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The 7 Breakout WRs You Must Own in 2016

Breakout performances win fantasy titles. In fantasy football, the biggest risk you can take is playing it safe. There’s a big difference, however, between taking informed risks and indiscriminately investing in unproven players. It’s vital to understand the relationship between a player’s likely range of outcomes and the price we’re forced to pay.

In The Anatomy of a Breakout, I studied breakout trends from the past 15 years and found plenty of evidence that we want to target second year players without forgetting that third- and fourth-year players also break out.

In studying the variables that help predict PPR scoring, these are statistically significant in projecting one or more of the relevant “breakout” seasons:

  • Previous year’s NFL production
  • Early declare
  • Collegiate market share receiving yards (career and final season)
  • Collegiate breakout age
  • Draft expectation

That research fits closely with other research we’ve presented on the site:

For each breakout candidate I will present their projected numbers according to my research,1 their projected numbers based on a simple Screener projection,2 their PPR points implied by ADP, and their projection according to our staff composite from the Projection Machine.

Our various projections create an excellent starting point, but they’re not our only source of actionable information. We also must consider opportunity in the form of team pace, run/pass splits, and targets vacated. We’ll discuss all this and more as we look at the seven breakout WRs to target in 2016.

The Wild Card

No. 7 Sammie Coates

Receiver 2015 Points 2016 Breakout 2016 Screener ADP Expect Projection Machine
Sammie Coates 2.1 57.2 59.8 120 99

Coates was the headliner for my article on 7 Freakish Athletes Who Might Be On the Verge of Stardom. He posted a 41-inch vertical, a 4.43 forty, and a 6.98 three-cone at 212 pounds. Kevin Cole’s analysis finds that receivers who weigh more than 208 pounds and run a sub-7.0 three-cone have the highest success rate. Fantasy owners are hoping Coates can fill the role vacated by Martavis Bryant, and Coates is even more athletic than his teammate.

The questions about Coates focus on his production. Nate Forster gave the Auburn star the second best Playmaker score from the 2015 class – ahead of players like Kevin White and Devante Parker – but my research favored Cole’s analysis which emphasized career market share yards. Once we consider his nonexistent rookie stats, his opportunity-agnostic Year 2 projection is weak.

On the other hand, running opposite Antonio Brown and catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger is probably the No. 1 situation in the NFL, or perhaps No. 2 behind Randall Cobb‘s situation in Green Bay. Since he was blocked by Bryant in 2015, we have a straightforward explanation for his rookie struggles. Fantasy Douche argues that when players with disappointing production make the jump, it often corresponds with a sea change in opportunity. We have that here.

Bryant averaged 8.4 targets per game last season despite playing on only 67 percent of the snaps, almost the same percentage as Markus Wheaton.

Pitt 2015 WR Snaps

As you can see, Bryant’s snaps came at the expense of Darrius Heyward-Bey. Due to the camp reports that Coates is starting in three-receiver sets and may be ahead of Wheaton in two-receiver sets, we have a strong opportunity-based thesis for Coates.

The Opportunity Play

No. 6 Phillip Dorsett

Receiver 2015 Points 2016 Breakout 2016 Screener ADP Expect Projection Machine
Phillip Dorsett 48.2 82.3 87.4 118 120

The entire Indianapolis offense may be wildly overvalued, but I’m like everyone else in one regard. I’d like to own a piece. You have Andrew Luck, aka Sexy Andy Dalton, helming an offense that’s losing 161 targets. What’s not to like?


Colts splitsDorsett doesn’t possess a sterling production resume, but it’s shocking to get a 2015 first round pick in this offense at this price. The transition of small WRs to the NFL appears best foreshadowed by early collegiate performance and extreme speed.3 Dorsett led Miami with 842 yards as a college sophomore and is one of the fastest players in the NFL.

Moreover, his competition for targets is unimpressive beyond T.Y. Hilton. Donte Moncrief and Dwayne Allen have reputations far beyond their on-field accomplishments, and the Colts appear to be counting on a rookie UDFA for the RB receptions. All of the Indianapolis skill players might be good picks from a variance-seeking, contingency-based perspective, but Dorsett is easily the best value.

The Post-Hype First Round Pick

No. 5 Nelson Agholor

Receiver 2015 Points 2016 Breakout 2016 Screener ADP Expect Projection Machine
Nelson Agholor 56.9 121.3 98.9 103 112

I’ll just stipulate right from the outset that Agholor is difficult to pull the trigger on. It doesn’t help that practice reports have not been glowing. Fortunately, that lack of buzz leaves him with a very palatable ADP.

Despite his abysmal rookie season, Agholor owns a much better 2016 projection than the trendy tandem of Coates and Dorsett. The No. 20 pick last season, his draft status helps him. He also managed a better career and final season market share of yards.

Agholor Dorsett Coates

Although he was a reach by the Eagles, Agholor was a solid prospect, and his rookie struggles can be partly explained by an ankle injury.

As Philadelphia appears unlikely to run a high-powered or fast-paced offense, the argument for Agholor is closely tied to the skeptical vision of Jordan Matthews. If Matthews struggles to recover from his knee injury or plays only in three-receiver formations, then Agholor owns a path to significant volume. Agholor is expected to play the same role in Doug Pederson’s offense that Jeremy Maclin manned last year in Kansas City. In a slow-paced, run-oriented scheme, Maclin earned a 27 percent target share, caught 70 percent of his targets, averaged 8.8 yards per target, and managed a 6.5 percent TD rate.

That level of efficiency is unlikely for an unproven player with a sketchy QB situation, but he may get buoyed by even more volume. The Eagles should be competitive without being dominant. If they play to win, their fourth quarter passing percentage could be much higher than KC’s in 2015.

Author’s Note (8/18): The Dorial Green-Beckham trade complicates matters for Agholor. Both players are undervalued when you compare the breakout projection to points implied by ADP, and both players do have opportunity in this offense. On the other hand, the acquisition of DGB doesn’t reflect well on the Eagles’ interval evaluation of Agholor, and the price they paid for DGB does not suggest a high degree of enthusiasm for his chances either.

The Forgotten Man

No. 4 Willie Snead

Receiver 2015 Points 2016 Breakout 2016 Screener ADP Expect Projection Machine
Willie Snead 187 159.2 128.2 140 189

Okay, what am I doing? I’m chasing this guy. Nope. He’s chasing me.

Over his last two years at Ball State, Snead posted a combined line of 195-2664-24. He was good enough in his final campaign that it generates this list of draft-agnostic comps.


He then went undrafted as GMs instead targeted players who were not good in college.4 After spending 2014 on various practice squads, he immediately emerged in New Orleans with 984 yards and 3 TDs. If you want to bet on production, Snead is as easy as it gets.

Actually, it gets a little easier when you consider that the Saints lost 177 targets in the form of Ben Watson and Marques Colston. Drafters are betting heavily on Coby Fleener and overvalued rookie Michael Thomas.

Snead has spent the offseason working with Drew Brees to hone his craft. Our staff Projection Machine composite expects Brees to lead the NFL in attempts, making this a situation where betting on the breakout is just as safe as it is high-upside.

The Slot Machine

No. 3 Jamison Crowder

Receiver 2015 Points 2016 Breakout 2016 Screener ADP Expect Projection Machine
Jamison Crowder 131.6 140.2 140.2 93 43

Crowder was a more productive college player than higher profile small WRs from the 2015 class like Dorsett, Devin Smith, and Rashad Greene.Crowder v WorldHe then scored more rookie fantasy points than the other three combined.5 That leads into Crowder’s 2016 projection of 140 fantasy points, or 47 more than implied by his ADP.

It’s tempting to say that Crowder doesn’t have enough upside to burn a late round pick. He averaged 10.2 yards per catch last year and scored only 2 TDs. On the other hand, we have ample evidence at this point that small receivers can be target magnets, and that slot receivers like Jarvis Landry and Randall Cobb can bridge into WR1 territory.

Almost everyone will tell you Crowder isn’t anywhere near that league, but those guys had plenty of skeptics along the way. Consider that Crowder was more productive than Cobb as a rookie, owns a better Screener projection than Devante Parker, and was the unquestioned star of offseason work. Writers in Washington are cautioning that Josh Doctson may have to force his way past Pierre Garcon for playing time because the coaches do not want to take Crowder off the field.

The Dollar Store Megatron

No. 2 Devin Funchess

Receiver 2015 Points 2016 Breakout 2016 Screener ADP Expect Projection Machine
Devin Funchess 108.3 156.7 154.1 123 129

Funchess inspires strong feelings in his detractors because he didn’t score well in Michigan’s woebegone offense and didn’t earn a large target share in Carolina’s wide open WR corps as a rookie. Fortunately, those demerits keep his ADP in a very favorable range for investors.

Funchess is one of 7 Athletic Freaks Primed for Breakout, and many don’t realize that the 6-foot-3, 232-pound specimen jumped 38.5 inches at the combine and turned in a 6.98 three-cone at his pro day. That type of athleticism at such an imposing size gives him mammoth upside.

We can help calibrate that upside by investigating his laundry list of ridiculous comps. The Box Score Scout included Alshon Jeffery and Michael Floyd on his list of pre-draft comparables. Those names were joined by Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, Josh Gordon and Vincent Jackson after running his controversial rookie campaign through the Similarity Score app. When you consider that disappointing prospects like Rueben Randle, Jon Baldwin, and Reggie Williams also appear on both lists, you get a sense of the extremely wide range of potential outcomes.

Sim Score Comparables

Devin Funchess YOY

Funchess is actually mildly underrated as a producer with a 40 percent market share of receiving yards in his final year in college and better than advertised rookie points. He looks like a bargain at his ADP based on historical results and was the star of offseason workouts. If reports that he’s moved ahead of Ted Ginn and Corey Brown prove accurate in camp, we could see his ADP go screaming north.

The One

No. 1 Stefon Diggs

Receiver 2015 Points 2016 Breakout 2016 Screener ADP Expect Projection Machine
Stefon Diggs 149.3 177.8 152.9 132 195

Diggs’ ADP represents serious skepticism that a late round draft pick can be much more than a one-year wonder. But Diggs wasn’t a one-year wonder, he was a stealth superstar in college. Consider his three years of production versus the first three years for Sterling Shepard.

Diggs v Shepard

Or we can compare him to his new running mate.

Diggs v Treadwell

Diggs doesn’t just benefit from a comparison to these two cherry-picked examples. He also compares favorably to last year’s No. 7 overall pick Kevin White, gaining the same number of yards-per-team-attempt as a freshman at Maryland that White managed as a senior at West Virginia. Of course, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if not for his surprising rookie year. Diggs earned a higher target market share (23 to 22) than Amari Cooper. He was also more efficient in terms of fantasy points over expectation per target (0.39 to 0.31).

Diggs is being drafted 20 spots after Shepard, 27 spots after White, 7 spots after Treadwell, and 78 spots after Cooper.

And it’s not like Diggs is some boring possession guy. He authored some of the most thrilling highlights of the 2015 season.

The Quick Wrap

Trendy 2016 breakout candidates like Tyler Lockett, Devante Parker, and Donte Moncrief don’t make the list. I love Lockett as a reality player, but his recent ADP bump pushes him into dangerous territory in Seattle’s low-volume offense. I own shares of Parker, but I’ll explain why Kevin Cole’s top breakout candidate is just outside my target range in a subsequent piece. For Moncrief enthusiasts, I could easily be wrong, but it looks like fantasy owners are buying the wrong breakout candidate in Indianapolis.

Here’s a look at the second-, third-, and fourth-year receivers I considered for this piece. You can see their projections according to my research, according to the RotoViz Screener, according to points implied by ADP, and according to our Projection Machine composite. I like the Projection Machine results because they include opportunity, team pace and run/pass splits, and the wisdom of crowds. I like the two algorithmic projections because they look unbiased as related to the scoring implied by ADP.

As always, my goal is not to make your fantasy decisions for you but to offer the evidence necessary for you to make informed selections during your drafts.

Receiver2015 Points2016 Breakout2016 ScreenerADP ExpectProjection Machine
Stefon Diggs149.3177.8152.9132195
Tyler Lockett155.4154.5150.5164173
Willie Snead187159.2128.2140189
Devin Funchess108.3156.7154.1123129
Devante Parker93.4151.9129.1168219
Tavon Austin196.7148.6161.1136160
Donte Moncrief173.3148.9157.2185209
Dorial Green-Beckham110.9144.9149.3128170
Jamison Crowder131.6140.2140.29343
Terrance Williams154135.1134.1107142
Markus Wheaton148.9125.5130.9130144
Nelson Agholor56.9121.398.9103112
Robert Woods120.2113.1112.8101126
Davante Adams105.5105.7119.29524
Phillip Dorsett48.282.387.4118120
Sammie Coates2.159.859.612099

  1. I’ve previously teased an article on this, and it will be out soon. I’m releasing the Breakout list today as I’ll be discussing it on the Numbers Game pod tonight.  (back)
  2. points, age, draft  (back)
  3. In contrast to their larger brethren who project almost entirely based on career and final season receiving market share.  (back)
  4. If you suspect that being good in college is a bare minimum requirement for being a good NFL player, you would be right.  (back)
  5. His peers can make injury excuses.  (back)

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