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When to expect a breakout for WRs, and when to give up on them

For a long time, the rule was the same: Year 3 is the breakout age for NFL wide receivers. It hardly mattered if the player struggled during his first two seasons. That third year is when you wanted him on your radar. That’s when he would make or break his career.

Then 2014 happened.

Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Jordan Matthews, Sammy Watkins and Jarvis Landry were all in the top 31 among fantasy wide receivers, and the likes of Allen Hurns, Taylor Gabriel, Brandin Cooks, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, John Brown, Donte Moncrief and Martavis Bryant made noise as well.

That historic season has raised expectations for rookie wide receivers, but production has returned to earth in recent seasons. That begs the question: Is Year 3 still an important season for wide receivers?

The answer: Sort of.

How long should you wait for a breakout?

If we look at the current stable of star wide receivers (we’ll use my latest 2019 top 25 for reference), 21 of them posted their first season with 150-plus fantasy points — roughly the threshold you’d need to reach to achieve a top-40 fantasy campaign — in their first two seasons. The exceptions are Davante Adams (third year), Adam Thielen (third), Julian Edelman (fifth) and Tyler Boyd (third).

A list of all wide receivers who have entered the league since 2007 shows that 125 have posted at least one season with 150-plus fantasy points. Interestingly, 123 of them first achieved the feat prior to their sixth season in the league. Here’s a breakdown of when those receivers reached that threshold for the first time:

Rookie season: 36 (29 percent)
Second season: 44 (35 percent)
Third season: 23 (18 percent)
Fourth season: 12 (10 percent)
Fifth season: 8 (6 percent)
Sixth season: 2 (2 percent)

Some simple math tells us that a whopping 64 percent of wide receivers who will reach that 150-point mark at some point in their career have hit it by the end of their second season. An astounding 82 percent have by the end of their third season and 92 percent by the end of their fourth season.

What does it all mean? Two things come to mind:

1. Year 2 appears to be the more accurate “breakout” year for wide receivers.

2. If a wide receiver hasn’t broken out by the end of his third season, he’s a long shot to ever reach fantasy relevance. And if he doesn’t by the end of his fourth season, you can all but cut bait.

This season’s breakout candidates

Let’s apply what we learned above to 2019 and beyond.

For starters, let’s go back to my 2019 rankings. I noted that everyone in my top 25 has already managed at least one top-25 campaign. If we dig deeper, we find a few players who have yet to reach that goal.

The first is the 49ers’ Dante Pettis, who is entering his second season after a promising rookie campaign (104 points). No worries here, as the 2018 second-round pick is right on track and positioned for a big role in his second season. The same can be said for the likes of Christian Kirk, Keke Coutee, Michael Gallup, Courtland Sutton, DaeSean Hamilton, Anthony Miller and James Washington. All failed to reach 150 points as rookies, but history suggests there’s no need to worry just yet.

The second player in my current rankings who has yet to reach 150 points is more notable: Will Fuller V. He is entering his fourth NFL season but has yet to clear 134 points in a single season. Injuries have been the obvious culprit (17 missed games), so it’s possible he could fall into the aforementioned 10 percent of receivers who reach the mark in their fourth season. If we extrapolate Fuller’s per-game production over 16 games, his point totals would’ve been 146.5 as a rookie, 181.1 in 2017 and 243.0 last season. The latter would’ve ranked 14th at the position. Hope remains for the vertical threat.

Other notable players who have yet to clear 150 points despite at least two seasons in the league: Packers WR Geronimo Allison, Panthers WR Curtis Samuel, Dolphins WRs Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant, Redskins WR Josh Doctson, Jaguars WR Chris Conley, Bengals WR John Ross, Ravens WR Chris Moore, Chiefs WR Demarcus Robinson, Patriots WR Phillip Dorsett and Broncos WR Tim Patrick.

History says most of these players will never emerge but that there will be a few exceptions. Let’s take a look at a few players from the list who are well positioned for a 2019 leap and could be those exceptions:

Allison, who went undrafted in 2016, has yet to finish a season as a top-100 fantasy wide receiver, but he was well on his way to a breakout in 2018. Working as Green Bay’s No. 3 receiver, Allison was averaging 7.25 targets per game and sat 28th in fantasy points through Week 4 prior to suffering a variety of injuries. He’s the favorite for No. 2 duties in 2019, which could allow a late breakout.

Samuel is another player on the list who appears primed for a 2019 leap. After producing 179 yards on 19 touches during an injury-plagued rookie season, the 2018 second-round pick put up 578 yards and seven touchdowns on 47 touches (137 fantasy points) in 13 games last season. Injuries have been an obvious issue, but Samuel is still only 22 years old and no lower than second in line at wide receiver for targets in Carolina.

Miami is in the midst of a rebuild, but Wilson is a name who could emerge in an offense with more questions than answers. The 26-year-old sat 25th at the position in fantasy points in 2018 prior to a season-ending hip injury. His primary competition for snaps in 2019 will be DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills and Grant. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Wilson leads the team in targets.

Ross is worth a note, as the former first-round pick and 40-yard dash record holder enters his third season. It’s possible Ross will be rejuvenated in Bengals coach Zac Taylor’s offense, but it’s hard to want to invest much in a player who has arguably been the least efficient receiver in the league over the past two seasons. Ross scored an unsustainable seven touchdowns (4.8 OTD) last season and has caught a horrific 35 percent of 60 career targets. It’s possible the 23-year-old takes a huge step forward this season (as Nelson Agholor and Tyler Boyd have the past two years), but that makes Ross worth no more than a late-round flier.

The impact of NFL draft position on fantasy relevance

To wrap up this study, I took a look at draft pedigree to see how it translated to 150-plus-point seasons. This should be no surprise, but there is a large correlation.

Incredibly, 73 percent of wide receivers selected in the first round since 2007 have posted at least one season with 150 or more fantasy points. The average season of their career in which they achieved the feat was 1.7. In fact, 27 of the 32 got there in their first two seasons, with Nelson Agholor, Tavon Austin, Demaryius Thomas, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Robert Meachem managing it in Year 3. At least one first-round wide receiver from each draft class has hit the mark except for 2008 (none drafted) and 2016 (Corey Coleman, Will Fuller V, Josh Doctson, Laquon Treadwell).

Of course, the hit rate declines relatively consistently as the draft progresses, with wide receivers selected in the sixth and seventh rounds extreme long shots for fantasy success. The likes of sixth-rounders Antonio Brown and Pierre Garcon and seventh-rounders Julian Edelman and Stevie Johnson don’t come along often. This should give you pause about investing in 2019 sixth- and seventh-round picks, including Kelvin Harmon, KeeSean Johnson and Travis Fulgham. Even if you feel one of the late-round picks could succeed, you should exercise patience. Of the seven sixth- or seventh-round wideouts who have reached the 150-point plateau, only Brown did it prior to his third season.

By the way, note that 19 undrafted wide receivers have reached the 150-plus-point mark during this window, though they aren’t included in the chart since it’s nearly impossible to track all undrafted wide receivers who have made a stop on an NFL roster. The hit rate would figure to be between 4 percent and 7 percent — a range we see for sixth- and seventh-rounders.

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