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Predicting the NFL's next record-breakers: Who will top Drew Brees?

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Can anyone catch Brees' passing yardage record? (1:51)

The NFL Live crew dissects why Drew Brees' record for passing yards will be tough for anyone to catch, including Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. (1:51)

When Drew Brees set the NFL passing yardage record on Monday Night Football last week, the moment was important enough to stop time. The game came to a halt as the crowd in New Orleans and the television audience celebrated Brees' accomplishment. The same thing happened when previous record-holder Peyton Manning took the title from Brett Favre in 2015, though given that he set it on a 4-yard checkdown on second-and-12, Manning seemed more cranky about the entire exchange than anything else.

In a league that often is over the top and curmudgeonly about not acknowledging what just happened, the Brees ceremony was a pleasant aside during an eventual blowout of Washington.

Just as Manning took the title from Favre and Brees topped Manning, though, we know that we're going to see another ceremony for another passing yardage record-holder in the future. In a league in which passing efficiency continues to rise and quarterbacks are playing effectively into their early 40s, no record is safe.

Let's go through a few of the league's most notable records and statistical leaders to try to project what the future might hold for those crowns. Some of the would-be dethroners might very well surprise you. And let's begin with arguably the most notable title of all, the record Brees just set.

Jump to a record: Passing yards | Passing TDs
Rushing yards | Receiving yards | Sacks


Passing yards

Current record-holder: Drew Brees, 72,103 yards (and counting)

We have to start with figuring out where Brees will actually leave the record. History tells us Hall of Fame quarterbacks play well for an extremely long time before suddenly losing it and regressing to replacement level almost overnight. That was the case for Favre and Manning. Dan Marino faded more gradually but still had a big drop-off in his final season. John Elway and Joe Montana retired as above-average passers before turning 40, although Elway likely left in part because he was coming off consecutive Super Bowl victories.

When will Brees lose it? Nobody, including Brees, has any idea. It's clear that he hasn't lost a step yet, though, given that the Saints star has started the season averaging nearly 10 adjusted yards per attempt while posting a league-best passer rating of 122.3. If the Saints win the Super Bowl, Brees could retire after the season, but it seems likely he'll continue to play at a high level into 2019.

Let's work with that scenario, given that Brees' contract voids at the end of the 2019 campaign. Let's assume the 39-year-old continues to play at a high level this season and is a league-average quarterback during his age-40 season before moving on into retirement. We're looking at Brees racking up 8,000 more passing yards over the remainder of 2018 and the entirety of 2019, and that might be a conservative estimate. Let's say Brees becomes the first passer to top 80,000 passing yards and finishes with 80,504.

The short-term candidates

There isn't really anybody likely to touch Brees' record for about a decade. Tom Brady comes to mind, of course, but he's already 4,345 yards behind Brees and fading. Brees' volume has seen him increase his lead on Brady by 2,412 passing yards since the beginning of 2014. Brady could be 5,000 passing yards behind Brees by the end of 2019, at which point he'll need to likely play two additional seasons past Brees' retirement to claim the record.

Given that Brady already is more than a year older than Brees, it's tough to see him outlasting the Purdue product for long enough to sneak his way to the top of the passing charts. The same is true for the Class of 2004, each of whom are in their late 30s and way behind Brees. Eli Manning (53,344 yards), Ben Roethlisberger (53,098), and Philip Rivers (52,050) would need to last four or five seasons after Brees retires to top his total.

Eli already appears to be finishing up his career, and Roethlisberger has publicly flirted with retirement, so Rivers -- the guy the Chargers acquired to replace Brees 14 years ago -- is the best candidate here, and his chances are slim at best. Aaron Rodgers is at 40,499 yards, but he turns 35 in December and has too much of an injury history to stay healthy and productive into his mid-40s. Staying immaculately healthy is a prerequisite for breaking this record.

Matt Ryan is a better candidate, given that the Falcons quarterback is only 33 and already has 43,751 yards. He's on pace to finish with a career-high 5,213 passing yards this season, which would get him to 47,009. If we want to figure out his chances of finishing with more than 80,504 yards, we can use Bill James' Favorite Toy formula, which the legendary sabermetrician invented to try to project the chances of players breaking baseball records. In this case, the formula -- which is explained more here -- suggests Ryan has a 14.4 percent shot of breaking Brees' record by the time the 2016 MVP finishes his career.

The other realistic veteran candidate is Matthew Stafford, who checks off a lot of our boxes even though he doesn't exactly seem like a Hall of Famer. Stafford doesn't turn 31 until February. He plays in a pass-happy scheme that already has allowed him to rack up gobs of yardage. Most important, after struggling through injuries in each of his first two seasons, he has stayed on the field. The Detroit starter hasn't missed a game since 2010, and while the Vikings seem hellbent on trying to break that streak every time they play against Stafford, he has managed to survive.

If we project Stafford's 2018 performance over the remainder of the season, he'll be at 39,181 passing yards. That won't even get him halfway to Brees' projected career total, but Stafford has plenty of time to go. James' model projects Stafford will play only six more seasons, which is why his odds come in at 14.2 percent, basically identical to Ryan's. If we build in a more generous aging curve and suggest that the 2009 first overall pick will play seven more seasons, his chances rise to 24.9 percent.

The next tier of passers after Ryan and Stafford will struggle. Cam Newton and Russell Wilson haven't thrown the ball frequently enough to challenge for this record. Andrew Luck hasn't been healthy enough, given that he missed 24 games from 2015 through 2017. Marcus Mariota combines both problems. Jameis Winston would need to stay on the field for several years and produce at his peak level before establishing himself as a credible threat.

The long-term candidates

The younger quarterbacks are probably the next passers likely to challenge for Brees' record after Ryan and Stafford. With Carson Wentz, the concern is not talent but injury and volume. He tore his ACL during his second NFL season, and while he's not going to suffer a season-ending injury every other season, you don't often see serious injuries early in the careers of players who make it to the top. Brees is an anomaly in that way; he tore his labrum during his time with the Chargers but ended up not missing any time because the injury came in Week 17. To put it another way: Wentz already has missed more games in his career to injury than Brees has in his.

Wentz also would have to throw more to challenge for this mark. Even before the injury last season, the Eagles were having Wentz throw an average of only just under 34 passes per game, and he was 11th in passing yards per contest at 253.5. The Eagles were doing that because they were winning games and taking the air out of the clock in the second half, and there's nothing wrong with that in terms of evaluating Wentz, but it'll make things difficult if he wants to set the passing yardage record.

The Eagles starter has averaged 298 passing yards per game in his four 2018 starts, but he comes up short of Jared Goff. The 2016 first overall pick is averaging 321.3 passing yards per game and feels safely ensconced in the glow of Sean McVay, but the Favorite Toy model -- which uses a player's three most recent seasons for data -- obviously doesn't love his 2016 season under Jeff Fisher. Running a projection for Goff while he averaged 155.6 passing yards per game over seven starts in what felt like a different universe doesn't seem logical.

If we want to come up with even a broad projection for Goff's chances, we have to be inventive. Let's say Goff stays healthy and continues to average those 321.3 passing yards per game through the end of 2019. Doing that gets him to 15,175 yards by the time he finishes his age-25 season. At that point, Goff comes in with a 14.0 percent chance of eventually toppling the passing yardage record, and that's assuming perfect health and basically MVP-caliber play over the next two seasons.

Doing the same thing for Wentz -- throwing out his rookie season and assuming he'll stay healthy while averaging 298 passing yards per game the rest of the way -- gets him to only a 3.6 percent shot of topping Brees' mark. In part, this is because Wentz is nearly two full years older than Goff. Brees and Goff were full-time starters by the time they entered their age-23 seasons. Wentz spent his age-23 season at North Dakota State. Everything has to be right to get past 80,000 passing yards.

As for the guys who are less experienced than Goff and Wentz? It's way too early to say anything about quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. There's likely to be a college passer who challenges for this title, but it's impossible to say much about guys like Oregon's Justin Herbert or Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins until they actually make it a good situation in the NFL. For now, it looks like a three-way race among Ryan, Stafford and the best-case scenario of Goff.

Who has the best chance to break it

Matt Ryan: 14.4 percent
Matthew Stafford: 14.2 percent


Passing touchdowns

Current record-holder: Peyton Manning (539)

This record is extremely likely to be broken by the end of 2019. The only questions are who gets there first and who ends up retiring first. Brady just became the third quarterback in league history to top 500 touchdowns, in Week 5, and currently sits at 501, while Brees will join him as soon as this Sunday against the Ravens, as he sits at 499.

Touchdowns are difficult to project. Let's be slightly more optimistic this time. If we use each player's career touchdown percentage and pass attempt averages from the past three seasons and use that to project out through the end of 2019, Brady finishes narrowly ahead of Brees, with 554 touchdown passes to Brees at ... 553. Brees might very well come back in that scenario to try to set the touchdown mark, but since he has already won the yardage title, let's give this one to Brady and work off of that 554-touchdown total. So who's next?

The short-term candidates

It's not looking great for the guys in their mid-30s. Rivers has 357 touchdowns, and even that's with an unsustainable touchdown rate of 7.7 percent in 2018. (He has topped 6 percent exactly once in his career, and that was back in 2008.) Even if he kept up that touchdown rate and finished the year with 40 scores, the Favorite Toy model would suggest Rivers has only a 10.7 percent shot of getting to 555 before he retires. If we use his career touchdown rate, Rivers gets to only 33 touchdowns and then has a 1.7 percent shot of beating out Brady.

Eli Manning (345) and Roethlisberger (341) don't even register as viable candidates. Rodgers (325) has the best career touchdown rate of any active quarterback at 6.3 percent, thanks to spending most of his career without a No. 1 running back, but injuries are the problem. If Rodgers had played 16 games per season since the beginning of 2008 with the same attempt average and touchdown percentage, he would have 367 touchdown passes right now and a 20.7 percent of setting the touchdown record. Instead, with the injuries factored in, he's projected with only a 5.2 percent shot of toppling Brady.

Our intermediate candidates don't do as well here. Ryan is quietly running a 2018 touchdown rate (6.3 percent) relatively close to the figures we saw from his MVP season in 2016 (7.1 percent), but that isn't going to last. He's projected to have no chance. Stafford has topped 32 touchdowns only once as a pro and is on pace to finish with 29, given his career touchdown percentage. Youth and health combine to give him a 4.2 percent chance of getting to 555. Wilson led the league in passing touchdowns (34) a year ago, but he hasn't thrown the ball frequently enough near the goal line to approach 500 passing scores, let alone 555. (This might be a controversial statement in some circles.)

The long-term candidates

Wentz posted a league-high 7.5 percent touchdown percentage a season ago, which isn't sustainable and a huge leap from the 2.6 percent mark he hit as a rookie. Through two games in 2018, he has settled almost exactly between the two at 5.1 percent. He doesn't register on the Favorite Toy scale, thanks to the combination of the injury and the low-touchdown rookie season. If he throws touchdowns on 7.5 percent of his passes moving forward, though, he'll set the record in about 11 years.

Goff has a better shot, although Todd Gurley's touchdown-hoovering problem might limit Goff's ceiling. Goff has managed to post a touchdown percentage of 6 percent even under McVay so far, a huge leap from his 2.4 percent mark as a rookie. Goff's actual numbers don't register on the scale because he threw only five touchdown passes in 2016. Again, if we assume health and his established level of attempts per game and touchdown percentage under McVay through the end of 2019, Goff would enter 2020 with 95 touchdowns and a 10.7 percent chance of topping Brady. Check back in a year and a couple months.

Who has the best chance to break it

Aaron Rodgers: 5.2 percent
Matthew Stafford: 4.2 percent
Philip Rivers: 1.7 percent


Rushing yards

Current record-holder: Emmitt Smith (18,355 yards)

Cowboys fans can probably rest easy on this one for a while. Offenses around the NFL are simultaneously moving toward throwing the football and away from using bell-cow backs, which has limited the frequency of huge rushing seasons. From 1990 through 2009, there were 51 instances of a back racking up 1,500 yards in a season, or roughly 2.5 per season. From 2010 through '17, there were nine in seven years, and no back pulled off the feat twice over that time frame. Smith did it three times in five seasons and got within 32 yards of making it five in five.

The short-term candidates

Short is in the eye of the beholder, right? No veterans are going to threaten Smith. Frank Gore is at 14,329 rushing yards, leaving him more than 4,000 yards behind at age 35. John Riggins is the only back in history to top 1,000 yards at age 35, and no one has done it afterward. Gore would have to do it four times in a row. Adrian Peterson, 33, would have to make up 5,740 rushing yards to catch Smith, and he's already banged up in Washington.

What about LeSean McCoy? The Bills don't appear particularly interested in moving their star back, and the 30-year-old former Eagles star might have an outside shot at breaking Smith's record. McCoy already has missed one game this season, but he's on pace to finish 2018 with 10,869 career rushing yards. The Favorite Toy is optimistic and gives McCoy six more seasons and a 28.5 percent shot of racking up the yards he needs, but I'm skeptical. McCoy would need to find 7,487 more rushing yards to set the mark. No running back since the merger has racked up more than 4,530 rushing yards from his age-31 season on. It would be absolutely stunning if Shady challenged Smith's total.

The long-term candidates

There might have been a universe in which Le'Veon Bell challenged for this mark, but the combination of injuries, suspensions and his current holdout cost him a viable shot. Bell has 5,336 rushing yards as he returns from his holdout, but if he had stayed healthy and on the field for every game heading into 2018, he would have racked up 6,972 rushing yards by the end of his age-25 campaign. Favorite Toy -- which is wildly optimistic about the career length and aging curve of running backs -- suggests Bell would have had a 55.3 percent chance of topping Smith's mark, and while I'm nowhere near as optimistic, I think he would have certainly been in the discussion.

Now, if he stays healthy and averages 100 rushing yards per game after the bye, Bell will enter his age-27 season at 6,336 yards. If we assume he has nine years left in the league, he will have to average more than 1,335 rushing yards per season without getting hurt to top Smith's mark. It's not going to happen.

I see two viable long-term candidates, though we're still early in their careers to feel confident about either. Todd Gurley had a stinker of a season under Fisher in 2016, but the Rams star has averaged 85 rushing yards or better per game in each of his three other campaigns. He's on pace to finish the season with 1,661 rushing yards, which would get his career total to 4,957 yards through his age-24 campaign. Favorite Toy projects that he'll play nine more NFL seasons, which doesn't seem unreasonable, and guesses that Gurley has a 44.9 percent shot of breaking Smith's record.

To keep it in the Cowboys family, Ezekiel Elliott has been the most productive back on a per-game basis at the beginning of a career in recent memory. Elliott has averaged 103.2 rushing yards per game since entering the league; the only backs to top that in 30 games or more over their first three seasons are Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell and Edgerrin James. Those three backs also failed to come within 5,000 yards of Smith's eventual career total, which is a reminder about how the football lives of running backs tend to be short and furious.

If Zeke stays on his pace, the Cowboys back will finish the season with 1,563 rushing yards and a three-year total of 4,177 yards. Favorite Toy is inspired and gives Elliott a 42.5 percent shot of beating Smith's total, but again, it's making a generous and unsupported assumption about the aging curves of running backs. It's too early to make projections for the likes of Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara.

I'm going to insert my own two cents here and cut those Favorite Toy projections in half. The workloads on Elliott and Gurley could be a taste of things to come, but the league also evolved this way for a reason. Workhorse backs weren't able to hold up to a huge load for very long. I have faith that Elliott and Gurley have a chance, but they're far from the near-50-50 cases Favorite Toy is suggesting.

Who has the best chance to break it

Todd Gurley: 22.5 percent
Ezekiel Elliott: 21.3 percent


Receiving yards

Current record-holder: Jerry Rice (22,895 receiving yards)

This one's going to take a while to top. To put things in context, Terrell Owens has the second-most receiving yards, and he's at 15,934 yards. Larry Fitzgerald, who has the most yards of any active wideout, is at 15,760. After him, it's Brandon Marshall at 12,351 yards, more than 10,000 yards behind Rice. James once said you could split Rickey Henderson into two and have two Hall of Famers. The scary thing is that you could do the same thing with Rice and end up with Michael Irvin and Calvin Johnson, who combined to top Rice by a mere 628 receiving yards.

The short-term candidates

Antonio Brown has been on an incredible six-year run, averaging more than 100 receiving yards per game since the start of 2013. He's on pace to finish 2018 with 11,184 total receiving yards. To put Rice in context, Brown would need to keep up at the 100-yards-per-game pace for another eight seasons to hit Rice's totals. Favorite Toy gives him a 20.1 percent shot of making it past Rice. Brown will need a smooth transition from Roethlisberger to Pittsburgh's next quarterback (or a different team) to get there.

Another wideout who has been blessed to spend his entire career with one quarterback is Julio Jones, who inexplicably can't find the end zone but is already up to 707 receiving yards in six games this season. Jones is on pace for 1,885 receiving yards (and zero touchdowns) in 2018, which would get him to 10,939 yards before turning 30. That would be the best mark in league history for a player through his age-29 season.

Rice, of course, extended his career to an extent no other wideout has come near. He racked up 6,440 receiving yards after entering his age-36 season. Charlie Joiner is in second place in that same category, at 3,125 yards, and then nobody else has made it past TO at 1,812 yards. Jones already has broken his foot twice, which doesn't seem to bode well for his chances of playing into his 40s, but he's off to what might be the best start in league history. Favorite Toy doubles Brown's odds and gives Jones a 40.2 percent shot of setting the record, which seems optimistic, even for someone as talented as the Falcons star.

The model is less impressed with A.J. Green, who is a year older than Jones and slowed down noticeably between 2016 and 2017, when he racked up a total of 2,042 yards while missing six games. Green's numbers are back up this season now that he's healthy and has an offensive line again, but Favorite Toy gives him just a 2.9 percent chance of surpassing Rice.

The long-term candidates

The only thing that has managed to slow down DeAndre Hopkins over the past few years is Brock Osweiler. Hopkins even kept up his production with Tom Savage last season, and with Deshaun Watson back this season, Nuk is averaging 109.5 receiving yards per game. If he keeps that up, Hopkins will finish with 1,752 yards this season, and he'll have racked up 7,617 receiving yards before turning 27. He projects to post a 28.2 percent shot of topping Rice's record, although here's hoping he gets to do it with Watson and some semblance of an offensive line over the next few years.

Then, there's the lightning round of wideouts from the 2014 draft: Odell Beckham Jr., Brandin Cooks, Mike Evans and Jarvis Landry. If we project each wideout to keep up his current rate throughout the remainder of 2018 and then run the numbers through Favorite Toy, the LSU teammates fail to make the leaderboard. Beckham is missing because he racked up only 303 yards during his injury-riddled 2017 campaign. Landry has been consistently productive, but hasn't had a monster season and is on pace for only 1,044 receiving yards this season.

Who has the best chance to break it

Julio Jones: 40.2 percent
DeAndre Hopkins: 28.2 percent
Antonio Brown: 20.1 percent
Mike Evans: 17.3 percent
Brandin Cooks: 9.3 percent
A.J. Green: 2.9 percent


Sacks

Current record-holder: Bruce Smith (200 sacks)

Let's finish up with a nice round number. Smith racked up 200 sacks during his 19-year career with the Bills and Washington and threw in 14.5 playoff sacks for good measure. The Hall of Famer peaked in 1990 with a 19-sack campaign, in the middle of a five-year era in which opposing quarterbacks were taken down on 7.2 percent of their dropbacks. Over the past five seasons, that has fallen to 6.1 percent. Can anyone overcome the falling sack rate to make it to 201?

The short-term candidates

Julius Peppers and Terrell Suggs aren't going to come close to hitting 201, unfortunately. The two veterans who have a reasonable shot at 200 are J.J. Watt and Von Miller, but their work is cut out for them.

Watt is almost impossible to break down via Favorite Toy because he has spent virtually all of the past two years sidelined by multiple injuries. He leads the NFL with seven sacks in six games this season, which puts him on pace for 19. Watt would be the first player in league history to do that three times in a career.

If he stays on this pace, Watt would finish his age-29 season with 95 sacks. Favorite Toy shrugs, estimates 10 sacks from Watt over the next 6.5 seasons, and projects him with an 11.3 percent chance of getting to 201 sacks. We all know what a healthy Watt can do, so this seems more about whether the former Wisconsin star can stay healthy than about whether he can play at a high level.

Miller, on the other hand, has been more consistent. Outside of 2013, when he was limited to nine games by a suspension and a torn ACL, he has missed just one game as a pro. He has racked up at least 10 sacks in each of his full seasons and is on pace to finish with 15 sacks this campaign. It's also true that he has had only one otherworldly season, back when he racked up 18.5 sacks in 2012.

Plug in 15 sacks for 2018 and Miller is at 98.5 sacks through his age-29 campaign. Favorite Toy looks favorably upon that consistency and suggests Miller has a 32.4 percent shot of knocking off Smith atop the sack charts.

The long-term candidates

There's not an enormous gap between these two groups, but Khalil Mack is a bit younger than Watt and Mack. The former Raiders star once joined Miller in suggesting he could rack up 30 sacks in a season, and while I was skeptical, Mack has been a borderline MVP candidate so far this season. He's already up to five sacks in five games with the Bears, and some simple division suggests that we're projecting a 16-sack season.

Sixteen sacks would get Mack to only 56.5 takedowns in his career, in part because he doesn't turn 28 until February. Favorite Toy also likes his consistency, and if Mack averages a sack per game in 2018, James' model assigns Mack a 17.5 percent chance of breaking Smith's mark.

The other dominant pass-rusher from the 2014 class is reigning Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, who has generated between eight and 11 sacks in each of his first four seasons as a pro. Donald shockingly went three games without a sack to start the 2018 season, but he has racked up four in Los Angeles' past three games and projects to finish the season with 11 takedowns.

Donald is still young, but his lack of a dominant season hurts his chances of setting sacks records. Eleven sacks in 2018 would get him to only 50, and while that's an impressive mark, he would need to rack up 45 over 2019 and 2020 to get to Watt's mark before turning 29. Favorite Toy assigns him only a 4.6 percent chance of setting the sacks record. Donald will just have to settle for being the best player on the best team in football. Oh, well.

Who has the best chance to break it

Von Miller: 32.4 percent
Khalil Mack: 17.5 percent
J.J. Watt: 11.3 percent
Aaron Donald: 4.6 percent