Testing the Third-Year WR Rule

Testing the Third-Year WR Rule
Testing the Third-Year WR Rule
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Guest column by Nick Higgins

One of the most popular pieces of conventional wisdom in fantasy football is the "Third Year Wide Receiver Rule." It states that wide receivers typically breakout in their third year, with the implied corollary that one should downgrade rookie and second year wide receivers in a fantasy football draft. But is it actually true? I selected the following two criteria to identify wide receivers that "jumped" in a season: a) finished as a top 20 fantasy wide receiver, and b) improved by at least 10 places (e.g. moved from #27 to #17) from his previous best season. The goal of this study is to identify characteristics that predict which wide receivers will breakout as fantasy starters.

The two most predictive characteristics are draft round and previous best season. For draft round, there is a significant difference between the first half of the first round (which I will call "lottery round" or Round 1A) and the second half of the first round (which I will call "later first round" or Round 1B). The following analysis is predicated on the assumption of a standard 10-team single-season snake draft league, but is easily applicable to other formats as well. For "previous best season," wide receivers were placed into five groups for summarization purposes: No. 1 WR (No. 1 to 10), No. 2 WR (No. 11 to 20), No. 3 WR (No. 21 to 35), No. 4 WR (No. 36 to 50), and No. 5 WR (No. 51 to 100). No. 1 WR and No. 2 WR (i.e., top 20) are considered "starting fantasy WRs." The dataset includes the seasons from 1986-2008.

Wide Receiver Jumps By Experience, 1986-2008
Year 1 2 3 4 5 6
Jump to No. 1 WR 3 14 17 16 6 3
Jump to No. 2 WR 9 15 13 8 6 3
Total 12 29 30 24 12 6

As seen in this analysis, the "Third Year WR Rule" is not entirely accurate. While it is true that the third year is the optimal year for a wide receiver to break out, the second year is close behind, and the fourth year is quite good also. The rookie year is poor, and the "jump" rate plummets if a player hasn't succeeded by Year 4. After the fourth year, the rare players that emerge are typically later-round picks (third-round or later) who are finally given a chance (e.g., Joe Horn), or players with elite talent that failed due to other reasons (e.g., Antonio Bryant).

Rookie WRs by Draft Position, 1986-2008
Draft Round 1A 1B 2 3 4+
Rookie No. 1 WR 0 1 1 1 0
Rookie No. 2 WR 4 2 1 1 1*
Rookie No. 3 WR 9 7 6 3 1
Total 47 49 99 97 550
* Marques Colston in the seventh round, beating some incredible odds.

Rookies virtually never pan out as starting fantasy wide receivers, with only three players (Bill Brooks, Randy Moss, and Anquan Boldin) becoming No. 1 WRs in their first year, and nine players becoming No. 2 WRs, out of 842 total WRs drafted. Seven percent (seven of 96) of all first-round picks performed as starting fantasy WRs in the first year, with two percent or less for every other round. Twenty-eight percent (13 of 47) of Round 1A draft picks and 20 percent (10 of 49) of Round 1B draft picks were at least No. 3 fantasy WRs in their first year. This drops off sharply after the first round, to eight percent and five percent in rounds 2 and 3. In short, do not draft rookie receivers with any expectation of serious upside, and draft first-round picks only. Assume that, at best, they will be a No. 3 fantasy WR, and worth no more than a late-round flyer.

WR Success by Draft Position, 1986-2008
Round 1A 1B 2 3 4 5 6 7+
No. 1 or No. 2 WR in career 65% 49% 27% 20% 11% 8% 5% 1%

Receivers drafted after the third round have a significantly lower chance of having a top-20 fantasy WR season in their careers. Accordingly, the analysis below focuses on years 2-4, and receivers drafted in Rounds 1-3.

Second-Year WRs
Draft Round 1A 1B 2 3
No. 2 WR B B B C
No. 3 WR B B B C
No. 4 WR A B B C
No. 5 WR C C C C

Third-Year WRs
Draft Round 1A 1B 2 3
No. 2 WR B B B B
No. 3 WR A A B B
No. 4 WR A A C C
No. 5 WR A A C C

Fourth-Year WRs
Draft Round 1A 1B 2 3
No. 2 WR B B B X
No. 3 WR B B B X
No. 4 WR B B B X
No. 5 WR X X X X

WR Jumps by Category
Category Jumps Players Jump%
A 20 45 44%
B 35 153 23%
C 16 140 11%

The tables above for second-, third-, and fourth-year receivers show how likely a player is to "jump" based on his previous best season (in the rows) and what round he was drafted (in the columns). Because the data is too thin in individual cells, I have grouped the data together into four categories based on the patterns in the data. A is the best category, B is the second best, C is the third best, and then category X has a very low "jump" rate. The "jump" rates for these categories during the years 1986-2008 can be seen in the last table.

Players in Category A are worthy of further attention, due to their significantly higher "jump" rate. A "lottery round" receiver that finished as a No. 4 WR (ranked No. 36 to 50) in their rookie year is a prime candidate for a breakout year in their second year. The main group in Category A is first-round picks in their third year who finished as a No. 3 to 5 WR (ranked No. 21 to 100) in either of their first two years.

Here is the list of Category A players in the 2000s, with "jumps" in bold:

Category A WRs by Year
Year Player
2000 Kevin Dyson, Troy Edwards, Torry Holt
2001 Troy Edwards
2002 Plaxico Burress, Rod Gardner, Travis Taylor, Peter Warrick
2003 Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne
2004 Ashley Lelie, Donte Stallworth, Javon Walker
2005 Andre Johnson, Bryant Johnson
2006 Lee Evans, Michael Jenkins, Reggie Williams, Roy Williams
2007 Mark Clayton, Braylon Edwards, Matt Jones, Roddy White, Troy Williamson
2008 Calvin Johnson

The successful players on this list did not just "jump," but most had massive leaps, with all except Burress improving by at least 50 fantasy points over their previous season, and a majority improving by at least 75 fantasy points, including Calvin Johnson with a ridiculous 104-fantasy point jump. To put that in perspective, 50 fantasy points was roughly the difference between No. 2 overall WR Andre Johnson (203 fantasy points) and Lance Moore (152 fantasy points) last year. Because the jumps were so huge in the year that they jumped, many of these players were available as major bargains in the middle and late rounds of the draft. For example, Braylon Edwards' average draft position in 2007 was No. 75 overall and the No. 25 WR, but he finished as the No. 3 WR in fantasy points.

Next, I want to look at the 2008 list of players, in order to see how this system worked with a specific fantasy draft. Again, players who "jumped" are highlighted in bold. 2008 is a fairly typical season.

2008 Wide Receivers
Category Player
A Calvin Johnson
B Reggie Brown, Dwayne Bowe, Mark Clayton, Santonio Holmes, Matt Jones, Greg Jennings, Roddy White
C Ted Ginn, Jr., Anthony Gonzalez, Derek Hagan, Devin Hester, James Jones, Sidney Rice, Laurent Robinson
X (Notable) Bernard Berrian, Antonio Bryant, Nate Burleson, Jerricho Cotchery, Patrick Crayton, Ronald Curry, D.J. Hackett, Vincent Jackson, Bryant Johnson, Donte Stallworth, Kevin Walter, Reggie Williams

This analysis was helpful in the formation of my draft strategy. After choosing an elite wide receiver(e.g., Larry Fitzgerald, Reggie Wayne) in rounds 2 to 3, I targeted Johnson, Holmes, or Jennings in rounds 4 to 5, Bowe or White in rounds 6 to 7, and then the other category B receivers in the later rounds. On the fantasy teams where I drafted Johnson, Jennings, and/or White, this strategy paid off huge, as I ended up with multiple No. 1 WRs. The risk/reward tradeoff of drafting high-upside receivers is highly favorable, because the reward is very high, and the downside (being forced to piece together an adequate No. 2 receiver week-to-week) is not so bad.

While this system is useful in identifying whether players with similar profiles have "jumped" in the past, the system is equally useful in identifying which players have little precedent to "jump" this season. Prior to this study, I had been optimistic about players like Jerricho Cotchery and Patrick Crayton potentially having breakout seasons in 2008, but decided to pass on these players after this analysis. The system whiffed on Bryant, Vincent Jackson, and Walter, but every year there are a couple of these outliers that either were either late-round draft picks or achieve sudden success late in their careers. Examples in 2006 were Marques Colston, Darrell Jackson, and Mike Furrey, and in 2007 came Kevin Curtis and Bobby Engram. These successes simply cannot be predicted using any sort of logical data-driven system.

No system like this can be used in isolation, but must be combined with one's football knowledge and common sense. Matt Jones' history of drug and alcohol problems made him a major risk. The drafting of DeSean Jackson in 2008 following the free agent acquisition of Kevin Curtis in 2007 made it clear that the Eagles' coaching staff had little belief in Reggie Brown's ability. Naturally, these two players should have been downgraded compared to the other category B players, even if the raw data grouped them all together.

Now let's analyze the list for 2009.

2009 Wide Receivers
Category Player
A Ted Ginn, Anthony Gonzalez
B Donnie Avery, Dwayne Bowe, Santonio Holmes, DeSean Jackson, Eddie Royal
C Harry Douglas, Devin Hester, Jason Hill, James Jones, Robert Meachem*, Jordy Nelson
X (Notable) Bernard Berrian, Steve Breaston, Reggie Brown, Mark Clayton, Patrick Crayton, Domenik Hixon, Vincent Jackson, Brandon Jones, James Jones, Lance Moore, Josh Morgan, Sidney Rice, Steve Smith (Giants), Chansi Stuckey, Limas Sweed, Nate Washington
* Robert Meachem is technically in category A, as a first-round pick in his third year whose previous best season was a No. 5 WR; however, he was injured his entire rookie year, and so I am treating him as a second-year player, which would put him in category C.

In category A, Ted Ginn, Jr., and Anthony Gonzalez fit the classic pattern of the third-year breakout wide receiver as former first-round picks that had moderate success last season. Furthermore, Ginn looks set to step forward as the star wideout in Miami, and Gonzalez is taking over the No. 2 WR role in Peyton Manning's offense. Looking at some early mock draft boards, Gonzalez is projected in rounds 7 to 9, and Ginn in rounds 9 to 12, with both representing fantastic value in those positions. Santonio Holmes is another player to note; he didn't jump to superstar status like many hoped in his third year, but there is significant precedent (e.g., Reggie Wayne, Roddy White) for a former first-round pick like Holmes jumping in his fourth year.

My strategy going into this year's draft will be to target an elite WR in round 2 to 3 and then draft a few of the players in categories A and B in the later rounds, with Bowe projected in round 4; Holmes, Jackson and Royal in rounds 6 to 7; and Gonzalez, Ginn, and Avery in the later rounds. While I am excited about Bowe's potential in the new Chiefs offense, I would feel perfectly content to forego drafting a receiver in rounds 4 to 5 if Bowe is unavailable. Instead, I would draft a third running back or elite quarterback there, and try to draft three of the category A-B receivers later. I have confidence that one of these later picks will pan out as at least a decent No. 2 WR, and then hopefully one will emerge as a star.

There is also the rookie class of wide receivers to consider. The round 1A receivers include Darrius Heyward-Bey (OAK) and Michael Crabtree (SF), while the round 1B receivers include Jeremy Maclin (PHI), Percy Harvin (MIN), Hakeem Nicks (NYG), and Kenny Britt (TEN). With six receivers, the data says that one or two of these players will emerge as a useful fantasy No. 3 WR, with a small chance that one could be a fantasy starter. The best candidates are probably Crabtree, Maclin, and Harvin, and so any of these players could be worth a late-round flyer.

The "Third-Year WR Rule" has served as a fairly good rule of thumb over the years, but it doesn't tell the whole story. The "Second- to Fourth-Year WR Depending On Their Draft Round and Stats From Previous Seasons Rule" isn't as catchy, but it is more predictive for identifying potential breakout stars.

Nick Higgins is an actuary living in Madison, Wisconsin. He is currently working on a book about the greatest teams in NFL history. If you are interested in writing a guest column for Football Outsiders, send ideas or rough drafts to Contact Us


24 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2013, 9:47am

#1 by AndyB (not verified) // Jul 22, 2009 - 12:38pm

Great work Nick.

Points: 0

#2 by S // Jul 22, 2009 - 12:50pm

I'm a little confused as to the criteria for category A B and C. It seems to be some combination of draft pick used to obtain the player and previous performance, but were there specific cut points? It's a little vauge.

Points: 0

#8 by Joseph // Jul 22, 2009 - 2:22pm

If I understand Nick right, A, B, & C represent "letter grades" if you will. Observing the upper right hand table, a WR drafted in the 1st round entering his 3rd year in the league has a VERY good chance of filling your WR2, WR3, or WR4 slot--with the upside being that he may perform like WR1b, a la Calvin Johnson last year.

Points: 0

#3 by Thomas_beardown // Jul 22, 2009 - 1:10pm

Are you considering Hester a 3rd or 4th year receiver? He didn't receiver his first year in the league, so I think this should count as his 3rd year.

Points: 0

#9 by Jeff M. (not verified) // Jul 22, 2009 - 3:44pm

I think it must count him as a 3rd-year, since he's in category C. If I'm not mistaken, he's a 2nd-round #4 receiver, which we could label the "anti-3rd year" combination--it's category B for a 2nd-year or 4th-year guy but C for a 3rd-year.

Points: 0

#13 by Bowl Game Anomaly // Jul 22, 2009 - 7:32pm

I don't think Hester should be considered a 2nd round pick WR since he wasn't drafted as a WR. It might make more sense to consider him a 4+ round receiver, since if he had originally been drafted as a WR rather than KR/CB, he never would have gone in the 2nd round.

Points: 0

#14 by Thomas_beardown // Jul 22, 2009 - 8:47pm

I don't think his coverage skills had anything to do with him going in the 2nd round.

Points: 0

#16 by Displaced Cane // Jul 23, 2009 - 9:01am

If you watched Hester play in college, you would have seen that he was an excellent gunner on special teams.

Points: 0

#18 by Bowl Game Anomaly // Jul 23, 2009 - 10:29am

My point is that while Hester is a WR who was drafted in the 2nd round, he is not a 2nd round WR because he was drafted as a KR and listed as a CB. The Bears had no intention of moving him to WR when they drafted him (AFAIK). So he's a special case and the analysis in the article probably doesn't apply to him.

Points: 0

#4 by Tundrapaddy (not verified) // Jul 22, 2009 - 1:31pm

Nice analysis! I'm going to save and use this for my FFL drafts. I have to agree with 'S' about the lack of explanation for the categories 'A', 'B', 'C', and 'X'.

But overall, it's a nice breakdown. At the very least, we can see that, if a WR hasn't done it by the 4th year (in a typical situation - discounting an IR year, or starting at a different position), then they're highly unlikely to ever make a serious contribution.

Points: 0

#5 by Will // Jul 22, 2009 - 1:35pm

An All Buckeye Offense would be pretty decent value this year
RB2 - Beanie Wells
WR2 - Holmes
WR3 - Gonzalez
WR4 - Ginn

(Note that this was the actual Buckeye receiving corp from 2005)

Fill this out with a #1 RB in round 1, Wells in Round 2, a #1 WR in Round 3, Holmes in round #4, and a QB in round 5 or 6 (depending on when Gonzalez goes), and you have a pretty good team brewing.


Points: 0

#6 by DrewTS (not verified) // Jul 22, 2009 - 2:00pm

You could take Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija in the later rounds and recreate the Fiesta Bowl.

Points: 0

#10 by Pat (filler) (not verified) // Jul 22, 2009 - 4:19pm

Uh, you could take Samardzija, but unless it's a cross-sport league, you won't be getting much value from him.

Points: 0

#11 by Will // Jul 22, 2009 - 4:46pm

Would also need to swap out Beanie Wells for Antonio Pittman, assuming the latter will land with a team. Also could add Troy Smith and hope he has a good year in a "slash" role.


Points: 0

#7 by matthewglidden // Jul 22, 2009 - 2:18pm

I like the last section ("Here is the list of Category A players..." to the end) quite a bit, especially the target draft groupings. Got lost in the multiple tables mid-article that called for both interpretation and A/B/C cross-relation. It is possible to cast them as distinct plots on combined X/Y graph for years played and performance? If not, leaving them out would lower the volume of data without sacrificing support for your main points.

Points: 0

#12 by Theo // Jul 22, 2009 - 7:04pm

I remember owning one league with Culpepper and Chad Johnson. Chad was in his 3rd year.
My advice: look for a #1 receiver.

Points: 0

#15 by ammek // Jul 23, 2009 - 3:18am

James Jones is in the last table twice: as a C and an X.

The obvious problem with taking a flyer on a Packers receiver is: which one? Jones is the deep-threat Jennings-in-waiting; Nelson the catch-and-run Driver-to-be. Both will see (limited) time in McCarthy's spread formations — but neither is yet a good enough blocker to be in on the two-back sets, in case Coach finally decides to call a pass out of a run formation.

Points: 0

#17 by Displaced Cane // Jul 23, 2009 - 9:17am

The "Category A" designation for 2nd year WRs who were "lottery picks" and finished 36-50 among fantasy WRs last year seems out of place. If you remove it, then your research yields a simple rule of thumb: "Target 3rd year WRs who are former 1st round picks and ranked 21-100 among fantasy WRs last year."

I like your research, I think it yields pretty good results, and I'll be using it in the future. Thanks!

Points: 0

#19 by Bowl Game Anomaly // Jul 23, 2009 - 10:45am

No, I don't see any problem with it (except small sample size, probably). The research is looking for jumps in performance, not just good performances. If rookie WR X was a #4 fantasy guy, and rookie WR Y was a #2 fantasy guy, then it's easier for WR X to make a big leap than WR Y. However, this does not mean that WR X is likely to have a better season than WR Y. It just means that WR X's performance is more likely to exceed his earlier performance and surprise people, while WR Y will probably not improve as much.

This research does not identify the best young WRs. It identifies the best young WR breakout candidates. But if a young WR has already done well and is rated C or X, he might still be a candidate to have a better fantasy season than a guy rated A whose previous best performance was a lot lower.

Points: 0

#20 by Nick Higgins (not verified) // Jul 23, 2009 - 9:09pm

Thanks for the comments. To reply to some specific questions:

I originally included further detail about how I selected the A, B, C, and X categories, but in the end I thought it was too dense and long to include in the already-lengthy article. For those that are interested, I chose the A, B, C, and X categories by looking at historic data using both 1-variable and 2-variable analysis, and then made judgments based on all of that data. The data is fairly thin, so my choices were admittedly arbitrary. As an example for 2nd year WRs, the data set included 177 WRs; the 1-way data for #2, #3, #4, #5 WR is 22%, 21%, 27%, 10%; the 1-way data for rounds 1A, 1B, 2, 3 is 38%, 18%, 25%, 13%. Then the interaction between #4 WR and round 1A is a remarkable 75% (6/8). So, I decided to place that cell interaction in group A, the rest of that 3x3 block as group B, and then round 3 and #5 WRs are in group C.

Devin Hester: Although it is his 4th year in the league, it is his third year as a WR, so I counted Hester as a 3rd year WR (2nd round pick, #4 WR last year = C).

James Jones: as a 3rd year #5 WR, he should be in category C. Sorry about the error. About whether to draft Jones or Nelson, I've watched all the Packers games in recent years, and Jones is a better player. He was hurt last year, but when healthy he will be the #3 WR. Rodgers is a stud, and if a starting WR gets hurt, Jones could step up and have a big year.

Displaced Cane & Bowl Game Anomaly: agreed with both of you, those are good synoposes

Points: 0

#21 by Kevin from Philly // Jul 28, 2009 - 2:31pm

Good article, but you made one error. The optimal season for a WR to break out is obviously his rookie season. I think you meant to say the optimal time for a fantasy owner to anticipate a WR breakout is his 3rd season.

Points: 0

#22 by joel.schopp // Aug 01, 2009 - 11:21pm

First of all, one of the top 5 fantasy football articles I've seen, ever!

From a practicality point of view it would be nice to see the probability of a player being at least a WRx. For instance Bowe was already the 18th WR (hence a WR2) in my league last year. So Bowe's jump of 10 places would put him as the 8th WR (hence a WR1). So we'd need to know his chances of regressing or jumping to know his chances of being a WR1,2,3,4.

It would also be interesting since you have such a small data set if you could find some common pitfalls that keep a player from making the jump. Position in depth chart entering the season, future injury, previous missed time,

Points: 0

#23 by Beaver Believer (not verified) // Jun 21, 2010 - 1:09am

Excellent article. Would love to read an 3rd season wr update for the 2010 season. Can we look forward to an update?

Points: 0

#24 by wolike (not verified) // Jan 22, 2013 - 9:47am

server world of warcraft, outdo recreation of the year, and all years old.
welcome to hostess on my site

Points: 0

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