Fantasy Football Draft Prep: Is the third-year receiver theory still relevant? JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kenny Golladay lead the class

Last season was a good year to analyze the third-year receiver theory. It shows both sides of if the theory should still matter for Fantasy players.

For those of you new to this concept, I've been writing about third-year receivers for more than 10 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.

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.

Some of the receivers to have a breakout in their third season include, among others, Mike Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, T.Y. Hilton, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Carter, Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson. But 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 instead just using it as another part of the decision-making process. It's not necessarily a priority any more.

That brings us to 2018.

There were three third-year receivers who had a breakout campaign last year in terms of career-high performances with Tyreek Hill, Michael Thomas and Tyler Boyd. Hill set career highs in catches (87), yards (1,479) and touchdowns (12). Thomas set career highs in catches (125) and yards (1,405) while tying his career high in touchdowns (nine). And Boyd came out of nowhere with new career bests in catches (76), yards (1,028) and touchdowns (seven).

Now, you can argue that Boyd was the only true breakout candidate here since Hill and Thomas were very good in their first two seasons. But in Year 3, they all took their games to another level, which is a sign of the theory still being true.

And we'll see if two sophomore breakouts from last season follow suit. Those who argue against the third-year receiver theory will point to JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kenny Golladay and how they did in 2018.

Smith-Schuster had a monster second year with 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns on 166 targets, but believe it or not, he could actually improve in 2019 with Antonio Brown gone from Pittsburgh. More on that below. 

Golladay also had a solid second season with 70 catches for 1,063 yards and five touchdowns on 120 targets, but I don't believe he's reached his ceiling. He also could be headed for a third-year breakout.

I'm still a believer in the third-year receiver theory. It might not be as relevant as 10 years ago, but I still gravitate toward receivers entering their third season, with the expectations this could be a breakout campaign.

Smith-Schuster and Golladay are two of my favorite receivers to target on Draft Day this year, as well as Chris Godwin, Cooper Kupp, Mike Williams, Curtis Samuel and Dede Westbrook. I'm also cautiously optimistic Corey Davis could surprise us in 2019.

But it's up to you to decide if you still believe in the theory. Check out these guys from the wide receiver Class of 2017 and see if they are players you want to target on Draft Day this year. 

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Editor's note: Projections are provided by SportsLine and not Jamey Eisenberg.

THE STARS



2017 stats: 80 targets, 58 catches, 917 yards, seven touchdowns 
2018 stats: 166 targets, 111 catches, 1,426 yards, seven touchdowns 
2019 projections: 154 targets, 109 catches, 1,458 yards, eight touchdowns 

It's obviously going to be hard for Smith-Schuster to improve on his 2018 stats when he was the No. 8 PPR receiver, but with Brown gone, there's plenty of production missing. Brown had 104 catches for 1,297 yards and 15 touchdowns on 168 targets last year, and Smith-Schuster is going to help the Steelers fill that void. He'll have help from James Washington, Donte Moncrief, Diontae Johnson and Vance McDonald, but Smith-Schuster has the potential to be the No. 1 Fantasy receiver this year. He's that good. And Smith-Schuster has played four games over the past two seasons where Brown was either out or injured, and he averaged 19.8 PPR points over that span. Smith-Schuster should be drafted toward the end of Round 1 in all formats this year.

2017 stats: 48 targets, 28 catches, 477 yards, three touchdowns 
2018 stats: 120 targets, 70 catches, 1,063 yards, five touchdowns 
2019 projections: 132 targets, 80 catches, 1,195 yards, six touchdowns 

Golladay doesn't have the same ceiling as Smith-Schuster, but he should be drafted this year as a high-end No. 2 Fantasy receiver in all leagues. He started his sophomore campaign on fire with an average of 17.0 PPR points in his first five games before cooling off, and he only scored more than 17 points just three times in his final 10 outings. He had 10 games in 2018 with at least seven targets, and he averaged 17.2 PPR points over than span. While the Lions want to focus more on the run this season, Golladay is still expected to lead the team in targets, even with the addition of rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson and the return to health of Marvin Jones (knee). I'm looking for Golladay as early as Round 4.

THE BREAKOUTS

2017 stats: 56 targets, 34 catches, 525 yards, one touchdown 
2018 stats: 95 targets, 59 catches, 842 yards, seven touchdowns 
2019 projections: 121 targets, 81 catches, 1,064 yards, six touchdowns  

I hate that the Godwin hype train has gotten out of control, and you likely have to draft him in Round 4 now. I'd prefer to get him in Round 5, but that might not be realistic. With DeSean Jackson and Adam Humphries gone, Tampa Bay has to replace 179 targets, 117 catches, 1,590 yards and nine touchdowns. Mike Evans and O.J. Howard will help in trying to fill that production, but Godwin should see a spike in his stats in Year 3. In six games over the past two seasons without Jackson on the field, Godwin has scored at least 12 PPR points in four of them. I'm excited to see Godwin play in the slot for new coach Bruce Arians, and he's one of my favorite players to draft this year, regardless of position.  

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Cooper Kupp EWASH • WR • 10



2017 stats: 95 targets, 62 catches, 869 yards, five touchdowns 
2018 stats: 56 targets, 40 catches, 566 yards, six touchdowns 
2019 projections: 115 targets, 78 catches, 999 yards, nine touchdowns   

I'm excited to see Kupp back in action, and he's a No. 2 receiver worth targeting in Round 5. He is expected to be ready for training camp after suffering a torn ACL in Week 10 against Seattle, and hopefully he can pick up where he left off. Kupp scored at least 12 PPR points in six of the eight games he appeared in, including five games with at least 17 PPR points, but two of those games (Week 6 at Denver and against the Seahawks) he was unable to finish due to injury. In his six healthy games in 2018, Kupp averaged 7.8 targets per game. And if you take those six games over a 16-game pace, Kupp would have finished with 93 catches for 1,405 yards and 16 touchdowns. It's not reasonable to expect that type of production, especially the touchdowns, but Kupp should have the chance for a big year in 2019 if he's healthy for Week 1 as expected.

2017 stats: 23 targets, 11 catches, 95 yards, no touchdowns 
2018 stats: 66 targets, 43 catches, 664 yards, 10 touchdowns 
2019 projections: 78 targets, 48 catches, 741 yards, nine touchdowns 

Williams was the definition of touchdown dependent in 2018, but I'm expecting his overall game -- and production -- to improve this season. He benefits with Tyrell Williams and Antonio Gates gone, and those two combined for 110 targets for 69 catches, 986 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Now, Hunter Henry (ACL) is back, so he will help in replacing that production, but I expect Mike Williams to see an uptick in targets. Last season, Williams had five games with at least six targets, and he averaged 19.2 PPR points in those outings, with at least 13 points in four of them. It would be great if Williams can score double digits in touchdowns again, but hopefully he'll approach 60 catches. At 15.4 yards per reception like he had last season, that would put him over 900 receiving yards and make him a third-year breakout for sure. He's worth drafting in Round 6 in all leagues.

2017 stats: 65 targets, 34 catches, 375 yards, no touchdowns 
2018 stats: 112 targets, 65 catches, 891 yards, four touchdowns 
2019 projections: 103 targets, 59 catches, 770 yards, four touchdowns

In the first edition of our Fantasy Football magazine with Beckett Sports, I called Davis a bust candidate because he was ranked as the No. 26 receiver in the consensus rankings on Fantasy Pros. That's too high. But his Average Draft Position in June is much better for his value as the No. 42 receiver off the board in Round 9. I would take him in Round 8, and I expect Davis to have the best season of his career. That's not going to take much since he averaged just 11.4 PPR points per game in 2018, and he has just nine games with double digits in PPR scoring in the 28 games he's played over the past two seasons. But last year he struggled with Marcus Mariota missing two games and playing through injury in several others. And while the Titans did add Adam Humphries in free agency, A.J. Brown through the draft and get Delanie Walker (ankle) back from injury, Davis is still their best weapon in the passing game. He's a good reserve receiver with upside at the right price, and Round 8 or 9 is a good spot for him.

2017 stats: 26 targets, 15 catches, 115 yards, no touchdowns
2018 stats: 65 targets, 39 catches, 494 yards, five touchdowns
2019 projections: 63 targets, 40 catches, 468 yards, four touchdowns

If Samuel does what I expect him to do this season, I'll have the chance to win plenty of Fantasy leagues. He's one of my favorite players to draft in Round 8, and I have a lot of stock in him already. I encourage you to do the same. Samuel is expected to start opposite D.J. Moore, and hopefully Samuel will build on his strong end to the 2018 season. He closed last year with at least 11 PPR points in six of his final seven games, including three outings with at least eight targets. If Cam Newton (shoulder) is fine for training camp as expected then Samuel can clearly outperform his draft value. Remember, Devin Funchess is gone as a free agent to Indianapolis, and Greg Olsen has struggled to stay healthy. Chris Hogan was the only notable receiver added this offseason, and Newton will rely on Moore, Samuel and Christian McCaffrey quite a bit. He's a No. 3 receiver with the upside to be a starter in all formats. 

2017 stats: 51 targets, 27 catches, 339 yards, one touchdown
2018 stats: 101 targets, 66 catches, 717 yards, five touchdowns
2019 projections: 94 targets, 65 catches, 765 yards, six touchdowns

Westbrook has the chance to be the best Jaguars receiver this season. While that might not seem exciting, he should be considered a No. 3 Fantasy receiver with the chance to start in deeper leagues. He's worth drafting in Round 8 in all formats. We'll see what happens with Marqise Lee (knee) and his health, and otherwise the Jaguars have unproven options at receiver with Chris Conley, D.J. Chark and Keelan Cole. Nick Foles should be an upgrade at quarterback for Westbrook, and he's a cheap option to target on Draft Day with plenty of upside given his role for Jacksonville.

OTHER GUYS TO KEEP AN EYE ON

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Zay Jones BUF • WR • 11

2017 stats: 74 targets, 27 catches, 316 yards, two touchdowns
2018 stats: 102 targets, 56 catches, 652 yards, seven touchdowns
2019 projections: 95 targets, 49 catches, 578 yards, seven touchdowns

The Bills receiving corps will have a new look this season with the additions of John Brown and Cole Beasley. Along with Robert Foster and Jones, it will be a competition for targets from quarterback Josh Allen. But there's no clear-cut No. 1 receiver of this group, and Jones could emerge as that guy. He closed last season playing at a high level with at least 17 PPR points in four of his final seven games. He's cheap on Draft Day with a late-round flier in all leagues, and Jones could turn into a Fantasy starter in deeper formats if he's the top option for Allen this year. 

2017 stats: one target, no catches
2018 stats: 53 targets, 26 catches, 445 yards, five touchdowns
2019 projections: 75 targets, 37 catches, 588 yards, six touchdowns

With Doug Baldwin retired, there's an opportunity for someone to step up in Seattle's receiving corps opposite Tyler Lockett. While rookie D.K. Metcalf is the obvious choice, don't be surprised if Moore gets a big role in 2019. His competition aside from Metcalf will come from Jaron Brown and rookie Gary Jennings, but Moore showed positive flashes in 2018 that he could be headed for a bigger role after he was third on the team in targets behind Lockett and Baldwin. Moore had seven games last season with at least four targets, and he scored at least 18 PPR points in three of them. Seattle has to replace 73 targets, 50 catches, 618 yards and five touchdowns from Baldwin's stats in 2018, and Moore could benefit in a big way. He's worth a late-round flier in deeper leagues.

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John Ross CIN • WR • 11

2017 stats: two targets, no catches
2018 stats: 58 targets, 21 catches, 210 yards, seven touchdowns
2019 projections: 59 targets, 21 catches, 201 yards, seven touchdowns

Ross is easily the biggest disappointment of this draft class at receiver, and he was the No. 9 overall selection in the first round. He's struggled with injuries through two seasons, although he did show signs of life in the second half last year after A.J. Green (toe) got hurt, scoring five touchdowns in his final eight outings. He will remain the No. 3 receiver this year behind Green and Tyler Boyd, and his upside is likely limited as a Fantasy option. Still, he has plenty of talent if he can rise to the occasion in Year 3. He's someone you can draft with a late-round flier in deeper leagues.

2017 stats: no targets
2018 stats: 41 targets, 23 catches, 315 yards, one touchdown
2019 projections: 51 targets, 28 catches, 431 yards, one touchdown

Patrick showed positive signs in 2018 after Emmanuel Sanders (Achilles) got hurt. In the final four games of the season, Patrick had two outings with at least 11 PPR points, and he averaged 10.0 PPR points over that span. Sanders might not be ready for the start of training camp, which could allow Patrick to be one of Denver's top three receivers along with Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton. Patrick is worth a late-round flier in deeper leagues.

Senior Fantasy Writer

Jamey Eisenberg has been a Senior Fantasy Writer for CBS Sports since 2006 with a focus on Fantasy Football. A University of Florida grad (class of '98), Jamey got his start in the newspaper business and... Full Bio

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