 touchdowns.

Other Candidates: Ben Roethlisberger (knock on wood… none of his weapons are injured or suspended at the moment, and the Steelers have ranked top 10 in passing touchdowns in four of Todd Haley’s five seasons as OC); Marcus Mariota (converted 1/3 of his red zone attempts into touchdowns, second best in the league; Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Tom Brady are the only active players with a higher TD rate).

Rushing Yards: Mike Gillislee (NE)

Previous Leaders: Ezekiel Elliott (2016); Adrian Peterson (2015, 2012); DeMarco Murray (2014); LeSean McCoy (2013)

5-Year Average: 1,733 Yards

In each of the last five seasons, the leading rusher has had at least 300 carries and averaged 5.1 YPC. Only 11 players have had that volume since 2012, and a 5.1 YPC would’ve ranked no worse than sixth in any season during that span. Then factor in that the rushing leader has come from a team with at least 10 wins, weed out the obvious and semi-obvious candidates, and we aren’t left with much to choose from.

So I choo-choo-choose Mike Gillislee, who checks all the boxes. Bill Belichick’s RB depth chart is written in pencil, and there’s plenty of competition, but right now Gillislee is the front-runner to step into the LeGarrette Blount role. Blount had 299 carries last year, second-most in the league. That was a bit skewed by Brady’s four-game suspension—Blount averaged 22 caries/game without Brady, and 18 carries/game with him—but New England always has plenty of 2nd half clock-killing to do, and even 18 carries/game puts Gillislee close to the requisite volume.

Most backups become less efficient when they take on more volume as starters, but I’m not worried about Gilislee. He’s averaged 5.6 YPC in games where he received 10+ carries, the same as his career average, showing he can maintain the efficiency needed to take the crown.

Other Candidates: Melvin Gordon (San Diego’s defense and RB “depth” guarantee volume; an improved offensive line should provide efficiency); Isaiah Crowell (volume will be a problem, but offensive line investments suggest Hue Jackson may return to forcing the run—his teams were top seven in rushing attempts each of his four years prior to 2017).

Rushing Touchdowns: Jonathan Stewart (CAR)

Previous Leaders: LeGarrette Blount (2016); Devonta Freeman (2015); Jeremy Hill (2015); Adrian Peterson (2015); DeAngelo Williams (2015); DeMarco Murray (2014); Jamaal Charles (2013); Marshawn Lynch (2013-14); Arian Foster (2012)

5-Year Average: 12.7

Rushing touchdowns are an opportunity stat. In their league-leading years, all nine of the names listed above finished top five in carries inside the five.

Viewed from that lens, Jonathan Stewart is an interesting darkhorse candidate. Stewart had 16 carries inside the five last year, fifth most in the league. All of them came after Week 5, when Carolina drastically cut back on Newton’s red zone rushing following a concussion. I think that trend continues into 2017 as the Panthers look to minimize hits on Newton.

As for the rest of the backfield, bowling ball Mike Tolbert is gone, leaving rookie Christian McCaffrey as the primary competition. McCaffrey will certainly get the lion’s share of RB touches, but I expect most of his rushing will be done between the 20s. Stewart will have a role on this team, and giving goal line duties to the bigger Stewart seems like a good way to split the workload and utilize their respective talents. Stewart will need to add a few touchdowns from further out to capture the crown, and with a little luck I think he can—his six runs of 20+ yards last year shows there’s some burst left.

Other Candidates: LeGarrette Blount (is it cheating to list last year’s rushing TD champion? The Eagles gave Ryan Mathews plenty of work near the goal line in 2016, and Blount will have PFF’s #1 offensive line to make room); Adrian Peterson (the Saints have finished sixth or better in rushing TDs each of the last three years).

Receiving Yards: John Brown (ARI)

Previous Leaders: T.Y. Hilton (2016); Julio Jones (2015); Antonio Brown (2014); Josh Gordon (2013); Calvin Johnson (2012)

5-Year Average: 1,725 Yards

John Brown can lead the league in receiving yards if he stays healthy. You heard me!

The efficiency component is easy. The last five receiving yard leaders averaged 15.3 YPR. Brown already did that in 2015, when he averaged 15.4 YPR. This came across 101 targets and 65 receptions, so I’m not overly concerned about his efficiency waning with increased volume.

Assuming Brown returns to 15.4 YPR, 110 catches would safely put him in the discussion (though Gordon and Hilton led the league on 87 and 91 catches, respectively). That, in turn, probably requires at least 160 targets. That’s a lot, but Brown was heavily involved the few weeks he was healthy last year, and there may not be much competition left within Arizona’s receiving corps. Michael Floyd is gone. Larry Fitzgerald could be entering Roddy White 2015 mode. J.J. Nelson is just a guy. Chad Williams is just a rookie.

Fitzgerald had 150 targets last year, so if Brown ascends to Arizona’s No. 1 receiver he’s not far off. I think he can fill that role. Despite his reputation as a boom/bust deep threat, Brown was a consistent producer in 2015, putting up 10 games with at least four catches and 12 games with at least 40 yards. Bruce Arians, of course, has a history of featuring smaller, faster receivers like Antonio Brown and T.Y. Hilton. John Brown has drawn comparisons to both. And both have led the league in receiving in recent years.

Other Candidates: Sammy Watkins (zero competition for targets and averaged 17.5 YPR his last healthy season); Pierre Garcon (situation looks a lot like 2013 when he led the league in receptions and finished eighth in yards).

Receiving Touchdowns: Terrelle Pryor (WAS)

Previous Leaders: Jordy Nelson (2016); Doug Baldwin (2015); Brandon Marshall (2015); Allen Robinson (2015); Dez Bryant (2014); Jimmy Graham (2013); James Jones (2012)

5-Year Average: 14.6 Touchdowns

Despite having the seventh most passing attempts last season, Washington finished 15th in passing touchdowns (compared to ninth in rushing touchdowns). The problem was inefficiency in the red zone, where just 17% of Kirk Cousins’ throws went for touchdowns. That was 32nd in the league, right below gunslingers Sam Bradford and Alex Smith.

I wouldn’t just blame Cousins for their problems up close. Nearly half of those targets went to Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, and DeSean Jackson, none of whom are prototypical red zone targets. Terrelle Pryor is.

6’4” and uber-athletic, Pryor is such a tantalizing red zone threat that even when he played quarterback he was used as a receiver near the end zone. Pryor had only 13 red zone targets last year on a Browns team that generally hung out on its own side of the field, but he turned that limited opportunity into nine catches and four touchdowns. He’ll see much more opportunity in Washington. Kirk Cousins finished seventh in red zone attempts last season.

The other reason I like Pryor is that the recent leaders have scored only 60% of their touchdowns in the red zone, which means you need someone who can also add a few scores from deep. Pryor has the speed and size to win downfield, making him a perfect fit to play with last year’s leader in air yards.

Other Candidates: Randall Cobb (scored 10 red zone touchdowns in 2014, his last fully healthy season, and Aaron Rodgers already has two receivers on the list); Donte Moncrief (12 touchdowns in the 15 games he and Andrew Luck have played over the last two years; like Pryor, a red zone threat with athleticism to score from further out).

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Scott Cedar is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Scott, check out his archive and follow him @scedar015.

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