Last year was a bad season for third-year receivers. The Class of 2018 had far more busts than breakouts, and it was frustrating. Hopefully, the Class of 2019 will be better as third-year stars this season. Of the players we touted last year as third-year breakout receivers, only Calvin Ridley stepped up. D.J. Moore and D.J. Chark were disappointments, Courtland Sutton missed the entire year with a torn ACL and injuries and poor play also hampered Michael Gallup, Allen Lazard, Christian Kirk and Anthony Miller.
If you don't believe in third-year receiver breakouts anymore then 2020 is a good season to hold up as an example. But I'm still buying into the theory that a receiver's best chance to break out comes in his third season in the NFL. There are too many examples of this to ignore, including Ridley from last year.
Some other recent third-year breakouts are Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, Tyler Boyd, Chris Godwin, Cooper Kupp and Kenny Golladay. And historically, you can point to Mike Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, T.Y. Hilton, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Cris Carter, Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson, among others.
Now, this doesn't mean receivers are only good in their third season. Far from it. Obviously, receivers can still be good in Year 1 and Year 2, and we've seen that already from the Class of 2019.
For example, three third-year receivers in 2021 -- A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin -- have already produced at a high level in their first two seasons. But they still have the chance to do more, and this could be the year it happens.
I've been writing about third-year receivers for more than 15 years. I've talked to numerous receivers and coaches about it, ranging from Jerry Rice and Carter to Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin -- and many more.
The third-year wide receiver theory is based on players at the position having a breakout campaign after two full seasons in the NFL. What some receivers have said 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 also understand defenses better.
Metcalf, for example, has the chance to enhance his route tree this year with new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. McLaurin gets a quarterback upgrade with Ryan Fitzpatrick. Brown could see less coverage with Julio Jones in Tennessee, and maybe the Titans open up the passing game now that they have a more robust receiving corps, which could lead to more targets.
We'll dissect all of the top receivers from the Class of 2019, and hopefully, this group is better than the Class of 2018. I like the guys for this season much more than last year, and hopefully, they deliver in a big way.
But I also understand you might dismiss this theory based on what some guys have done in their first two seasons. Along with Brown, Metcalf and McLaurin producing at a high level in their first two years, we also saw Justin Jefferson just have a historic rookie campaign.
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 instead just using it as another part of the decision-making process. It's not necessarily a priority anymore.
I'm still a believer in the third-year receiver theory. It might not be as relevant as in previous years, but I still target receivers entering their third season, with the expectation this could be a breakout campaign. And many of the guys listed here will be on a lot of my Fantasy rosters in 2021.
These are guys you're drafting in the first three rounds in all leagues.
A.J. Brown, Titans
2019: 52 catches, 1,051 yards, 8 touchdowns, 84 targets
2020: 70 catches, 1,075 yards, 11 touchdowns, 106 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 77 catches, 1,299 yards, 11 touchdowns, 121 targets
Outlook: When 2020 ended, I thought Brown had the chance to be the No. 1 Fantasy receiver this year in all formats. The addition of Julio Jones in Tennessee makes that goal harder to achieve, but Brown should still be considered a borderline top-five receiver in all leagues. He's going to remain the best option for Ryan Tannehill, even with Jones on the roster, and he's proven to be among the best receivers in the NFL through two years. He's scored at least 20 PPR points in 10 of his past 20 games going back to his rookie campaign. And over that span, he's failed to top 14 PPR points just six times. Brown should be drafted in Round 2 in all formats.
We had a fun time breaking down Fantasy Football rankings disputes on the latest FFT and yes it did even get heated at times:
D.K. Metcalf, Seahawks
2019: 58 catches, 900 yards, 7 touchdowns, 100 targets
2020: 83 catches, 1,303 yards, 10 touchdowns, 129 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 84 catches, 1,295 yards, 10 touchdowns, 136 targets
Outlook: Metcalf will hopefully make that third-year leap as the Seattle passing game is expected to be more diverse under new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. That should help Tyler Lockett as well, but Metcalf has star potential and could be the best receiver in Fantasy if everything clicks this season. He started last year on a torrid pace, with at least 19 PPR points in six of his first eight games, and he had at least eight targets in five games over that span. For the season, he had 10 games with at least eight targets in 2020, and he scored at least 18 PPR points in seven of those outings. This should be a big season for Metcalf, who is worth drafting as early as Round 2 in all leagues.
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Terry McLaurin, Washington Football Team
2019: 58 catches, 919 yards, 7 touchdowns, 93 targets
2020: 87 catches, 1,118 yards, 4 touchdowns, 134 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 87 catches, 1,209 yards, 7 touchdowns, 135 targets
Outlook: I'm probably higher on McLaurin than most, and I would not be surprised if he's a top-five Fantasy receiver this year with the addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Since 2010, in stops with the Bills, Titans, Texans, Jets and Dolphins, Fitzpatrick has eight seasons with at least nine starts. Over that span, his No. 1 receiver -- Steve Johnson (three times), Kendall Wright, Andre Johnson, Brandon Marshall (twice) and DeVante Parker -- had at least 128 targets on the year. There were seven times where the No. 1 receiver had at least 72 catches, six times where the No. 1 receiver had at least 1,000 yards and three times where the No. 1 receiver had at least 10 touchdowns. McLaurin has competition in Curtis Samuel, Dyami Brown, Logan Thomas and the running backs, but I expect Fitzpatrick to lean on McLaurin. He's worth drafting as early as Round 3 in all leagues.
The Next Best
These are guys you're drafting in the first eight rounds.
2019: 59 catches, 680 yards, 5 touchdowns, 92 targets
2020: 88 catches, 923 yards, 7 touchdowns, 144 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 100 catches, 988 yards, 6 touchdowns, 160 targets
Outlook: Some might say Johnson belongs in the top category after the way he played in 2020. Only 12 receivers had more receptions than Johnson last year, and he was No. 6 in targets. But clearly, there's room for improvement, especially in yards and touchdowns. He also has to cut down on his league-leading 16 drops from last year, which isn't something you should be concerned about (Tyreek Hill, for example, had 11 drops). Now, the hope is Ben Roethlisberger is better in his second season back from elbow surgery, and he entered training camp in great shape and full of optimism. However, Johnson also has to contend with a crowded receiving corps, which includes JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Eric Ebron and Najee Harris. I was a big believer in Johnson last year, and I'm targeting him again in his third season. He's worth drafting as early as Round 4 in PPR and Round 5 in other formats.
2019: 46 catches, 584 yards, 7 touchdowns, 71 targets
2020: 58 catches, 769 yards, 8 touchdowns, 100 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 62 catches, 870 yards, 8 touchdowns, 99 targets
Outlook: Brown closed last season on a high note, averaging 15.5 PPR points in his final six games. He had at least seven targets in four of those outings, and hopefully, he can build off that heading into this year. While he should remain a top target for Lamar Jackson, the Ravens added plenty of competition at receiver with free agent Sammy Watkins, first-round pick Rashod Bateman and fourth-round pick Tylan Wallace. Brown should be better than all of them, but he only has three games in his career with more than eight targets in the regular season. And the Ravens were last in the NFL in pass attempts in 2020 and 2019 -- when Jackson was the MVP. I like Brown as a low-end No. 3 Fantasy receiver and key reserve coming into the year in all leagues, and he's worth drafting with a mid-round pick.
2019: 57 catches, 802 yards, 3 touchdowns, 81 targets
2020: 33 catches, 391 yards, 1 touchdown, 44 targets (7 games)
2021 SportsLine projections: 76 catches, 991 yards, 4 touchdowns, 108 targets
Outlook: Samuel was solid as a rookie in 2019, averaging 15.5 PPR points per game over his final eight outings. But injuries and more competition ruined his sophomore campaign, and we'll see if he can get back on track this year. We'll have to see what San Francisco does at quarterback with rookie Trey Lance competing with Jimmy Garoppolo for the starting job, and that will impact Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. And clearly, Samuel has to contend with Aiyuk and Kittle stealing production. Both of those guys have a higher ceiling than Samuel, and it could take Samuel doing more as a rusher to help his production. As a rookie, Samuel had 14 carries for 159 yards and three touchdowns, with the touchdowns difficult to replicate. I'm fine taking a flier on Samuel with a mid-round pick, but I'm not overly optimistic about his Fantasy production if Aiyuk and Kittle are healthy.
Keep An Eye On These WRs
These are guys you're drafting with late-round picks.
2019: 26 catches, 538 yards, 6 touchdowns, 41 targets
2020: 41 catches, 560 yards, 4 touchdowns, 62 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 49 catches, 719 yards, 7 touchdowns, 75 targets
Outlook: The Athletic reported in early July that Hardman will enter training camp as the No. 2 receiver in Kansas City opposite Hill. That makes Hardman a very appealing Fantasy option with a late-round pick in all leagues. With Watkins gone, Hardman will hopefully prove the Chiefs made the right decision to select him in the second round of the NFL Draft -- ahead of Metcalf, Johnson and McLaurin. Watkins averaged 6.0 targets per game in 24 games in the regular season with the Chiefs over the past two seasons, and hopefully, Hardman absorbs those targets. He has six games in his career with at least six targets in a game, and he averaged 14.2 PPR points per game in those outings. That's a good place to start when looking at Hardman's upside, along with playing with Patrick Mahomes and opposite Hill and Travis Kelce. Now, the Chiefs could opt to start Demarcus Robinson or Byron Pringle ahead of Hardman, so keep an eye on what happens in training camp. But Hardman could be a significant difference-maker given his expected Average Draft Position in the double-digit rounds.
2019: 18 catches, 127 yards, 1 touchdown, 24 targets
2020: 6 catches, 71 yards, 9 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 43 catches, 447 yards, 3 touchdowns, 62 targets
Outlook: The biggest issue for Campbell is health since he's played in just nine games in two seasons. He said in May that he's healthy following the knee injury that ended his season in 2020 in Week 2, but he still has plenty to prove -- to Fantasy managers and the Colts. New quarterback Carson Wentz will hopefully lean on Campbell to whatever amount he's on the field, and Indianapolis has at least two receivers ahead of him in T.Y. Hilton and Michael Pittman. The Colts could use Campbell in a variety of ways, including as a rusher, and he had a tremendous final season at Ohio State in 2018 with 90 catches, 1,063 yards and 12 touchdowns. It would be great if he stays healthy and becomes a trusted weapon for Wentz, but Campbell is only worth drafting with a late-round pick in all leagues.
Deep League Options
These are guys you might take a late-round flier on in deeper leagues.
2019: 12 catches, 105 yards, 2 touchdowns, 24 targets
2020: 33 catches, 309 yards, 2 touchdowns, 57 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 42 catches, 390 yards, 4 touchdowns, 79 targets
Outlook: The only reason to consider Harry in any redraft Fantasy leagues is if he's traded from the Patriots. He requested a trade in July, but he's likely heading to training camp in New England. He's been a first-round bust as the second receiver selected in this class behind Brown at No. 32 overall from Arizona State, but maybe a fresh start can unleash his potential. Keep an eye on what happens, and a trade could make Harry worth a late-round flier in deeper formats. With the Patriots, Harry has almost no shot as a Fantasy asset this year.
2019: 48 catches, 740 yards, 8 touchdowns, 83 targets
2020: 50 catches, 751 yards, 3 touchdowns, 96 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 44 targets, 612 yards, 5 touchdowns, 81 targets
Outlook: It was a bad offseason for Slayton after the Giants added free agent Kenny Golladay and first-round pick Kadarius Toney. With Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram and Saquon Barkley still on the roster, it's going to be hard for Slayton to make a significant impact if everyone is healthy. While Slayton looked good as a rookie, including four games with at least 16 PPR points, it's clear the Giants don't have much faith in him. That said, should an injury occur to Golladay, Toney or Shepard then Slayton could return to a prime position. He could end up as a waiver-wire target during the year.
2019: no catches, 3 targets
2020: 38 catches, 539 yards, 4 touchdowns, 67 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 5 catches, 65 yards, 9 targets
Outlook: For five games last season, Fulgham was a star Fantasy receiver. From Weeks 4-8, he averaged 18.8 PPR points per game. He had three games with at least 19 PPR points and three games with at least 10 targets. And then he disappeared, combining for just 16 PPR points over the rest of the year. He enters this year as the potential No. 3 receiver for the Eagles behind DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor, but Fulgham could have Fantasy relevance in deeper leagues in that role. We'll see what happens in training camp, and Fulgham could be worth a late-round flier in deeper leagues. Maybe he could have a brief stint as a star again as he showed us in 2020.
Scotty Miller, Buccaneers
2019: 13 catches, 200 yards, 1 touchdown, 26 targets
2020: 33 catches, 501 yards, 3 touchdowns, 53 targets
2021 SportsLine projections: 20 catches, 300 yards, 2 touchdowns, 34 targets
Outlook: It will take an injury for Miller to have Fantasy relevance this season, and he's not worth drafting in any leagues. However, should something happen to Chris Godwin, Mike Evans or Antonio Brown then we could be adding Miller off the waiver wire. In 2020, Miller had five games with at least five targets, and he averaged 14.0 PPR points over that span. While we don't want to see Godwin, Evans or Brown miss any time, Miller could end up as a quality replacement option off the waiver wire during the season.
Jalen Hurd, 49ers
2019: no catches
2020: no catches
2021 SportsLine projections: 12 catches, 190 yards, 1 touchdown, 16 targets
Outlook: Hurd has never played a down in the NFL. He missed 2019 with back issues and suffered a torn ACL last season. But he could be the No. 3 receiver for the 49ers this year, and he's worth keeping an eye on just in case he's finally healthy. Now, if Samuel is going to struggle for targets, it's going to be even worse for Hurd behind Samuel, Aiyuk and Kittle. If Hurd is healthy and wins the No. 3 receiver job for San Francisco then he could be worth a late-round flier in deeper leagues.