3 Breakout WRs to Acquire and a Controversial Sell
In building Zero RB super-squads with five or six top-15 WRs, you have to load up on stars early but also hit breakouts in the middle and later rounds. That means selecting young players with production that isn’t priced into their ADPs.
In selecting breakout WRs, we’re mostly focused on second-year players. Since the turn of the century, second-year WRs have broken out at a 50 percent higher rate than third-year players. They also hold their value better, which speaks to the superiority of these players. We’re able to predict second-year performance with the same effectiveness as third-year performance, and it’s not as fully factored into ADP.
Big picture, we’re looking for two things in WR breakouts.
1. Elite age-adjusted college production that isn’t factored in to the general consensus about a player. Breakout age and experience always show up as important factors in my research. Players who broke out at a younger age in college make better NFL breakout candidates. Receivers who stay all four years in college are far worse breakout candidates.1 Looking at it from a slightly different angle, RotoDoc found the same thing in his Young WR Model:
The interaction between AGE.Z and MS.Z says that if a player had poor college market share, then his draft age didn’t matter. It also says that if a player was old in his final year of college, then his market share numbers didn’t really matter. However, if a player was young and productive, that mattered immensely.
2. Impressive rookie production that is dismissed or not fully considered in ADP.
With this relatively simple criteria, our breakout content included these recent players:
- Alshon Jeffery in 2013 (WR45 in ADP, WR8 in finish)
- DeAndre Hopkins in 2014 (WR38 in ADP, WR14 in finish)
- Allen Robinson in 2015 (WR24 in ADP, WR6 in finish)
- Stefon Diggs in 2016 (WR41 in ADP, WR13 in PPG)
Last year the breakout article was especially fruitful with Diggs, Willie Snead, and Jamison Crowder all among my top-four recommendations, while DeVante Parker and Donte Moncrief were labeled players to avoid.
I like to write these pieces using slightly different formats each year. For this campaign, we’re going to try an elimination format. Then we’ll tie it all together at the end. We’ll consider every receiver drafted in the first four rounds last year.2
2016 Fourth-Round Picks
Pharoh Cooper was the only fourth-round pick from 2016 with the type of production that usually foreshadows NFL success. Chris Moore, Malcolm Mitchell, and Ricardo Louis played for four years and remained well below the necessary production levels. Demarcus Robinson stayed only three seasons at Florida and did have a breakout 2014 campaign, but his overall numbers were poor.
This group failed to make much noise as rookies. Cooper looked poised to play a significant role for the Rams, but his season was derailed by injury. He’s now tumbled down the depth chart due to offseason additions. Mitchell remains the most intriguing player after a handful of splash plays down the stretch. His current situation looks better after the Julian Edelman injury, and he gets to catch passes from Tom Brady. Comps from his rookie season include Emmanuel Sanders.3
2016 Third-Round Picks
A convert from quarterback, Braxton Miller gained only 99 yards receiving as a rookie. Leonte Carroo posted a fabulous final college season and had tremendous comps if you don’t penalize him for the extra year of experience. Unfortunately, he managed 70 fewer yards than Miller and appears to be on the roster bubble in Miami.
2016 Second-Round Picks
Michael Thomas broke out immediately, becoming one of 17 rookies to accomplish that feat since 2001. Red flags exist for both Sterling Shepard and Tyler Boyd, but we’ll keep them on the list for the time being.
2016 First-Round Picks
Laquon Treadwell was expected to be the first WR selected a year ago, but he tumbled to fourth place and No. 23 overall. Pedestrian athleticism and an inability to separate were the reasons usually given, but his production also left quite a bit to be desired.4 Josh Doctson was the perfect example of a player whose senior production catapulted his stock into overvalued territory. Limited with various lower-body injuries throughout most of his Washington tenure, he’s in danger of becoming their version of Kevin White.
The 4 Candidates
Let’s start with a big picture look at their college results.
All four players were strong producers, but Shepard lagged the field in both 2016 results and overall age-adjusted numbers. He posted a solid rookie season at WR36, but most of that was on the back of the eight scores. With poor yardage efficiency numbers and a size/athleticism profile that undermines his future TD-scoring potential, opportunity will be key for Shepard. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have it in 2017 with Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram joining Odell Beckham.
How to Play It: Shepard’s WR54 ADP prices in the opportunity issues, but it’s difficult to burn the Round 13 pick that could be used to grab a priority Zero RB candidate.
After almost identical rookie seasons, Jamison Crowder is Boyd’s closest recent comp. The similarities go beyond those numbers as both players authored tremendous multi-faceted production in college5 and tend to be undervalued due to poor tested athleticism (especially at their respective sizes).
A year ago, Crowder’s ADP barely had a pulse. Buried behind DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jordan Reed, and Josh Doctson, the WR87 came off the board outside the top 200. He finished as WR30, and an offseason of buzz has pushed him up to WR29 in current drafts.
Plenty of parallels exist for Boyd. Expected to starve for targets behind A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert, and the combination of John Ross and Brandon LaFell, Boyd sits at WR97. He went undrafted in the Apex Experts league where 88 receivers were selected. While the buzz remains nonexistent, the Bengals appear satisfied with his development and beat writers have mentioned his name in a positive light on our podcasts.
How to Play It: I don’t expect Boyd to break out like Crowder or 2011 second-round pick and slot maven Randall Cobb.6 We shouldn’t expect him to make quick work of a daunting depth chart simply because two of his closet comps managed the feat. Opportunity is key, and Boyd doesn’t have enough of it. Fortunately, you can be a skeptic and still add him at these prices. Buy in Round 16.
Using the excellent Air Yards from Josh Hermsmeyer, we can visualize the explosive starts from our two remaining candidates.
Criticized in some quarters as a reach with the No. 21 pick last season, Fuller was actually one of the most undervalued prospects. That vertical ability was immediately on display in Week 1 where he notched a gaudy 242 air yards on 11 targets. The Texans rookie recorded two games with 20-plus points in his first four and appeared to be on his way to the season Michael Thomas eventually had. Unfortunately, Brock Osweiler is not Drew Brees. Add in a variety of leg issues and Fuller’s season hit a snag from which it never recovered.
He then broke his collarbone in training camp.
How to Play It: Expected to be out until mid-season, Fuller is a dynasty buy-low and a Watch List candidate in redraft. WR-needy squads should monitor the Houston QB situation and be ready to add Fuller for a playoff run.
The first WR selected in the 2016 draft posted solid yardage numbers and ridiculous TD-scoring feats7 as a collegiate player. A fantastic athlete, he even drew some soft comparisons to Odell Beckham. That potential was on display with a 5-104-2 line in Week 2, a contest in which he scored 27 fantasy points but also broke his hand. When on the field, his weighted opportunity (0.57 WOPR) fell in line with names like Sammy Watkins (0.58), Jarvis Landry (0.57), Stefon Diggs (0.55), and Amari Cooper (0.53). The questions for Coleman come down to health and QB performance.
How to Play It: Coleman will battle site favorite Kenny Britt for volume in Cleveland. The aforementioned red flags have scuttled his ADP, creating a tremendous opportunity for risk-takers. At WR42, you’re getting a great price on 2016’s best candidate to make the jump. I’m buying everywhere.
Other Breakouts, Bargains, and Avoids
- I discussed my deep WR targets yesterday in building my draft backward. Adam Thielen and Tyrell Williams are especially intriguing as value picks with secondary breakout potential.
- Last year’s discussion of DeVante Parker’s difficult breakout candidacy is still worth reading. His resume isn’t necessarily inflated, but it is misunderstood. We now have another mediocre season to add into our thinking and a preseason Jay Cutler narrative8 pushing his ADP into the same range as Emmanuel Sanders.
- Cort Smith has 3 Dart Throws for late in your draft and 16 Player Discounts across all positions. He’s been doing excellent work this summer. Give those a look.
- Brian Malone’s 4 Picks to Tilt has been one of our most popular articles this offseason, and it includes a veteran WR bargain that’s almost too good to be true.
I’ve had a lot of requests for this article and would like to thank the RotoViz community both for reaching out and for your patience. This isn’t a good year for WR breakouts, but hopefully you can draft Coleman this weekend or put out a few trade feelers. Boyd and Fuller are so inexpensive that you can probably still acquire them if you want them.9
Have a great holiday weekend, and good luck in your final drafts.
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- If you’re concerned that we simply don’t like older players, this is something that Nathan Forster of Football Outsiders has also written about at length. (back)
- For a breakdown of the deeper WRs, try 2016’s Targets, Flyers, and Zombies. (back)
- Keep in mind that Sanders was a much more productive college player and didn’t break out until his fifth year with his second team. (back)
- On the other hand, it was also impressive within the context of overcoming the 2014 injury. (back)
- Boyd rushed for over 500 yars and gained more than 1,000 returning kicks. Crowder rushed for over 100 and reached nearly 1,800 returning kicks. (back)
- Like Boyd, Cobb was a run/catch/return triple threat at Kentucky with over 1,000 yards in each category. On a roster with Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, and Jordy Nelson, Cobb was a less productive rookie than Boyd, but he exploded the following season. (back)
- Coleman scored 20 TDs on a team that threw fewer than 400 times in 2015 (back)
- Cutler has called Parker “a faster Alshon Jeffery,” which may or may not be true. In the “Fun With Splits” category, Jeffery’s strong run from 2013-2015 was supercharged when Cutler didn’t play. (back)
- Although my Tyler Boyd pleas were rebuffed by Denny Carter in Ben Gretch’s recent Best Ball Dynasty startup. (back)