Over the past two seasons, we've had some highly successful third-year wide receiver breakouts for Fantasy. Guys like Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, Tyler Boyd, Chris Godwin, Cooper Kupp and Kenny Golladay have all seen a spike in production in their third season in the NFL. And now, we get to find out who's from the 2018 receiver class will join them.
You should be excited about guys like D.J. Moore, Calvin Ridley and D.J. Chark, who could go from good to great. Courtland Sutton, Michael Gallup and Christian Kirk still have the chance to break out in 2020 as well, though this offseason didn't help their cause. However, Allen Lazard and Anthony Miller have each had a great offseason, and they are breakout candidates to target with late-round picks.
Before we break down these guys, let's explain the third-year receiver theory. I've been writing about third-year receivers for about 15 years. I've talked to numerous receivers and coaches about it, ranging from Jerry Rice and Cris Carter to Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin — and many more.
What they've told me is it takes at least two years to develop. They have to learn how to hone their craft, develop a rapport with their quarterback and understand defenses better, and year three is often when it clicks.
Along with the guys over the past two years, some of the other receivers to have a breakout third season include, among others: Mike Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, T.Y. Hilton, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Carter, Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson. Obviously, receivers can still be good in Year 1 and Year 2, and this is the dilemma for third-year receiver believers.
Because of how college offenses are operating these days, many receivers come into the NFL more prepared than ever before. Their maturation process is accelerated, and the learning curve isn't as steep. And so rather than Fantasy players gravitating toward third-year breakouts, they are using it as just another part of the decision-making process. It's not necessarily a priority any more.
I'm still a believer in the third-year receiver theory, though. It might not be as relevant as in previous years, but I still target receivers entering their third season, with the expectations this could be a breakout campaign.
I asked Chark about his thoughts on his first two years and what he could expect heading into Year 3. He barely contributed as a rookie in 2018 before having a standout season last year. But this year, Chark is ready to have his best performance to date.
"My first year, I felt like I was able to get NFL experience," Chark told me at the Pro Bowl in January. "(In 2019), I felt like I could be an NFL receiver. Coming into next year, nothing is really going to surprise me. (In 2019), I learned coverages. I learned so much stuff. I'm just ready to get out there and play. At this point, you study technique, you study players. I feel comfortable enough to be myself and make plays."
Chark said he is "very excited" about 2020, and I am also for him and his classmates. Let's take a look at these third-year breakout candidates.
These are guys you're drafting in the first three rounds in all leagues:
Moore will be the first receiver drafted from this class in all Fantasy leagues — or at least he should be. He has the highest ceiling in PPR, and he could be a monster if he finds the end zone more frequently. Moore was excellent last year while catching passes from Cam Newton, Kyle Allen and Will Grier. His quarterback situation should be more stable this season with Teddy Bridgewater, and Moore should just soak up targets in new offensive coordinator Joe Brady's system.
Last season, Bridgewater helped Michael Thomas maintain his status as the best receiver in the league for the Saints, and he averaged 22.6 PPR points in the five starts Bridgewater made for an injured Drew Brees, including Thomas' best game with 41 PPR points in Week 5 against Tampa Bay. Now, you might think the Carolina offense is crowded with Christian McCaffrey, Robby Anderson, Curtis Samuel and Ian Thomas. But Bridgewater should find himself looking for Moore early and often, and the Panthers could find themselves chasing points on a weekly basis with a mediocre defense.
It wouldn't be a shock to see Moore as a top-five PPR receiver by the end of the season, and he's worth drafting in Round 2 in all leagues.
Last year in Tampa Bay, we saw a promising third-year receiver in Godwin overtake a proven veteran in Evans. Could the same thing happen here with Ridley and Julio Jones? I'm not ready to go there yet, but Ridley should close the gap between the two this season.
Ridley really took off in 2019 when Mohamed Sanu was traded to New England prior to Week 8. In his final six games (Ridley missed the last three games of the season with an abdomen injury), he averaged 17.1 PPR points per game. Over that same span, Jones averaged just 14.4 PPR points per game. The Falcons did nothing to replace Sanu this offseason — maybe Russell Gage, another third-year receiver, fills that role — and they lost Austin Hooper in free agency to Cleveland. While Hayden Hurst is a quality replacement option at tight end, you should expect plenty of targets for Ridley and Jones in 2020.
Jones is still the leader of this receiver corps, but Ridley isn't far behind. He's a top-15 Fantasy receiver with No. 1 upside, and he's worth drafting as early as Round 3. Matt Ryan said on CBS Sports HQ in July that he expects Ridley to have a breakout season in 2020.
"I certainly think heading into his third year, he's so much more comfortable," Ryan said. "In our work together this offseason, I feel like you can see it in his body language. He's so much more comfortable within the system. His understanding of the system is so much better. His understanding of how to communicate with me and what I expect of him and where I expect him to be — he's on a different level.
"When he is freed up internally, mentally, he's not thinking about things — his athleticism shows. And he's so gifted. I think that's going to be the case this year. He's going to be a guy who gets a lot of one-on-one opportunities because of his supporting cast, and he's going to make people pay because of it."
These are guys you're drafting in the first six rounds:
My colleague Pete Prisco predicted Chark would have a standout sophomore season, and he has the chance to be even better in Year 3. He just needs to be more consistent. When Chark was on in 2019, he was special, scoring at least 16 PPR points in seven games. But he also had 10 PPR points or fewer in eight games, and I'm hopeful he's not just a boom-or-bust receiver.
Gardner Minshew is locked in as the starter for the Jaguars, and Chark told me at the Pro Bowl that he's confident with Minshew as his quarterback. "When he came in, it was bombs away with him," Chark said.
The addition of rookie receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. could hurt Chark, but I still expect him to be the No. 1 option in the passing game for the Jaguars. He's a top-20 Fantasy receiver coming into the season, and he's worth drafting as early as Round 4. Chark will prove to be a must-start Fantasy receiver in all leagues.
Before the NFL Draft, I would have put Sutton right behind Ridley in terms of breaking out this season. But now I'm concerned about Sutton reaching his ceiling after the Broncos selected Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler in the NFL Draft. Sutton was far and away the best receiver in Denver last season, ut Jeudy has the skills to challenge Sutton to be the No. 1 receiver for the Broncos this year, and Hamler will also take away targets, as well as Melvin Gordon and Noah Fant.
Sutton also didn't post great numbers with quarterback Drew Lock — he averaged 12.0 PPR points in five starts with Lock compared to 14.1 PPR points in 11 starts with Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen — but that's a connection that should be fine. I'm still hopeful Sutton will have a breakout campaign in his third year, but I've lowered my expectations for him following the NFL Draft.
All that being said, he is still worth drafting no later than Round 5 in all leagues. And the lack of an offseason and preseason games should delay the development for Jeudy and Hamler, giving Sutton an opportunity to still be a quality Fantasy option in all leagues — at least early in the year.
Like Sutton, I had Gallup as a breakout candidate prior to the NFL Draft. Now, his upside feels slightly capped after Dallas selected rookie receiver CeeDee Lamb at No. 17 overall in the first round. With Amari Cooper and Lamb, it could be tough for Gallup to reach his ceiling in his third year, but I'm certainly not giving up on him yet. And he's someone I plan to draft no later than Round 6 in all leagues.
Gallup should still be the No. 2 receiver in Dallas behind Cooper, and he showed last season he could be a standout Fantasy option in that No. 2 role. He had nine games with at least 11 PPR points, including six with 16 points or more. He had 10 games with at least seven targets, and he averaged 17.7 PPR points in those outings. Lamb's addition lowers the ceiling for Gallup, but Dak Prescott should still lean on Gallup quite a bit.
While Cooper is the star of this receiving corps, and Lamb will make plenty of plays, don't overlook Gallup as a quality Fantasy option this year.
These are guys you're drafting with mid- to late-round picks:
Like Sutton and Gallup, Kirk didn't exactly have a great offseason when it comes to the moves the Cardinals made around him. When last year ended, Kirk was expected to be the No. 1 receiver in Arizona. Then the Cardinals traded for Hopkins, and that clearly knocked Kirk down the depth chart. He still has the potential for a breakout season, and the Cardinals are going to spread the ball around. But Kirk will likely remain in the No. 3 Fantasy range instead of becoming a weekly starter — barring an injury to Hopkins.
Kirk also has to contend with Larry Fitzgerald getting targets, and we could see a bigger role for guys like Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson, as well as Kenyan Drake out of the backfield. I like drafting Kirk in Round 8 in most leagues, but his third year likely won't be a standout season as long as Hopkins is healthy.
Miller is one of my favorite late-round targets in all leagues, and he could be one of the top breakouts on this list after posting modest production in his first two years compared to his potential. He should be locked into a featured role as the No. 2 receiver in Chicago behind Allen Robinson, and a career year should follow. Miller produced at a high level when Taylor Gabriel missed the final five games last year with a concussion, and Gabriel was released this offseason, with no significant replacement option brought in to compete for targets. With Gabriel out, Miller scored at least 13 PPR points in three of the final five outings of the season, including two games with at least 23 PPR points. Chicago also should get improved quarterback play from Nick Foles over Mitchell Trubisky, which is a plus for Miller and Robinson.
You can draft Miller in Round 10 or later, but he should outperform his Average Draft Position by a wide margin if things go right. I'm excited about Miller heading into this season.
Sutton and Gallup exited the NFL Draft with their Fantasy value on the decline. Lazard came out of the NFL Draft on a meteoric rise after the Packers failed to address their receiving corps, leaving him as the likely No. 2 receiver behind Davante Adams. Two other third-year receivers, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, could also benefit, but Lazard has the most potential as a Fantasy option.
Lazard got the chance for increased playing time starting in Week 6 last year, and his role continued to grow over the season. He had five games with at least five targets, including the final two regular-season games with 17 combined, and he averaged 11.0 PPR points in those outings. While he might not become a superstar if Adams stays healthy, he should be a borderline starter or flex if things go right. He's the only undrafted receiver on this list, and he's a sleeper in 2020 worth drafting as early as Round 8.
These are guys you're drafting with one of your final selections in deeper formats:
I'm excited for Diontae Johnson in his second year, and he's my second-favorite receiver for the Steelers behind JuJu Smith-Schuster. But what if Washington is better than Johnson? It could happen, and Washington was the leader in receiving yards for Pittsburgh in 2019. Now, as we know, Ben Roethlisberger (elbow) being out changed everything for the Steelers, and Smith-Schuster battled injuries as well. Pittsburgh also added two new weapons this year in rookie receiver Chase Claypool and tight end Eric Ebron, and that could impact everyone.
But Washington is a great late-round flier with one of your final draft picks, and he could surprise us in Year 3. We could see Roethlisberger lean on Washington — and not Johnson — as the No. 2 option in the passing game behind Smith-Schuster.
The Falcons didn't make an effort to replace Sanu after trading him last season, and Gage should be the No. 3 receiver to open the year behind Julio Jones and Ridley as a result. Gage scored at least 13 PPR points in three of his final six games last year, and he had at least six targets in five of those outings. The Falcons led the NFL in pass attempts in 2019 and should be up there in attempts again.
Gage is a sleeper to target with a late-round pick in deeper leagues, and he could emerge as a low-end No. 3 Fantasy receiver during the season, especially if Jones or Ridley were to miss any time due to injury. Gage had 25 targets in the final three games last year when Ridley was out.
Which players are poised for breakouts, which sleepers do you need to jump on, and which busts should you avoid at all costs in your Fantasy football league? Visit SportsLine now to get early rankings, plus see which WR is going to come out of nowhere to crack the top 10, all from the model that out-performed experts big time last season.