It’s a new era of the National Football League.
The expansion to a 17-game regular season will have an impact on all-time records and statistical data. Our John Dixon laid out all those implications on Saturday — mainly pointing out how much more likely it is for a quarterback to have a 5,000-yard passing season.
With more passing yards come more receiving yards, quite obviously. The Kansas City Chiefs are near locks to have two players surpass 1,000 receiving yards in the regular season: Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill have earned 1,000 yards each in the same season three of the last four years. In 2019, Hill missed four games due to injury — but he was on a 16-game pace for 1,093 yards.
In 2020, Hill and Kelce combined for 2,692 yards — or 57% of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ regular-season passing yards. That left 2,048 yards to be shared among the rest of the receiving corps. If you extrapolate Mahomes’ passing yards over 17 games rather than the 15 games he played in 2020, he would total 5,372 yards. If Kelce and Hill eat up the same percentage of his yards, that would leave 2,321 yards for the remaining receivers — but it will be hard to repeat such an unprecedented, significant market share of the yards.
That leads me to the big question:
Is there a third pass-catcher that can account for 1,000 of those remaining yards?
It’d be a historic feat: It’s only happened five times in NFL history. It hasn’t been done since the Arizona Cardinals accomplished it in the 2008 season. The 2019 Los Angeles Chargers were seven receiving yards by running back Austin Ekeler away from earning that accolade, but no other team has gotten as close.
Realistically, there are only two candidates that could step up and earn 1,000 of the remaining receiving yards. I examined how likely it is that either of them makes that leap in 2021:
Hardman is the more likely of the two candidates to get 1,000 yards — but it would take a tremendous season from both him and the offense. The third-leading receiver on a Chiefs team coached by Andy Reid has never topped 700 receiving yards; Sammy Watkins got to 673 in 2019 mainly because of Hill missing time for injury.
However, the third-leading receiver has averaged 69 targets in the three seasons with Mahomes as the starter. Over 17 games, that increases to 73 targets. Hardman has a career rate of 10.7 yards per target — but in his rookie year of 2019, he averaged 13.1 yards every pass thrown his way. If he were that efficient on 73 targets, he’d total 956 receiving yards.
13.1 yards per target is an exorbitant rate and would be difficult to repeat. That said, Hardman’s speed and big-play ability give him a better chance than most receivers. Plus, he accomplished that in a rookie season where he showed inconsistencies as a true receiver. If that aspect of his game improves, there’s a chance he could approach that level of efficiency again based on not having as many targets fall incomplete.
On top of all that, he has the obvious advantage of Kelce and Hill taking the majority of the defense’s attention. If Hardman can earn more targets than the typical third-leading receiver in a Chiefs offense, the big plays he is capable of could push him to the 1,000-yard mark.
With all the hype surrounding the receiving ability of second-year running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, it’s worth exploring how likely he is to have a historic season and top 1,000 receiving yards out of the backfield — even if it is highly unlikely.
Only five running backs in NFL history have ever earned over 1,000 receiving yards; the Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffery is the only one to do so since the turn of the century. Additionally, only three backs have ever earned that total while also gaining more than 1,000 rushing yards.
Most rec. yds by a RB on a Reid-coached team:— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) July 19, 2021
07 Westbrook 771 (in 15 gms)
04 Westbrook 703 (13)
06 Westbrook 699 (15)
13 Jamaal 693 (15)
Could we see CEH crack into this list? With Kelce/Hill it might be tough, but he also might be the 3rd option this yr. 17 games too
If any coach can feature a running back enough to get them to 1,000 yards, it’s Andy Reid. That said, no back of his has ever topped 800 yards in a single season. In 2004, Philadelphia Eagles running back Brian Westbrook gained 703 in 13 games; in a 17-game schedule, that pace would have gotten him to 919 yards. Since Charles’ big receiving year in 2013, no Chiefs back has earned more than 460 yards through the air.
The case for it to happen is the variety of ways they can get Edwards-Helaire involved as a receiver. He’ll line up in the slot, he can go on intermediate routes from the backfield, and there’s always the threat of Reid’s screen plays.
If a second wide receiver doesn’t establish themselves as the third passing target, Edwards-Helaire could be even more heavily featured as a pass-catcher. With the downfield passing game always on the mind of opposing defenses, the short-to-intermediate areas will be vulnerable for a dynamic, open-field back such as Edwards-Helaire.
It will be very tough for a player behind Hill and Kelce to take up that amount of the team’s pass production. Historically, the Chiefs have spread the wealth pretty evenly after the two star receivers. It will take one of the two players mentioned above to consistently dominate his matchup each week for him to get enough opportunity.
If one of them can become that big of a difference-maker, the Chiefs’ offense is likely at its peak performance of the Mahomes era.