When do wide receivers break out?

How long until a receiver becomes a fantasy football star? 

In 2014, Odell Beckham Jr.'s 1,305 receiving yards and 12 TDs in 12 games was, statistically, the best rookie season for a wide receiver since Randy Moss' in 1998. 

In 2014, Odell Beckham Jr.'s 1,305 receiving yards and 12 TDs in 12 games was, statistically, the best rookie season for a wide receiver since Randy Moss' in 1998. 

Unlike with running backs, each year the rankings are teeming with highly touted 1st or 2nd year receivers who may or may not have proved that they deserve their lofty ADP. Indeed, much of their value is speculative. The rankers, and anyone who drafts them, are betting on a breakout. Is this a smart bet? 


Wide Receivers Drafted in the 1st Round of the NFL Draft

I looked as far back as 2007 and documented every receiver drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft. Why just the first round? It's because, presumably, these are the players that carry the highest expectations and are the most likely to be ranked in fantasy according potential rather than results. 

*denotes a top-10 overall pick

2007

  • Calvin Johnson* 
  • Ted Ginn Jr.*
  • Dwayne Bowe
  • Robert Meachem
  • Craig Davis
  • Anthony Gonzalez

2008

  • Darrius Heyward-Bey*
  • Michael Crabtree*
  • Jeremy Maclin
  • Percy Harvin
  • Hakeem Nicks
  • Kenny Britt

2009

  • None

2010

  • Demaryius Thomas
  • Dez Bryant

2011

  • AJ Green*
  • Julio Jones*

2012

  • Justin Blackmon*
  • Michael Floyd
  • Kendall Wright
  • AJ Jenkins

2013

  • Tavon Austin*
  • DeAndre Hopkins
  • Cordarrelle Patterson

Breakout 

I defined a "breakout" as the first season in which a receiver scores over 120 fantasy points, which is roughly WR2 territory.

There were 23 wide receivers drafted in the first round between 2007 and 2013. 

Year of breakout:

  • Year 1 - 4 (17.4%)
  • Year 2 - 8 (34.8%)
  • Year 3 - 1 (4%)
  • Year 4 - 1 (4%)
  • Year 5 - 0 (0%)
  • N/A - 9 (39.1%)

Now let's add last year's players to the list. 

2014 Rookies

  • Sammy Watkins* - 124 points
  • Mike Evans - 168 points
  • Odell Beckham Jr. - 197 points
  • Brandin Cooks - 80 points
  • Kelvin Benjamin - 144 points

Even before the season started, 2014 was considered to be possibly the best wide receiver draft of all-time. One year later, that assessment is still looking pretty good. With 4 out of 5 wide receivers drafted in the first round breaking out in the their rookie year, 2014 is a bit of an outlier.

Adding 2014's rookies into the breakout list (except for Brandin Cooks who did not break out and cannot yet be considered a bust) we get the following:

Year of breakout:

  • Year 1 - 8 (29.6%)
  • Year 2 - 8 (29.6%)
  • Year 3 - 1 (.04%)
  • Year 4 - 1 (.04%)
  • Year 5 - 0 (0%)
  • N/A - 9 (33.3%)

The number of receivers that break out in year 1 doubles. Before 2014, it was clear that most receivers drafted in the first round break out in year 2. Now the breakout year is evenly split between year 1 and year 2. In addition, 2014 also produced the two highest scoring rookie wide receivers since 2007: Odell Beckham Jr. (197 points) and Mike Evans (168 points). Prior to this, Year 2 breakouts, on average, scored significantly more points in their breakout season than year 1 breakouts. 

Regardless, if a player doesn't break out by year 2, he only has a 18% chance of breaking out afterwards and 82% chance of never breaking out at all. Bad news for 3rd year receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Tavon Austin. 

Top-10 Breakouts

Data filtered to only include receivers drafted within the top 10 overall:

Year of breakout:

  • Year 1 - 4 (40%)
  • Year 2 - 1 (10%)
  • Year 3 - 1 (10%)
  • Year 4 - 1 (10%)
  • Year 5 - 0 (0%)
  • N/A - 3 (30%)

Players drafted in the top 10 tend to breakout in year 1 or bust. Sort of good news for #2 overall pick Amari Cooper and #7 overall pick Kevin White. 

Breakouts - All Rounds

Assuming a player will break out at some point, which year is most likely? This list contains all wide receivers that entered the league since 2007 (not just those drafted in the first round) that have broken out at some point in their career.

Year of breakout:

  • Year 1 - 12 (36.4%)
  • Year 2 - 13 (39.4%)
  • Year 3 - 3 (9%)
  • Year 4 - 2 (6%)
  • Year 5 - 3 (9%)

The results are staggeringly in favor of wide receivers breaking out in year 1 or 2 (if they ever break out at all). 

Production Following Rookie Breakout

Of the eight year-1 breakouts, just two, Mike Williams and Keenan Allen, regressed in the following year. A.J. Green and Julio Jones, in particular, experienced considerable growth in their production. Adjusting for just wide receivers drafted in the first round, all four (A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Percy Harvin, and Dwayne Bowe), either maintained or increased production. The sample size is small but the data bodes well for Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Kelvin Benjamin, Sammy Watkins, and Jordan Matthews* who will be following up on their rookie breakout seasons.

*Matthews was a second round pick but, considering the depth at the position in the 2014 draft, probably would have been a 1st round pick in other years. 


Conclusion

  • From 2007-2014, wide receivers drafted in the first round typically broke out in year 1 or 2. A "breakout" is defined as scoring over 120 fantasy points in a season (roughly low-end WR2 production). 
  • 2014 was a bit of an outlier with 4 wide receivers breaking out in their rookie season. 
  • If we exclude 2014 from the data, wide receivers tended to break out in year 2.
  • Excluding 2014, receivers, on average, scored significantly more points in their year-2 breakout. 
  • Almost 40% of wide receivers drafted in the first round were busts (never break out).
  • Wide receivers drafted top-10 overall tended to break out in year 1 (40%) or never break out at all (30%).
  • If we include all wide receivers that entered the league since 2007 (regardless of draft position) the trend persists: wide receivers that broke out at some point were almost 80% likely to do so in their first or second years. Breaking out in year 2 was slightly more likely. 
  • 75% of wide receivers that broke out in year 1 maintained or improved production in year 2.
  • Every wide receiver that was drafted in the first round and who broke out in year 1, maintained or improved production in year 2. However, the sample size for this was only 4. 

Looking Forward

Year 1

In the 2015 NFL Draft, 6 receivers were drafted in the first round. 

  • Amari Cooper - 2nd overall pick; ESPN WR Rank: 23
  • Kevin White - 7th overall pick; ESPN WR Rank: 27
  • Devante Parker - 14th overall pick; ESPN WR Rank: 46
  • Nelson Agholor - 20th overall pick; ESPN WR Rank: 34
  • Breshad Perriman - 26th overall pick; ESPN WR Rank: 39
  • Phillip Dorsett - 29th overall pick; ESPN WR Rank: 71

As top-10 overall picks, Cooper and White have a 40% chance of breaking out this year. Based on the data, the most likely scenario is that 2 of these receivers will break out in 2015, 2 will break out in 2016, and 2 will never break out. We will need to look into each receiver's situation to decide which is which. 

Year 2

Nine 2nd-year receivers are ranked in the top 40 at wide receiver:

Playing Catch-up: Of the 5 receivers drafted in the 1st round in 2014, Cooks is the only one that has yet to break out. 

Playing Catch-up: Of the 5 receivers drafted in the 1st round in 2014, Cooks is the only one that has yet to break out. 

  • Odell Beckham Jr. - 4th
  • Mike Evans - 12th
  • Kelvin Benjamin - 14th
  • Brandin Cooks - 16th
  • Jordan Matthews - 17th
  • Sammy Watkins - 19th
  • Jarvis Landry - 30th
  • Allen Robinson - 31st
  • Martavis Bryant - 37th

Of these, Beckham Jr., Evans, Benjamin, Matthews, and Watkins broke out in year 1. Their high rankings seem appropriate as the data shows that they are likely to improve on last year's production. Of those that have yet to break out, Cooks is the only one that was drafted in the 1st round. He has 42% chance of breaking out this year. 

Year 3

Former 1st round picks Cordarrelle Patterson and Tavon Austin are entering their third year in the league. Their low rankings (Patterson is ranked 75th among receivers and Austin is not ranked) are appropriate. There is an 82% chance that they never have a breakout season in their respective careers. The other 3rd year receivers, DeAndre Hopkins (ranked 15th) and Keenan Allen (ranked 20th), have already had their breakout seasons.