Tyler Boyd was an afterthought.
He entered the 2018 season as the Bengals’ WR3 behind A.J. Green and John Ross. He was coming off of a season in which he averaged just 3.2 targets and 22.5 receiving yards per contest. His best ball ADP was WR143.
Boyd didn’t get the message. He racked up 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns in only 14 games en route to a WR17 finish. He went from no-name to household name just like that, and now he’s seen as one of the more reliable wideouts in the NFL.
We should have seen it coming. And Shawn Siegele did, as he wrote all about Boyd as a must-have late-round WR just days before the season was set to begin.
We didn’t have a true Boyd-esque third-year breakout last season, but two players pop off the page as candidates for 2020. While neither of them is going as late as Boyd went two years ago, most fantasy players have completely written them off for one reason or another. However, both of them have qualities that indicate they could be on the verge of a breakout campaign.
I like Diontae Johnson. He finished with 23.1 Fantasy Points Over Expectation (FPOE), an extremely impressive season considering who the Steelers were rolling out at quarterback for most of the year. The Steelers’ offense should be much improved next season with Ben Roethlisberger coming back, and they don’t have any proven pass-catchers behind JuJu Smith-Schuster. Johnson will have a golden opportunity to seize the WR2 job and become a fantasy-relevant player.
Everything I just said about Johnson also applies to James Washington, who is going off the board as the WR67 in early best ball drafts. After a disastrous rookie season in which he finished with -18.0 FPOE despite playing in one of the most potent offenses in the league, Washington righted the ship in his sophomore campaign, ending the year with 10.4 FPOE.
Washington’s second season was much more in line with what we expected from him coming out of college, as he had all the makings of a productive NFL WR. His breakout age of 20.7 puts him in the 74th percentile among all WRs since 2009. His 29.5% career dominator rating is in the 71st percentile. On the whole, Washington was a pretty strong prospect coming out of Oklahoma State. That still matters, as Year 3 is the final year in which collegiate production predicts NFL success. As a second-round pick, he also fits the draft profile of a typical third-year breakout.
While Washington hasn’t lived up to expectations so far, the RotoViz Screener offers a glimmer of hope for his career outlook. Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith, and the aforementioned Boyd are all in his top-10 comps based on the first two years of his career. Smith and Boyd both broke out in their third season, while Jackson broke out in Year 4. The rest of the list isn’t pretty, but that’s pretty much what you can expect when you’re taking a young guy super late in drafts.
The Steelers are also obviously getting back Roethlisberger in 2020. As you can see in the table below, their passing volume and efficiency dropped off a cliff this year with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges behind center. Having Antonio Brown catching passes probably helped those numbers a little bit, but you can still be confident Washington will have significantly better QB play next season.
|Year||Total WR EP||Total WR FPOE|
Diontae Johnson was more involved and more efficient as a rookie than Washington was as a sophomore, and his ADP will (deservedly) reflect the fact that he is likely the frontrunner for the WR2 role in Pittsburgh. However, there are reasons to believe Washington is on the verge of a Year 3 breakout, and he is worth targeting at his dirt-cheap WR67 price tag.
Tre’Quan Smith hasn’t really gotten it going through the first two years of his career. He’s had to battle with Ted Ginn for the WR2 job in New Orleans and has just 69 total targets in 26 career games.
I’m not ready to give up just yet.
Because Smith has been just that good when given the chance. As a rookie, he finished 10th among all WRs with 25 or more targets in Fantasy Points Over Expectation Per Attempt. Last year, he was first.2 He’s finished in the top-30 in total FPOE in both seasons, an astounding accomplishment considering how few targets he has gotten. As Blair Andrews showed in The Wrong Read No. 59, efficiency is an important predictor of future performance for WRs.
Like Washington, Smith was a strong prospect coming out of school, ranking in the 87th percentile in breakout age and the 78th in career dominator rating. He is also a former top-100 pick, so he too fits the draft profile of a third-year breakout.
Ginn is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, so there’s a small possibility Smith enters next season as Drew Brees‘ clear WR2. However, the Saints will probably add someone through free agency or the draft since Smith hasn’t been able to command significant volume thus far in his career. Even if/when the Saints add a WR, Smith is so cheap that he can easily return value even as New Orleans’ WR3.
Speaking of Brees, rumors have been flying over the last few days about whether he will retire or not. It would obviously be a pretty big hit to Smith’s outlook if one of the greatest QBs in league history decides to hang it up, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for Brees retirement news over the next month or so. If the 41-year-old Brees decides to come back for another year, Smith will be catching passes in what might be the league’s most WR-friendly offense. The Saints have finished in the top quarter of the league in team WR FPOE in every year of Drew Brees’ tenure in New Orleans, including 12 top-five finishes.
|Year||Team WR FPOE Ranking|
At his current ADP of WR83, Smith has minimal downside and possesses flex potential with massive week-to-week upside. He should be your top target once you get down into that area of best ball drafts.