Eric Mack
Thursday August 18th, 2011

If at first you don't succeed, try and try again. Some great sage came up with that saying and suggested to give it three attempts: Purpose, process, payoff.

See, the third time is the charm, and it can be for wide receivers as they try to perfect the dance that is the modern NFL.

Rookie wide receivers tend to be disappointments; there is a lot to learn about beating some of the best athletes in coverage, learning routes and working their timing with their quarterbacks. Ask Michael Crabtree.

Sometimes, they still don't take off in Year 2. Darrius Heyward-Bey, hello?

Ah, but that third go around can produce a gem of a sleeper for fantasy owners. It is the third-year wide receiver phenomenon and we break down the players in that category here.

We rank them based on their potential to outperform their draft position, because it isn't about drafting off what we already know. Hakeem Nicks is already a fantasy star.

It is about picking something of an unknown and the yet to be. The best way to win in the stock market is to find value in the unwanted. A good fantasy owner thrives in that.

This year has a bumper crop of potential breakout 2009 wide receiver draftees. Six wideouts were selected in Round 1, and 32 were picked through all seven rounds of that draft. There is a lot to pick from, a lot of unwanted treasure.

Our top 10 third-year wide receiver breakout candidates:

Harvin is in a great situation this season. First, Sidney Rice won't be stealing the spotlight as the go-to man. Second, quarterback Donovan McNabb is a short, rhythm-route passer who has thrived in a West Coast offense. Harvin is the type of a breakaway threat who can take those six- and seven-yard passes and turn them into 40-yard touchdowns.

The question about him is related to health. He says his migraines are going to be under control this year. We'll see, but that question mark does allow a third-year WR breakout talent to fall a bit further to us in the middle rounds.

He was the fourth WR off the board in Round 1 of '09, but he's No. 1 here because he has the most untapped potential of the lot.

Another offseason quarterback move enhances the sixth and last of the '09 first-round receivers. Matt Hasselbeck should legitimize the potential of a Britt, who has already showed touchdown potential last year with nine.

Year 1 was about getting acclimated; Year 2 was about making progress. And Year 3 will be about becoming the man for the Titans' passing game.

He should add the catches and yards to become a 75-catch, 1,000-yard, 10-TD receiver. Those are top 12 numbers, though he will be drafted well after that.

We already know the running game is going to take the pressure off with Chris Johnson (assuming he signs a new deal) easily the biggest home-run threat in football on the ground. The way the passing game complements a good running team is with the long ball. Britt will be the man for that.

In terms of pure talent, Crabtree should have been the first receiver picked in '09 and should be the first of these third-year breakout candidates. He is a real game-changer.

The problem is the 49ers' quarterback -- whomever that is -- will be a real drive-killer. It says a lot when the 49ers went out and signed an out-of-form Daunte Culpepper after one preseason game.

Crabtree is still dealing with a foot issue that caused him to slip on draft day, and has to compete for balls with an elite tight end in Vernon Davis and a free-agent acquisition at receiver in Braylon Edwards. Many could consider Crabtree a third option on a bad throwing team.

All that will allow Crabtree to slip to depths that make him a bargain for fantasy owners.

The first wideout selected in the fourth round -- the 15th overall -- has opportunity before him. Vince Lombardi said success is the culmination of preparation and opportunity. Thomas stands to be very successful for the Jags in Year 3.

He assumes the unquestioned No. 1 wideout status for his team that has lost (let go) Mike Sims-Walker via free agency. The Jags are another great running team that uses the pass to hit home runs.

Thomas will still be one of the most overlooked WR1s in the NFL on draft day.

Unlike the first four on this list, Collie has a top-five quarterback getting him the ball. Collie might not be Peyton Manning's first, second or even third option, but he is going to be drafted well after Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and perhaps even Pierre Garcon -- in part because concussion issues make him a risk.

But there were times last season Collie actually performed like the No. 1 receiver in fantasy. Now, he could put it all together for an 80-catch, 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season that makes him among the 10 most-productive WRs in fantasy.

There are fears Maclin's mysterious training camp illness could be lymphoma, but we should trust the reports that say he is going to be able to play this season. We might have had him higher on this list otherwise.

In terms of receiver tandems in the NFL, Maclin and DeSean Jackson form the best 1-2 punch anywhere and, clearly, Michael Vick is able to make their lofty draft positions justified.

If Maclin falls on draft day and proves healthy and ready to go for the season, he is on the verge of becoming a 100-catch, 1,300-yard, 10-touchdown receiver. That's top-five potential right there.

Nicks has already proven to be the class of '09 receivers and a top-10 target at the position. Now, he just needs to stay healthy for a full season.

It could come in Year 3. It has to for the Giants, who lost Steve Smith and Kevin Boss to free agency, removing two of Eli Manning's targets that helped take coverage off Nicks.

Last year's third-year wide receiver breakthrough Mario Manningham assumes the No. 2 receiver role in the Giants offense, so the cupboard isn't entirely bare. Manningham is just enough of a deep threat to help the physical Nicks rack up big-time yards underneath and over the middle.

Nicks could be the most-targeted receiver in the NFL this season, and drops tend to become far fewer for receivers in Year 3. Nicks could be as good as anyone at the position in '11.

If Wallace lacks anything, it is low self-esteem. He has come out and said he wants to be a 100-catch, 2,000-yard receiver in Year 3.

He was already good in Year 2 and a full season of Ben Roethlisberger and one more year of wear and tear on veteran Hines Ward can make Wallace even better. The only thing holding Wallace down on this list is the likelihood he levels off more than he improves.

Drafting him in the top 10 among receivers is justified, but we just cannot see him becoming a potential No. 1 overall receiver like Maclin or Nicks.

He might be the best receiver you have never heard of. He was more productive at North Carolina than the aforementioned Nicks when they were drafted, but knee surgery killed Tate's draft position and made him a reclamation project in Year 1.

Tate made some appearances in Year 2, and the wide-open Pats offense could make him a significant contributor for fantasy owners this year. Tate is a burner who can stretch the field for Chad Ochocino and Wes Welker. A 50-catch, 700-yard, seven-TD season will be great return relative to his draft position.

We had to have the first WR picked in '09 here somewhere. We're not happy about it. Heyward-Bey could be great, but he just cannot catch. He also cannot run routes, remember the plays or stay healthy.

Nothing good has come out of his first two years in the league, but if we are going to stay true to the third-year receiver strategy, we have to project something out of this guy. He at least is fast. You can pick him in the last round and maybe, just maybe, he does something more than nothing.

Here is a look back at the 2009 draft at the wide receiver position ...

Round 1

1. Darrius Heyward-Bey 2. Michael Crabtree 3. Jeremy Maclin 4. Percy Harvin 5. Hakeem Nicks 6. Kenny Britt

This is not how this writer ranked them going into the draft, but someone in the Raiders organization had to see something in DHB.

Round 2

7. Brian Robiskie 8. Mohamed Massaquoi

Both of these guys are intriguing because Colt McCoy could make some huge strides in Year 2 himself. Someone needs to be a factor catching those passes.

Round 3

9. Derrick Williams 10. Brandon Tate 11. Mike Wallace 12. Ramses Barden 13. Deon Butler 14. Juaquin Iglesias

Butler and Barden are a little far down their depth charts, but this is what the third-year breakout theory is all about: Rising the charts and soaring up the rankings.

Round 4

15. Mike Thomas 16. Brian Hartline 17. Louis Murphy 18. Austin Collie

Murphy stands to be fairly productive for the Raiders, but you cannot be enthralled with the prospects of Jason Campbell distributing the passes.

Round 5

19. Johnny Knox 20. Kenny McKinley 21. Jarrett Dillard 22. Brooks Foster

Knox has a yet-to-pop quarterback Jay Cutler -- and we mean that in the good way, not the negative one. Dillard was a college star that slipped in the draft and is almost forgotten. He could be significant this year as a last-round flier.

Round 6

23. Quinten Lawrence 24. Brandon Gibson 25. Dominque Edison

Gibson has a good young quarterback with his arrow pointing up in Sam Bradford, but there are just so many receivers in Rams camp right now. It will be hard to discern from any of them right now.

Round 7

26. Demetrius Byrd 27. Sammie Stroughter 28. Jake O'Connell 29. Marko Mitchell 30. Derek Kinder 31. Freddie Brown 32. Tiquan Underwood

This is a bunch of never-will-bes, save for the return specialist Stroughter.

One more name to note is Dezmon Briscoe of the Bucs. Josh Freeman has made potential breakouts of sophomores Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, but perhaps it is the third-year guy from Kansas that surprises us all.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com and will outline all the news and nuggets game-by-game every week of the NFL season in his Fantasy Football Fast Forward. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy.

ON SALE: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and stats analysis you need to win your league. Order one now.

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