Wide receivers have been breaking out all over the place for the last few years and it’s probably going to stop. As the new young guns at the position continue to fire, it leaves me expecting a certain amount of disappointment for those who have not already hit their target or primed their triggers.
Let me show you what I mean.
Over the last three years – rookie classes from 2020-2022 – the league has averaged one top-12 WR breakout, but the average per year is 0.3 since 2008. While we only had two top 24 rookie breakouts in 2022 (Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson), we have also been above the average there as well. Since 2008, fantasy has averaged 1.7 top-24 rookie breakouts a season, but over the last three years, it has been 2.7.
Beyond rookie expectations, if we look at the top 12, 33% were breakouts (four players, which is about average) but the previous two years had 41% of the top 12 as breakouts (five players). Further back, in 2019, 50% were breakouts. While the individual count might not seem too dissimilar, the rate shows a clear golden era recently, and good things never last.
The last time we saw five straight years of average or above-average breakout years was after 2018, when only 25% of the top 12 finished there for the first time, resulting in three breakout players:
- Stefon Diggs in his fourth year
- JuJu Smith-Schuster in his second year
- Robert Woods in his sixth year
This isn’t an anomaly either. For most positions, low breakout years are characterized by not only fewer but later career years and lower draft capital breakouts.
At running back last year, for example, only three players broke out into the top 12: Tony Pollard (a fourth-round pick in his fourth year), Rhamondre Stevenson (a second-year player also from the fourth round), and Jamaal Williams (a sixth-year player from the fourth round).
Frankly, low breakout years are always more likely to bring less “common” breakouts who are further into their career, and with less draft capital.
However, breakout years regress as straightforwardly as touchdown rates. 2022 followed another similar bad breakout year for running backs, for example, resulting in a few poor results from my breakout process which prioritizes youth and the previous year’s production.
It’s also worth noting that this concoction of the less likely brings a potential for under-acknowledged value in dynasty, because rostering Diggs and Woods in 2018, or Stevenson and Williams last year, had an unbalanced upside based on what we can typically expect from either profile in both points and raw trade value.
Still, outside of the hubris of thinking the wide receiver position – or perhaps that the passing era of the NFL – is now “too big to fail”, I think it’s a good idea to remain cautious about the potential for 2023’s breakout predictions.
Using rankings and projections from four of the most popular (and accurate) fantasy sources from both dynasty and redraft, I create season-long projections based on a weighted average of rankings merged with last year’s position finish. Using those projections, there are six players projected (or expected?) to break out into the top 24 for the first time in 2023, and two players inside the top 12 for the first time.
Three of the expected top-24 breakouts are first-round players, and one is a second-round player. All four are entering their second career year.
A few notes, from a fellow breakout chaser? These are good ideas. They follow solid principles founded on fantasy history and common features of breakouts. Second-year players and decent draft capital, are usually key indicators. Combined with what we can safely refer to as ‘positive’ rookie years, they look like solid ideas. (Leaving aside the debate on what is and isn’t a “positive” rookie season, because it’s largely navel-gazing from my experience.)
However, none of them are later career players, and none of them have lower draft capital, but we’re entering an era where we should be more open to the idea of breakouts emerging from that camp. This doesn’t mean we have to give up on any of these players, but it does offer the chance to be pessimistic about any potential negatives.
Chris Olave established a large and productive role for the majority of the season, which makes me wonder where the upside is if we’ve already seen the result of that workload and there is the looming potential of a Michael Thomas return in 2023.
Food for thought, at least. And it also offers an above-average opportunity to score some undervalued value in dynasty as in 2018 for wide receiver, and the last two years for running back.
Returns In 2023
On the flip side, the position has been repeating in the top 12 at an above-average rate. Each of the last two years has seen 41% or more of the top 12 players at WR repeat that performance the following year. The average is 38%. What’s more, only 16% of the top 12, as a direct fulfillment of the other trends, have been players who “return” to the top 12 (as in players who have finished in the top 12 before, but did not the previous year).
This year we have the, as mentioned, potential return of Michael Thomas, and the long-awaited return of Calvin Ridley.
Consensus rankings and projections are predicting four returns inside the top 24 and one inside the top 12 (Cooper Kupp).
There will, however, be breakouts. Even in down years, we see new players finish inside the top 12 for the first time, and value in points and trade is available from catching those shooting stars.
To try and find the most upside, my breakout process emphasizes these trends in breakouts, returns, and repeats a little more.
To be clear, this isn’t completely justified because this is not a trend that has even dependable regression towards the mean. But we are trying to take upside shots at the right time to maximize our potential for success.
Combined with some bias to my earlier rookie profiles, I think Rondale Moore and Rashod Bateman stand out. Darnell Mooney and Jakobi Meyers are also facing changing situations with lower draft capital and solid previous-year production.
Between missed time, lower draft capital, and later career years, I think these players fit the broad trends we should target heading into seasons that have the potential to present low breakout percentages.
Having said that, intermingled between the consensus breakouts on the list above, are some other players. I prefer the ones highlighted, but that’s based mostly on evaluations and if your, or someone else evaluation differs, you should heavily consider it. I try and use history to find the right pools to go swimming in but the decisions, are, as always, up to you.
Well, that’s about all I have for this article. Thanks for checking it out, and good luck this season.