Identifying breakout performers is one of the fantasy football community’s biggest obsessions each offseason. Like the busy New York Stock Exchange trading floor, analysts scour the tape for signs of stocks poised to rise in value. Finally, adding these commodities to our fantasy lists could give us the upside potential needed to build a successful portfolio.
The aim of this article is threefold:
- Based on your experience, identify when receivers typically erupt
- Understand the data points that often precede production jumps
- Apply our insights from the first two points to identify potential breakouts for 2022
This article identifies a breakout as a receiver hitting the WR1 or WR2 threshold for the first time in their career. This method was chosen because the high-end WR1 result range is very different from the low-end WR2. The average top six wide receivers have averaged 330 points since 2011, versus 223 for receivers 18-24.
Thresholds are calculated based on the PPR rating for the corresponding recipient tier since 2011. Here are the threshold averages for the top 60 recipients:
- WR1(12): 263
- WR2 (24): 215
- WR3 (36): 180
- WR4 (48): 155
- WR5 (60): 128
By using averages to drive thresholds, we create more accurate and consistent benchmarks because we don’t overstate or understate results based on anomalies that may occur in a single season. Sometimes we see an outcome that would normally be a WR3 season end up as a WR2 and vice versa, which we want to avoid.
WHEN DO WIDE RECEIVERS BREAK OUT?
Before we go too far, it’s important to get a macro understanding of how a receiver’s experience plays a role in providing fantasy football points. One way to do this is to simply compare a recipient’s production to experience to highlight the distribution of results.
For example, 85% of WR1 performance over the last 11 seasons came from recipients in years 2 through 8, and a similar distribution plays out in WR2 finals (83%). On the other hand, a WR3 finish in year 1 is more plausible, and it appears that more recipients can reach that level in years nine and ten.
That all makes sense. As recipients mature into their second season, we start to see them make up a larger portion of the WR1 and WR2 final results. It also tells us that as receivers age, they matter less of the high-end results we seek in the imagination. However, it doesn’t tell us how often these performers are outliers compared to frequent fliers, which is our next step.
We need an image that tells us what percentage of the time a player finished as a WR1 or WR2 did so for the first time in their career. In other words, were they breakout performers or repeat performers?
For this exercise, the data pool includes players drafted since 2011, as we later include extended data points that are not from the early career days of players like Andre Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.
When analyzing the table below, it’s also important to remember that everything is based on the peak of a player’s previous grouping (i.e. WR1, WR2, WR3). Once a receiver finishes as a WR1, they can’t have a first WR2 finish, even if they technically didn’t have one before making the top-12.
As might be expected, a large proportion of Year 2 finishes were consistently outstanding performances, closely followed by Year 3. Interestingly, the percentage of players who achieve WR1 status for the first time is not dropping off as quickly as we might expect .
It’s important to note that we could see large percentage variations in the future as sample sizes decrease as we get further away from Year 2. For example, nine (82%) of 11 receivers finishing in their third season as WR1 were freshmen and three (60%) of five WR1 finishers in Year 6 were freshmen. Overall, sample sizes decrease equally in all performance buckets, so the same can be said for WR2s.
It’s also interesting that we see a strong and broad drop in Year 7, which adds some context to the data we’ve previously seen for PPR degrees across all recipients from 2011 through 2021. While we continue to see some posts from late-career players making top finishes, they don’t come from rookies – these players have been there before.
If we group the breakouts by the top 24 rather than WR1 and WR2, we see that by the time we get into years four through six, the majority of the top performers are frequent flyers, and a similar scenario plays out for the top 36 – but the decline starts in the third year. Below is the same chart as before, but showing repeat artist percentages.
The central theses:
- Wide receiver breakout performances are more common in years 2 and 3 in percentage terms and in raw numbers.
- Most top 24 performers have been there once they get into Year 4, but many of the WR1 performers are still first-timers into Year 6.
WHAT ARE THE LEADING INDICATORS FOR A BREAKOUT CAMPAIGN?
Now that we understand breakout timeframes based on a player’s experience history, we can focus on identifying leading indicators. Given the dates we’ve seen, the first one is probably pretty obvious – earlier fantasy endings.
WR1 bursts upon experience and the player’s earlier career high fantasy finish
|year 2||year 3||year 4||year 5||year 6||In total|
Of 25 WR1 breakouts, 52% were from players who already had a WR2 finish on their CV, and another 24% were from players who already had a WR3 finish on their name — making up 76%. The easiest way to find the next WR1 is to look at previous WR2 and WR3 cast members. We can also see that players with only a WR3 finish aren’t as likely to jump to WR1 after Year 3.
It’s also possible to search the sub-WR3 group for signals that might indicate a future fantasy breakout. For this task, I pulled in PFF reception data for grades, yards per route run (YPRR), and targets per route run (TPRR) and benchmarked them based on WR PPR completions since 2011.
|PFF receipt note||YPRR||TPRR|
For the rookie receiving the second year grade, I used a slightly different scale than the one based above previous research but from the 2nd year the above grades are used.
Adding this level of analysis identified four out of six WR1 breakouts that did not yet have a WR2 or WR3 finish when they broke out.
- Year 2: Allen Robinson II blitzed a WR2-worthy TPRR as a rookie (23%)
- Year 3: Cooper Kupp had eclipsed the 75.0 reception grade and achieved a WR2 YPRR (2.04) as a rookie and then managed a WR2 reception grade (79.1) and YPRR (2.26) in his sophomore year.
- Year 5: Doug Baldwin achieved a rookie rating of 80.4 along with 24% TPRR and 2.24 YPRR and added two more WR2 ratings in Year 3 (78.9) and Year 4 (75.6).
- Year 6: Robert Woods delivered a WR3-worthy TPRR in his fourth season and added WR2 grades in PFF receiving grade (76.8), TPRR (22%) and YPRR (2.17) in his fifth year
This means we had some kind of leading signal on 23 out of 25 WR1 breakouts (92%).
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