Anticipating the Breakout: Wide Receiver Trends & Breakout Candidates (Fantasy Football)
In the second article of my Fantasy Breakout series, I take a deeper look at the wide receiver position. Over the last couple of years, fantasy managers have been rather spoiled with players like Ja’Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, and Justin Jefferson breaking out immediately after college. However, should we expect each draft class to produce one or two instant contributors? And if they do not break out in their first season, how long should you roster a wide receiver in hopes that they eventually become fantasy relevant?
To answer these questions, I analyzed 22 years of fantasy data to find any trends and similarities among the players that broke out during that timespan. Before we dig into my findings, here are the parameters of my analysis:
- The timeframe of my dataset spans from 2000 to 2021 (sourced from Stathead)
- To identify the breakout seasons in that timespan, I filtered on players drafted since 2000
- A breakout season for a Wide Receiver is identified as a top-24 fantasy season in PPR per game scoring (min. 8 games played)
- My sample size only includes players that were drafted and exclude UDFAs
- Sample Size: 117 Breakout Wide Receivers
Let’s dive in!
Breakouts by Draft Capital + Hit Rates
Similar to the first article in this series (Anticipating the RB Breakout), we start things off with a high-level overview. When we chart the dataset by draft capital, we see a very noticeable trend: 85.47% of the breakout wide receivers in my sample size were drafted in the first three rounds. The first round leads the group with 47, while the second and third rounds account for 32 and 21, respectively. Shockingly, rounds four through seven total only 17 receivers in my sample size, clearly highlighting the importance of draft capital.
We see this further confirmed when we calculate each round’s breakout hit rate. To arrive at this metric, I further isolated my sample size to players drafted from 2000 to 2015, leaving us with a group of wide receivers who have had at least seven seasons to break out for fantasy. To no surprise, the hit rates drop significantly the later a wide receiver is drafted, with the first-round leading the way at 56.06%. And while this is the highest hit rate in my table, this number is about 22 percentage points lower than the hit rate for a first-round running back. As a dynasty manager, we naturally want to find the next Odell Beckham Jr. or Mike Evans. However, history has shown us that prioritizing first-round running backs in our dynasty rookie drafts is still the safest pick. Nevertheless, first-round wide receivers still hold plenty of value considering their longer career span. And if you prioritize the early-declare, elite producers coming out of college, historical hit rates tend to be much higher than average (up to 89%). More on that in my off-season article on experience-adjusted production.
Equally as important, I have to highlight just how low the hit rate is for day-3 wide receivers. Coming in at 4.84%, it truly puts into perspective how rare it is for day-3 receivers to break out for fantasy. Keep this in mind when drafting 5th-round wide receiver Gabriel Davis, who has yet to have a season-finish higher than WR66 in PPR points per game. And while posting over 200 yards and 4 touchdowns in the AFC divisional round is impressive, being able to maintain that kind of production for a full season is an entirely different story.
Lastly, as you can see in the data below, while the hit rates are vastly different by draft round, the fantasy production within each breakout is fairly similar. Most wide receiver breakout seasons are in the WR2 range, averaging around 14 to 15 PPR points per game. Furthermore, the career implications of a breakout season are fairly similar regardless of draft capital, as we see each group average around three to four top-24 seasons in their career. So while day-3 breakout wide receivers are less common, once they do break out, that is likely a sign of extended success in the league. This should provide some perspective on a player like Hunter Renfrow, a day-3 wide receiver who does not carry much name value in dynasty circles. But considering he broke out as the WR16 last season, at only age 26, he could very well produce at least one or two more top-24 campaigns in his career.
For wide receivers drafted in the 1st Round, in their breakout season:
- The average fantasy finish is WR15
- The average PPR per game production is 15.5
- 32.4% finished within the top 12
- Average 3.9 Top-24 Seasons In their career
- 56.8% Finish Career with 3+ Top-24 Seasons
For wide receivers drafted in the 2nd and 3rd Round, in their breakout season:
- The average fantasy finish is WR15
- The average PPR per game production is 15.4
- 43.2% finished within the top 12
- Average 3.2 Top-24 Seasons In their career
- 56.8% Finish Career with 3+ Top-24 Seasons
For wide receivers drafted in the 4th – 7th Round, in their breakout season:
- The average fantasy finish is WR14
- The average PPR per game production is 14.6
- 46.7% finished within the top 12
- Average 3.5 Top-24 Seasons In their career
- 40% Finish Career with 3+ Top-24 Seasons
Breakouts by Age
This brings us to our next segment: Breakout Age. While draft capital alone can be very predictive, knowing the age of each breakout wide receiver can give us an even better idea of when to expect a player’s ascent into fantasy relevance. As you can see above, age 23 has the most breakouts in my sample at 21.4%. Furthermore, a staggering 91.5% occurred by age 26. In other words, if a wide receiver has not broken out by age 25 or 26, they are unlikely to achieve this fantasy milestone in their career. Sorry, Corey Davis truthers.
Knowing this statistic, it will be interesting to see how the wide receivers corps in Green Bay and Kansas City develop. Allen Lazard is approaching his age-27 season while Marquez Valdes-Scantling was recently signed by the Chiefs ahead of his age-28 campaign. Neither receiver has broken out, but there seems to be ample opportunity ahead of them. In the case of the Chiefs, it is much easier for fantasy managers to pivot to Juju Smith-Schuster, who has had multiple top-24 seasons in his career. For the Packers, Lazard is surrounded by an older Randall Cobb and two rookies who possess uninspiring college profiles. As a result, Lazard could very well be the breakout outlier.
If we combine age with draft capital, we see a similar cut-off at age 26. Interestingly, for first-round wide receivers, the highest concentration is at age 22. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering most early-declare prospects are drafted in the first and second rounds, often entering the league at age 21 or 22. In fact, the earliest breakouts in my sample size are Percy Harvin, Keenan Allen, Brandin Cooks, and Mike Evans at age 21. So far in their careers, they have averaged an impressive 6.3 top-24 seasons. And the most recent wide receivers to join this impressive group are Juju Smith-Schuster, Justin Jefferson, and Ja’Marr Chase. On the other end of the spectrum, the oldest wide receiver breakouts are Brandon Lloyd, Kevin Curtis, and John Brown – each with only one top-24 season in their careers.
Ideally, we want wide receivers to break out early in their careers. The earlier the breakout age, the more top-24 seasons we can expect. Below are the average number of top-24 seasons based on breakout age:
- Ages 21 – 23: 3.7 Career Top-24 Seasons
- Ages 24 – 26: 2.7 Career Top-24 Seasons
- Ages 27 and older: 2.2 Career Top-24 Seasons
Breakouts by Career Year and Experience
As I alluded to earlier, breakout age is only one piece of the puzzle since players enter the league at varying ages based on how long they stay in college. As a result, analyzing our sample size by years of experience can further narrow down the scope. In charting my sample size, there seems to be a much clearer trend as 77.9% of breakouts occur by a player’s third year in the league. One could argue that “Year 3” should be the cut-off, though we do see a slight spike in total breakouts in year 5. And beyond that, only 4.3% of breakouts occurred from year 6 onward. In short, if it has not happened by their 5th season, dynasty managers are wise to move on from that player. Again, sorry Corey Davis truthers.
Interestingly, as you can see in the chart below, the majority of year 5 breakouts come from day 2 and 3 wide receivers. Considering their rookie contracts are four years long, should we expect them to break out once they find a new team in Year 5? Likely not, as 91.5% of all WR breakout seasons occur with the team that drafted them. Naturally, there are a few exceptions such as Emmanuel Sanders and Robert Woods, who saw ample opportunity after signing long-term contracts with their new team. Christian Kirk, who has yet to break out in his career, will be a player to keep an eye on as he approaches his 5th season after signing a hefty deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Lastly, while the majority of running backs tend to break out in their first season, wide receivers are more likely to emerge in years 2 and 3. As a result, we should not necessarily expect every receiver to mirror Justin Jeffersons’ career arc. Keep in mind that wide receivers who break out in years 2 and 3 have averaged 9.6 PPR points per game the year before their breakout. In other words, we should at least see some production from a potential breakout candidate in the years leading up to their first top-24 season.
To close out this segment, highlighted below are the average career top-24 seasons based on “breakout year.” As I alluded to earlier, the earlier the breakout, the longer we can expect a wide receiver to dominate in the league.
- Breakout in Years 1-3: 3.9 Career Top-24 Seasons
- Breakout in Years 4-5: 3.1 Career Top-24 Seasons
- Breakout in Years 6-8: 1.2 Career Top-24 Seasons
Potential Breakouts: Which Wide Receivers Meet Our Thresholds?
To summarize, the most common breakout wide receiver…
- Was drafted on Day 1 (56.06% hit rate) or Day 2 (25.3% hit rate)
- Is in the 22 – 25 age group
- Is currently within the first 3 years of their career
- Is currently still on the team that drafted them (91.5% of WR breakouts)
Which WRs fall into these categories heading into the 2022 season?
Rashod Bateman entered his NFL career with a truly elite college production profile as he led the 2021 WR class in Receiving Yards Per Team Pass Attempt (3.01) and Receiving Yards Market Share (34.02%). After a modest rookie season, he now approaches his age-23 Sophomore campaign as the presumed lead wide receiver for Lamar Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens. Naturally, the argument for Bateman’s breakout begins with the Ravens’ 196 WR vacated targets, with a portion of those opportunities likely going his way. And while the Ravens are not necessarily known as a pass-heavy team, we saw that change slightly last year as they supported both a WR1 in Marquise Brown and a top-tier TE1 in Mark Andrews while Lamar Jackson was healthy. And while multiple variables need to break right once again (passing rate, the pace of play, etc.), it should not be too difficult to envision a WR2 campaign if Bateman can slot into Brown’s role from last season.
Rashod Bateman is a popular breakout candidate this season!
But could he take an even bigger leap & finish in the top-12? Is there a path to a WR1 season?
— Marvin Elequin (@FF_MarvinE) June 27, 2022
Elijah Moore was an equally impressive prospect as he was near the top of the 2021 class in multiple college market share and efficiency metrics. And while he did get off to a slow start in his rookie year, after the Jets’ bye week, we saw Moore truly explode into fantasy relevance. From weeks 7 onward, he was the WR7 in PPR points per game (17.7), while also ranking as the WR14 in PPR points over expected (2.98 per game). Unfortunately, Moore suffered a quad injury that ended his season early, finishing as the WR30 in PPR points per game for the entirety of the year. And while the addition of Garrett Wilson certainly adds more competition, it would not be surprising if they both operated as the 1A and 1B in this offense as the younger and more dynamic options for Zach Wilson. Speaking of Wilson, this offense will only go as far as their quarterback takes them, so the biggest obstacle to Moore’s breakout season might be Wilson’s development. But at an ADP of WR34, I am willing to take that risk considering Moore’s significant upside.
Jerry Jeudy entered the league in 2020 as a highly touted prospect right behind CeeDee Lamb. However, injuries and poor quarterback play have limited his opportunity to break out for fantasy. Heading into 2022, the third-year wide receiver is about to experience a significant upgrade with Russell Wilson set to lead this offense. How significant of an upgrade will this be for Jeudy? Since 2019, Wilson is the QB1 in Completion % Over Expected (+6.2) while also ranking as the QB7 in Air Yards per Attempt (8.8). In other words, despite being one of the most aggressive downfield passers, Wilson has remained the most accurate quarterback over the last three seasons. And while Sutton will likely take on a significant target share, Wilson has supported two top-24 wide receivers in each of the last two seasons. As a result, I would not be shocked if both Jeudy and Sutton were productive for fantasy managers this year.