When Do Wide Receivers Tend To Breakout?
We are impatient. Wide Receivers often see a drop in ADP for players too early into their careers. I think one of the reasons for this is due to how hard it is to know the boundaries. When is it too early or too late to give up on a breakout? Is Devante Parker going to break out in year four? Is a breakout in year four more or less likely than breaking out in year one or two? Do wide receivers like Parker often wait this long? We need context to know when we should lean in and when we should run away from prospects.
There are a lot of ways to break down the potential or likelihood of a wide receiver breakout. This is not the first time this subject has been written about. I’ve even written about it before. But using the FFstatistics database it’s possible to get a broader understanding of the context for a breakout season.
What Is Considered a “Breakout”?
I’ve decided to track it by receiving yards in a single season. This is because yards are predictive from year to year and have a strong relationship to both touchdowns and fantasy points. There is also a relatively strong relationship receiving yards in the first year to the yards they will gain later in their career.
This is a relatively strong correlation by NFL standards. However, the trend line obscures the complexity, or the significant variation, in the how each breakout wide receivers come from. Saying DeVante Parker’s 494 receiving yards in his first season is similar to the likes of Roddy White, has value. But it obscures the fact that Brandon LaFell also had about the same amount in his rookie year. 38 other players also reached this total, of which 25 have yet to have, or have ever had, an 800-yard receiving season.
Many of the best players in the NFL have had relatively few receiving yards in their rookie season or first few years. An R Squared (R^2) result of 0.56 is a measure of how much of the yards in a player’s the first season “explains” the total yards in their first 3 seasons. By NFL standards it’s a relatively high relationship. In modeling an R^2 below 0.95 is often considered inferior. However, the NFL has such variance and suffers from season length that can never provide significant a sample size. I generally think that an R^2 over 0.5 is a positive. Touchdowns, for example, measure around 0.23 to 0.28 across the first three seasons. In essence, the value describes how well the two are related to the trend line. I get similar results when I test between seasons. It’s also encouragingly the R^2 value trends upwards the further into their career they go.
But consider the players here who scored over 800 receiving yards in season two and three on the left. This means they had 500 or fewer receiving yards in the season before their break out. Dominant players with less than 500 receiving yards in their first season include Jordy Nelson, Steve Smith, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, and Dez Bryant. There are also numerous examples of good players not reaching 800 receiving yards until their third season or later like Golden Tate, Reggie Wayne, Eric Decker, and Vincent Jackson
That’s not to say there isn’t a pattern we can learn from. It just highlights why we shouldn’t overreact if a player doesn’t produce over 600 yards in their first or second season. However, this has often been misunderstood to mean that a wide receiver is more “likely” to break out in their third season. When in fact, players are no more likely to break out in their third season as their second.
Third Year Breakout Myth
Since 2000, 138 wide receivers have broken out with 800-yard seasons and 84 who have broken out with 1000 yards. Of those players more have broken out, at both thresholds, in their second season.
I don’t think that this means Corey Davis is more likely to break out in 2018. When we compare him to other wide receivers broke out in year two his 375 receiving yards are on the low end.
The range of receiving yards in season one indicates Corey Davis is nothing to worry about. But there is a connection between yards from one season to yards in the next season. He was injured in his first season, but if we break the data up by injuries I think the sample shrinks too much to be useful. So, in the end, I lean towards the overall trend. As such I think the history of breakout suggests that Corey Davis is more likely to break out in 2018.
To get a better idea of who is breaking out in which season I also broke these results down by draft round.
Does Draft Capital Matter?
It does. But it also means a player is less likely to break out the further into their career we go the higher they were drafted. That’s’ what I see in these numbers anyway.
These tables show the percentage of all wide receiver drafted in different rounds to breakout in each career season. In other words, 53% of all season one breakouts since 2000 were first round draft picks. 60% of the ten players who broke out with 1000 yards in their first season were first round draft picks.
I also think it shows that the percentages flatten out after year three for each draft round. The advantage first round draft capital provides, in terms of hit rate, is either lost or significantly diminished when a player enters his fourth year. We can also see that the percentage of players increased for players drafted outside of the first round.
This makes some intuitive sense. First-round picks get every opportunity to play earlier in their career. The less draft capital a player has the longer it takes to earn opportunity.
Having said that, it is definitely fair to note that the chances of a breakout player happening outside of the first three rounds are incredibly slim. For example, of the 84 players to breakout for a 1000 yards, 64 were drafted in rounds one to three. In comparison only 20 drafted or undrafted outside of round three have reached that level of production.
What Does This Mean For 2018?
Well, it makes rookies easy in a redraft league, at least. Despite JuJu last year, and the phenomenal class of 2014, even 800 yards is less likely for rookies. DJ Moore and Calvin Ridley, as the only first-round picks, have the best shot. Of the two, I favor DJ Moore considerably. Not just as a prospect but as a player who has a much clear path to targets.
Second-year players are the most interesting based on these results. There are nine players entering their second season in 2018 who have not yet broken out for 800 or 1000 receiving yards. Since we know that targets and receiving yards have a correlation to their yards in year two, I’ve included what they did in their rookie season.
Of the three who earned the most yards in their rookie season, Corey Davis would seem to have the clearest path to a high target share, especially as a first-round draft pick. Having said that if we were able to project opportunity so cleanly it’d be a lot easier to project breakouts. So, based on how you evaluate these players talent (ability to take advantage of opportunity) I think everyone from Taywan Taylor to Carlos Henderson is worth consideration. Most, if not all of them, have seen a drop in value since 2017 despite entering the season where most breakouts have occurred.
Here are the players entering their third year who have not yet broken out in yards.
The players who are most likely to fit the “third-year breakout” myth are Sterling Shepard, Josh Doctson, and Will Fuller. However, the players who catch my eye here are Leonte Carroo, Tyler Boyd, and Braxton Miller.
To be clear, I would take them off the waiver wire. I would not trade very much for them.
Both Boyd and Fuller are on offenses expected to score points in 2018. While target shares are stable year to year, their respective wide receiver ones had more than 27 percent of their teams’ targets. I expect both AJ Green and DeAndre Hopkins to dominate next season. Target shares that high tend to regress slightly (without harming the player’s production too much as well) the next season.
Simply put with so many targets going to so few players, I think there could be an opportunity for the team to spread some out next season and if either is able to impress in practice of the pre-season, they could earn targets. Miller, obviously, has the harder road since Will Fuller could well be the player to benefit instead. He has also been a much better player with more draft capital.
Leonte Carroo is simply a value move. Entering his third season inside the most likely breakout window and yet has been left for dead in ADP. Even though he has done nothing in the NFL, he was very productive in college and maybe a dark horse candidate to get some of the targets.
Finally, the fourth year players. Remember, the most significant observation I made from past breakouts is that draft capital is less of an “advantage” by the fourth season.
This would actually lead me away from Nelson Agholor and DeVante Parker. But, because things are never easy, I’ll also point out that their early production, reflects the production of later 1st round breakout players fairly well.
Players who broke out for 1000 yards in their fourth season a similar number of receiving yards in their first three seasons. This includes Reggie Wayne, Vincent Jackson, and Jordy Nelson. Of the two, Parker seems like the clear leader in terms of potential opportunity. Take a look at the video below for a further breakdown:
Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments you may have on Twitter @pahowdy