Why the 3rd Year WR Breakout Theory Might Not Hold True Pt. 1

We’re all familiar with theories, and they’re a part of our daily lives. There’s the theory of relativity, the heliocentric theory, the eleven one eleven theory, game theory, conspiracy theory… The 3rd year WR breakout theory.

Wait, the what?

Yep, you read right. The 3rd year WR breakout theory. Now, if this is your 1st time hearing this, there’s a commonly held belief that receivers tend to break out in their 3rd season. Solid year 1, improvements in year 2, then year 3 is when it all comes together…

Pretty straight forward stuff.

As with most theories, however, it’s not always the case. And, while there’s plenty of data to support it, the same applies on the opposite side of the coin (if you’re familiar with the theory, I’m sure you can come up with examples of each). Whether or not you believe it to be true, I won’t disagree, but there’s more data to support it than to refute it.

Historically, that is.

Now, there’s an old Chinese Proverb that goes, “A wise man adapts himself to circumstances, as water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it.” Ever wonder why we wear coats in winter? Of course you haven’t, it’s a given.

But, it’s the result of adaptation.

“Player safety” (a.k.a. more offense) is the new focal point of the NFL, resulting in rule changes, resulting in QBs and WRs putting up more stats. I won’t get into whether that’s good or bad, but I can’t help but wonder – am I holding onto ideals from the past which are no longer relevant in today’s game? Am I not in the shape of my vessel? Am I rocking coats in the summer?!

I couldn’t let these questions go unanswered, so I did the logical thing – took a look at the last 5 seasons, and tested the theory.

The premise of the test was simple. Beginning with the 2014 rookie class (the last to have played a full 3 seasons), I looked at the WR performances in Year 1, 2, and 3 with regard to receptions, yards, touchdowns, and fantasy points and determined which year produced the best numbers in each category. I then repeated the test with the 2013, and 2012 rookie WR classes, and combined the data.

Now, let me be the 1st to admit, my test is flawed.

First, I only accounted for players who played in 3 consecutive seasons (including their rookie campaign). In the case of the ’12/’13 rookies, I could’ve expanded the data out another year (or 2) to capture their “third” season in cases where a season was missed due to injury, suspension, etc. The thing is, a large majority of the players who fell into this category are out of the league altogether, and never actually played a 3rd season.

Second, my test failed to account for team/coaching/scheme changes. But again, the population of players who fit the mold was too small to be worth the time.

Third, I did not evaluate the 4th or 5th seasons, and there’s a chance that the player’s breakout actually took place beyond the 3 year threshold. But honestly, who cares? That wasn’t the objective.

Fourth, 3 years (63 players) isn’t remotely close to a large enough sample size to form any sort of concrete conclusion.

I could go on all night, but suffice it to say, the results aren’t exactly scientific. They do, however, give us a pretty good look into how the theory has held up in recent years.

Here’s what I found:

Screen-Shot-2017-08-02-at-1.21.19-PM Why the 3rd Year WR Breakout Theory Might Not Hold True Pt. 1

As you can see – with the 2013 class’ yards/TDs, and the 2012 class’ TDs being outliers – the majority of WRs tested actually saw the greatest number of receptions, yards, touchdowns, and fantasy points in year 2.

So, does that mean to avoid 3rd year WRs, and only draft sophomores?


Again, these aren’t scientific results, year 3 is consistently a close 2nd, and if I was to calculate the data going back to the beginnings of fantasy football, we’d still be focusing on year 3.

That said, simply targeting 3rd year WRs may not be the best course of action, and we must adapt.

So, let’s get to adapting, because what’s all that data without application?

In looking at the 38 rookie receivers from 2016 who caught at least one pass, only 12 of them put up at least 200 yards, 11 scored more than 1 TD, and just 8 finished with more than 20 receptions. Not a huge impact, but that’s to be expected given the year 1 data.

The goal here is to identify who’s in good shape to breakout in year 2. Well…

  • The Giants added Brandon Marshall, and Evan Engram, so Sterling Shepard is likely to see a decrease in the 105 targets he saw a year ago.
  • Will Fuller, one of the 7 to finish 2016 with at least 20 receptions, 200 yards, and 2 TDs (see what I did there) broke his collarbone, and there’s no timetable on his return.
  • The Patriots added Brandin Cooks/Dwayne Allen, and have a healthy Gronk to start the season (to go along with the plethora of already established receiving weapons) – so, I’m gonna go ahead and say no on Malcolm Mitchell.
  • The Titans were so impressed with Tajae Sharpe that they drated Corey Davis, and picked up Eric Decker.

Our options are limited. I mean, you go ahead and draft Ricardo Louis, Cody Core, Leonte Caroo, or Maurice Harris if you so choose, but I won’t be joining you.

It’s looking like the 3rd year WR renaissance is upon us (more on that later). But, there are some sophomores to watch out for:

1. Corey Coleman – CLE

Michael Thomas is the obvious selection here, but it’s hard to “breakout” when you put up 92 receptions, 1,137 yards, and 9 touchdowns in your rookie campaign. So, with regard to the rest, Coleman is the best of the bunch.

He played just 10 games in his rookie year, but finished with 413 yards, and 3 TDs. Only Sterling Shepard, and Will Fuller finished with more yards per game.

Talent aside, the best thing to like about Coleman is the fact that Terrelle Pryor (and his 140 targets) won’t be in a Browns uniform this season. Neither will Andrew Hawkins, or Gary Barnidge.

Those 3 were targeted on 49% of the Browns passing attempts a season ago. 49%, gone! Yes, they added Kenny Britt… *yawn*

Coleman is virtually a lock to see 100 targets, and given his talent, a 1,000 yard finish is looking like a good possibility.

2. Robby Anderson – NYJ

Anderson had a solid rookie campaign (587 yards, and 2 TDs), and should improve on those numbers based on opportunity alone.

Brandon Marshall is now a Giant, Decker went south to Tennessee, and with them, Anderson saw 78 targets in 2016 – good for the 3rd most of any Jet – so it’s not entirely crazy to expect that number to jump to around 100 this season (a little under 1.5 additional targets per game).

He’ll go undrafted in most leagues, but don’t be surprised to see his ownership rise by season’s end.

*Keep an eye out for Anderson‘s teammates Charone Peake, and Jalin Marshall as well – who are both also entering their 2nd season. Neither had the impact Anderson had in year 1, and don’t have any fantasy value heading into the season, but if someone was to go down they’re more than capable.

3. Tyreek Hill – KC

Hill is one of the 2016 rookies you’ve surely heard about, and if you saw him play last season, he probably made your jaw drop… Repeatedly.

But, there lies the problem: the hype.

He’s currently being drafted in the 5th round on average; as the #22 WR off the board. Which is entirely too high in my opinion.

While his top-15 finish was impressive, he failed to reach 75 receiving yards in 14 of 16 games, and put up more than 100 yards zero times. In fact, of the top-2015 fantasy receivers, his 593 yards were the lowest – by a long shot – and he was one of only 5 to finish in the top-25 while failing to reach the 1,000 yard mark.

His value was not a product of his receiving, and his rushing/TDs were his saving grace.

Hill caught 6 TD passes in 2016, while adding 3 rushing, and 3 special teams TDs. But, he’ll be the #1 receiver in KC this season, so his special teams contributions may be decreased (if not erased), and the 13% TD rate he put up from his rushing attempts is not likely to be repeated.

Then, there’s the Alex Smith factor. Now, I like Smith, but his 4 years in KC have produced just uno 1,000 yard wide receiver (Jeremy Maclin – 2015), and he threw more than 20 TDs just once over those 4 seasons.

There is a bright side, however, and that’s that (that’s that?) the 83 targets Hill saw will likely increase with Maclin in Baltimore – you can bet he’ll improve upon the 61 receptions, and 593 yards he put up a season ago – he’ll still see some backfield touches, and he has the kind of talent you’d have if you created yourself on a video game.

Overall, it’s virtually guaranteed Hill will put up more receiving stats than he did in year 1, but his overall fantasy performance is likely in for some regression. Plus, drafting him will come at a premium. And, I’m not willing to pay it.

Honorable Mention: Geronimo Allison – GB

Look, anyone named Geronimo has to be mentioned. It’s the 11th Commandment. It also doesn’t hurt to have Aaron Rodgers throwing you the ball, and while Randall Cobb holds name value, he’s really only had 2 good seasons.

Honorable Mention: Braxton Miller/Wendall Williams – HOU

As mentioned earlier, Will Fuller might miss time – they should both have an opportunity to fill the void. Not sure that means much, but I’d be doing a disservice to not mention them (and Williams caught my eye in the couple games he played last season).

So, there you have it. We’ll call the 3rd year WR theory a recent year’s myth for now, but be sure to check out Part 2, because I dive into this season’s 3rd year receivers, and I have a feeling they’ll prove the theory holds true once again.

As always, thanks for reading! Be sure to subscribe, and check me out on Twitter: @maxingyourodds to stay up to date with the latest fantasy advice.







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