Testing the Third-Year WR Rule
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|
|Jump to No. 1 WR||3||14||17||16||6||3|
|Jump to No. 2 WR||9||15||13||8||6||3|
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|
|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|
|* 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|
|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.
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|
|2000||Kevin Dyson, Troy Edwards, Torry Holt|
|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|
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|
|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|
|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