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Third Year NFL Receivers Breakout Potential

Sometimes all an NFL wide receiver needs is a little bit of time to learn the league. Some of these third-year WRs are ready to breakout and teach NFL secondaries painful lessons.

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The third year has long been considered the breakout year for NFL receivers. They spend the first two seasons getting their feet wet, building rapport with their quarterback and learning how to read defenses. The third year is supposed to be when they put it all together and have a breakout season. This has proven to be the case with stars like DeAndre Hopkins, Michael Thomas, and Chris Godwin among others.

However, in recent years players are coming into the league more polished than ever before thanks in part to the NFL adopting so many college concepts. The 2019 season had some of the highest rookie receiver production in NFL history! The 2020 season features some standout receivers going into their third year, but many of them either already had their breakout or will not break out this season. Only a few are actually on the trajectory to have that true breakout in 2020.

Receivers with a High Likelihood of Breaking Out

D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers
When looking at Moore’s stats from 2019, it would seem logical to suggest that he has already broken out. He caught 87 passes for 1,175 yards and saw 135 targets. However, there is strong reason to believe there is another level to his game that we can project by looking at his trajectory. Moore posted 788 yards in his rookie season with Cam Newton as his quarterback with 421 of those yards coming after the catch. Out of Moore’s 1,175 yards in 2019 with mostly Kyle Allen as his quarterback, only 384 came after the catch. He didn’t suddenly become worse with the ball in his hands, rather he just got lower-quality throws from Kyle Allen compared to Cam Newton. 

In 2020, D.J. Moore will get the most accurate quarterback he’s ever had in Teddy Bridgewater and will still command his massive target share. I project him to see an increase in targets, but even if he doesn’t, his catch rate will go up from the abysmal 64.4% he posted in 2019. Moore has improved his route running and understanding of defenses in his first two seasons and has a high likelihood to produce a monster 2020 season on a team that projects to throw the ball quite a bit. Moore is currently being drafted just outside the top ten receivers on most sites which is his floor. He has the upside to be a top five receiver in the NFL this season.

Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons
Ridley’s raw stats in his first two seasons are nearly identical, which leads many to believe that he has plateaued and already reached his ceiling. This couldn’t be more wrong! Ridley played three fewer games in 2019 than his rookie season and still produced identical numbers for the season. His yards per game went up by 15, which may seem minuscule, but is actually quite significant. That is the difference between DeAndre Hopkins and Golden Tate in 2019. The numbers say he made a second-year leap and the tape does too.

Ridley, while not being a physical freak, is an absolute technician. He has shown great strides through his first two years and has continued to build his connection with quarterback Matt Ryan. In 2020, Ridley projects to see the biggest target share of his career with both Mohammed Sanu and Austin Hooper out the door. He is still an ascending talent and projects to see an increase of at least 20 targets. Ridley is being drafted as a mid-tier WR2 and I project him to finish as a low-end WR1.

Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys
Everyone was high on Gallup’s prospects until the team decided to draft CeeDee Lamb in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Since then, he has continued to plummet down draft boards amid the training camp hype around Lamb to the point where he has become an immense value in fantasy drafts. There is an apparent assumption in the fantasy community that Lamb will only take away from Gallup’s production as Amari Cooper is still being drafted as a top ten receiver. However, it was Gallup, not Cooper, that finished 2019 sixth in yards per game and it was Gallup that led the Cowboys in targets per game. 

CeeDee Lamb is an awesome talent and even the biggest Gallup truthers will acknowledge that. But will he, as a rookie, see more than the 83 targets that Randall Cobb got in 2019? Highly unlikely. Both Cooper and Gallup’s target shares are more secure than many seem to recognize, and there is a very realistic possibility that Gallup will outproduce Cooper in 2020. And yet, Cooper is being taken as the WR10 and Gallup is going as the WR30. While Gallup likely won’t have the target share to break out at the level of Moore and Ridley, he has shown improvements in his route running and football IQ over his first two seasons that suggest he can be the number one option in the highest volume passing attack in the NFL. If Cooper were to go down, Gallup would instantly become a weekly top ten receiver. Give me all the shares of Michael Gallup in 2020.

Sleeper Receivers with a Decent Chance to Break Out

Allen Lazard, Green Bay Packers
The Packers were clowned by the media all offseason for not adding a receiver in free agency or the NFL Draft. Maybe they are just dumb, but it is also quite possible they know they have something special in third-year receiver Allen Lazard. The first thing that stands out about Lazard is his size, boasting an imposing 6-foot-5 frame. Size alone won’t get you far though (see: Kelvin Benjamin), so there must be something else going in his favor if he wants to break out. That something is his chemistry with Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers has voiced his support for Lazard numerous times in the past year and even invited him to his house for Thanksgiving. That may seem insignificant, but those things matter.

Lazard is heading into 2020 as the clear number two option in the passing offense behind star Davante Adams, a role that offers tremendous upside. He may not have the elite speed and quickness of other potential breakouts, but having an elite quarterback like Rodgers will make up for some of those deficiencies. Lazard progressively played more and more snaps throughout the 2019 season as he gained Rodgers’ trust and now projects as a solid sleeper pick in fantasy drafts where he is being taken outside the top 50 receivers. 

Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears
This is the only breakout that depends almost entirely on the rest of the team. The talent is evident with Miller and he flashed his upside towards the end of 2019 when he was finally fully healthy. The problem for Miller is the offense he is on. The Bears offense has not been productive enough to sustain two fantasy relevant receivers over the past two years thanks to the abysmal play of the offensive line and of quarterback, Mitchell Trubisky. And unfortunately for Miller, Allen Robinson is the clear number one and he isn’t going anywhere.

If this offense can take a step forward this season, likely with Nick Foles at the helm, Miller could have a consistent productive season. If not, we will likely see the same old erratic production from Miller in 2020. The odds of an Anthony Miller breakout are not high, but he makes for a solid upside pick going outside the top 50 receivers.

Notable Players That Are Unlikely to Break Out

Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos
Sutton is a player coming into 2020 with major expectations as he saw 124 targets in 2019 and posted 1,112 yards on 72 catches. Seeing a catch rate that low may seem like he is in store for positive regression in catches, but Sutton will also see far fewer targets in 2020. The Broncos spent first and second round picks on receivers in the 2020 NFL Draft, and their first pick Jerry Jeudy projects to have a big role from Day One. That combined with an offense that projects to be pretty run-heavy with running backs Melvin Gordon and Phillip Lindsay greatly lowers the upside of Courtland Sutton who is being drafted in the WR15 range.

A Sutton breakout will require major improvement from second-year quarterback Drew Lock in addition to a higher-than-expected target share for Sutton. While this is certainly possible, there is far too much risk considering where he is being drafted. Sutton has the talent to break out in 2020, which makes it dangerous to fade him in drafts, but the lack of opportunity makes a third-year leap too unlikely to justify taking Sutton where he is currently being drafted.

D.J. Chark, Jacksonville Jaguars
Chark is an awesome player with impressive physical gifts, but unfortunately there is little chance that he reaches a higher statistical threshold in 2020 as he had everything working for him in 2019. There were injuries in the receiving corps around him, the team played a lot of garbage time, and he finished with eight touchdowns despite being on one of the worst offenses in the league.

The 2020 Jaguars have a deeper cache of receivers now and still project to be one of the worst offenses in the league. Chark will likely see fewer than the 118 targets he saw in 2019, but he should improve on his atrocious catch rate of 61.9%. These things should roughly negate each other suggesting that Chark will likely post similar production this season. Unfortunately, his ridiculous touchdown efficiency also screams regression, so he should come down to about five or six scores. Chark is still a solid pick coming in at WR27, but he is unlikely to see the huge breakout that some project for him.

Cozine is currently a journalism major at the University of Oregon and part of the SemiPro Media team as a Co-Assistant Editor and Staff Writer. He has a passion for football analytics, as well as studying film to understand what the numbers don't fully capture. Cozine is still holding onto the Jets' Super Bowl win from 1969 to maintain sanity.

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