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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 14
Applying The 3rd-Year WR Theory

Rookie Scouting Portfolio The “Gut Feeling” is often synonymous with a sense of desperation resulting from a lack of preparation. The Gut Check is a huge proponent of studying the numbers, but there’s a point where one can place too much emphasis on the wrong information. This can result in the undervaluing or overlooking a player’s potential. Therefore, The Weekly Gut Check is devoted to examining the frame of reference behind certain number-driven guidelines that fantasy football owners use to make decisions.

Although The Weekly Gut Check doesn’t claim to be psychic, he does believe that he can dispel certain numbers biases and help you make the best choices for your team. We’ll keep a running tally of The Weekly Gut Check’s insights. This way you can gauge his views as something to seriously consider, or at least seriously consider running the opposite way as fast as you can!

One of the more prevalent theories in fantasy football is the 3rd Year WR Breakout Theory. Doug Drinen of wrote two insightful articles on this subject in 2000 and 2001. Tony San Nicolas and The Gut Check decided to research this topic from a statistical perspective that may ultimately help you make more informed decisions on "breakout candidates" during a draft.

The conventional wisdom behind the 3rd Year WR Breakout Theory is that it takes two years for wide receivers to develop their game at the NFL level. It is hypothesized that during a wide receiver's third year he is able to realize his potential. Many writers refer to this theory in both a 'loose' and 'strict' sense. The loose version of this rule states that a young wide receiver is due to have a good year early in his career, but generally after he gains some experience. This means the success could come at a point other than strictly the third year. The other version is what you think: the third year of that player's career.

This theory appears to have some truth as many football fans can cite specific instances, but is it something a fantasy football owner can rely upon? In order to find out, Tony took the following steps:
  1. He determined a 'breakout year' benchmark in terms of ff points.
  2. He looked at the statistical performance of receivers that achieved the determined benchmark
  3. He recorded the year in the receiver's career when he reached this level of performance.
Tony tried out several different fantasy point totals as his benchmark. Doug Drinen used 140 points as his benchmark, but freely admitted that his number was more of a random choice and could be adjusted for one's own purpose. So Tony settled on 150 fantasy points as his benchmark after determining that this total is roughly equal to 1100 yards and 7 touchdowns (.1 pts. for every 10 yards receiving, and 6 pts. for tds). Based on the Average Value of receivers from 2001-2003 this is equal to the fifteenth-ranked receiver:

Average Value of Receivers
 Rank  2003  2002  2001  Avg
1 265.2 238.2 242.4 248.6
2 241.6 208 237.2 228.9
3 195.5 204.9 207.8 202.7
4 187.2 188.7 200.3 192.1
5 185.7 182.3 185.3 184.4
6 178.3 179.2 183.3 180.3
7 176.3 176.7 180.5 177.8
8 170.5 174.5 178.3 174.4
9 167.7 173.4 170.5 170.5
10 165.9 163.1 167.9 165.6
11 164.2 160.4 166.8 163.8
12 162.3 156.4 163.7 160.8
13 157.3 154.3 156.1 155.9
14 156.4 154.2 155.1 155.2
15 153 154 149.9 152.3
16 135.7 149.5 149 144.7
17 130 148.6 147 141.9
18 128.1 146.6 146.6 140.4
19 125.8 144.7 139.4 136.6
20 125.6 138.8 136.8 133.7

Many leagues start more than 2-3 receivers, so the benchmarked point total could go as low as 120 points. But it's worth noting that most fantasy owners tend to anticipate breakout years from young receivers that demonstrated some potential from the season before. Let's examine how much value we'll actually get if we select a potential breakout candidate:

Recent ADP Data
 Rank  Player  Team  ADP
1 Randy Moss MIN 1.09
2 Marvin Harrison IND 2.01
3 Torry Holt STL 2.04
4 Terrell Owens PHI 2.08
5 Chad Johnson CIN 2.11
6 Hines Ward PIT 3.01
7 Anquan Boldin ARI 3.07
8 Joe Horn NO 3.08
9 Santana Moss NYJ 3.09
11 Derrick Mason TEN 3.12
12 Laveranues Coles WAS 4.02
13 Eric Moulds BUF 4.05
14 Steve Smith CAR 4.06
15 Darrell Jackson SEA 4.08
16 Andre Johnson HOU 4.10
17 Koren Robinson SEA 5.01
18 Peerless Price ATL 5.03
19 Jimmy Smith JAC 5.06
20 Javon Walker GB 5.06
21 Chris Chambers MIA 5.07
22 Charles Rogers DET 5.11
23 Jerry Porter OAK 6.04
24 Amani Toomer NYG 6.04
25 Plaxico Burress PIT 6.06

One can see from the AntSports ADP sample taken a little over a week ago that fantasy owners have pinpointed Andre Johnson, Javon Walker, Charles Rogers, and Jerry Porter as likely breakout candidates. Based on the Average value of the 16th-ranked receiver over the least three years, Andre Johnson is projected closest to the 1100-yard, 7 td baseline that Tony is using for this study. Walker, Rogers, and Porter are closer to the 120-130 fantasy point range if one used the ADP ranking as the projected final ranking in terms of points. All three receivers appear to be going within a round of each other.

Porter's best year to date was his 122-point, 2002 season. This year's ADP seems to place the Raider's wide receiver about two spots higher on the average draft list. Javon Walker and Andre Johnson have moved up even more: The Green Bay receiver had 125 fantasy points in 2003 and the Texans rookie produced approximately 122 points in his rookie season. This ADP data illustrates that Walker average ranking has increased nearly five spots and Johnson nearly ten. That's a pretty significant jump and could be a pretty big risk if that unproven player doesn't live up to #1A/#2 WR expectations! Charles Rogers is the only receiver of the four that has not had a previous 120-point season and he's much higher on draft boards due to the potential he showed before his season-ending injury. Based on the data, this is also a fairly risky pick.

Tony's research covered the years prior to each receiver's breakout year based on his 150-point benchmark and 100 receivers spanning the years of 1983-2003. This possible indicator of success realized some interesting trends:

  • 73.5% of the WRs in the sample (26 out of 36) had a 150-point breakout year when they had at least 55 receptions and 890 yards the previous year.

  • Of the ten receivers that did not breakout the following year, two just missed the 150-point total:
    • Keenan McCardell 146pts ('97)
    • Joey Galloway 140pts ('96)

  • Two more receivers missed significant time the following year:
    • Chris Carter 4 games ('92)
    • Art Monk 7 games ('82)
If you eliminate those 4 from the sample then an impressive 81.3% of WRs with at least 55 receptions and 890 yards experienced a breakout year the following season. Now that's a number an owner can feel more comfortable using as a basis to make a pick. Based on this statistical trend, which receivers could breakout in 2004? The only player that fits the criteria that hasn't experienced a breakout year to date is Andre Johnson with 66 receptions and 976 yards in 2003.

Tony's analysis also yielded the fact that 71.4% of rookie WRs in the sample (5 out of 7) with 50-59 receptions and 700-799yds in their first season broke out the following year. Of the two that didn't breakout, one of those players missed 4 games (Vance Johnson in '86). If you eliminate Vance Johnson from this sample, that number increases to 83.3%!

It's clear this analysis suggests that Andre Johnson is the most likely breakout candidate in 2004. From more subjective perspective, this is also a very safe bet in comparison to Rogers, Porter, and Walker. Johnson is the clear-cut, primary receiver in the Texans offense. David Carr is a quarterback that has steadily progressed in his first two seasons and can now count on an established running game.

In contrast, Charles Rogers is coming off an injury-marred rookie season with a more erratic, young quarterback. Although Kevin Jones is a very talented rookie, the jury is still out on him until he proves his worth in the regular season. Rogers also has Roy Williams as competition for the primary role. Nonetheless, Rogers is still a viable candidate-the Gut Check will address this later.

Like Rogers, Jerry Porter is also returning from injury. Furthermore, he faces a new offensive system and possibly a new quarterback if Gannon doesn't fulfill the expectations of some-Yours Truly among them. But according to Tony's theory, if you are looking to target one breakout candidate, Andre Johnson is your receiver for 2004.

This includes Javon Walker, a receiver that appeared on the verge of breaking out in the second half of 2003. Walker is rated highly on many publicly viewed boards-including The Gut Check's. But one can argue that Walker is in an offensive system with a quarterback that can productively distribute the ball among many targets.

So if you are looking for the best bet to break out at WR, then Tony has provided some good analysis as to why Andre Johnson is that guy. But on average, there is usually more than one breakout receiver each year. In fact, between 1983 and 2003 there were at least three, and as many as eight breakout players in any given year! Additionally, what about the veteran receivers and the Third Year Theory?

Using Tony's research as a starting point, let's see if we can use the data to pinpoint more breakout candidates. Although 150 points is Tony's established benchmark—and a generally a good one at that—it's still pretty clear that 150 points was not always the equivalent of a top-15 receiver.

Average Values for the Top 15 Wide Receivers from 1983-2003
 Year  WR1  WR2  WR3  WR4  WR5  WR6  WR7  WR8  WR9  WR10  WR11  WR13  WR14  WR15  WR16
1983 219 207 178 177 173 170 160 154 144 143 143 132 132 129 125
1984 247 228 206 188 179 179 178 159 159 150 146 140 138 135 132
1985 191 191 180 171 165 154 153 145 144 142 142 139 135 135 130
1986 253 209 197 175 174 168 166 162 161 161 149 148 141 137 132
1987 246 160 149 146 145 139 135 134 129 128 123 120 120 118 114
1988 201 197 191 187 181 174 158 158 152 150 137 133 133 132 131
1989 250 214 196 186 185 185 177 169 168 167 161 160 157 157 155
1990 228 181 159 153 153 152 149 146 142 139 135 134 132 132 128
1991 205 200 194 178 177 171 170 160 155 155 153 141 138 135 130
1992 224 186 182 178 148 145 144 141 139 134 122 121 121 118 118
1993 246 214 193 175 161 160 158 133 132 131 130 130 124 124 123
1994 240 220 200 185 183 179 178 176 169 168 160 157 143 142 141
1995 281 256 253 239 228 225 220 203 194 192 176 173 171 161 158
1996 204 201 190 186 184 179 176 176 174 166 164 164 149 147 147
1997 206 196 190 185 182 177 177 172 171 168 156 155 153 152 151
1998 233 226 200 191 180 179 173 170 166 165 165 158 156 155 154
1999 238 207 202 200 194 188 180 176 173 173 170 165 155 154 152
2000 234 225 223 214 201 200 199 186 181 181 179 169 163 158 157
2001 242 237 208 200 185 183 180 178 170 168 167 164 156 155 154
2002 238 214 205 189 182 179 177 174 173 163 160 156 154 154 154
2003 265 242 196 187 186 178 176 170 168 165 164 162 157 156 153

The fantasy points in bold indicate the corresponding ranking of a receiver attaining 150 fantasy points is much higher than 15th overall for 11 of the 20 seasons sampled. In fact 150 points would place a receiver in the top ten in 9 of these 11 seasons! So what happens if we use a predetermined ranking point as a benchmark? In other words, picking a the top 15 receivers-regardless of his corresponding fantasy points-from 1983 to 2003? The Gut Check thinks this method will allow us to gauge the top tier receivers based on relative performance of their peers in their era rather than a strict data point.

With this in mind, at which point did wide receivers during this twenty-year sample "breakout" in their career? There were a total of 106 "breakout wide outs" ranking among the top 15 fantasy point-producing receivers. Six of these receivers had a breakout rookie year. This was roughly six percent of the entire sample, which again proves the point that rookie wide receivers rarely make a significant fantasy impact. This is something that Tony initially discovered with his 150-point benchmark research and still no different from this methodology.

We will exclude the rookies from the sample since we are looking for breakouts from players with at least one year of experience. Once we exclude the rookies our sample size is exactly 100 players.

Breakout WRs from 1983-2003
 Year  Percent
2nd 25%
3rd 27%
4th 23%
5th 10%
6th 3%
7th 5%
8th 4%
9th 0%
10th 2%
11th 0
12th 1%
Based on this sample size, the strict version of the Third Year Theory appears to have the highest percentage. But does a fantasy owner really want to base his breakout pick on receivers only in their third year? The percentage isn't high enough to warrant that kind of decision. Clearly, a breakout season is not exclusive to the third year. This data supports the looser version of the theory. If one takes a more cumulative view of this sample, we discover similar, but a slightly higher, percentage trend that Tony initially provided Yours Truly:

  • 52% of the receivers broke out between years 2 or 3.
  • 75% of the receivers broke out between years 2-4.
  • 85% of the receivers broke out between years 2-5.

While the percentage of breakouts rises significantly when one broadens the range of years, this increases the amount of receivers qualifying as candidates. While we want to find more viable candidates, too many receivers can be problematic for the fantasy owner.

The Gut Check decided take a similar approach as Tony-find a statistical profile that provides a high probability for breakout. From this twenty-season sample size, Yours Truly determined there are an average of five new players with top fifteen receiver performances each year. We can reasonably estimate-give or take an extra receiver from year to year-that five receivers in 2004 will make the top 15 for the very first time. Now we just need to pick the right five!

Although we are sticking to the second, third, fourth, and fifth years of a receiver's career, this sample revealed that some receivers actually experienced a breakout year as late as his twelfth season. Since the percentage of breakouts is past the fifth year of a receiver's career accounts for only 15% of the sample size, we'll stick to years 2-5.

We discovered a basic performance profile of a receiver between the second and fifth year of his career that has a good chance of achieving a top 15 positional ranking in 2004 if they attained these numbers in 2003:

  • 81% had at least 41 receptions.
  • 78% had at least 2 touchdowns.
  • 71% had at least 400 receiving yards.
The Gut Check used this information as criteria to query receivers that attained these stats in 2003. Once we eliminate the receivers that already achieved a top-15 performance within their position, we have nineteen breakout candidates.

Breakout Candidates
Last Name  First Name  Rookie Year  Year Team  G  Rec  Rec Yd  Rec TD  FF Pts
Wayne Reggie 2001 2003 clt 16 68 838 7 125.8
Walker Javon 2002 2003 gnb 16 41 716 9 125.6
Warrick Peter 2000 2003 cin 15 80 833 7 125.3
McCareins Justin 2001 2003 oti 16 47 813 7 123.3
Johnson Andre 2003 2003 htx 16 66 976 4 121.6
Kennison Eddie 1996 2003 kan 16 56 854 5 115.4
Streets Tai 1999 2003 sfo 16 47 595 7 101.5
Engram Bobby 1996 2003 sea 16 52 640 6 100
Branch Deion 2002 2003 nwe 15 57 803 3 98.3
Morton Johnnie 1994 2003 kan 16 50 740 4 98
Shaw Bobby 1998 2003 buf 16 56 732 4 97.2
Hilliard Ike 1997 2003 nyg 13 60 608 6 96.8
Gardner Rod 2001 2003 was 16 59 600 5 90
Northcutt Dennis 2000 2003 cle 15 62 729 2 84.9
Pathon Jerome 1998 2003 nor 16 44 578 4 81.8
White Dez 2000 2003 chi 15 49 583 3 76.3
Reed Josh 2002 2003 buf 16 58 588 2 70.8
Hakim Az-zahir 1998 2003 det 14 49 449 4 68.9
Looker Dane 2003 2003 ram 16 47 495 3 67.5

Conceivably, any of these players could have a breakout season if a number of factors go the right way. But we are looking for the more surefire picks. That means there are players we can clearly eliminate from the running. It's still helpful to see this list, because the criteria they represent will not only help us find potential early-to-mid round receivers with #1 or #1A WR potential for your fantasy squad, but this can also help you pick players that should retain their relative value from last year. Of course, the exceptions are one-time contributors that have been buried on the depth chart or lost their jobs between this season and last.

Nearly all of the breakout receivers in our sample study were starters, so eliminating all but the clear-cut starters heading into 2004 is a wise approach. This brings the list down to 9 players. We're also focusing on players that are entering their second, third, fourth, or fifth season. This leaves us with six strong, breakout candidates from the 41-reception, 400-yard, 2-TD minimum:

Strong Breakout Candidates
Last Name  First Name  Rookie Year  Year Team  G  Rec  Rec Yd  Rec TD  FF Pts
Wayne Reggie 2001 2003 clt 16 68 838 7 125.8
Walker Javon 2002 2003 gnb 16 41 716 9 125.6
McCareins Justin 2001 2003 oti 16 47 813 7 123.3
Johnson Andre 2003 2003 htx 16 66 976 4 121.6
Branch Deion 2002 2003 nwe 15 57 803 3 98.3
Gardner Rod 2001 2003 was 16 59 600 5 90

Although the Gut Check has his favorites from this group, this shortlist allows a fantasy owner to pick solid players that should remain productive fantasy players even if they don't become part of the fantasy elite.

Notice how Andre Johnson is a viable candidate according to both Tony's 150-point benchmark and The Gut Check's positional benchmark? Tony's research also yielded Wayne, Branch, and Peter Warrick as players on the cusp of being viable breakout candidates with his 150-point approach. This means the ranking point took into account what the 150-point benchmark could not and provides more candidates for consideration.

As a side note, Peter Warrick would have made the Gut Check's final cut if he were fully recovered from injury and not likely to share time with Kelley Washington.

Four of these six players are either currently #2 options on their team or there is not clear, cut primary option as of press time. Before you write these players off, consider this fact: since 1993, there has been at least one team with two wide receivers in the top 15 for all but one year:

  • 1993-San Francisco
  • 1994-Minnesota
  • 1995-Minnesota
  • 1996-Minnesota
  • 1997-Oakland
  • 1998-Minnesota, New York Jets, and San Francisco
  • 1999-Minnesota and Washington
  • 2000-Minnesota, St. Louis, and Denver
  • 2001--Oakland
  • 2002-Buffalo
  • 2003-None
With the new emphasis on the five-yard contact rule, it won't be surprising if this becomes a renewed trend. That means Wayne, McCareins, Branch, and Gardner-all players that have shown (at least) adequate deep speed-are still viable candidates. Certainly, these guys are mid-to-late round picks, but according to this study they are sound choices with good upside. This is another reason why ADP information coupled with projection analysis is excellent draft day preparation. It can help temper excitement about a player's prospects so you don't make gross reaches.

Of the five breakout performers each year, the Gut Check calculates between three and four of these receivers are currently entering their second, third, or fourth season in the NFL. That means between 1 and two of these players have either been in the league for more than four seasons and/or they didn't meet the 41-400-2 criteria. There are 33 players that fit into this category that all have potential for considerable playing time in 2004, but ten of these players are either the team's #1 WR or the option 1A:

Breakout Starters
Last Name  First Name  Rookie Year  Year Team  G GS  Rush TD Rec  Rec Yd  Rec TD FF Pts
Davis Andre 2002 2003 cle 16 0 0 40 576 5 87.6
Givens David 2002 2003 nwe 13 0 0 34 510 6 87
Taylor Travis 2000 2003 rav 16 0 0 39 632 3 81.2
Morgan Quincy 2001 2003 cle 16 0 0 38 516 3 69.6
Stallworth Donte 2002 2003 nor 11 0 0 25 485 3 66.5
Rogers Charles 2003 2003 det 5 0 0 22 243 3 42.3
Porter Jerry 2000 2003 rai 10 0 0 28 361 1 42.1
Terrell David 2001 2003 chi 16 0 0 43 361 1 42.1
Lloyd Brandon 2003 2003 sfo 16 0 0 14 212 2 33.2
Dyson Kevin 1998 2003 car 1 0 0 2 15 0 1.5

Based on the last twenty years, one or two of these players are likely to have a breakout season. The Gut Check decided to limit this group to starters so you can have list of players that are good mid-to-late round targets with statistical upside. Rogers looks good in the preseason and prior to injury, looked like he could have a season that at least matched Andre Johnson's. Porter was very close to a breakout year in 2002, but the hernia and Bill Callahan sidetracked his progress. David Terrell is suddenly the number one target in Chicago with a coaching staff that seems to appreciate him. Anyone that has read The Gut Check knows what Yours Truly thinks of Brandon Lloyd. Last but not least, Dyson could be "Curtis Conway revisited," with the Chargers.

We already established that 19 out of the last 20 years, there has been at least one team boasting two, top fifteen wide receivers. This list provides players that could be one half of such a tandem. Although Joe Horn is the primary target, Stallworth is another explosive cog in a prolific offense. If Jeff Garcia recaptures his pro bowl form, it's possible Quincy Morgan and Andre Davis could benefit. As odd as it may seem, David Givens and Deion Branch (from first shortlist) could wind up that tandem-if Wayne Chrebet and Keyshawn Johnson could do it with Testaverde in 1998, then why not Tom Brady?

So if there are an average of five breakout receivers making the top fifteen at the position for the first time in a given year, who does The Gut Check think they will be? The Gut Check's original answer is that there will be as many as eight breakout receivers (he would have added Porter, Terrell, and Morgan) this year due to the illegal contact rule but if he had to keep it at five:

1. Andre Johnson
If the fact that the Texan fits the statistical analysis from above isn't enough, then it's the serious, grounded approach Johnson takes towards improving his game. Although Houston emphasizes the ground game, the defense will have to have made incredible strides from last season for Dom Capers to be able to pound the ball in the second half of games. Even with significant improvement, Houston will likely be in more tightly contested games and this still means Carr will have to sling it. Johnson has the size, speed, and hands to make the leap and stay in the top fifteen for years to come.

2. Javon Walker
Walker's high, pre-draft value in many circles is being questioned due to Brett Favre's tendency to spread the ball around in the Packer's offense. People always tend to forget that Favre has often had a primary target: Sterling Sharpe, Robert Brooks, Antonio Freeman, and Donald Driver all had big seasons in this role. Maybe the general populace mistakes all the changes at wide receiver as Farve not focusing on one player. If you take Walker's last eight games (20 receptions, 415 yards, and 5 touchdowns) and double the production as a sixteen game projection, that's likely enough of a reason for Walker to vault into the top fifteen.

3. Reggie Wayne
Sure, Wayne is clearly a secondary option in the Colt's offense but last year's stats illustrate that the former Miami Hurricane is coming into his own. The renewed emphasis of the illegal contact rule should require opposing defenses to place even greater focus on Marvin Harrison. This means Wayne should be on the receiving end of even more opportunities. In the Gut Check's opinion, the Colts tandem of receivers has the greatest likelihood of getting into to the top fifteen-just a slight edge over the Jets' McCareins and Moss. The Colts have the more balanced and explosive offense that compares favorably to the teams listed earlier that accomplished this feat. This is also McCareins' first year as a full-time starter.

4. Charles Rogers
The second year Lion had a promising rookie year prior to his season-ending injury. Detroit has significantly upgraded their receiving corps with the additions of Roy Williams and Tai Streets and added Kevin Jones' explosiveness to their running game. Rogers looks like Harrington's favorite red zone thus far in what can be termed an impressive preseason. The Lions, like the Texans, may improve their overall defense but The Gut Check still thinks Detroit will be behind in many games this year. That means Rogers will get his….

5. Brandon Lloyd
This was a tough call between Lloyd and Jerry Porter, but the second-year Niner has better hands, runs better routes, and has demonstrated his work ethic in the off season by adding muscle to his frame to prepare for the increased punishment of being the number one receiver. Although Porter is a physical freak that was everyone's favorite breakout candidate last year, The Gut Check believes the Lloyd will have more opportunities than Porter in the Niner offense.

The Gut Check would like to thank Tony San Nicolas for contributing his idea and the initial statistical legwork for this article. Yours Truly would also like to thank Doug Drinen of for his generosity with data, which was used to compile this article.