Predicting a Wide Receiver Breakout
After getting ravaged all 2019 by Derrick Henry truthers, it’s now time to crawl out of my hole and deliver some analysis, of which I can’t be proven wrong about for at least eight months, so this is a good start.
In all seriousness, though, what’s on the menu for today is something I think will be helpful for those looking to build for the future in dynasty/keeper leagues. Will I hit on 100% of these players? Not a chance. Will I hit on 75%? Again, probably not (but Ozzie Smith hit .262 and has a red jacket so it won’t take much for me to be put in the rafters). What I will do, though, is try and guide you in the right direction towards finding some hidden gems in your upcoming startup drafts, or pinpoint potential perennial playmakers (thanks 7th grade English teacher for teaching me about alliteration) to add as low-end throw-ins to offseason trades.
First, let’s start by collecting a sample. Using PlayerProfiler.com, I gathered 295 active wide receivers in the NFL. From there, I set the criteria to those that had a breakout age of younger than 20.2 years old, and a college dominator rating of greater than 32.5%. Why these two seemingly arbitrary thresholds? Well, both denote a receiver being in the 60th percentile (or greater), respectively. Again, 60th percentile is arbitrary, but I think being relatively well above average in both of those categories says something about the skill level of those receivers. Not only were they above average producers at the collegiate level, they did so at young ages, which we know is important. With these parameters, the 295 from the original sample was cut down to just 71 names. So, where we’re at right now is that there are a total of 71 wide receivers in the NFL that ranked in atleast the 60th percentile for breakout age AND college dominator percentage.
Another parameter: I then removed all receivers taken in the 6th round or later. This is because, if I’m predicting a breakout, I’m not necessarily chasing someone who was a late day three pick, or even undrafted. Yes, they certainly can hit given their price (Adam Thielen and Willie Snead met this criteria, and so did Auden Tate and Allen Lazard, who have shown some promise), but the chances of it happening are slim based on the data I collected, so I didn't want to use it as the basis of an argument. By only focusing on round five or earlier picks, this filtered out an additional 23 players, leaving us with a sample size of just 48.
And now, this is where we stand. 48 names. 48 receivers, taken in the 5th round or earlier, who hit the aforementioned BO Age and CD% thresholds, remain. This is where we find our next breakout receiver.
With this sample of 48 players, I took those that were 25 years or older (I did so because they have been in the league for 3+ years) and marked whether they “hit” or “missed”. A “hit” is if a player produced at least one top-30 (half-PPR) season during their careers, and, as you can guess, a “miss” was if they didn’t. Of the 34 receivers in this age range, meeting the previous criteria, a whopping 27 hit, or 79.4%.
The names that “missed” are as follows: Tajae Sharpe, Rashard Higgins, Breshad Perriman, Phillip Dorsett, Paul Richardson, Marqise Lee, and Andre Roberts. Even from this list, Perriman has shown some promise and PRich and Lee put up a strong 2017 and 2016, respectively, before being plagued by injuries. Dorsett, Higgins, Sharpe, and Roberts are the only true “busts”, which is impressive given the fairly large sample.
Also, I want to note that, yes, guys like Sammy Watkins, Jordan Matthews, and Devin Funchess are considered “hits” in this piece. For where they were being picked in rookie drafts, or where they were valued three, four, five years ago, no, they definitely did not return value, but that’s not what I’m arguing. If I told you that you could acquire someone that has the potential of a 2015 Jordan Matthews or Sammy Watkins, or a 2017 Devin Funchess as a throw-in on top of a deal, would you say “nah, I’m good”? Of course you wouldn’t, and that’s why I considered those still being “hits”. Although for a short period of time, they reached those peaks, and I believe others that haven’t broken out yet may eventually return much of the same value at relatively inexpensive prices.
So, we are now at the good part: the players that meet every single threshold. Those of which who broke out at a young age, dominated at their respective schools, went inside the top five rounds, and are younger than 25. Now, some have already broken out and will not be cheap buys at all, such as Courtland Sutton, Chris Godwin, and D.J. Moore, but there are plenty of others I love.
First off, let’s talk about Christian Kirk.
Yes, he hasn’t quite lived up to the hype yet, but did Chris Godwin in his first two years? Did Moore or Sutton produce as WR1s as rookies, as they did this past season? No and no. Kirk admittedly hasn’t been elite as of yet, but everything points to a major breakout. Even this season, which was, again, derailed by injuries, he was on pace for 84-873-4 and 133 targets. That volume is WR1-esque. Sure, the efficiency wasn’t quite there, but he showed a solid rapport with a rookie QB in a brand new offense with a first-year head coach. The kid is still just 23 years old, and as he and the team grow and build together, the production will come. As long as he stays healthy, I don’t see how he doesn’t turn into a consensus top-20 dynasty wide receiver by this time next year. Even if they bring in a Ceedee Lamb, which is certainly being rumored, there is plenty of volume (34.8 attempts/game when Kirk was active) to go around in this passing attack, tethered to a great quarterback, that I’m not even somewhat apprehensive about buying in. He will be the most expensive player on this list, but he’s still a prime buy candidate for me.
Next up, we have Josh Reynolds. He will be 25 next season, so he’s on the older end of the spectrum, but I’m still buying into him. The main reason for this is because I don’t see how the Rams keep Brandin Cooks. The guy is making a boatload of money and they used him so sparingly this season. Sure, maybe other teams are worried about trading for someone with a track record of sustaining head injuries, but I think he’s as good as gone by the start of 2020. This leaves the WR3 chair wide open for Reynolds, a role he was fairly productive in this season.
Not to mention that when the Rams started running more two tight end sets, his playing time increased, as McVay said JR was one of the team’s best run blocking wide receivers. Sure, he may never be a fantasy WR1 or WR2, but as a legitimate bye-week fill in and potential weekly FLEX option, as someone who can be tossed into a deal, I’ll take him all day long.
We also have 24 year-old John Ross on the list. He started out 2019 on fire, torching the Seahawks and 49ers byke-to-byke, making the NFC West his bish before getting injured. He will certainly be more expensive than Reynolds, but given that he will be catching passes from Joe Burrow next year, who we saw put just about every deep ball on the money all season long, I’d be willing to slightly overpay for the young speedster. He truly has Desean Jackson level upside, and with him not doing much of anything after week two this season, right now is the prime time to buy before the hype builds up again.
One guy who fits the model that I’m a bit lower on is 23 year-old James Washington. He turned in a good season, all things considered, but I’m not so sure he’ll ever be anything more than this team’s third option in the passing game. Yes, the same is the case for Josh Reynolds, but whereas Reynolds is a toss-in to a deal, Washington actually has a price tag. From what I’ve seen, he looks to be well behind JuJu in the pecking order, and Diontae Johnson even made his case as to why he should be playing second fiddle to JJSS. Especially with a murky QB situation looming, he’s someone that I’m fine with buying, but I’m definitely not overpaying in hopes he breaks out.
Another I’m a bit lower on, but definitely someone who is cheap is Tre’Quan Smith. He has never shown any signs of consistency, has been banged up, will never be anything more than the team’s third options (MT + AK), and his QB is as old as Devin Booker is young. If you can get him as a throw-in, I’m fine with it, but I’m not actively seeking out TQ.
Now, for the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The true buy-lows. The players that fit the model that are either not being talked about at all, or are only spoken of negatively (in terms of fantasy relevance): J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Andy Isabella, and N’Keal Harry. All rookies, all looking to make a big leap heading into year two.
I know what you’re thinking. “JJAW had all year to produce with no other weapons in front of him and he still did nothing”. Yes, true, no arguing that, but let me ask you, what did D.J. Chark do when Jacksonville had nothing but Justin Blackman’s aura and an underutilized Keelan Cole in 2018? Nothing. What did Michael Gallup do in 2018 before Amari Cooper landed in Dallas? Nothing. How about Tyler Boyd, competing with only Brandon Lafell for the WR2 job as a rookie, and literally nobody as a sophomore? Nothing. Now what are they? Consensus top-30 dynasty wide receivers, that’s what. If you’re giving up on a WR with a terrific profile, spanning from great size adjusted athleticism, to college production, to draft capital, then you’re not doing it right.
I’d be willing to bet you could acquire him for a 2020 3rd round pick, and if that’s the case, I’m pulling the trigger. Although he showed no signs of it this year, he has the legitimate chance to be the WR1 in Philadephia, and on the off-chance that it does happen, for the price you’re paying to get him, it will be the best ROI you could have ever had. And guess what, if he doesn’t hit? All it cost was a 3rd round rookie pick, one that had just as much of a chance of busting as JJAW in the first place, so why not take that chance. Low-risk, high reward.
Next up, Andy Isabella. We already covered his teammate and already said there’s a good chance the Cardinals invest in a WR through the draft, but I’d argue that only works to Isabella’s benefit, price-wise. I think everyone expects Kirk to be atleast the WR2 in this offense, meaning, at best, AI will be third-wheeling the passing game. Although we haven’t seen it often, three receivers on the same team CAN be fantasy relevant at the same time. The most obvious example are the Rams with Cooks-Woods-Kupp, but what about the Redskins a few years back with Pierre Garcon, Desean Jackson, and Jamison Crowder? Also, the Cardinals only use a tight end on 17% of their passing snaps and 3+ receivers 77% of the time. Because of this, the WR3 in Arizona is much more valuable than most other WR3s around the league. The opportunity available to him, along with his profile matching this “model” to a tee bodes well for his success, and at his current price, is someone I’m willing to overpay for.
And lastly, the best buy candidate in my opinion: N’Keal Harry. He was the consensus 1.01 in rookie drafts last year, but now, is nothing but an afterthought. Why? Because he started off slow? Because he spent most of the season on I.R.? Those two factors take nothing away from his prospect profile, and at just 22 years of age, he’s far from being able to be labeled a “bust”.
Sure, he has had knocks about not being able to separate, or being a bad route-runner, but you know who else had these things said about them? Here’s a short list: D.K. Metcalf, A.J. Brown, Courtland Sutton, D.J. Moore. You know what the beautiful thing is? Humans don’t stay the same. What you are as a 20 year old isn’t what you’ll be at 25, or 28, or 31. Players (can) improve, it’s just what they do. D.K. and Brown in just one season went from just bug, physical, unpolished receivers to dominating competition week in and week out. Harry didn’t really have a chance show improvement, being put in the doghouse early and sustaining an injury that landed him on the I.R., but now with a full offseason with the team, having only a 34 year-old Julian Edelman as competition for targets, the time is now for N’Keal to blow up. If he was in the 2020 class, he’d be a top five pick (non-superflex) for me, but I’d be willing to bet he could be acquired for an early 2nd, especially after the hype of the combine. Sometimes, fantasy football doesn’t need to be hard, and this is certainly one of those times.
Lastly, my “Next DeVante Parker” nomination goes to Corey Davis. The two most disgusting entities in the NFL right now are Adam Gase and Marcus Mariota. Gase ruined Parker, Drake, Tannehill, and is now tainting Darnold, Bell, and Robby Anderson. I’m sure you all know this, but when Gase leaves, good things happen. The same can be said for Mariota, Other than Delanie Walker, who was too old to feel MM’s wrath, we saw Demarco Murray, Derrick Henry, and Corey Davis fall victim to the Hawaiin Brett Hundley. Hell, even A.J. Brown was almost thrown off his track to success. Davis can now sleep at night knowing he will be catching passes from a semi-competent QB, and if a change-of-scenery is looming, as he is a UFA in 2021, he could get a fresh start elsewhere. We’ve seen him produce in this league with awful QB play, and at just 25 years old, I’m not willing to throw in the towel just yet.
If you want to see a full list of players that fit this "model", you can look below. I don't have an option to share the file, so this is the best I can do. The players are sorted by their current age.