Saturday - Mar 23, 2019

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Debunking the 3rd Year WR Rule

If you’ve spent any time playing fantasy football, you’ve probably heard that a wide receiver entering his third year in the league. You know – the one that states it takes a wide receiver a few years to learn the ropes in the NFL. Because of this, a wide receiver will typically have a breakout year in his third year in the league.

I’m always curious to see if these types of generalizations are based on fact or fiction, so I started digging to see if the data backed up the theory. While “debunking” is probably a little strong, the research I performed demonstrates that the 2nd year is usually when a wide receiver will have their breakout year and is the year they will typically be the most undervalued. It also shows that years 5 – 7 will be a wide receivers peak years.

Analysis Background:

  1. Only Receiving Yardage and TDs were included
  2. Only WRs with 3 or more 1000-yard years were included – this was done to limit the research to only those wide receivers that were truly good … not a one-year wonder.
  3. I only included the first 15 years in the league for each player
  4. Scoring System: 1 pt for every 10 receiving yards; 6 pts for every TD

The first thing that jumped out to me is the huge gap between the first and second years in the league. This jump is much greater than the jump between the 2nd and 3rd years in the league (60 pt increase from year 1 to year 2 vs. 12 pt increase from year 2 to year 3). So, apparently, wide receivers are more likely to have their breakout year in their sophomore season – not their junior season.

The next thing that jumped out at me was the jump from year 4 to year 5 (23 pt increase) – which is followed by a downward trend. This tells me that wide receivers reach their peak in their 5th year in the league. The data shows that in year 5, the top wide receivers have their highest reception total, highest yardage total, and their highest TD total.

Finally, the biggest thing I noticed was the very low pt total among rookie WRs. This low point total made me wonder if the results were skewed with historical data. The recent performances of Michael Clayton, Randy Moss, etc. made me wonder if the recent results varied much from the historical numbers. So, I re-ran the analysis using only the wide receivers that had 3 1000 yd seasons in the last 12 years.

These numbers confirmed the trend line but showed that today’s WRs are more consistent from years 5 – 7. Between a players 1st and 2nd year in the NFL, these WRs are averaging a 78% increase in their production (45 pts). Additionally, the recent numbers show a better upwards trend through year 5. These numbers help see where the 3rd year WR rule comes from – the third year is the first of a WRs top performance years (120 pts or higher).

These two sets of data tell me that the 2nd year is really when a WR has their break out year. But they also validate why the 3rd year WR rule came into existence. Using the recent data, the 3rd year appears to be the first year a WR is a viable starter in FFL. In year 2, the WR is probably a backup. The data also tells me that the trend is moving toward wide receivers producing more consistently for a longer period of time. This will increase the number of productive WRs on the market and drive down their value on draft day.

Here’s a list of WRs entering their “breakout” (2nd) season: Michael Clayton, Larry Fitzgerald, Roy Williams, Lee Evans, Reggie Williams, Michael Jenkins, Devery Henderson, Darius Watts, Keary Colbert, and Samie Parker. There are others, of course, but these are the ones most likely to “break out”, in my opinion (although you could argue a few of these players already have). Assuming each of these WRs will eventually have 3-1000 yd seasons in their career, expect these WRs to average about 790 yds receiving with 6 TDs in 2005 using historical numbers (722/5 using recent numbers).

So, where did the “3rd Year WR” rule come from? I’m not 100% sure. But, my guess is it came about because fantasy football is still pretty young and many owners don’t truly understand how to do the research necessary to win. So these owners look to see who the highest scoring WRs were the year before (players from year 4 through 9) and draft them first. Then they would look at the rest of the names – see some they know (year 10 – 15), and pick them. Some smarter owners starting doing research and noticed that a lot of these 3rd year WRs were available later in the draft and were good value since they would perform about the same as the 4th year WRs (taken much earlier in the draft). These owners started taking flyers on these 3rd year guys – which started the trend.

But now it’s time to do some re-evaluating, especially with the emergence of dynasty leagues and keeper leagues. In these leagues, if you wait until the 3rd year – you’re too late. In a re-draft league, look for a 2nd year WR in the last round of your draft. They may perform the same as a 10-year vet taken many rounds earlier.

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