The wide receiver position is one of the hardest to master at the NFL level. In college, offenses typically run a lot of spread formations from the shotgun, so receivers rarely face press coverage or have to run precise routes to get open. At the pro level, however, most receivers find the learning curve to be a challenge. Bumps at the line, faster and more aggressive defensive backs that can keep pace in man-to-man coverage, and the need to run precise routes and get in and out of breaks quicker than ever to gain separation are just some of the challenges many young receivers face their first few years in the league.
By the third year, some wideouts have adjusted to the quicker pace and stiffer competition. Some never get there and flame out instead. For those that don’t flame out, they represent unique fantasy opportunities since their stock is usually depressed due to two years of underwhelming production. That being said, the best of the bunch have typically already established themselves by then.
Here’s a list of the notable receivers drafted in 2017 and their production to date.
|Corey Davis||34 receptions||375 yards||0 TDs||65 receptions||891 yards||4 TDs|
As you can see, JuJu Smith-Schuster dominated the stat sheet both years, and you could argue he already had his breakout in 2017. With an ADP of 17.0 overall, he’s not worth examining in this discussion since he’s currently being drafted as a WR1. However, the table above does not tell the entire story. Let’s dive deeper into the context surrounding some of these players’ statistical outputs as well as how likely each is to perform heading into that all-important year three.
Corey Davis (Tennessee Titans)
Corey Davis was the first wideout taken in the 2017 NFL Draft, and fantasy owners have been waiting for the breakout ever since. Marcus Mariota has seen his passing yards total drop in each of the last two seasons as the Titans featured their ill-fated “exotic smashmouth” offense before hiring Matt LaFleur away from Sean McVay’s camp in 2018. Tennessee saw an increase in scoring as they implemented LaFleur’s variation of McVay’s scheme. With that, Davis increased his yardage total and finally found the end zone as a pro. Mariota played hurt for much of last season, and according to PFF, Davis ran the second-highest percentage of routes run against top-30 graded cornerbacks. Despite that, we need to see improvement in a wideout’s second year to confidently predict any sort of “Year Three” breakout, and Davis did exactly that, raising his contested-catch percentage from 18.2% in his rookie season to 40.0%, per PFF. Here’s a great example of that below:
The Titans added A.J. Brown in the second round of the draft and signed slot maven Adam Humphries in free agency to join Delanie Walker in complementing Davis, all of which should take some of the pressure off the young receiver. Ultimately, a healthy season for Mariota will go a long way in providing Davis with the boost he needs for a legit breakout. Assuming Mariota remains healthy, Davis should be able to post his first 1,000-yard season and score at least 7 TDs, vaulting him squarely into the WR2 conversation. This would make him a fine value at his current ADP (91st overall, 35th WR taken).
Mike Williams (Los Angeles Chargers)
The Chargers surprised many pundits by taking Mike Williams in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft with the 7th overall pick. The team has not enjoyed a lot of fortune when it comes to health at the wide receiver position, so they figured it was prudent to fortify their pass-catching group by giving Philip Rivers a 6’4″, 218-pound red zone threat to pair with Keenan Allen. Williams is capable of lining up both outside and in the slot, and the former All-American has the prototypical size you look for in a No. 1 receiver. Like Davis, Williams should threaten for 1,000 yards this season, but the difference between the two lies in the fact that Williams has already crossed the 10 TD threshold. Per PFF, Williams had a 134.4 passer rating when targeted last season, and he produced the most fantasy points per touch (3.56) among all wide receivers with a minimum of 45 touches last season. It’s easy to see why with catches like this:
Williams has the ability to hold down WR2 value this season, and should Keenan Allen go down with an injury, Williams would have WR1 upside given his size, opportunity, and talent. Expect a floor of 60+ receptions, 900+ yards, and a good possibility of double-digit touchdowns yet again. Fantasy owners seem to be willing to bet the over, as Williams’ ADP is currently hovering around 61.0, making him the 25th receiver taken off the board.
John Ross (Cincinnati Bengals)
The Bengals drafted John Ross with the hope of adding a big-play threat opposite A.J. Green. In 2016, Andy Dalton led the NFL in passer rating on deep routes (136.3), so the thinking at the time was adding the best deep threat in the draft would take the Bengals’ offense to the next level. Ross broke running back Chris Johnson’s Combine record of 4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash with a time of 4.22 seconds.
Unfortunately, Ross would play all of 17 snaps his rookie year, failing to record a catch. His second season produced a less than stellar 10 YPC average despite the seven TDs. Ross is virtually free this year (ADP 299), but he finished last in PFF’s yards per route run metric in 2018. There remains the hope for a rebound with the former 9th overall pick, especially with A.J. Green ailing already this year. However, there is very little evidence to suggest Ross will turn it around enough to warrant a meaningful pick in fantasy drafts this season. He might be worth a late-round flier if you want to take a gamble that he can return WR3 value. Just know that he’s firmly in the danger zone as a wideout who struggles to adapt to the pro level and could easily find himself out of football if not for his world-class speed.
Zay Jones (Buffalo Bills)
Zay Jones posted top-20 numbers during the final seven weeks of the season last year, leading the Bills with 102 targets (next highest was 62), and sporting a double-digit TD pace in ten games played with Josh Allen. Jones does have talent, reliable hands, and sound body control, as evidenced in this clip below:
Jones averaged a healthy 11.6 yards per catch last season, but the Bills brought in Cole Beasley to compete for targets underneath and John Brown to soak up targets downfield. An improved offensive line and further development from quarterback Josh Allen should give Jones a chance to match or better his numbers from last season, but with more mouths to feed, it will be hard to bank on a third-year breakout in Buffalo. Allen still posted an abysmal 52.8% completion percentage, so he’s not working with the same kind of talent Mike Williams, Corey Davis, and many others on this list are every Sunday. It’s worth noting that according to PFF, Jones was only the third-best graded receiver on his own team last year. Consider Jones a WR3 with upside for more, but don’t bet on much more. He does, however, make for a fine value pick if you’re going with the Zero WR approach.
Curtis Samuel (Carolina Panthers)
Curtis Samuel’s stock took a hit when the Panthers drafted D.J. Moore, but the pick seemingly lit a competitive fire under Samuel as the young receiver came on late last year. Over the final four games of the season, Samuel saw more targets, posted a higher average depth of target, and accumulated more air yards than Moore. Samuel has been shining in camp this offseason, and it’s important to remember that improvement is not always linear. OC Norv Turner praised Samuel for his route running, calling it “outstanding.” See for yourself:
Curtis Samuel's improved route-running is going to be a sight to see in 2019. 🍿pic.twitter.com/tQyIkaWsFb
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) July 31, 2019
Coach Ron Rivera would seem to agree.
Ron Rivera on Curtis Samuel’s jump from year 2 to year 3: “It has been amazing.”
— Jourdan Rodrigue (@JourdanRodrigue) July 31, 2019
Samuel’s ADP (119, 46th wide receiver taken) makes him a steal when you consider he seems poised to double his output from last year. If he does, he should post WR2 numbers this year at a fraction of the price. Moore still figures to have value, but for now, he’s behind Samuel in the pecking order when it comes to target share.
Cooper Kupp (Los Angeles Rams)
A quick look at Cooper Kupp’s stats in the table above tells an incomplete story. Kupp only played in 8 games last season before suffering a season-ending injury. If we prorate his stats over a full season, you’re looking at 80 receptions, 1,132 yards, and 12 TDs, making him a WR1 in fantasy. Kupp is coming off a torn ACL, but he’s showing no restrictions, mentally or physically, thus far in the offseason. Last year, Kupp averaged a stellar 7.6 yards after the catch, per PFF. Additionally, Pro Football Focus also noted that the Rams average two more yards per play with Kupp on the field than they do without him. For all the talk about Todd Gurley being the centerpiece of the Rams’ offense, it’s really Kupp who serves as the linchpin. Quarterback Jared Goff routinely looks to Kupp to beat zone coverage looks on defense, and he’s a red zone threat as well.
Kupp is currently being drafted with an ADP of 50.0 as the 21st receiver taken. We won’t get to see him in any preseason games to alleviate our concerns, but if health cooperates, you could easily acquire a backend WR1 for a backend WR2 price. The breakout is coming.
Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Many were expecting a Chris Godwin breakout last year, but inconsistent quarterback play prevented that from happening. Nonetheless, Godwin nearly doubled his reception total and came close to racking up 900 yards to go along with his seven touchdowns. He led the Bucs in red-zone targets last year and will see even more with DeSean Jackson gone to Philly. Here’s why:
Jameis Winston throws a ball into the back of the end zone that only Chris Godwin can catch……and he does, making a great catch and keeping his feet in despite good coverage. #Bucs #GoBucs #TrainingCamp2019 @CGtwelve_ pic.twitter.com/04s9v6UUWf
— Eduardo A. Encina 😷 (@EddieInTheYard) August 5, 2019
Pro Football Focus thinks Godwin already broke out last year, as his 80.4 receiving grade ranked 21st among all wideouts. Mike Evans will remain the alpha dog on this team, but with Bruce Arians serving as head coach, there’s enough reason to be optimistic that Godwin can post WR2 numbers even with Evans lining up opposite him. After all, Arians recently said Godwin can have a “Larry Fitzgerald-type impact.” It’s hard not to feel confident banking on 1,000 yards this season and at least seven touchdowns once more for Godwin. He should make the jump from WR3 to high-end WR2 this year, and his ADP (51.0, 20th WR taken) reflects that.
Kenny Golladay (Detroit Lions)
Golden Tate is gone, so it’s Kenny Golladay’s time to ascend to the top of the depth chart. Golladay’s 115 targets were the 16th most in football last year, so the passing of the torch may have already happened. The size/speed freak known as “Babytron” will cost you a 3rd round pick (18th wideout taken) based on ADP, but he looks poised to shatter all his previous career highs. Here he is at a joint practice with the Patriots beating man coverage like a No. 1 should:
Kenny Golladay is showing out at Lions-Patriots joint practice pic.twitter.com/1VTCkByEkL
— Lions Insider (@Lions_Insider) August 6, 2019
Golladay averaged 15.2 yards per reception last season and joined Smith-Schuster as the only second-year wideouts to cross the 1,000-yard mark last year. Put simply, the young man is a beast and Matthew Stafford figures to target him early and often. It’s hard to blame him when the young stud is pulling down passes like this:
New OC Darrell Bevell will likely utilize all of Detroit’s weapons to put points on the board, so Golladay may not post drastically higher numbers than he did last year. Still, expect improvement enough to make Golladay a WR2 with upside despite the lofty ADP.
(Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire)