The buzz over third-year wide receivers has largely died down in recent seasons as owners realize this isn’t a special group. But as the Myth of the Third-Year Breakout WR is dispelled, it opens up other opportunities for savvy owners. Third-year players do break out – just not in huge numbers – and they often represent excellent post-hype values. Davante Adams was an excellent example of this two years ago. Devin Funchess and Nelson Agholor were lesser examples in 2017.
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. Blair and I have applied slightly different methodologies,1 but we’ve both found similar results. While third-year breakout candidates are not nearly as valuable as rookie breakouts for dynasty and not nearly as numerous as second-year breakouts for redraft, targeting these players still results in plenty of value.
Year 3 WR Breakouts Since 2000
- 20 players broke out, including eight former first-round picks. Of the first-rounders, only two went on to become long term WR1s (Demaryius Thomas, Roddy White).
- Only two receivers emerged from outside the top-100 reality picks.
- The smallest previous point totals came from Stevie Johnson (3), Jerricho Cotchery (44.5), Sidney Rice (53.1), and White (80.9).
- The easiest players to target were Braylon Edwards and Roy Williams, both of whom had been top-10 picks and scored well the year before breakout. Surprisingly, neither would have another 1,000-yard season.
- With Davante Adams sustaining his performance despite the injury to Aaron Rodgers, nine of the 20 have now returned WR2 or better value the following year.
- Of the disappointments, only Steve Smith has rebounded to be a long term WR1.
- Third-year breakouts have averaged 176 points the following year, similar to fourth-year breakouts (172) and above fifth-year breakouts (156). But their results are far below those of first- and second-year breakouts, both of which average over 200 points.
The lack of late-round breakouts also fits with Blair’s research in the Wrong Read.
We want to target fifth-year players in that category, and I offered some fifth-year breakout targets last week.
2018 Candidates – The Elite
Sterling Shepard and Will Fuller are both off to solid starts in their NFL careers. Shepard’s 13.1 PPG a season ago is a 209-point pace for 16 games. Fuller was an elite WR1 during the tiny window when he and Deshaun Watson were healthy.
A receiver’s third season is also the final campaign where college performance is still an indicator of NFL production. Both players were strong prospects, with Fuller especially elite.
Meanwhile, Shepard is a bargain, slipping to WR52 in the Apex Experts draft. Target volume could be an issue with Odell Beckham healthy, Evan Engram emerging, and the offense potentially undergoing a more Saquon Barkley-centric shift. But it’s always a danger to forget young players with good production or to assume that opportunity will block a breakout.
The Potential Sleepers
The 2016 class offers a trio of intriguing sleepers. Josh Doctson and Tyler Boyd disappointed over their first two seasons and will look to fight off teammates for the coveted No. 2 role in their respective offenses. Meanwhile, former UDFA Geronimo Allison hopes to hold off a bevy of challengers to be the No. 3 in Green Bay.
Doctson entered the NFL with some mild red flags. Arguably overdrafted due to weak age-adjusted production, his final college season was explosive with 1,326 yards and 14 TDs in only 10 games. He parlayed that into a first-round selection but played in only two games as a rookie. His role grew in 2017, especially once Washington abandoned the Terrelle Pryor experiment.
For a 25-year-old receiver, Doctson has limited NFL experience. Looking at his sophomore campaign in this light, we might come away vaguely impressed.
As was the case at TCU where he averaged 17.0 yards per reception his senior season, Doctson flashed deep skills with 13.8 air yards per target to go along with four deep receptions and six breakaway plays.2 He was also a red zone threat with 16 of his targets coming inside the 20. The Washington staff has said they will continue to emphasize him in high-leverage areas, and though it will be difficult to continue scoring once every 11 targets,3 this usage is good news for his fantasy prospects.
Unlike Boyd, Doctson doesn’t have a star in front of him, although Jamison Crowder’s possession skills give him the edge over the competition in the target department. The presence of Paul Richardson complicates matters and contributes to the extremely wide range of outcomes for Doctson. Richardson, one of our priority fifth-year breakout candidates, possesses more speed and better 2017 production. With all of the uncertainty and breakout/bust candidates across the depth chart, Doctson could finish anywhere from first to fifth in the target pecking order.4
You have to forgive me for holding out hope on Boyd. He was just that good in college. Positive indicators for NFL success were everywhere.
- Freshman breakout
- 43 percent career market share
- Ran for over 500 yards
- Notched over 1,300 return yards
- Declared early
- Top three comps from the Box Score Scout were Randall Cobb, Antonio Brown, and Stefon Diggs.
He didn’t have a monster rookie season like second-round picks Anquan Boldin or Michael Thomas, but his 603 yards ranked 22nd out of 100 second-round WR picks since 1990. He found himself above Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Alshon Jeffery, Chad Johnson, Golden Tate, Isaac Bruce, Randall Cobb, and Vincent Jackson.
Out of all of the information we have about Boyd, the one real problem is the 2017 season. And that’s a bit of an understatement. He took a big step back, missing six games and only gaining 225 yards. Last year he dealt with a nagging knee injury and legal trouble that has since been cleared up, but he finished strong with a 49-yard TD in Week 17 that eliminated the Ravens from the playoffs.
The good news – at least until his preseason fumble this weekend – was a blazing start to training camp. He’s fighting fellow imminent bust John Ross for No. 2 duties, and the duo has at least performed well enough to force the release of Brandon LaFell.
Allison enters Year 3 with 455 yards and two scores. His only top-36 finish came in Week 17 of 2016. Allison’s resume doesn’t suggest a breakout, but he’s a solid opportunity play with Nelson departing.
Unfortunately for Allison, while he appears to hold the inside track on the No. 3 role, the competition isn’t sparse. Colm Kelly selected J’Mon Moore and Equanimeous St. Brown as his deep sleepers in Green Bay. Marquez Valdes-Scantling posted the top Freak Score in the class and was one of 11 Players Who Flashed in the first week of preseason.
And perhaps trumping all of them is Allison’s fellow former UDFA Jake Kumerow. After splitting his first three years between the Bengals and Patriots practice squads, he’s making serious noise with the Packers. He leads all receivers in preseason yards (190) and has added two scores.
Although the No. 3 role in Green Bay has been fantasy relevant before – especially in best ball formats – Allison should make his impact more on the reality side.
How to Play It: Boyd is an excellent final pick and still completely free. He wasn’t drafted at all until a few last-round selections recently. If nothing else, he’s a good placeholder for your FA pickups after Week 1.
Doctson is a good pivot in leagues where an owner grabs Paul Richardson ahead of you. Having Doctson as a fallback gives you exposure to both players and will make it easier not to reach for Richardson.
- Blair uses a WR2 season, while I use 200 points, a threshold that roughly corresponds to a WR2 performance across this time period. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages but return similar actionable results. Funchess and Agholor finished as WR20 and WR21 last year respectively, but they didn’t hit 200 points. (back)
- Check out the full breakdown above. These numbers are for the first thresholds at 20-plus yards. (back)
- As he did in 2017. (back)
- Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson will also factor. (back)