Fantasy Football: How to Spot a Breakout Wide Receiver

There are breakout wide receivers in fantasy football each year. Is there a way to spot the breakout before it happens?

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

Are you trying to lose weight? Good luck shredding pounds without some thoughtful guidelines. Looking for a promotion? Doing the same old thing over and over again won't get you to where you want to be.

Want to win your fantasy football league?

Strategize. Freaking strategize.

Anyone can luck into breakout players in a fantasy football draft, but not just anyone can do it consistently. Studying trends and having a plan of attack can help you pinpoint the right late-round steals, giving you a nice edge over your leaguemates.

What are these trends? Well, I looked at a handful of them for the running back last week, noting the things to watch when spotting a breakout running back. Today, let's look at the other big position in fantasy football: wide receiver.

The Method

Like I said a week ago, there's no single way to define a breakout. So let's create some parameters.

We'll kick things off with a graph that shows wide receiver average draft position (ADP) on the x-axis -- this data is from -- versus PPR points scored on the y-axis from the last seven years. It's a plot of average cost versus PPR points scored since 2011.

The trendline in the graph is presenting expectation -- it's telling us the number of PPR points we'd expect a wide receiver to score at a given average draft position.

From this, we can see which players outperformed their ADP most in a single season since 2011.

Name Year Average Pick PPR Points Expected Points Difference
Odell Beckham 2014 171.94 295.00 103.81 191.19
Brandon Marshall 2015 60.07 339.20 166.71 172.49
Josh Gordon 2013 89.17 314.40 143.08 171.32
Jordy Nelson 2011 129.24 284.30 120.88 163.42
Doug Baldwin 2015 158.31 268.90 108.75 160.15
Alshon Jeffery 2013 124.34 281.60 123.20 158.40
Wes Welker 2011 42.23 335.90 187.78 148.12
Julian Edelman 2013 176.43 247.70 102.27 145.43
Antonio Brown 2014 21.29 374.10 228.75 145.35
Allen Robinson 2015 66.55 304.00 160.58 143.42
Davante Adams 2016 170.34 244.70 104.37 140.33
Emmanuel Sanders 2014 66.83 299.80 160.33 139.47
Antonio Brown 2013 57.38 308.30 169.45 138.85
Larry Fitzgerald 2015 87.68 280.50 144.09 136.41

The problem with looking at breakout wide receivers in this way is that these guys weren't all selected late. Brandon Marshall's 2015 season, for instance, came after he was being selected at the tail-end of the fifth round in 12-team drafts. He wasn't some late-round steal. He was just an incredible value, as owners ended up getting 1,502 yards and 14 touchdowns in the fifth.

Instead of analyzing these players, it would make more sense to limit the breakout wide receiver analysis to later-round selections who vastly outperformed their ADP.

Right? Right.

To keep things simple, I filtered out anyone with an ADP inside the top-100 and then looked at the wideouts who outperformed expectation by at least 100 PPR points. They also had to have been drafted (in fantasy). These constraints are subjective in nature, but they're at least logical.

The new list is below:

Player Year Average Pick PPR Points Expected Points Difference
Odell Beckham 2014 171.94 295.00 103.81 191.19
Jordy Nelson 2011 129.24 284.30 120.88 163.42
Doug Baldwin 2015 158.31 268.90 108.75 160.15
Alshon Jeffery 2013 124.34 281.60 123.20 158.40
Julian Edelman 2013 176.43 247.70 102.27 145.43
Davante Adams 2016 170.34 244.70 104.37 140.33
Nate Washington 2011 206.92 224.80 92.73 132.07
Michael Thomas 2016 122.66 255.70 124.01 131.69
James Jones 2012 186.88 226.40 98.83 127.57
Tyrell Williams 2016 211.03 216.90 91.56 125.34
Allen Hurns 2015 173.99 225.10 103.10 122.00
Randall Cobb 2012 143.99 234.60 114.42 120.18
Eric Decker 2015 105.95 252.70 132.77 119.93
Keenan Allen 2013 182.51 219.60 100.24 119.36
Michael Crabtree 2015 148.44 231.20 112.60 118.60
Michael Crabtree 2012 106.46 250.30 132.48 117.82
Brandon LaFell 2014 190.75 210.60 97.60 113.00
Adam Thielen 2017 112.56 239.70 129.15 110.55
Terrelle Pryor 2016 177.25 209.80 101.99 107.81
Kenny Britt 2016 214.12 196.20 90.69 105.51
Steve Smith 2014 144.11 219.50 114.37 105.13
Kamar Aiken 2015 205.41 197.40 93.17 104.23
Jabar Gaffney 2011 216.24 190.70 90.10 100.60
Marvin Jones 2017 121.54 225.10 124.56 100.54

These have been the late-round wide receivers who've given you the biggest edge in fantasy football over the last seven years. These are your biggest values. These are your breakout wide receivers.

Fortunately for us, like the running backs that we examined last week, this group of 24 wide receivers share a lot in common.

Trend 1: Breakout Wide Receivers Rarely Emerge From Nowhere

The word "breakout" means "suddenly and extremely popular or successful." In sports, we generally associate breaking out with players who perform well after never performing well in their professional careers.

In today's case, if you haven't realized it already, we're using the ordinary, non-sports definition when talking breakouts. Because it's true: some of the players on the list above had decent performances prior to the one that's listed. Steve Smith, as an example, was already a Pro Bowl wide receiver before his 2014 campaign with the Ravens.

The list of 24 wide receivers is one that includes players of all ages and résumés. It's just that the fantasy football world wasn't that into them entering a given season, and then they far exceeded expectation.

They suddenly became successful.

The truth is, though, a lot of these breakout wide receivers were relatively successful in the campaign prior to their big year.

Year N-1 Points Number Of Players
150+ 9
100-140 6
50-99 4
Fewer Than 50 1
First-Year Player 4

A solid 37.5% of the wide receiver breakout group scored 150 or more PPR points in the season that occurred before their breakout. If you remove first-year players (rookies and, for simplicity purposes, Terrelle Pryor), that number jumps to 45%. That means there's a decent chance this year's late-round breakouts finished last season in the top-40 at the position.

Trend 2: Breakout Wide Receivers Aren't Drafted As Their Team's Top Pass-Catcher

This shouldn't be all that surprising, but of the 24 wide receivers in our breakout group, only two were drafted as their team's top wide receiver. And of those two -- Doug Baldwin in 2014 and Michael Crabtree in 2011 -- both had a tight end selected ahead of them in fantasy drafts (Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis).

What may be shocking is that, on average, these breakout wide receivers have been between the third and fourth (3.33, to be exact) pass-catcher (includes wide receivers and tight ends) selected on his own team in fantasy drafts. All but four of the wide receivers had a tight end teammate selected before them, and 10 of the 24 breakout receivers were the third, fourth, or fifth wide receiver option from their NFL team based on average draft position.

Trend 3: Breakout Wide Receivers Come From Ambiguous Situations

These late-round breakout receivers aren't the top pass-catchers on their own team to start the season -- at least by ADP -- but they do come from teams with fairly ambiguous pass-catching situations.

Of the 24 wide receivers in the breakout subset, only 4 had wide receiver teammates selected in the first two rounds of fantasy drafts (picks 1 through 24). And over 50% -- 14 of the 24 -- saw their first wide receiver teammate drop off of fantasy draft boards after Pick 50, which represents the fifth round in most leagues. In other words, most of these breakout wide receivers are breaking out on teams that don't have a WR1 in fantasy football.

Trend 4: Breakout Wide Receivers Aren't Replacements

And most of the breakout receivers aren't becoming huge values through injuries, either.

The strategy of handcuffing is popular at the running back position because it's easy for a backup running back to walk into volume when an injury occurs to a starter. Handcuffing is stupid for a lot of reasons, though. And it doesn't appear to be a thing for wide receivers.

To be honest, when analyzing the impact of injuries, it's easy to run into a correlation versus causation issue. For example, look at Odell Beckham, who's the biggest breakout wide receiver we've seen over the last seven seasons. He missed the first four games of his rookie (breakout) season with an injury, and when he made his debut, Victor Cruz was still around for two games before suffering a season-ending torn patellar tendon. During the two games where Beckham and Cruz played together that year, OBJ had 6 catches, 72 yards, and a touchdown. He hardly produced at the level he did post-Cruz injury.

But does that mean Beckham broke out because Victor Cruz was out? Or did Cruz open up just a slight opportunity for Beckham to become a star?

Even if we don't want to make assumptions -- even if we assume a player like Beckham broke out only because of an injury -- our list of 24 players benefitting from injury (or another issue) is still pretty small.

Year Player Injured Teammate Injured WR Games Played
2016 Tyrell Williams Keenan Allen 1
2012 Randall Cobb Greg Jennings 8
2012 James Jones Greg Jennings 8
2014 Odell Beckham Victor Cruz 6
2011 Nate Washington Kenny Britt 3
2016 Terrelle Pryor Josh Gordon 0
2015 Kamar Aiken Steve Smith 7

Looking back, Tyrell Williams and Kamar Aiken appear to be the most obvious breakout wide receivers who profited from injury. Maybe Terrelle Pryor, too, who was able to see a lot of volume due to Josh Gordon's off-the-field issues. But out of 24 breakout wide receivers, it's clear that teammate health really isn't something we need to -- or should -- bank on.

Trend 5: Breakout Wide Receivers Usually Come From Good Offenses

Like the running back breakouts analyzed last week, the group of wide receivers also tend to come from good offenses.

No, this isn't some groundbreaking revelation. Good offenses score points, and points being scored means positive things for fantasy assets who are in that offense.

The noteworthy part is the degree in which it's happening.

Among the 24 wide receivers, 13 came from a top-10 offense via numberFire's metrics, which are adjusted for strength of schedule. And the average offensive rank within our breakout group has been 12.63.

When looking just at opponent-adjusted passing offense, the average jumps to 11.88, with 17 of the 24 breakout wide receivers playing in top-half (top-16) passing offenses.

The group of breakout running backs had a lot of names from the New Orleans Saints. For wide receivers, there are a lot of dudes from the Green Bay Packers -- four to be exact.

It's almost like you want to associate your wide receiver with arguably the best quarterback in the game.

The 2018 Season

Finding trends is cool and all, but what do they mean for the 2018 season? Let's look at a handful of cases where late-round wide receivers fit most or all of the criteria listed above.

Randall Cobb

According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Randall Cobb is being selected outside the top-100. And that seems wrong.

Jordy Nelson is no longer in Green Bay, and over his last three full seasons with the Packers and a healthy Aaron Rodgers, he'd seen at least 22.28% of the team's targets each year. Replacing Nelson's target share will be a mix of inexperience at wide receiver and Jimmy Graham, who hasn't seen more than about 17% of his team's targets since 2014.

Cobb hasn't been all that relevant in fantasy football for about three seasons. But do keep in mind that he finished as a fringe WR2 in 2015 while seeing 129 targets during Aaron Rodgers' worst statistical full season, he battled injury in 2016, and last season, Cobb actually finished as a top-35 PPR wide receiver in each game he played with Rodgers. In total, he was on his way to posting a WR2-type season.

Given we've seen so many wide receivers exceed expectation in that Green Bay offense over the last seven years, there's no reason to let Cobb slip past his average draft position this year.

Cameron Meredith

There's plenty of risk drafting a player who's coming off a bad knee injury, let alone a player coming off a bad knee injury while also playing on a new team. Cameron Meredith appears to be ahead of schedule, though, and he fits a lot of the criteria above: he's playing in a good offense, he's not the top receiver on his own team, and past Michael Thomas, the Saints have plenty of question marks at wide receiver.

New Orleans should be slightly more pass-heavy this year, which will help their pass-catchers. And after finishing 2017 with as many rushing touchdowns as passing touchdowns, New Orleans will see some positive regression with passing scores, too. That makes Meredith a very intriguing late-round selection.

Rishard Matthews

Rishard Matthews has played two seasons in Tennessee, and during those two years, he's exceeded his average draft position by a total of 135.16 PPR points. He nearly made the cut as a breakout wide receiver, but in 2016, he outproduced expectation by 99.61 points, just 0.39 points shy of the arbitrary cutoff set by yours truly.

He's once again a late-round wide receiver this year, leaving draft boards around Pick 150 according to Fantasy Football Calculator. And he really fits -- or at least loosely fits -- every single trend above. He's coming off a season where he scored 156 fantasy points, he's being drafted behind teammates Corey Davis and Delanie Walker, we don't know for sure how the targets will be divvied up in the offense, and the offense itself could be better than advertised.

Over the last two seasons, Matthews owns two of the top-30 wide receiver touchdown share marks, and he's seen at least 17.5% of Tennessee's targets each year. That number would be higher if he played a full season last year, too.

Fantasy football owners, for whatever reason, haven't caught on to Rishard Matthews. Don't miss out on him this year.

Kenny Stills

Fantasy owners don't seem to like Kenny Stills, either.

Despite finishing as a top-30 wide receiver last year in PPR formats, Stills is being scooped up, on average, in the middle of the 14th round of early fantasy football drafts. He's being selected right next to his fragile 32-year-old teammate, Danny Amendola, and six rounds after his other buddy, DeVante Parker.

The Dolphins probably won't have a great offense this year, which means Stills doesn't fully fit the breakout wide receiver criteria. But he's clearly not being selected at the top of his depth chart, the depth chart itself is muddied, and he's coming off a low-key good season. I mean, only 18 wide receivers had more top-12 performances than Kenny Stills had last year.

He's a great late-round pick who should exceed his average cost by quite a bit.

Bringing It Together

This isn't some foolproof system that guarantees success. If you're looking for a formula that's never wrong or that has all the answers, then best of luck on your journey to oblivion.

This is about probability and increasing your chances of hitting on a late-round player. And when you utilize a process like this over and over again, you're bound to get that player more consistently than your leaguemates.

You're bound to have an edge that others in your league don't have.