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  • Deep breakout candidates at wide receiver.
By Brandon Niles
June 24, 2019

Breakout candidates, by definition, have to be in one of the first few seasons of their career. In general, if a player hasn’t broken out by his, say, fifth season in the league, he’s not ever going to do so (with the notable exception of a player like 2019 Vance McDonald). We all know about the second-year players ready to break out. The potential of guys like Dante Pettis, Calvin Ridley and Christian Kirk entering their sophomore years has been written about extensively since the day the 2018 season ended. Camp buzz also surrounds high-profile rookies like Marquise Brown and N’Keal Harry, as fantasy owners get amped up for the new flavors of the month. Rookies provide an alluring sense of instant gratification, and an easy narrative to get behind. All the while, players whose shine has worn off over multiple seasons of mediocrity are forgotten about, turning them into draft-day afterthoughts.

Sometimes, though, these are the players with the most to offer. Fantasy owners able to mine value in the later rounds and pluck breakout performers are often those still in contention late in December. These players are often known, but haven’t quite taken that next step. They’re tagged as disappointments, shunned by a fantasy community clamoring for something fresh and new.

Last season, Tyler Boyd was one of these forgotten disappointment who went undrafted in most fantasy leagues. A second-round pick in 2016, Boyd was thought to bring an end to Cincinnati’s long search for a legitimate second receiver opposite A.J. Green. After a promising rookie season where Boyd caught 54 passes for 603 yards, he struggled in 2017, hauling in just 22 receptions for 225 yards. He scored a mere three total touchdowns in his first two seasons combined, and was firmly off the fantasy football radar heading into last season.

Boyd, roundly ignored on draft day, had a career year in 2018. He rattled off double-digit fantasy points in three of his first four games and became a hot waiver-wire pickup in all leagues on his way to 76 receptions, 1,028 yards and seven touchdowns. Now, Boyd is going in the middle rounds of early fantasy mocks and is poised for another good season in a contract year.

While Boyd’s achievement was unlikely, it wasn’t unprecendented. Players exceed expectations every season, and receivers especially can take some time to adjust to the league. The third-year rule used to apply to the position strongly, with Reggie Wayne and Roddy White recent examples of players who were considered potential busts after struggling to get on the field consistently during their first two years. Shortly after, they became perennial fantasy studs. Even in the modern pass-happy era of the NFL, guys like Julio Jones and T.Y. Hilton failed to eclipse 1,000 yards in their inaugural seasons.

Who fits the Boyd mold this season? Three receivers come to mind, one being taken in the middle rounds, and two more who more closely track with Boyd’s 2018 draft-day value.

Curtis Samuel, Panthers

After injuries kept Samuel sidelined and in a limited role during his rookie season, he caught 39 balls for 494 yards and five touchdowns last season. Those aren’t great numbers, but his big-play ability provided glimpses of the potential he showed as a gamebreaker at Ohio State. Finally healthy heading into this season, Samuel could be on the verge of a breakout year.

Like Anderson, Samuel got better as the 2018 season wore on. After averaging fewer than four targets through his first seven games, he averaged eight over his last five. With Devin Funchess now in Indianapolis, Samuel shouldn’t have any problem securing more targets. Chris Hogan is the only significant pass-catcher the Panthers added in the offseason, and he’s not a lock to make the roster.

Samuel should also benefit from general improvements on offense. Free agent center and former Bronco Matt Paradis and second-round offensive tackle Greg Little should help the protection up front. Cam Newton has continued to work on his mechanics as he recovers from shoulder surgery, and if he can stay healthy and progress in his second year under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, Samuel’s targets could not only improve in quantity, but quality, as well.

Samuel is a playmaker who showed improvement in his first two seasons. This season could mark the next step in his evolution as a player, and with an 11th-round ADP, he presents excellent value for fantasy owners looking at huge upside options once the top-tier receivers are off the board.

Dede Westbrook, Jaguars

Last year was supposed to be the year a Jacksonville receiver distinguished himself as the team’s true No. 1 option. That never happened, with Marqise Lee suffering an injury in the summer and Keelan Cole failing to take advantage. Westbrook, on the other handm quietly led the team in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. The reason that didn’t put him firmly on the fantasy radar? It only took 66 catches, 717 yards and five touchdowns to be the best Jaguars receiver.

There’s reason for hope this year, and with 101 targets carrying over from 2018, Westbrook won’t even need significantly more opportunities to out-produce his ninth-round ADP. The Jaguars retooled their offensive infrastructure, bringing in quarterback Nick Foles and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo. Foles is a far more efficient quarterback than Blake Bortles ever was, completing 72.3% of his passes in five starts last year, a full 12 percentage points better than Jacksonville’s erstwhile starter. Foles is excellent at dink-and-dunk playmaking, and Westbrook is ideally suited to play a slot role and make big plays after the catch. Adam Thielen was an elite fantasy receiver in DeFilippo’s Vikings offense last year, and Travis Benjamin had 124 targets in a similar role when DeFilippo was the Browns’ offensive coordinator in 2015. While Thielen’s numbers are a lot to ask from Westbrook, there’s reason to think he’s best suited to fill that role in DeFilippo’s offense, and that Foles is the perfect quarterback to take advantage of his skillset.

Jacksonville has a crowded depth chart, which could hurt Westbrook’s chances, but the players he’s competing with are far from elite options. Lee is the best of the bunch, but he’s coming off knee surgery and his best season was in 2016 when he had 63 catches for 851 yards and three touchdowns. Second-year speedster D.J. Chark has a lot of potential, but his style is so different that there’s room for him and Westbrook to both produce. Meanwhile, the Jaguars lack an meaningfull pass-catcher at running back and at tight end, giving Westbrook every opportunity to dominate the short and intermediate targets. Sometimes a crowded depth chart is an indication that no one has stood out, and that’s certainly the case in Jacksonville. Westbrook easily brings the most to the table, which gives him a major opportunity this season.

Robby Anderson, Jets

Anderson is an interesting player because he’s not only a breakout candidate, but also a post-hype sleeper. He was a popular target last year after showing off deep-ball skills in 2017, but he struggled with drops and inconsistency on his way to 752 yards and six touchdowns. However, his play improved as the season continued, and as then-rookie quarterback Sam Darnold got more comfortable behind center. Anderson scored as many touchdowns in his final four games, three, as he did in his first 10. He averaged three more targets per game and caught 10% more of the balls thrown his way over the second half of the season than he did in the first.

Anderson should benefit from some natural progression by Darnold heading into his sophomore season, and by the addition of an offensive-minded coach in Adam Gase. The Jets upgraded virtually every aspect of their offense this offseason, but the one type of player they didn’t add was a deep threat. That leaves Anderson as the primary downfield weapon on the roster. Anderson ranked 14th in the league in air yards last season, a statistic that focuses on route depth and targets to measure the intent of the offense to bring production to a receiver. It’s clear Darnold wanted to get the ball deep to Anderson, and that’s unlikely to change under a new coaching staff.

While the Jets added Jamison Crowder in free agency, he’s not the deep threat Anderson is and shouldn’t cut too much into his targets. Crowder is more likely to do his work in the slot and to rack up short-to-intermediate receptions. It seems more likely he’ll affect Quincy Enunwa’s production than heavily impact the looks Anderson gets.

Anderson is in a contract year in 2019, and is only 26 years old. The contract-year theory doesn’t always work in practice, but Anderson fits it to a tee. If he produces, and if A.J. Green and Amari Cooper sign extensions in the summer or fall, he could very well be the top receiver on the market in 2020. Tyrell Williams just signed a four-year, $44.4 million dollar deal after an inconsistent year with the Chargers. Anderson could view that as a starting point for negotiations, and teams are always looking for field-stretching options in the passing game.

With an ADP in the seventh round of 12-team leagues, Anderson has the potential to vastly outperform his draft-day price. He’s a low-risk, high-reward option at that value. Even if he only maintains his production from the second half of last season, he’d still be on pace to be a top-20 fantasy receiver, or about equal to a fifth-round pick or so. With the potential he has to really break out, grabbing him in the seventh round is a no-brainer.

Going Deeper

Here are a couple quick thoughts on other deep sleepers at the wide receiver spot:

Are we sure we know which receiver is the best in Denver? I’m not sure it isn’t DaeSean Hamilton. He scored in two of his last four games of the season as a rookie and looked more effective than Courtland Sutton. With Emmanuel Sanders coming off a torn Achilles and a new quarterback and coaching staff, Hamilton is worth a flyer at his 16th-round ADP.

Likewise, if all it costs me is a roster spot, I’ll grab Tim Patrick in large leagues just in case he’s the guy Joe Flacco prefers. Patrick uses his body well downfield and is a 6’4” target for a quarterback who likes to throw the ball deep. He had a couple decent games last season and was targeted an average of 7.5 times over his last four contests. If Sanders struggles to come back healthy, Patrick could be a sleeper no one is talking about.

I know this is supposed to be James Washington’s year to break out, but Donte Moncrief quietly caught 48 balls on a really bad Jacksonville team last year and has the talent to win the starting job opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster in Pittsburgh.

Ryan Fitzpatrick really liked throwing deep to DeSean Jackson last season, and Kenny Stills is still as fast as they come. Someone has to catch the ball in Miami, and Stills’ ADP is in the 14th round after struggling last season on the league’s third-worst passing offense.

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