A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was a draft strategy that focused around targeting WRs entering their third year in the NFL. Where did it come from, where did it go and is it still relevant?

The Beginning

The draft concept started off when many rookies were not thrust into starting roles as quickly as they are in today’s NFL. As a young player learned the position, they continued to grow through year two before “breaking out” in their third year in the league. One of the most common examples was Steve Smith Sr. Check out his first three seasons:

YEAR REC TGTS YDS TDS
2001 10 20 154 0
2002 54 97 872 3
2003 88 141 1,110 7

For fantasy football purposes, targeting players going into their third year was usually accompanied by a focus on draft cost. These players showed potential in their second season, but their ADP had not yet risen into the top echelon of players. You could typically draft them as your third or fourth WR in the middle or later rounds. If you hit on the right WR, you ended up with a top-tier fantasy asset at a discounted draft cost.

Where Did It Go?

After a strong run as a hot draft strategy in the 2000’s, it feels like targeting third-year WRs has fallen out of favor amongst the fantasy community. There was a lull at the end of the 2000’s and again from 2013-2015. When you consider some of the more recent WRs to breakout earlier than their third year (Julio Jones, Odell Beckham, Jr., Allen Robinson), the third year WR strategy has become an afterthought.

What Constitutes a “Break Out”

For this article, my focus was on year-end rank amongst WRs. The WRs third year had to be their best positional finish to-date. They also had to finish as a top 25-type player, making them a WR that would have been owned in every league and a weekly starter. There is a nice list of third-year “mini-breakout” WRs who went from obscurity to a likely waiver acquisition and spot starter but did not finish high enough to justify must-start status.

Is it Still Relevant?

As the numbers will show below, we had a resurgence of third-year breakout WRs in 2016 and 2017. The 2013 draft class was one for the ages and made some owners gloss over the subsequent draft classes as under-performers. But the following seasons were a return to normalcy, where WRs took a little longer to adjust to the NFL. Before we dig into the WRs heading into their third year in 2018, let’s look back at some of the examples of players to “break out” in their third year to give us a little guide on what to look for in 2018.

PLAYER YEAR 1 RANK YEAR 2 RANK YEAR 3 RANK BREAKOUT YEAR
Lee Evans 29 31 6 2006
Roy Williams 31 34 9 2006
Andre Johnson 18 42 12 2006
Jerricho Cotchery 140 105 19 2006
Braylon Edwards 62 26 4 2007
Roddy White 71 79 13 2007
Greg Jennings 51 18 5 2008
Lance Moore 161 81 15 2008
Sidney Rice 71 93 11 2009
Pierre Garcon 153 37 28 2010
Dez Bryant 46 22 3 2012
Demaryius Thomas 101 61 6 2012
Eric Decker 136 37 11 2012
T.Y. Hilton 23 18 10 2014
Mohamed Sanu 90 67 31 2014
DeAndre Hopkins 52 14 5 2015
Mike Evans 13 22 3 2016
Brandin Cooks 56 12 9 2016
Davante Adams 74 69 10 2016
Adam Thielen 126 129 25 2016
Stefon Diggs 46 31 20 2017
Nelson Agholor 101 84 21 2017
Devin Funchess 67 87 23 2017
2018 Third Year WRs

Right off the bat, I won’t be discussing the 2016 draft class’ top two performers to date: Michael Thomas and Tyreek Hill. Both players have already broken out and have the ADP to show for it. However, the rest of the class has a few interesting names and some deep down sleepers. Overall, the 2016 draft class of WRs saw a bunch of early draft picks invested in them, followed by a lull in the middle and a flurry of picks at the end of the draft.

Draft Capital Crowd

Let’s kick this off at the top. Through two seasons, the WRs drafted inside the first two rounds of the NFL draft have been less than exciting, apart from Saints young stud, Michael Thomas. The draft capital crowd of WRs is here for one simple reason; their team invested an early pick on them and will get every opportunity to succeed.

Sterling Shepard – New York Giants
Through two seasons, the draft capital crowd is led by Giants WR Sterling Shepard who has posted two straight seasons finishing as WR39. The Giants have a bevy of interesting pass catchers, including Shepard who caught 8 TDs as a rookie. His injury-shorted sophomore year extrapolates out to an 85-catch, 1,000-yard season. A return to his rookie season TD prowess combined with a healthy 16-game season would push Shepard up enough to be a weekly starter and find himself having a third-year breakout. With an 8-9th Round ADP, Shepard is an easy target for your bench and a decent flex option to start the season.

Josh Doctson – Washington Redskins
After injuries derailed his rookie season, Josh Docton saw a healthy 78 targets in 2017. His 14.3 yards per receptions was solid and 6 TDs looks good as a year-end stat line. But Doctson never crested the 100-yard mark (81 yards were his high) and the sub 50% catch rate (35 receptions on 78 targets) has him as checking in with an ADP in the 12th Round. Interestingly, his best comparable player on playerprofiler.com is Sidney Rice, a player who erupted in his third year in the league back in 2009. It’s too early to tell how his game will mesh with new Redskin QB Alex Smith, but Doctson is the perfect example of a potential third-year breakout candidate to target late in your draft.

Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Will Fuller – Houston Texans
Will Fuller’s sophomore season was an incredible mix. After missing the first three games, he exploded with a flash of TD-efficiency, unlike anything we could expect. Paired with rookie QB Deshaun Watson, Fuller scored all 7 of his 2017 TDs in his first 4 games. Just when owners were finally giving Fuller a spot in their starting line-ups, Watson’s season-ending injury derailed Fuller’s season as well. Fuller would not find the end zone again for the rest of the year, nor eclipse 45 yards receiving in a single game. He also missed three more weeks. While the efficiency of the Watson to Fuller connection couldn’t possibly continue at the torrid pace they had for those 4 games, there is a clear connection there for future success. Holding a late 7th Round ADP is still solid value for a player that has an incredible ceiling and a guaranteed role in an exciting offense.

The Rest of the Early Rounds
Three other players were drafted with high draft capital in 2016: Corey Coleman (15th Overall), Laquon Treadwell (23rd Overall) and Tyler Boyd (24th Pick of the 2nd Round). While each player had their moment in the fantasy spotlight as rookies, they have each seen their value and roles diminish. Coleman suddenly finds himself as the odd man out with the return of Josh Gordon and the signing of Jarvis Landry in Cleveland. He also must compete for targets with sophomore TE David Njoku and RB Duke Johnson. As the cliché goes, “there is a lot of mouths to feed!” Laquon Treadwell is in a similar situation, buried behind two former third-year breakout WRs: Adam Thielen (2016 breakout) and Stefon Diggs (2017 breakout). Lastly is Tyler Boyd who missed a handful of games but has had a few flashes. He did close 2017 with a nice 7 target, 5 reception for 91 yards and a TD game, but questions about his role abound. Boyd is a player you should keep on your watch list throughout the pre-season.

Mid and Late Round Draft Picks

There were a total of 31 WRs drafted in the 2016 draft. I’ll list them all at the end of this article, but a few players could emerge given a few breaks this season. Each of these WRs finds themselves mired in the middle of their team’s depth charts. Miami Dolphin Leonte Caroo, New England Patriot Malcolm Mitchell, Tennessee Titan Tajae Sharp, and Kansas City Chief Demarcus Robinson have all had a few moments in the spotlight, but are all stuck in situations with proven talents ahead of them and newly signed players blocking their way.

Undrafted Free Agents

Every year a few undrafted free agents (UDFA) find themselves on rosters and are given the chance to prove themselves. While they may not get as many opportunities as their early-round draft capital counterparts, a few splash plays and hustling on specials teams and in practice can get them just enough attention.

Geronimo Allison – Green Bay Packer
Geronimo Allison got some attention last year due to multiple injuries ahead of him and currently finds himself as the 3rd WR on the Aaron Rodgers led Packers’ depth chart. It’s always a good idea to look at players catching passes from the top QBs in the league.*

Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

*While working on this article, I noticed a trend of Packers WRs breaking out. While this trend has zero correlation to projecting Allison to breakout, it does shed some light on the Packers ability to find quality WRs in the NFL Draft:
Donald Driver broke out in his 4th season, 2002.
Javon Walker broke out in his 3rd season, 2004.
Greg Jennings broke out in his 3rd season, 2008.
Jordy Nelson broke out in his 4th season, 2011.
Randall Cobb broke out in his 2nd season, 2012.
Davante Adams broke out in his 3rd season, 2016.

Chester Rogers – Indianapolis Colts
So much of the Colts 2018 prospects rest on the shoulder of QB Andrew Luck. If Luck plays this year, the offense is a completely different than it would be without him. Falling in behind former third-year breakout T.Y. Hilton (2014) and newly signed Ryan Grant, Rogers has little competition behind him for his role in the offense. He may not have a true breakout, but has the potential for mini-breakout and spot starter in 2018.

Robby Anderson – New York Jets
Talk about out of nowhere. The 2016 UDFA was thrust into a heavy workload in 2017 and he responded with a WR16 finish for owners who scooped him up off waivers. While it looks great on paper, things are looking rocky for this third year WR. Anderson kicked off his off-season with an arrest that is threatening a suspension to start 2018. The Jets are sure to have a QB controversy this year, with veteran Josh McCown expected to start the season being pushed by newly signed and former 1st Round pick, Teddy Bridgewater, and this year’s 1st Round draft choice, Sam Darnold. Along with the possible QB carousel, Anderson will face competition for targets from Quincy Enunwa, who is returning from a season-ending 2017 pre-season injury and the newly-signed Terrelle Pryor, who comes to the Big Apple after a breakout season at WR in Cleveland before his failed year in Washington.

Conclusion

The is plenty of evidence that shows WRs often take a couple of seasons to mature and fully grasp the game at the NFL level. While there is obviously a much deeper dive into the data, metrics, and stats that could help us project these breakouts, a simple mix of ADP and current team situation is a great starting point for looking towards breakout candidates. I’ll be highlighting and diving deeper into a few of my favorite potential third-year breakouts in the coming weeks as part of our “Path to WR1” article series.

2016 WR Draft Class
PLAYER TEAM DRAFTED
Coleman, Corey Browns  Round 1 
Fuller, Will Texans  Round 1 
Doctson, Josh Redskins  Round 1 
Treadwell, Laquon Vikings  Round 1 
Shepard, Sterling Giants  Round 2 
Thomas, Michael Saints  Round 2 
Boyd, Tyler Bengals  Round 2 
Miller, Braxton Texans  Round 3 
Carroo, Leonte Dolphins  Round 3 
Moore, Chris Ravens  Round 4 
Mitchell, Malcolm Patriots  Round 4 
Louis, Ricardo Browns  Round 4 
Cooper, Pharoh Rams  Round 4 
Robinson, Demarcus Chiefs  Round 4 
Sharpe, Tajae Titans  Round 5 
Payton, Jordan Browns  Round 5 
Davis, Trevor Packers  Round 5 
Hill, Tyreek Chiefs  Round 5 
Higgins, Rashard Browns  Round 5 
Boehringer, Moritz Vikings  Round 6 
Grant, Jakeem Dolphins  Round 6 
Listenbee, Kolby Bills  Round 6 
Core, Cody Bengals  Round 6 
Thomas, Mike Rams  Round 6 
Burbridge, Aaron 49ers  Round 6 
Lucien, Devin Patriots  Round 7 
Ayers, Demarcus Steelers  Round 7 
Braverman, Daniel Bears  Round 7 
Fuller, Devin Falcons  Round 7 
Peake, Charone Jets  Round 7 
Lawler, Kenny Seahawks  Round 7 
Roger Lewis Giants UDFA
Geronimo Allison Packers UDFA
Chester Rogers Colts UDFA
Robby Anderson Jets UDFA

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