Narrative Street: ‘Third-year fantasy WR breakout,’ yes or no?

We've long heard that receivers really come into their own in their third years in the league. Tyler Loechner checks if that's true.

| 3 months ago
Mike Evans

(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Narrative Street: ‘Third-year fantasy WR breakout,’ yes or no?

After stops at “Angry Tom Brady” and “Revenge Games,” we’re continuing our stroll down fantasy football’s famed Narrative Street. Over the years, the fantasy football community has come to accept — and even integrate into their analysis — some presumed, almost mythological truths.

We’re here to figure out if those “narratives” are fact or fiction, and to what degree. It’s like Mythbusters, but somehow even nerdier.

Up next on Narrative Street: The “third-year wideout” aphorism.

The narrative: Wide receivers are most likely to break out in their third year.

If you’ve played in enough fantasy football leagues, you’ve undoubtedly heard the “third-year wideout” narrative. Some have even called it a rule — knowing that it’s a good idea to target a few third-year wideouts in your fantasy draft because they are more likely to break out than their older or younger counterparts.

So, is it true?

The answer — and this is becoming a running theme with the Narrative Street series — is somewhere in between. Let me explain.

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Tyler Loechner is a lead writer at PFF Fantasy. He has played fantasy football since 1999 and has been a part of the PFF Fantasy staff since 2010. Tyler was also previously a fantasy football featured columnist at Bleacher Report.

  • Victor Thompson

    You 100% made the case for 3rd year breakout. The first chart is good although the absolute lift in fppg is small it is still the highest of the four groups so that is 1 for 3rd year breakout and 0 against. You’re second chart makes the biggest case because year three is when they peak. Yes, more growth in production from year 1 to year 2 but it’s year three when they maximize that overall growth rate. I love to acquire 3rd year WRs and have done my own research that supports the move. Find guys owners are growing weary of after 2 years of light production (everybody wants Julio Jones and they give up easily in dynasty when that doesn’t pan out) and scoop them up for pennies on the dollar. A lot will bust but you will find enough cheap gems over time to continue the practice. But like with all things, don’t load your entire roster with 3rd year WRs.

    • Tyler Loechner

      Yeah – the data supports the notion that a third-year WR is a good target. That’s obviously a general trend, and each WR needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. However, the data also shows that the “huge” jump in production is more attributable to second-year WRs.

      The narrative is usually something along the lines of: “The WR showed promise as a rookie, made some strides as a second-year player, and now he’s poised to take a big step.”

      In spirit, the narrative is totally right. But technically, it’s more “The WR showed promise as a rookie, then made big strides in his second year, and now he’ll continue to build on those big gains.”

      So, either way you slice it, Year 3 ends up being “the” year – but I’d argue that it’s not the “breakout” year. Year 2 is the breakout, Year 3 is the pinnacle. And then from there, the good WRs are mostly just expected to maintain that high level of production.

      And you’re also right in noting that if they don’t prove much by year three, their days could be limited.

      • Victor Thompson

        Good stuff, well written. I’ve made a good career out of statistical research and apply those methods to fantasy. Sometimes simple slices of data can present very interesting stories. Never rely just on data but a very important part of my game plan. Love PFF, wish your weekly data wasn’t so expensive. I remember the days when had access to your awesome advanced stats for $20 a year.

  • Victor Thompson

    And if people want to know why the big drop in production in year 4 vs. year 3. The average length of an NFL WRs career is 2.8 years. Pretty much if you don’t hit solid production by your 3rd year then the player’s opportunities are scaled way back and essentially phased out via the draft and free agency,