Is the third-year breakout WR real?

Updated: July 25, 2013, 11:17 AM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

Not every piece of fantasy football analysis needs to involve some sort of innovative strategy or clever theory.

In fact, foisting either upon the fantasy community using a handful of cherry-picked examples, rather than detailed examination, does more disservice than good. If you haven't thoroughly tested a hypothesis, how can you jump to a conclusion?

[+] EnlargeDez Bryant
Greg Bartram/USA TODAY SportsDez Bryant finished third in fantasy scoring among wide receivers in 2012, his third season in the league.

In the 2012 NFL campaign, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, all of them wide receivers playing their third seasons, broke out in a big way. The temptation, therefore, to expect a similar step forward in 2013 from third-year wide receivers Torrey Smith, Cecil Shorts and Vincent Brown might be irresistible.

Yes, the time is ripe for analysts to once again attempt to sell you on the notion of a "third-year wide receiver breakout" theory. They might lean on 2012's examples or perhaps cite other recent instances from the past decade, such as Braylon Edwards (2007), Sidney Rice (2009) or the New York Giants' Steve Smith (2009).

But the problem with leaning on one year's worth of supporting evidence is that it ignores the varying strengths of annual draft classes. Need we cite the 2002 NFL draft, which produced precisely five 1,000-yard receiving seasons total (led by two apiece from Antonio Bryant and Javon Walker) and one 10-touchdown season (by Walker). Plus, from a historical perspective -- referencing the past decade only -- providing a mere list of success stories ignores the various failures among beefed-up "third-year wide receiver breakout" candidates: How about Dwayne Bowe (2009), Mark Clayton (2007) or Michael Crabtree (2011)?

Incidentally, what about members of the 2013 third-year wide receiver class who have already broken out, like A.J. Green, Julio Jones and Randall Cobb? If additional wide receivers from the same class break through this season, are we going to ignore those who broke out as sophomores? 

Fantasy owners ultimately shouldn't be investing in specific NFL wide receiver classes, but should be spreading their risk among younger players based upon skills and opportunity. If Smith, Shorts or Brown is your target this season, it should be because Smith is now the No. 1 receiver for the Baltimore Ravens, or because Shorts is the same for the Jacksonville Jaguars, or because Brown is a crisp route-runner who opened eyes during OTAs. Not because of some silly theory.

History supports this. Fifty-seven wide receivers have managed at least 1,200 career fantasy points, a number deliberately selected to isolate a group of players who are unquestionable fantasy successes. Anything less runs the risk of skewing the data by including wide receivers whose careers might have been fueled by either one random, outstanding season or longevity as a mediocre performer (think 10-plus years as a WR3/4). Remember, this has been touted a breakout player theory, not an "Oh, he developed into an OK fantasy player" theory.

The following chart breaks down what these 57 wide receivers did by years of NFL experience. The first line, for example, represents their rookie years, the second their second years and so on. Take special note of the "First 150?" column, which indicates the year of his career during which the player first reached the 150-fantasy-point plateau. The significance of that benchmark is that an average of 12.3 wide receivers per year have reached it since 2001.

While those third-year statistics show a sizable amount of growth, take note of those increases experienced by second- and fifth-year wide receivers, which are larger. Using a sample of only the all-time best wide receivers, it appears that the most common pattern has them "arriving" as an impact NFL player in their second years, then breaking out or reaching their career peak during their fifth years. It's no surprise, then, that Green, Jones and Cobb fared well in 2012.

But let's not approach this from only one angle. After all, isolating only the most successful wide receivers in history grants us the advantage of hindsight. As this theory is a predictive one, let's now examine the career paths of the some of the game's most highly touted wide receiver prospects.

This time, we'll use the 100 wide receivers -- yes, it's exactly 100 -- who were selected among the first 70 players in the NFL draft since the year 2000. These were generally the most promising prospects in the game, so their career progressions should be of particular interest.

The chart above does lend credence to a third-year wide receiver theory, though that year's advantage over, say, Years 2 or 4 is hardly overwhelming. Feel free to use your judgment; mine is that 11 players broke out as third-year players compared to six in Year 2. I'm hardly going to splurge only on third-year players at the expense of second- or even fourth-year players. That's simply not a wide enough split to justify constructing a strategy.

Here's another fact about those 100 wide receiver prospects that you should know: Only 25 of them have ever managed a season with at least 150 fantasy points and 37 of them have failed to reach that plateau despite playing at least eight years in the league. That's an extremely high failure rate, and it's another factor to consider before assuming players at any career phase are due to break out.

Ultimately, either approach to the project suggests that if a wide receiver is going to break out, it is most likely going to occur between his second and his fifth season in the league. Be selective; skills are a far more compelling reason to invest than the amount of experience.

After all, keep this in mind: This year's unquestioned No. 1 wide receiver, Calvin Johnson, actually endured one of his worst campaigns in NFL Year No. 3. He totaled just 124 fantasy points, a mere 8.9 per game, or more than three points per game fewer than he had in either his second or fourth seasons.

Breakout wide receiver candidates, Years 2-5

Year 2: Michael Floyd, Alshon Jeffery, Rueben Randle
Year 3: Torrey Smith, Cecil Shorts, Vincent Brown
Year 4: Antonio Brown, Golden Tate
Year 5: Brian Hartline, Darrius Heyward-Bey