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4 Second-Year WR Breakout Candidates You Must Own And 1 Big Red Flag to Avoid

While third-year wide receivers used to hog the spotlight, more receivers break out in Year 2 than any other. This is the group you have to own to dominate your league, yet red flags and traps abound. We look at three projection systems and WR ADP to locate the league winners and avoid the busts. 

Emphasizing Second-Year WRs

Blair Andrews has been doing excellent work on breakout players for the Wrong Read. Although I use slightly different standards for what constitutes a breakout, our findings dovetail in the critical areas. In the previous installment, we discussed the 21 players who have reached 200 points for the first time during their third campaigns.1 Eighteen rookies have reached that level. By contrast, 32 second-year players reached that plateau for the first time.

This fits with what Blair’s study of receivers first hitting WR2 status.

Last season, Robby Anderson joined the group. Despite scoring 117 points as a rookie, he went off the board at WR59 before finishing as the overall WR15.

Year 2 WR Breakouts – 2001 to 2017

PlayerYearDraftRookieYear 2Year 3
Josh Gordon201333159.7314.454.3
Larry Fitzgerald20053185.4308199.6
Allen Robinson201561114.8304197.3
Victor Cruz2012UDFA0291.8255.2
Alshon Jeffery20134578.7283.6261.6
Brandon Marshall200711964.1282.2266.1
Calvin Johnson20082158.8282202.7
Jarvis Landry201563189.4268.45233.5
Brandin Cooks201520139.3253.6246.3
DeSean Jackson200949178.8253.4204.2
Hakeem Nicks201029161.7250.2232
Mike Wallace201084155.4249.2245
Koren Robinson2002999.9237.6180.1
Randall Cobb20126468236.6106.1
DeAndre Hopkins201427144.2233329.1
Andre Johnson20043190230.2144.8
Jeremy Maclin201019154.5229.1179
Darrell Jackson200180160.2228.2174
Nate Burleson20047186.1227.568.2
Allen Hurns2015UDFA154.7227100.7
Ty Hilton201392181221.9260.5
Rod Gardner200215145.7219.7159.3
Greg Jennings200752126.2217263.1
Tyrell Williams2016UDFA17216.9139.8
Kendall Wright201320148.6215.8169.9
Chad Johnson20023666.9215.6285.5
Dez Bryant201124136.5211.6301.7
John Brown201591147209.5103.7
Percy Harvin201022188.5204.8263.5
Plaxico Burress2001851.3202.8252.5
Michael Floyd201313113.2201.4167.2
Robby Anderson2017UDFA116.9200NA
  • 32 players broke out, including 14 first-round picks.
  • Brandon Marshall was the only drafted player selected after the first 100 picks.
  • Victor Cruz, Allen Hurns, Tyrell Williams, and Anderson broke out as former UDFAs.
  • The seven smallest rookie point totals were from Cruz (0), Williams (17), Plaxico Burress (51.3), Marshall (64.1), Chad Johnson (66.9), Randall Cobb (68), and Alshon Jeffery (78.7).
  • The three easiest players to target were Larry FitzgeraldCalvin Johnson, and Andre Johnson. All were top-3 reality picks and scored 150 or more points as rookies.
  • Of the 31 players with a third season, 17 again returned WR2 value or better. Four of those who did not were from the last two seasons (Allen Robinson, John Brown, T. Williams, and Hurns).
  • Second-year breakouts averaged over 200 points in Year 3, a departure from the weaker numbers of those in the third-, fourth-, and fifth-year breakout classes.

How Do We Select Breakouts?

There are two main mistakes that drafters make in selecting second-year WRs.

  • Using only their first year performance and projecting them the same way you would established veterans.
  • Wildly loading up on every trendy player, assuming that breakouts will carry you to victory regardless of ADP.

We can dispel the first myth quickly. As Blair has demonstrated, second-year receivers are the only experience grouping to see their points increase from the previous season.

In order to capitalize on this, we want to target the right players, and we can do this by understanding what elements of a player’s profile help us predict his second season.

  • Year 1 performance
  • Collegiate age-adjusted performance.2
  • Breakout age
  • Whether the player declared early for the NFL draft.
  • Adjusted draft position

If you read this summer’s WR projection series,3 you’re familiar with the general concepts. It’s perhaps worth emphasizing the role that college experience plays. In warning against the selection of DeVante Parker as a breakout player two years ago, I mentioned that staying in college four years was one of his numerous red flags.4

Average PPR Points Over First Two Seasons 2000-2017

Draft Early Declare 4-Year
No. 11 to 32 274 200
Round 2 209 163
Round 3 191 124
Round 4-7 131 67

You can see that early declares outscore their more experienced counterparts by wide margins. In fact, early declares outscore seniors who were selected a whole round earlier.5 (I’ve removed the top 10 picks because they are almost entirely early declares and the draft-based expectation is much higher.)

This doesn’t mean that four-year college players can’t succeed in the NFL. It simply means that GMs do not accurately figure in the value of playing a fourth season against less experienced college-age competitors.6

This is relevant as it relates to our current crop of second-year players. While the 2017 class included limited examples of early declares with strong production resumes (JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chris Godwin), it was stocked with prolific seniors:

  • Cooper Kupp – 6,464 career receiving yards, 73 TDs, 0.35 career msYD
  • Corey Davis – 5,278 career receiving yards, 52 TDs, 0.40 career msYD
  • Dede Westbrook – 1,524 final season receiving yards, 17 TDs, 0.37 final msYD, Biletnikoff Winner
  • Zay Jones – 1,746-8, 0.43 final msYD, 399 career receptions
  • Taywan Taylor – 1,730-17, 0.37 final msYD
  • Kenny Golladay – 1,156-8, 0.43 final msYD
  • Keelan Cole – 1,401-15, 0.53 final msYD
  • Trent Taylor – 1,803-12, 0.35 final msYD

We have seven players who generated 1,500 or more receiving yards as seniors, plus Golladay and Cole who posted monster market shares.

Dive deeper into the college resumes for 2017 seniors and redshirt seniors.

Unfortunately for players like Davis, Jones, Mike Williams, and John Ross, rookie year performance is also a big element for projecting second-year performance.

In order to make sure we’re looking at this question from a variety of angles, let’s look at three systems for projecting the second-year players: the regression model, the Sim Scores,7 and Dave Caban’s results using the Projection Machine to give us a window into opportunity. We can contrast the projections with the number of points implied by August ADP.8 I’ve also included Smith-Schuster for context.9

2018 Second-Year Breakout Candidates

PlayerRookie PPRDraftModelSim ScoreProjectionADP Implied
JuJu Smith-Schuster191.762207208190167
Cooper Kupp177.869150160182133
Keelan Cole134.8UDFA113112139*82
Trent Taylor981778812880*62
Kenny Golladay94.69611611214599
Chris Godwin92.58413412814186
Corey Davis71.55132112134145
Zay Jones70.6371021126662
Dede Westbrook66.9110561449480
Taywan Taylor49.47290808270
Mike Williams20.57100969892
John Ross1.29108014175

The numbers show agreement for many of the players, with Smith-Schuster, Godwin, Williams, and Taylor showing up with similar results across the three projection systems.10

The Targets

  • Chris Godwin is the best bargain by far. His collegiate production was undervalued, he finished 2017 strong, and he’s moved into a starting role opposite Mike Evans. While the Tampa Bay offense could still conspire to block his breakout, this is your most likely league winner.
  • If we could just count on Blake Bortles, Keelan Cole could be a star. He gained more than 4,000 receiving yards and scored 53 TDs over his final three college seasons. He did that in only 32 games but went undrafted because Division II Kentucky Wesleyan isn’t an NFL football factory. That didn’t stop Cole, who quickly earned a spot in Jacksonville and finished his season with four double-digit games across Week 12 and the fantasy playoffs. With several explosive rookie comps, his debut performance positioned him nicely to break out. Unfortunately, the Jaguars added Donte Moncrief and D.J. Chark, muddying the waters. But Cole is currently working with the starters. Volume in a crowded and run-heavy offense should be the only limiting factor.
  • Cooper Kupp went at 4.01 and WR20 in an FFWC event I participated in this week, a selection that better represents his upside. The Rams will split targets across a trio of receivers, but don’t be surprised if Kupp emerges while Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods battle for No. 2.
  • Kenny Golladay looks like a solid value, although his price is higher in aggressive leagues. The lack of a receiving threat at tight end and the heavy use of three-receiver sets helps to balance volume concerns in any offense that has to feed Golden Tate and Marvin Jones. An injury to either would set Golladay up to be a top-20 receiver.

The Red Flag

  • Corey Davis is the one clearly overvalued player in terms of projections to ADP. However, Davis is also the second-year WR in the best situation to become a team’s true No. 1. I’m holding Davis in dynasty, but he’s too pricey in redraft. Ben Battle explains why you should draft D.J. Moore ahead of him in all formats.

The Rest

  • Mike Williams, John Ross, and Taywan Taylor aren’t bargains, but there’s not a lot of risk at their ADPs in most formats.11 I like grabbing at least one of them in most drafts.
  • Zay Jones may be overpenalized for his horrific rookie year, but the offseason drama also doesn’t help. There’s a reason Dave’s projections are in line with ADP.
  • Dede Westbrook is a solid stash but probably needs injury or underperformance to find the volume.
  • Trent Taylor could be that cheap possession guy owners are willing to pay a lot for once established.

  1. 2001-2017  (back)
  2. Career and final season market share.  (back)
  3. This great work from Anthony Amico built on research from Jon Moore, the Fantasy Douche, and others.  (back)
  4. Football Outsiders also harps on this and has it as a part of their Playmaker Score.  (back)
  5. This is true despite seniors being drafted slightly earlier, on average, in the 11-32, Round 2, and Round 3 groupings.  (back)
  6. A player can be overdrafted based on his profile and still have a strong NFL career.  (back)
  7. Calculated as 16 weeks of the median outcome.  (back)
  8. ADP calculations taken from Blair’s excellent research on WR ADP.  (back)
  9. While Smith-Schuster didn’t technically break out in Year 1, he owned the 10th highest per game rookie average this century.  (back)
  10. The Projection Machine results for Cole and Trent Taylor are those of the WR4+ on the team, which may include more than just their points. I’m likely more optimistic than Dave that Cole will take one of the top three spots.  (back)
  11. Mike Williams is going very early in some places.  (back)

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