The NFL has seen quarterbacks and running backs become instantly successful over the years, more recently with regard to the quarterbacks, but the receiver position tends to be a more difficult one to master right away. A receiver has to develop timing and route precision, earn a quarterback's trust and an offensive coordinator's interest, and, not to mention, break the starting lineup at one of the most physically gifted positions in pro football. Then, when he finally has all that down, he has to be able to catch the ball when it is delivered his way.
That's why fantasy owners believe that wide receivers in their third season are prime for a breakout. There is a natural progression in the NFL career of a receiver, and everything typically comes together in their third season. Sure, there are cases where rookie receivers can be impact fantasy players right away, like Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin and A.J. Green. Or sophomores that become stars, like Green. But those are the exceptions, not the rule. Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker all emerged as fantasy superstars in their third season last year, while Danario Alexander and Golden Tate provided starter-worthy numbers off the waiver wire.
Whether you subscribe to this fantasy axiom or not, Bryant, Thomas and Decker show you should at least pay attention to the third-year breakout candidates.
Here is the 2013 class:
1. A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals
It would be hard for any receiver to project better than Green's 2012 numbers -- 97 catches for 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns -- but he ranked seventh overall in drops with nine, according to sportingcharts.com. Also, Andy Dalton didn't have a consistent No. 2 threat to shift the defensive pressure off of Green, suppressing his numbers a bit.
Green is capable of joining Calvin Johnson in that select elite tier of fantasy receiver. It will be hard to get Green as a bargain; he is the second receiver off the board in Round 2 of early mock drafts. But, unlike the receivers who will be picked before him, Green hasn't yet had a career year. It will come in 2013.
2. Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons
Jones' numbers haven't fully popped because the receiver across the field from him, Roddy White, has been so darn good for so many years. White takes a bit too much of the attention ... from his own team's targets.
Jones reached 79 catches, 1,198 yards and 10 TDs a year ago, but the likely middle second-round pick is entirely capable of running away with the Falcons' go-to man role. Roddy White's catches have declined in each of the past three seasons, and his targets have declined each of the past two, because of the emergence of Jones. Jones should take the next step to be the Falcons' most-targeted receiver and a far more consistent fantasy scorer week to week. He won't disappear in some weeks like he did a year ago -- he scored single-digit fantasy points in seven of 16 games -- and that should bump his numbers up to 95/1,300/12.
3. Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers
An owner can make the case that Cobb is Aaron Rodgers' unquestioned go-to man in Green Bay, because Greg Jennings is now in Minnesota, James Jones won't get 14 touchdown passes again and Jordy Nelson's struggling to stay healthy. And, mind you, that makes Cobb the leading target for SI.com's No. 1 fantasy quarterback.
Assuming Cobb curtails his drops (nine, tied with Green for seventh-most in the NFL), we can be looking at a 100/1,100/10 receiving monster in fantasy. Those numbers are going to be available to you after 12 other receivers are off the board.
4. Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
The three receivers above all have great cases to improve, but Smith is the first one on this list capable of an exponential breakthrough. That's saying something, because Smith averaged 50 catches for around 850 yards and eight TDs his first two years in the league.
Now that Anquan Boldin will be the 49ers' possession receiver, Smith's targets and receptions figure to climb to the 150/80 range. That makes him a candidate to go 80/1,200/12, and he'll be drafted as a low-end No. 2 receiver, ranking outside of the top 20 by most publications. Like Green above, Smith will have the added benefit of being his team's lone, trustworthy receiving threat on the outside.
5. Cecil Shorts III, Jacksonville Jaguars
Shorts already enjoyed a surprising breakthrough in Year 2, fending off rookie Justin Blackmon and failed free-agent acquisition Laurent Robinson for the No. 1 receiver role with the Jags. With Robinson unsigned on the street and Blackmon serving a four-game suspension to start the season, Shorts went from competing for a roster spot to being the primary receiver in Jacksonville.
"I still feel like I have something to prove," he told the Jaguars official website at OTAs this week. "That's just how I've always been. I always play with a chip on my shoulder. I want to prove last season wasn't a fluke, but really, last season doesn't mean anything anymore. I want to continue to get better."
Because few fantasy owners can expect a receiver in the Jaguars' quarterback-deficient offense to be better than 55/979/7, Shorts is going to be picked as a third wide receiver in drafts. If he performs even to his sophomore standards he set, he will be a viable starter in all fantasy leagues.
6. Denarius Moore, Oakland Raiders
While Moore has talent, the quarterback-deficient and offensively inept Raiders give him very little chance to perform like a true fantasy starter. He ranks sixth on this list, only because this is the order he will be drafted in coming off his 51/741/7 sophomore campaign with 4,000-yard passer Carson Palmer chucking him the rock.
Moore tied Cobb for seventh-most drops last season (nine), so a bit more refinement can at least make him more efficient as a fantasy backup option to target later in drafts. Moore won't have the ceiling of other third-year receivers, but he does have status has his team's leading target.
7. Vincent Brown, San Diego Chargers
If there is a third year receiver who will come out of the woodwork this season, it's Brown. Philip Rivers is coming off the worst season of his career, partially because Brown missed all of last season with a broken ankle. Brown could emerge from late-round flier to fantasy star.
Brown is back practicing at OTAs and can resume his status as Rivers' No. 1 target, which he held in a breakthrough training camp last year. Rivers is a potential 4,000-yard passer who thirsts for a worthy target; heck, he even made Alexander fantasy viable as a third-year breakout off the street a year ago. If Brown lives up to the hype, he is going to be one of the best late-round bargains in all of fantasy. He is a must-get in three-receiver formats, because he will be drafted as a No. 4 or 5 with the potential to perform like a second wide receiver.
8. Greg Little, Cleveland Browns
Little was supposed to be the Browns' key to offensive respectability, but rookie Josh Gordon became more of that a year ago. Like to so many young receivers before him, Little has struggled with drops and that landed him in the doghouse -- not to mention the bench -- at times last season. Little scored in double figures in PPR formats each of his last four games, and with the Browns expected to play from behind a lot again this season, double-digit fantasy games might come more consistently for him this season.
9. Leonard Hankerson, Washington Redskins
Hankerson was able to stay healthy for a full season as a sophomore, and we saw glimpses of the potential that made him a big-time recruit for the University of Miami. However, perhaps the best reason to like Hankerson is the fact that burgeoning superstar quarterback Robert Griffin III will be slinging him passes.
Pierre Garcon (foot) might never be 100 percent again, Santana Moss is long past his prime and Josh Morgan has never proven to be a consistent starter in his five NFL seasons, much less a fantasy option. Hankerson has a big opportunity before him in Year 3, so he is worth a late-round flier. He catches the ball well in traffic, so he could become a top red-zone threat for RGIII.
10. Andrew Hawkins, Cincinnati Bengals
Unlike the others on this list, Hawkins doesn't profile as an "X" or "Z" receiver. He is merely a slot man, but there were times last season -- particularly early -- where he looked like he might become a pretty darn good one. Andy Dalton and the aforementioned Green will both continue to grow in Year 3, so it stands to reason Hawkins can be a supplementary beneficiary from that.
Hawkins will have more value in PPR formats as a reserve option late in drafts, but if second-year guys Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones don't take off as expected, Hawkins could prove to be a worthy starter.