Peyton Manning alluded to the “winds of change” during Sunday’s well-received Hall of Fame induction speech. Manning surely knows about change as it relates to the NFL record book. When he retired in 2016, Manning held the career records for passing yards and touchdown passes. Both of those marks have since been broken by Drew Brees and Tom Brady. Brees joined Manning in retirement this past offseason, while Brady (who broke Manning’s single-season mark for touchdown passes in 2007) has shown no signs of slowing down as he enters his 22nd season....
Manning did manage to hold on to one of his records by the time he received his gold jacket and bronze bust. His 5,477 yards passing in 2013 — which broke Brees’ 2011 record by a single yard — remains the all-time record. The closest anyone has come to matching Manning’s mark was in 2016, when Brees threw for a whopping 5,208 yards en route to his seventh and final passing title. The active quarterback who has come the closest to Manning’s record is Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for a career-high 5,129 yards during the 2018 season.
Quarterbacks will have an extra game to break Manning’s mark in 2021, as the NFL extended the regular season to 17 games this offseason. With that in mind, CBS Sports has put together a ranking of the five quarterbacks who have the best shot at breaking Manning’s record this season.
1. Patrick Mahomes
The former league and Super Bowl MVP garners the top spot on this list. Mahomes finished just 84 yards shy of winning his first passing title in 2020 despite sitting out Kansas City’s regular-season finale. In the only season in which has played in all 16 games, Mahomes threw for 5,097 yards during his breakout 2018 campaign. Mahomes averaged nearly 308 passing yards per game in his first 46 regular-season starts. That average would put him at 5,230 yards if he plays in all 17 games in 2021.
Despite Sammy Watkins’ departure, Mahomes still has one of the league’s best receiving corps, a group that includes Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson. The Chiefs added depth to the group by selecting former Clemson wideout Cornell Powell in the fifth round. Kansas City also put considerable energy this offseason into improving its protection of Mahomes. Along with trading for Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown, the Chiefs also signed veterans Austin Blythe and Kyle Long. They also drafted former Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey in the second round and former Tennessee tackle Trey Smith in the sixth round.
2. Tom Brady
Barring injury, Brady will finish the 2021 season as the NFL’s career passing leader. He may also break Manning’s single-season passing record after finishing third in the league in passing during his first year in Tampa. After having just two 300-yard games during his first nine starts, Brady averaged 319 passing yards per game during his last seven starts of the 2020 season. Brady should pick up where he left off in 2020 after having one season and two offseasons inside Bruce Arians’ and Byron Leftwich’s offense.
Protected by one of the league’s top offensive lines, Brady also has arguably the NFL’s best receiving corps that includes Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Scott Miller. The Buccaneers are also hoping to get contributions from rookie Jaelon Darden and second-year receiver Tyler Johnson.
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3. Dak Prescott
Prescott averaged 3,625 passing yards during his first three seasons in Dallas. He threw for 4,902 yards (over 1,000 yards more than his previous career high) in 2019 and was on pace to throw for more than 6,300 yards five games into the 2020 season. Prescott will look to pick up where he left off last season after missing the season’s final 11 games after undergoing ankle surgery.
As he has had throughout his career, Prescott will continue to be complemented in the backfield by Ezekiel Elliott, who reportedly arrived to camp in the best shape of his career. Prescott also has a dangerous receiving trio in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup. The return of linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La’el Collins should also help Prescott’s productivity in 2021.
4. Josh Allen
Allen had an even bigger statistical jump last season than the one Prescott enjoyed in 2019. After throwing for 3,089 yards in 2019, Allen finished fifth in the NFL with 4,544 yards in 2020. He had an instant connection with Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards during his first season in Buffalo. Along with Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis, Allen will have a chance to work with Emmanuel Sanders, who in 14 games caught 61 of 82 targets for 726 yards and five touchdowns during his only season with the Saints. Allen will be protected by an offensive line that ranked 10th in the league last season by Pro Football Focus. Buffalo added to its depth on the line during the draft with the selections of former Northern Iowa tackle Spencer Brown and former Miami tackle Tommy Doyle.
Buffalo’s adverse weather could be Allen’s biggest obstacle in terms of possibly breaking Manning’s record. Allen averaged 242 passing yards in his eight home games last season, compared to his 326 yards per game average on the road. Five of Allen’s final eight games in 2021 will be played in Buffalo, including the season’s final two games against the Falcons and Jets. And while Allen will get to enjoy the indoor comforts of the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans in Week 12, he will have to face the Buccaneers’ stingy defense in Tampa in Week 14.
5. Aaron Rodgers
The league’s MVP finished seventh in the NFL in passing in 2020. Rodgers beat out Justin Herbert for the fifth and final spot on the list largely for his experience as well as his motivation to have another banner year following a tumultuous offseason. Rodgers represents one-half of the league’s best QB-WR duo; the other half of that combo is Davante Adams, who caught a league-best 18 touchdowns last season. Also returning for the Packers are receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling (690 receiving yards and three touchdowns last season), tight end Robert Tonyan (who finished second on the team with 11 touchdown receptions) and veteran wideout Allen Lazard. The Packers are also hoping to get considerable contributions from rookie wideout Amari Rodgers, who caught 77 passes for 1,020 yards and seven touchdowns during his final season at Clemson.
Green Bay’s frigid winter climate may be a late-season obstacle for Rodgers if he is on pace to threaten Manning’s record heading into the final quarter of the season. Running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon will also play a role in Rodgers’ production, as Green Bay has high hopes for its running back duo.