The third year breakout wide receiver theory has become one of the most known theories by fantasy football players because of a few wide receivers who became dominant during their third season. Names like Braylon Edwards, Lee Evans and Javon Walker come to mind. Many fantasy football sites such as FFToolbox publish a list of third year wide receivers every year which leads fantasy players to draft them earlier than they should. In this article I decided to look at all wide receivers in years two through five in order to see if there are actually more third year wide receivers that breakout than receivers in their second, fourth or fifth year. Moreover I looked at the WRs that did breakout and tried to find criteria that differentiate WRs that do breakout from the ones that do not.
It is important to clarify that I am using the term breakout a little loosely and I still include WRs who might have had a strong rookie season, a difficult second season and a solid third season. The two criteria that a wide receiver had to respect to be considered a breakout wide receiver are:
-At least 150 points in a point per reception scoring system
-An increase of at least 40 points per 16 games or a 25% increase in points per 16 games.
Since 1990, there have been 140 wide receivers that had a breakout season in their second, third, fourth or fifth season out of a possible 543 which is equal to 25.8% of them. To qualify amongst those 543 the only criteria were that the player had to have at least 300 receiving yards and 10 games played in two consecutive seasons. The following chart has the breakdown of the breakout wide receivers by year:
The most interesting thing to notice is that there are as many fourth year receivers as there are third year receivers that had a breakout season and that the highest percentage is for second year receivers, not third year. This really makes you wonder where the third year wide receiver theory is coming from.
In order to increase these percentages I applied three more criteria which are that the player must have had less than 70 catches, less than 1000 yards and less than 9 TDs in the previous year. These three criteria allowed us to eliminate 129 of the 543 players while only losing eight breakout players which increased the percentage to 31.9%. The following chart has the new breakdown of the breakout wide receivers by year after applying those three new criteria:
You might have noticed that the third year wide receivers now have the lowest breakout rate and that there is absolutely no reason to believe that it is a good theory. In order to increase those percentages, I decided to take this one step further and try to find more criteria individually for each year. Since we are dealing with relatively small samples this is a little tricky and I had to make sure the percentages were real and not simply a random coincidence. To make sure of this, when looking for more criteria, I made sure that I used rounded numbers so that I would not have criteria such as fewer than 63 receptions or over 13.7 yards per reception. The other rule I used is that I could remove players from my sample at both edges but not in the middle such that I do not have a criterion that says a wide receiver must have fewer than 40 receptions or more than 50. Although some of the criteria I will find may still be a random coincidence I think that by using these two rules I will limit that chance.
Second year WRs:
As shown in the first part of this article, although second year wide receivers are not as hyped as third year wide receivers on fantasy draft day, they do have a better chance of having a breakout season. To increase the 36.6% chance from the first part of the article, I added two more criteria which are the following:
-less than 7 TDs (instead of 9)
-less than 0.12 TD per reception
Those two criteria eliminate 20 players of the 82 while only losing three breakout candidates and they make the percentage jump from 36.6% to 43.5%. It is also interesting to note that only three of the 62 wide receivers had their performance decrease by 25% or more compared to the 27 that improved by 25% or more so drafting players that meet these criteria is a low risk and high reward strategy.
There are five wide receivers that meet those requirements for the 2008 season and they are: Davone Bess, DeSean Jackson, Donnie Avery, Harry Douglas and Jordy Nelson. Based on past statistics two of these should improve their performance by at least 25% and reach at least 150 fantasy points. At this point in the off-season it is too early to tell which of these if any have a favorable situation for next season but they are five players to keep in mind for your drafts.
Third year WRs:
Third year wide receivers are in demand on draft day and although there are many of them that breakout, many of them do not and it is difficult to predict which ones will. In order to increase the 29.6% chance from the first part of the article, I added two more criteria:
-less than 17 YPC
-less than 0.15 TD per reception
These two criteria will eliminate the players that performed well the previous year because of catching a few long balls and will also eliminate those that had few receptions but a lot of touchdowns. This now leaves us with 29 out of 86 receivers that breakout in their third year for a 33.7% success rate. Unfortunately it was not as easy as for second year wide receivers to improve the breakout percentage but 33.7% is still pretty good especially since the sample size is much larger than for second year receivers. Out of the 86 wide receivers remaining, there are 29 that increased by 25% or more but still 13 that saw their production drop by 25% or more. This is still pretty good and does show that some third year wide receivers could be worth drafting early and have breakout seasons but there is still a pretty high risk in drafting them.
In 2008 the third year receivers that respect the criteria are: Anthony Gonzalez, Chansi Stuckey, Jason Hill, Steve Smith (Giants) and Ted Ginn. Anthony Gonzalez is the most likely to breakout but he will also be highly valued by other managers but players like Chansi Stuckey and Steve Smith could be great sleepers.
Fourth year WRs:
Fourth year receivers are generally not thought of as great breakout candidates but there are a surprising number that excel, the latest example is Lance Moore in New Orleans who had a surprising year in 2007. We were unfortunately only able to find one criterion that improved our success rate for these receivers:
-less than 15 YPC
29 of the 77 fourth year receivers that respected these criteria had a breakout season for 37.7%. Last season, all five players that had at least 300 receiving yards improved their fantasy points total over the previous year and three of them had at least 13 fantasy points per game.
For the 2008 season, there are six candidates who are fourth year wide receivers: Devin Hester, Domenik Hixon, Greg Camarillo, Hank Baskett, Jason Avant and Santonio Holmes. You have to be careful with players like Baskett and Avant because they are unlikely to reach 300 receiving yards but the other four could show a nice improvement over their 2007 season.
Fifth year WRs:
Similar to fourth year receivers, fifth year receivers are generally not thought of as great breakout candidates but there are a number that surprise every year. Last season was an awful year for fifth year receivers which included Roy Williams, Reggie Williams and Patrick Crayton but we are hoping this will change in 2008. We added the following criteria in order to improve our success rate:
-less than 60 receptions (instead of 70)
-less than 6 TDs (instead of 9)
The players that respected these criteria had a breakout season 35.2% of the time while the ones that did not only broke out 16.7% of the time.
In 2008 there are six fifth year receivers that you should keep an eye on: Brandon Jones, Braylon Edwards, Mark Bradley, Mark Clayton, Nate Washington and Rashied Davis. If all six of these manage to reach the 300 receiving yards mark, two of them should breakout; Braylon Edwards is obviously the most likely candidate to bounce back after his difficult year in 2007.
Touchdown to reception ratio:
Very few (if any) experts mention this ratio but I feel it is very important to find players that could surprise or disappoint as we mentioned in our article on the inconsistency of TD numbers. I decided to look at all receivers in their second, third, fourth and fifth year who met the following criteria:
-less than 200 fantasy points per 16 games (in point per reception leagues)
-100 or more fantasy points per 16 games (in point per reception leagues)
-less than 0.06 TD per reception
We are basically looking for receivers who played a somewhat important role with their team in the previous season but did not get in the end zone for any possible reason. Since 1990, 87 receivers have respected these criteria and 37 of them had breakout seasons for a very impressive 42.5%. If you look at receivers who respected the first two criteria but had more than 0.06 TD per reception, they only broke out 26.1% of the time.
In 2009 there are ten receivers that respect these criteria, nine of which were mentioned earlier in the article: Braylon Edwards, Davone Bess, DeSean Jackson, Devin Hester, Domenik Hixon, Donnie Avery, Greg Camarillo, Steve Smith, Ted Ginn and Steve Breaston (the only new name on the list).
Unfortunately it is not enough to know which players might breakout and it is also important to consider where the average manager will draft those players as well as the current situation for all of these players with their respective teams. All of this will be analyzed in a later article but for now you should keep in mind the names I mentioned and maybe bump them up a few spots in your rankings.