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Lab Test: The 3rd Year Wideout Breakout

The 3rd Year Wide Receiver Breakout Rul… Theor… Hypothesis

Its draft time, which means the mathemagical voodoo is in high gear. Hopefully just in time for your draft, let’s take a look at the “3rd Year Wide Receiver Breakout Hypothesis” in this second installment of the stat lab. This is the idea that wideouts are generally primed for success after two years of pro experience under their belt due to comfort, rapport, pro-grade performance enhancers, whatever. For fantasy purposes, we’re looking for guys who bust out of the far end of the depth chart into at least fantasy relevance along with breakout time from their rookie season.

(Apologies to my fellowFirefox users for the lack of images.  There are some links to them until this can be sorted out.)

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To test this, we’ll first look at wideouts who have joined the league since 1988. This year gives us the biggest sample size in a 16-game schedule while avoiding the dips caused by the labor disputes of the 80s. We’re looking at receivers with at least 6 receptions in their pre-breakout year, one standard deviation below the average of 28 (the average was tested too, but it turns out this doesn’t matter).

For this to be true, 3rd year wide receiver gains should differ significantly from the whole population by a significant margin which tradition says we should call 5%. Later on, the true “breakout year” is defined as when the player hits their 5-year max or exceeded their 5 year average by 10% or more, whichever came first. In all the following charts and analyses, growth is measured in fantasy points using 1 point per reception or 10 yards, and 6 points per touchdown.

Before we dive in…

Toying around with the data a bit, you immediately find an age bias.

Figure 1

Here we can see that gains of 50% or more into fantasy relevance mostly happen between the ages of 24 and 27, with nearly half (44%) occurring at age 24 or 25 (yellow). Meanwhile the average wideout age in any given season is about 26 (blue). This peak range gets slightly wider, shifting a bit older, when we include those players who missed time in the previous season (pink). This also says that fewer than 20% of wideouts will ever see a points jump of 50%+ from one season to the next once they hit age 28. None of this is surprising, but probably good to know.

The Breakout Breakdown

On to the good stuff! We’ll proceed looking at all consecutive seasons versus the players’ third seasons.


Figure 2

Here you can see that third year wideouts (yellow) are about 2% more likely than other receivers to have a 25%-50% growth and 3% more likely to have up to a 25% decline. This chart shows the growth pattern of wideouts with at least 28 receptions the season prior, but the 6 reception minimum shows basically the same pattern.


Figure 3

Next we drop those who had a significant play time change between the two seasons. This will weed out growth or decline due to injury or a role change for which you just need a depth chart to figure out. This also happens to narrow our samples to wideouts starting at about a WR3 or better. Here you see the pattern grows more extreme, now 3% more likely to see 25-50% growth, but also 7% more likely to see up to a 25% decline. 

Not looking good. So now what? Someone suggested having a look at 2 years, so here goes!

Figure 4


Finally, a difference that makes a difference! Second year wideouts are 13% more likely to grow and 11% less likely to decline than all others. Most notably, they’re about 6% more likely to as much as double their points. These percentages aren’t not much to hang your hat on (does anyone else still say this?), but it’s something. I tested the fourth year for grins and found an 11% greater chance of a slight points decline, but nothing else interesting.

So, 2nd year then?

At the suggestion of another

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dweller (I always figured the Amish to be peaceful…), I went on to look at second year growth as a predictor of third year growth. Here I looked at guys who grew at various increments (1%+, 10%+, 20%+, etc.) between their first and second seasons. I also factored in QB performance, the team’s rank and consistency of rank in passing, with TDs and without – the whole nine yards. I also went further back to 1970, dropping any early careers tainted by labor issues, to maximize the sample set. However I sliced it, all the numbers looked like this:


Figure 5

Purty, ain’t it? In general we see that 5-10% in the first year, 55% break out in the second year, 25% in the third year. This puts the final nail in the “3rd Year Hypothesis” coffin, but this may still be useful yet!

If you exclude those players who have already “broken out” from the rookie class each season, these data suggest about 60% (55/95) of the remainder will break out in their second year, with about 55% (25/45) of the following remainder breaking out in their 3rd year. Eureka!

The charts!! Arrghh!  The charts!!!  What does all this mean?!?

The “3rd Year Wide Receiver Breakout Hypothesis,” as such, is busted. Even given the mild advantages under a few circumstances, across all wideouts, given a 150 point second season, the benefit averages out to – drum roll please! – one and a half points. Using the second year data, we’re looking at about a 7 point growth on average.

All is not lost though as we can see that age does matter and we have a new hypothesis! (Pet peeve note: Gravity is a theory, stupid math tricks on football data are hypotheses.)

“The 5-60-55 Wide Receiver Hypothesis” that says 5% of a given rookie class will break out in their first year, 60% who didn’t break out in their first year will break out with widely varied results in their second, and 55% who didn’t break out in their first or second year who showed any progress in their second year will break out at 70% average growth in their third.

The bottom line: Half the guys who didn’t do too much in their first year and showed modest progress in their second will breakout in their third. And if it didn’t happen by the third, it probably ain’t gonna happen.

The obvious question

So who fits the bill? Below are the guys who fit the basic criteria in decreasing order of fantasy points last season. The top three were obviously widely drafted last season but we don’t know if they’ve hit their ceiling.

Mark Clayton (BAL), Braylon Edwards (CLE), Reggie Brown (PHI), Matt Jones (JAX), Nate Washington (PIT), Vincent Jackson (SDG), Brandon Jones (TEN), Troy Williamson (MIN), Roscoe Parrish (BUF), Mark Bradley (CHI), Jamal Jones (NOS), Carlyle Holiday (GBP), Josh Cribbs (CLE), Chad Owens (JAX)

Chris Henry (CIN) also made the list at #4, but will be suspended for the first 8 games.

Wrap it up!

To the “3rd Year Breakout,” may you rest in peace; you’ve lived a longer life than you deserved, and all because some people didn’t watch who they weren’t watching. If you’d like to comment on this article, join the discussion on the

“3rd year WR Strategy” topic

 in the Main Tank or visit the

Article Discussion Forum. 

 Otherwise, good luck, have fun, and remember: Friends don’t let friends jump to conclusions.

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