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What makes a player elite in NFL’s 17-game season: Will Peyton Manning’s, Calvin Johnson’s records fall in 2021?

The benchmark for a great season depends on era.

Being a 4,000-yard passer meant something quite different in 1980, 2000 and 2020. The meaning of our standard benchmarks — like a 1,000-yard rusher or, in fantasy football, a 300-point quarterback — have shifted over time, but they’re also in for a little jolt in 2021 with the addition of a 17th game.

So what did make a great season by position, by era? And how will that extra game impact how we view standard thresholds, NFL records and fantasy benchmarks going forward?

To answer those questions, we started with the historical data since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger and worked our way forward. We looked at the players who finished first, third, fifth and 10th in the league in each of these categories: passing yards, passing touchdowns, rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, WR receiving yards, TE receiving yards, WR receiving touchdowns, TE receiving touchdowns and fantasy points by position. This allowed us to see what elite, great and simply good seasons looked like over time, and we plotted the data of the past five decades to see how the numbers ebbed and flowed.

Then we spun it forward. We used a regression to track yardage changes over time and prorated the end of that regression line (2020) to reflect the addition of a 17th game to project expectations for 2021.

With that in mind, here’s a detailed look at how the game has changed over the past 50 years and where we think it’s headed.


4,000 is the new 3,000

• No benchmark has become more insignificant in recent years than a season with 3,000 pass yards. Consider that in 1997, only 24 years ago, the QBs to finish first, third, fifth and 10th ALL threw for fewer than 4,000 yards. In 2020 alone, there were 12 quarterbacks who finished the season with at least 4,000 pass yards. — Evan Kaplan

• In the previous 10 seasons (2011-20), only two of the 40 QBs (5%) who finished first, third, fifth or 10th in pass yards threw for fewer than 4,000 yards. Compare that to the 10-season period from 2001 to ’10, when 16 of the 40 QBs (40%) to finish first, third, fifth or 10th in pass yards threw for fewer than 4,000 yards. — Kaplan

Tristan H. Cockcroft’s fantasy takeaways

• Fantasy scoring does combine passing yards and touchdowns, but yardage did drive the final total for two of the three highest-scoring quarterbacks in history: Patrick Mahomes in 2018 (417.08 fantasy points, most all time; 5,097 passing yards, ninth most all time), and Peyton Manning in 2013 (409.98, third most; 5,477, most). Of the 12 quarterbacks to pass for 5,000 yards in a season, nine scored at least 340 fantasy points in the given season.

• The single-season fantasy points record for quarterbacks has been broken five times in the past 17 seasons and six times in the past 23, but before that, Dan Marino (360.66 points, 1984) had previously held it for 14 seasons, and George Blanda (337.80, 1969) held it for 15 seasons before that.

• A typical ESPN fantasy league, at any given time, has only 10 quarterbacks active, and it’s that No. 10 annual finisher who has seen a substantial increase in production. The 332.78 points the No. 10 scorer (Lamar Jackson) had last season was 45.40 points more than the 10th best had in any previous season in history. In fact, it was more than the top-scoring quarterback (Michael Vick, 310.32) had just 10 years earlier. That’s what has dramatically altered managers’ necessary approach to drafting the position, at least in leagues that start only one.

Looking ahead to 2021

• Even with a steady increase in passing yards and a 17th game, we still would not expect the passing yardage leader to, on average, pass Peyton Manning’s 2013 single-season record of 5,477 yards. The projected total for the passing yardage leader is 5,410. Manning’s record will probably fall soon, but it won’t necessarily be in year one of the 17-game schedule. — Seth Walder

• The addition of a 17th game makes it highly likely that a new record will be set in terms of fantasy points by a quarterback, as the year-over-year trend would project a 397.58-point performance by the top scorer in a 16-game season, which would become a record-breaking 422.43 in a 17-game season.— Tristan H. Cockcroft


Passing TDs continue steady climb

• In 1971 and ’72, the players to finish first, third, fifth and 10th COMBINED for 70 passing TDs during the 14-game season. Remember, that’s selectively choosing four of the top 10 passing TD leaders in the NFL, including the league leader. But in 2020, you’d need only the league leader (Aaron Rodgers, 48) and the player who finished 17th in the NFL (Drew Brees/Philip Rivers, 24) to exceed that total of four top-10 finishers in ’71 or ’72. — Michael Proia

• 30 passing TDs really seems like the benchmark of late for an elite season in the category. Since the start of 2010, there have been two seasons in which at least one player finished in the top five while throwing fewer than 30 TD passes. In each of the 40 seasons prior to that (1970-2009), at least one QB finished in the top five with fewer than 30 passing TDs. — Bryan Beasley

Fantasy takeaway

Passing touchdowns have driven fantasy totals a bit more than passing yardage has over the years, as the three quarterbacks with 50-plus-TD seasons rank first (Patrick Mahomes, 417.08 in 2018), third (Peyton Manning, 409.98 in 2013) and seventh (Tom Brady, 390.04 in 2007) on the all-time fantasy points list at their position. Additionally, the passing TD record has been broken four times since the merger, and in three of those instances the fantasy points record at the position was also set. Manning in 2004 was the only time it wasn’t, a season in which he wasn’t even the No. 1 scorer at his position — Daunte Culpepper (373.28) was.

Looking ahead to 2021

Passing touchdowns have been on a steady incline over the past 50 years. While Peyton Manning’s 55-touchdown record in 2013 still looks to be in good shape, the expectation for a league leader in touchdowns — 46.1, according to our numbers — has never been higher.


Increase in passing, fewer feature backs impacts leaderboard

• There is a clear recent trend for running backs that might highlight the shift from a run-first mindset to the vertical passing emphasis. Only four times between 1983 and 2014 did the player who finished 10th total fewer than 1,000 yards rushing, and now it has happened in four of the past six seasons. — Proia and Beasley

• Besides a peak in the early 2000s, the bar for a good rushing season (1,000 yards) is pretty much the same today as it was in the 1970s, as you would expect in a passing league. There were nine 1,000-yard rushing seasons in 2020 — compare that with 10 in 1972, when teams played only 14 games. — Doug Clawson

Fantasy takeaways

• Running back has been a much more consistent position in terms of fantasy scoring, year over year, despite the narrative of feature backs around the turn of the century and the rise in committees during the past half-decade. Nevertheless, seven of the 10 best single-season PPR fantasy totals by running backs — coincidentally the only 10 to score 400-plus points — were accomplished during a seven-year span from 2000 to ’06. LaDainian Tomlinson set the record with 481.10 PPR fantasy points in 2006, but five of the seven best single-season totals at the position were accomplished during a four-year period from 2000 to ’03.

• Something to think about: The top 25 fantasy running backs last season totaled their fewest PPR points since 2015, and it was the fourth-lowest total for the group of top 25 RBs since 2000.

Looking ahead to 2021

• The 10th-leading rusher eclipsed 1,000 yards in every season from 1992 to 2014. But as mentioned above, that No. 10 rusher has failed to do so in four of the past six seasons. Without the 17th game we would not expect the 10th-leading rusher to, on average, reach 1,000 yards in 2021, either. But with the additional game, our expectation is just over the 1,000-yard mark, at 1,010. — Walder

• The 1,232 yards we would expect the third-leading rusher to record in 2021, even with a 17th game, is roughly what we would have expected from the 10th-leading rusher in 2003. — Walder

• The 17-game season should be expected to vault the No. 1 running back above the plateau of 400 PPR fantasy points, despite it having been reached only twice in the past 14 seasons (Christian McCaffrey, 471.20, 2019; David Johnson, 407.80, 2016), with a total of 438.73. For those curious why this number exceeds that of ESPN’s fantasy game projections, remember that those aim to project a player’s median stat line, but the season-ending leader almost always is a player who approaches or hits his ceiling. — Cockcroft


Rushing TD totals relatively consistent, except for top spot

• This one is a little surprising, as you might expect to see more of a drop-off over the past 15 years with more passing TDs leading to fewer rushing TDs. But the only clear trend that shows up is the league leader spiking each year in the 1995-2005 range before returning to the rest of the pack recently. A top-three, top-five or top-10 season has been relatively flat over 50 years, but a league-leading season is much different. Since 1970, there have been 10 seasons in which the NFL leader had 20-plus rushing TDs. Eight of those seasons came between 1994 and 2006 — a 13-season span — meaning in the 38 other seasons since 1970, it happened only twice (1983 and 1985). And can we take a minute to marvel at Tomlinson’s 2006 season when he ran for 28 TDs? Ten of them came from the 3-yard line or closer, and if you take those all away, he still would have led the league with 18 rushing TDs that season! — Proia

• 2020 was the highest-scoring season in NFL history and plenty of those touchdowns came on the ground. The players to finish first, third, fifth and 10th all had double-digit rushing touchdowns in 2020, only the eighth season since 1970 that the player who was 10th in the league had at least 10 rushing scores. And when looking at the entire NFL, 38% of offensive touchdowns were of the rushing variety last season, the highest percentage since 2008. — Kaplan

Fantasy takeaways

All of the players who tallied huge rushing touchdown totals naturally had big fantasy point totals, but rushing TDs alone actually haven’t quite driven historic fantasy seasons in the way you might think. There have been 11 players who scored 20-plus rushing TDs in history, but only six of them place among the positional top 40 all time in terms of PPR fantasy points. John Riggins’ 24-TD season in 1983, which set a record he’d hold for 12 years, actually resulted in only 286.60 fantasy points, just the 181st-best running back total in history.

Looking ahead to 2021

Even with a little spike in the number of rushing touchdowns the league leader has recorded during the past three seasons and an extra game in 2021, we’re still a far cry from the running back heyday of the mid-2000s. We project the league leader to record 14.2 rushing TDs, well below the 27 TDs the league leader scored in three of four seasons from 2003-06.

While there’s been movement in the statistics of league leaders in rushing TDs, the fifth-highest rushing touchdown total has been very steady throughout the years. The 11.1 touchdowns we project the fifth-highest rushing scorer to record in 2021 is only a little lower than the 12.4 TDs the No. 5 scorer in the 2000s recorded, on average, and only slightly higher than in the 1980s (10.8) and 1990s (10.1).


WR production boom began in mid-1990s

• Prior to 1994, routinely (14 of 24 years) you’d see a top-10 WR with less than 1,000 yards. Since 1994, you’d need at least 1,100 yards to crack the top 10 (with the exception of 2017 when Brandin Cooks was 10th with 1,082). This chart shows the climb in production from 1970 to 1994 and then a leveling off since then. So if league-leading, top-three, top-five and top-10 seasons have been relatively flat since 1994, why are we seeing more passing yards for QBs? Depth! We’ve slowly seen an increase in the total number of WRs putting up 500-plus yards every season, as more three-WR and four-WR offenses have taken over and slot receivers like Wes Welker and Tyreek Hill became go-to players. — Proia

• In nine of the past 10 seasons, the WR with the most receiving yards needed to reach at least 1,500 to land in the top spot. In fact, five times since 2011 the player to finish third in yards among WRs reached the 1,500-yard mark, most recently Mike Evans in 2018. Prior to 2011, there was only one instance of a player with the third-most yards in a season among WRs having at least 1,500: Herman Moore in 1995, the same year that Jerry Rice and Isaac Bruce had the two most prolific receiving seasons up until that point in NFL history. — Kaplan

Fantasy takeaways

• Yes, the rise in passing across the league in recent seasons has elevated the wide receiver position in terms of PPR fantasy points, but the true golden years of the position might well have been the mid-1990s, thanks to names like Jerry Rice, Isaac Bruce, Cris Carter, Herman Moore and Sterling Sharpe. From 1993 to ’95, there were six seasons of a wide receiver scoring 350-plus points, a threshold that hadn’t been reached before then and has been reached only 12 times since. Rice scored at least 351.20 points in each of those three seasons, including his still-standing single-season record of 414.04 points in 1995.

• Five of those 18 campaigns worth at least 350 PPR fantasy points have occurred in the past seven seasons, with Antonio Brown checking in with two of them (388.20 points in 2015, 386.90 in 2014), those years ranking second and third all time among wide receivers.

Looking ahead to 2021

• Even with an extra game being added, Calvin Johnson’s single-season record of 1,964 receiving yards in 2012 looks reasonably safe. Stefon Diggs led the league with 1,535 yards last season, and we project the league leader to record 1,754 in 2021, a far cry from Johnson’s mark. — Walder

• Only once before has a wide receiver reached the 400-point PPR plateau, the aforementioned Jerry Rice, but the extra game grants a higher likelihood one will get there, the year-over-year trends pointing to a 402.26 point total in 2021. — Cockcroft


The evolution of the pass-catching TE

• Perhaps no position has seen a bigger boom in offensive numbers than tight end. The single-season record for TE receiving yards in a season has been broken twice in the past three seasons (George Kittle in 2018 with 1,377, then Travis Kelce in 2020 with 1,416). The 10th-ranked TE in receiving yards in 2020 (Rob Gronkowski, 623) nearly had as many yards as the top-ranked TE in 1970 (Jackie Smith, 687). — Clawson

• The No. 1 TE has finished with 1,000 receiving yards in every season since 2007 (14 straight seasons). From the start of the 16-game schedule in 1978 until 2006 (29 seasons), there were 11 instances of the top TE finishing with 1,000-plus yards. — Beasley

• When we say someone is “built different,” there may not be a better example than Rob Gronkowski. In 2011, Gronk had 17 receiving TDs, the most ever by a TE. In 1975, the top four TEs in the NFL combined for 17 TD catches. — Proia

Fantasy takeaways

The 2010s were a TE-rich decade in terms of fantasy production, as 22 of the 42 seasons worth at least 225 PPR fantasy points in history were accrued since 2010. But what differentiates this position from the others is the three-season, seemingly out-of-place explosion of production from 1980 to 1983 (excluding the strike-shortened 1982 season). Todd Christensen’s 288.70 points in 1983 set a positional record that stood for 28 years, and Kellen Winslow Sr. managed at least 253.20 points in 1980, 1981 and 1983.

Looking ahead to 2021

• There have been six seasons since 1970 in which three or more tight ends recorded 1,000 yards (including 1981, shoutout to former Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, who hit 1,002 yards for the Browns that season). It has happened three times in the past 10 seasons as tight end production has ramped up, but we should expect it to happen roughly every other season now: Our projected 2021 total for the TE with the third-most receiving yards is just over the 1,000-yard marker. — Walder

• Remarkably, the year-over-year trend has the No. 1 tight end scoring 294.67 PPR fantasy points in a 17-game season, which would be only the fourth-best single-season total by a tight end in history, trailing even Travis Kelce’s 312.76 points in 2020. — Cockcroft

ESPN senior researchers Bryan Beasley and Sterling Xie, ESPN research producers Doug Clawson and Evan Kaplan, ESPN Stats & Information manager Michael Proia, ESPN analytics writer Seth Walder and ESPN Fantasy senior writer Tristan H. Cockcroft contributed to this story.

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