Unproven fifth-year wide receivers tend to fly below the radar for fantasy, but they offer hidden value at a compelling price for two important reasons.
If you’ve been reading the fantastic Wrong Read column from Blair Andrews this offseason, you know the WR breakout and age curves are not always what you’d expect. We can use this knowledge along with a broader look at WR breakout trends to find a few exploitable loopholes in receiver ADP.
5th-Year WR Breakouts
Blair has demonstrated that WR breakouts follow two different patterns – those for players drafted early and those who had to fight their way onto NFL rosters and keep fighting until they earned a starting role.
This fits very closely with the results from my WR breakout study from last year. It’s also interesting in terms of potential developments in NFL team building. We haven’t had a breakout season from a fourth-year WR since 2013, but we’ve had at least one from a fifth-year WR every year in that time period.1
- Only one of the 14 players was selected in the first 50 picks. Eight were selected after pick 100 or not at all.
- Nine of those players had just changed teams.
- The five highest-scoring players went on to repeat their 200-plus point seasons and established themselves among the upper echelon of fantasy WRs. The other seven did not repeat in the subsequent year. None from that group ever posted another 200-point season.2
- Fifth-year breakout WRs have the worst subsequent-year performance of WRs who break out in the first five years. Their average of 154 points is more than 50 points below the subsequent year performance for those who break out in Year 1 or Year 2.
This can be taken as fairly good news for Adam Thielen who spent the 2013 season on the practice squad before toiling for Minnesota between 2014 and 2017. As someone who had already established himself in 2016 and backed that up a season ago, the short-term future is bright. The results weren’t as good for Rishard Matthews, who fell off from his breakout season in 2016 and now suffers from a mysterious injury.
Receivers Changing Teams
While it’s generally been bad news for established WRs to switch teams, this isn’t the case for fifth-year players looking to break out.
Last year I suggested drafters keep track of Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Markus Wheaton. Each of them moved to a different circumstance with potentially improved opportunity. While none of them broke out by my standard, Woods and Goodwin both reached WR3 status, and Woods finished as WR18 in PPG.
We can see how well they performed relative to ADP by using the Fantasy Stat Explorer.
Neither player registered a positional ADP last season, but both players managed seven weeks inside the top-36 WRs.
Their ADPs are much more aggressive this season, and dynasty owners who bought at this time a season ago have realized a large profit.
The two most obvious candidates are Paul Richardson and Marqise Lee. Both players were early second-round draft picks, and history suggests they’ve already had their chances to establish themselves. However, both have overcome injury woes that limited them as young players and now have established solid statistical foundations.
Richardson is most similar to Goodwin, a vertical player changing teams. Goodwin crested 1,000 air yards for the first time in 2016 before his mini-breakout in 2017. We can see a similar development with Richardson, who finished No. 9 in the league in air yards per target.
Goodwin emerged once he escaped Buffalo, and Richardson will try to make a move similar to the one Golden Tate made on getting out of Seattle. An escape from bad surroundings helped the two leading WRs from this cohort (Emmanuel Sanders, Joe Horn) explode in Year 5.
Lee, on the other hand, bears some similarities to Woods,3 but otherwise hopes to follow the Julian Edelman or Doug Baldwin path. Both are fantasy rock stars now, but they were once perceived as low-upside players who ascended to No. 1 status only through attrition and teammate departures. This perception created extreme value for drafters when both players finished inside the top-15 WRs after going off the board at WR60 over later.4
Richardson and Lee aren’t free like some of the previous breakouts have been, but they’re cheap enough that I’ve been loading up in all formats.
Martavis Bryant and Donte Moncrief are the two sexiest names to change teams this season. Their profiles have taken substantial hits since the 2015 highs, and, after short periods of optimism for each player, offseason and training camp struggles have continued to torpedo their stock.
While I tend to like rookies and Zero RB candidates in this range, the lack of remaining downside at these prices makes it a good time to invest.
While Bryant and Moncrief have struggled in their new locations, the training camp buzz has been excellent for Ryan Grant in Indianapolis. He jumped Chester Rogers on the initial depth chart and lost a potential target competitor when Deon Cain tore his ACL.
Even before he’d gained such a strong foothold on a wide-open depth chart, John Lapinski called him the Sleeper in Plain Sight and provided the full case for a 2018 breakout. Jordan Hoover followed that up last month in the Indianapolis entry for our Super Deep Sleepers series, pointing out how his receiving profile was a perfect fit for Andrew Luck’s strengths as a passer. Check out those two pieces and you’ll be adding Grant with a late pick in every draft.
- Breakout defined as a WR’s first 200-point season. (back)
- Although Jerry Porter was obviously very close the following year before falling off the map. (back)
- A former USC prospect who built a solid but disappointing base before taking a fifth-year jump. (back)
- This is where it makes sense to reiterate that Edelman and Baldwin had different paths to relevancy than a second-round pick like Lee. (back)