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NFL Passing Yards Season Leader: Bet or Pass on Justin Herbert, Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes

NFL Passing Yards Season Leader: Bet or Pass on Justin Herbert, Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes article feature image
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Getty Images. Pictured: Justin Herbert (left), Dak Prescott (center), Patrick Mahomes (right)

Who will lead the NFL in passing yards in 2022?

Tom Brady led the league last season and it wasn’t particularly close. Brady was the third betting favorite to Patrick Mahomes (entering the season at +950), but he lapped the field, leading the league in pass attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns. He held a comfortable lead heading into Week 18 and ultimately finished with 5,316 yards, 302 more than the second place finisher (Justin Herbert).

It was Brady’s fourth passing crown and first since 2017, but it’s worth noting five quarterbacks finished with over 4,800 yards. We can’t predict random outliers, but we can use coaching schemes, passing attempts and yards per attempt (YPA) to study the numbers. There’s just one season leader, so medians and most likely outcomes are of little use. We have to imagine best-case scenarios and see where the betting value lies.

We’ll start by considering the favorites, then run through other names of note. As always, it’s all about the value at the number.

Be sure to check out the other season leader bets if you haven’t already:

How Many Passing Yards Do We Need?

Brady’s 5,316 yards led the league at an average of 313 yards per game (YPG). And while he lapped the field, six other quarterbacks averaged at least 278 YPG.

That makes it four consecutive years with at least five quarterbacks at 278 YPG or higher, meaning we need a bare minimum of 4,725 yards to even get into the conversation. Each of the past four season leaders went over 300 YPG (a 5,100-yard pace) with an average at 314 YPG (a 5,330-yard pace).

It’s important to note how much passing volume has increased. Pass attempts took a leap in 2018 and have steadily increased in the four years since, and we also now have a 17th game on the schedule. Brady led the league with 581 pass attempts (36.3 per game) in 2017; he led it again last year, but with 719 (42.3 per game). More passes means more yards, and an even higher target.

Bottom line: We need a QB with at least 4,700 yards to even consider him, and we’ll likely need north of 5,000 to pick a winner.

Should We Bet the Favorite?

Justin Herbert +650

As with any season-leader prop, we start by making a decision on the favorite. If you like the favorite, it’s likely your only play; if you bet anyone else, you’re inherently betting against the favorite.

Herbert was the runner-up last season at 5,014 yards, the only quarterback other than Brady who crossed 5K. Herbert threw the ball 672 times, which was among the league leaders and that doesn’t look like an outlier. The year before, Herbert had a nearly identical 674-attempt pace. The 7.5 YPA wasn’t an outlier either, compared to 7.3 his rookie season.

Herbert has a huge arm and can make any throw for a team ready to leap into true contention. Last year’s Chargers made massive improvements on the offensive line, and took that a step further with the addition of first-round right guard Zion Johnson. This year, L.A. should also take a huge step forward defensively.

So will that help or hurt Herbert? Hard to say. Better protection would help, but might make it easier for L.A. to run the ball. Better defense could actually hurt his yardage as well. A porous Chargers defense meant Herbert had to throw all game last season just to keep his team in the game. A better all-around team could mean more positive game scripts and running out the clock. I’m also skeptical of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who continues to limit Herbert with a heap of short, underneath throws, rather than opening it up and dialing up the deep pass.

I project Herbert at 5,165 yards, in line with his recent attempts and YPA, which means even his median outcome puts him in play. But I also have five other guys projected over 5,000, all within about 150 yards of one another, and that makes it very difficult to bet on the favorite at such a short price. The Chargers have a soft schedule out of the gates, so if you do want in, you’ll probably have to buy now.

Verdict: Not the right bet this year, especially right now.

What About Last Year’s Winner?

Tom Brady +800

Brady was one of our two plays last year at +950 and cashed with ease as he led the league in every major passing category. So why does he open the new season at such a similar number?

Last season wasn’t an outlier. Ever since the back half of the Buccaneers‘ Super Bowl season, Brady’s passing attempts have been sky high, and his 7.5 YPA with Tampa Bay matches his New England average. Multiply attempts by yards per attempt and we get our yardage total. Brady should see huge volume and another good YPA. I project him at 5,100 yards.

There are other reasons to doubt. Brady’s 45, after all, and will begin the year with three new, worse offensive linemen. Interior pressure has been Brady’s kryptonite at times and he’s not exactly mobile. The Bucs also saw their defense get ravaged by injuries last season, forcing Brady to throw more to stay in games. And don’t forget, Tampa is missing Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown this time around. The Buccaneers will also be without Chris Godwin for at least the start of the season.

It’s fair to expect at least a small regression in YPA and potentially fewer attempts, too. Brady isn’t the best bet right now, especially since he starts the season with a killer stretch against the Cowboys, Saints and Packers.

Verdict: Not the right bet this year, especially right now.

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5,000 Yards Is Too Big an Ask

Russell Wilson +3400

Wilson is a talented player on a new team, and at such an oddly long number, it sure does seem tempting to throw a few bucks on him. It’s probably not the right way to invest in Wilson, though. His career high is just 4,219 yards, maybe a thousand short of what we need. No matter how much is unknown about his Denver situation, that’s a mammoth gap to close.

Wilson had famously low passing attempts in Seattle’s run-heavy offense, but the Packers ran quite a bit under Nathaniel Hackett, too, and they also played at a very slow pace. As good as Rodgers was these past two seasons while winning MVP, he never put up big yardage totals. It was all about touchdowns and efficiency. If you want to invest in Wilson, there are better ways — like passing touchdowns, where he’s my recommended play.

Aaron Rodgers +2900

Rodgers might look tempting with long odds — but he’s not a great bet for similar reasons. Rodgers posted 4,299 and 4,115 passing yards the past two seasons, respectively. Not bad, but nowhere near the race for this crown. It was his eye-popping TD-INT numbers, efficiency and winning that did the trick for back-to-back MVP awards. Rodgers’ career high was 4,643 yards in 2011 and that’s his only time crossing 4,500.

Green Bay is expected to run the ball more this season with Davante Adams gone, and an improved defense should only amplify that. Again, if you want to invest in Rodgers and the Packers, this isn’t the way to do it.

Not the Right Value with Short Odds

Josh Allen +1200

Allen threw for 4,544 yards as the runner-up MVP two years ago, then tallied 4,407 yards last season. Those are certainly good totals, but they’re also well short of what we’re looking for. Even though those yardage totals are similar, the way he got there wasn’t. Allen actually fell way off in YPA and overall efficiency last year, but that was offset by a big leap in pass attempts and frequency, from 11th to fifth in the league. That math could work in our favor, if the attempts remain high and the efficiency returns.

It’s probably not the right bet, though. It’s better to think of 2020 as the outlier rather than the exception until proven otherwise, and it’s fair to wonder how the loss of Brian Daboll could negatively impact Allen’s production. Buffalo also started running the ball more late in the year and invested a high draft pick at running back. Lastly, the Bills have an elite defense and soft schedule and may not be forced to throw a ton.

Derek Carr +1000

Carr was a surprise contender in this category last fall, finishing in the top five at 4,804 yards. He’s been a trendy sleeper pick this year, which has shortened his odds significantly. Carr has been extremely efficient with over 7.7 YPA in each of the past three seasons and the Raiders went very pass heavy last year as Carr finished seventh in the league in attempts.

That’s four straight seasons over 4,000 yards and it would be easy to expect another leap after the addition of Davante Adams. But Adams wasn’t the only key addition to this offense. New head coach Josh McDaniels will have a much bigger say in Carr’s yardage total than Adams, and I’m not sure that’s good news.

The Patriots were almost always top eight in rushing attempts with McDaniels running the offense, and they were often near the bottom in passing. Even if that evens out a bit, that could still mean a drop in volume for Carr. Perhaps that gets offset by a jump in YPA, and it’s easy to see a world where the Raiders are passing from behind all year with a blah defense in a loaded division. But at the end of the day, Carr’s yardage total last year looks more like a high-end outcome than a starting point.

Matthew Stafford +1000

Stafford, who has long been a huge yardage guy, finished third last year at 4,886. He’s surpassed that total twice previously and has already racked up nine 4,000-yard seasons in his career.

Stafford has also been a huge passing attempts guy historically, leading the league twice. But that wasn’t the reason for his jump last year. The Rams actually tend to be pretty balanced offensively and emphasize the run in order to open up the passing game. They’ve ranked around 10th in passing attempts the past two years and actually dropped significantly in run rate last year due to banged up running backs.

Stafford’s high yardage total last season was due mostly to an elite 8.1 YPA. While Sean McVay’s offense tends to increase YPA efficiency, you still need volume and Stafford might not get a ton of it — especially if the team tries to save his arm at times because of a lingering elbow injury. Missing even one game could be a death knell in this race, and it doesn’t help that stud pass-blocking left tackle Andrew Whitworth is now retired.

Stafford does not look like a smart volume play this year, but I’ve still got four guys projected over 5,000 yards who are worth considering.

Should Be in Contention, But Pass

Joe Burrow +1000

Burrow’s passing volume took a notable and important jump late in the year. From Week 14 forward, the Bengals leapt from 19th to seventh in pass frequency, and they threw it even more during their playoff run. During that final stretch of the season, Burrow threw around 36 times per game, a total also matched in the playoffs. He only ranked 15th in pass attempts last season at 520, but a jump to 36 per game would put him at 612 (sixth most).

That’s huge, and it’s significant if Burrow stays as ridiculously efficient with his passes. Burrow had an absurd 8.96 YPA last fall, and if he can match that again, he likely wins this crown. But Cincinnati had wild, historically outlier explosive plays on deep balls last year, and a handful of big plays can really skew YPA. Burrow dropped back to 7.8 YPA in the playoffs — still great! — and should regress in that area as teams scheme to stop the deep ball.

Still, 600 attempts at 8.0 YPA would put Burrow in play at 4,800 yards, and he could top both of those numbers. He feels like a name who could and should be in play for all the season leader categories and I do project him over 5,000. I’m just not willing to buy him at peak value (+1000) when we can invest in others at a similar price and better value.

Patrick Mahomes +800

Mahomes ranked third in attempts last season and fourth in yardage. He threw for 4,839 yards and has averaged at least 285 yards per game all four years as a starter, setting his floor at last year’s total and putting him firmly in this race. Mahomes led the league with 316 YPG in 2020 and topped 5,000 yards in his debut season, though he’s never won the yardage crown.

The Chiefs leapt from around league average to top three in passing attempts each of the past two years, so the volume should certainly be there for Mahomes. Tyreek Hill is gone, but the Chiefs still have Mahomes’ security blanket (Travis Kelce) and reloaded the receiver room by adding JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and rookie Skyy Moore. Hill’s blazing speed will be missed, but it is possible Kansas City’s receivers will be as good — or better — with the added diversity of skillsets.

The big question is at YPA. Mahomes averaged an outrageous 8.8 YPA in his debut season and was over eight every year until last, when he dropped to 7.6. That’s still awesome for most mortals, but it was a huge drop for Mahomes, and it came in a year when so many teams played deep safeties to scheme away the deep ball and force him to check down. He did adjust to that, but it’s fair to expect that the YPA may not bounce back to the mid 8s with Hill gone and defenses playing as such.

Still, Mahomes should threaten 5,000 yards again and he has the ability to blow away this field if his outrageous YPA returns on top of the huge volume. The Chiefs’ defense isn’t great and their run game isn’t a threat, so Mahomes will have to keep throwing. He was a sizable favorite in this category last year at +350, so we’re getting a nice discount this season.

If you want to bet on a favorite who will be in the mix all season, Mahomes is the best play at +800.

The Best Values Available

Kirk Cousins +2200

Cousins has been a big yardage threat most of his career. He’s surpassed 4,000 yards in six of seven seasons as a starter and averaged 307 YPG in 2016 en route to 4,917 yards. Cousins has an outstanding career YPA at 7.7, and he’s been at 7.5 YPA or higher in all but one year as a starter.

The key is new head coach Kevin O’Connell, who is expected to open up this offense with pre-snap movement and get Cousins throwing more often. The Vikings have a pair of terrific receivers in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, and Cousins should surpass 600 attempts. His YPA dropped to 7.5 last season, the second lowest of his career, but O’Connell’s offenses have inflated YPAs in the past. Cousins has gone over 8.0 YPA four times in seven seasons and it’s reasonable to expect him to threaten that number again in this potentially explosive offense.

Dalvin Cook is a great runner, too, and the offense probably won’t skew wildly pass heavy, so that could put a bit of a ceiling on Cousins. Still, he’s a real threat for 5,000 yards, which would put him in the mix. That makes him a good long-shot play at +2200.

Dak Prescott +1400

Prescott looked like the early yardage favorite last fall. He threw the ball an astonishing 222 times in five 2020 games, a campaign shortened by a gruesome leg injury. No one expected that eye-popping 44-plus attempts per game to continue, but then Prescott threw the ball 58 times in the 2021 opener and racked up 403 yards. But even as the Cowboys succeeded, Prescott’s season was up and down as he struggled in his return from injury.

Now with more time to recover, he could be in for a monster volume year. Kellen Moore has the Cowboys throwing early and often. They finished second in team passing yardage last season and second in attempts in 2020. That could be amplified further if Dallas’ defense regresses as expected, forcing Prescott to throw more often instead of protecting leads. Prescott had nearly 600 attempts in 2021 (even after missing a game and playing hurt), so he could cross 650 this season and maybe even approach 700.

Will the efficiency be there? Prescott’s 7.5 YPA last year was a downswing from eight plus the previous two years, and below his career average (7.6). It won’t help that Dallas has issues on the offensive line and Tyron Smith’s absence is worrisome. The Cowboys are also short on receiving options with Amari Cooper gone and Michael Gallup injured.

If Prescott stops at 650 passes and 7.5 YPA, he probably falls short of this crown at 4,875 yards. But remember, that’s a low-end outlook. Add in a few attempts and a slight uptick in efficiency and Prescott finishes well north of 5,000. He’s very much in play for this crown and is actually my projected leader at 5,181 yards. He shapes up similarly to Brady last year, with a leaky defense that led to huge volume.

Prescott was the second favorite in this category at +600 last fall, so we’re getting a huge discount at more than double that price this year. The numbers say he’s badly mispriced, the one must-play on the board here.

Passing Yards Verdict

If you prefer a favorite, Mahomes +800 looks like the play. Cousins is the best long shot at +2200, but the best bet on the board is Prescott at +1400. He’s my outright pick to lead the league in passing yards.

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