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The third-year wide receiver breakout is far from a myth. Overall, 17% of top-12 wide receiver fantasy finishes have come from third-year players over the last 10 years.
% of top-12 fantasy producers (PPR) by years of experience over the last 10 years pic.twitter.com/Lc1czZi7cP
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 3, 2022
Of course, players can already be great upon entering their third season, as there are four rising third-year wide receivers who I would argue have already broken out:
- Minnesota Vikings WR Justin Jefferson: Duh.
- Dallas Cowboys WR CeeDee Lamb: He has racked up 1,017 and 1,178 total yards with 12 combined touchdowns as a 21- and 22-year-old while without his starting quarterback for 12 games. What more do you people want?
- Cincinnati Bengals WR Tee Higgins: He played 18 total games last season and caught 92 passes for 1,400 yards and eight touchdowns. I’m going to go ahead and call that pretty good.
- Indianapolis Colts WR Michael Pittman: He went for 1,126 total yards and six scores catching passes from Carson Wentz last season, looking impressive while doing it.
There are eight additional young wide receivers who don’t belong in this conversation for the sake of being realistic. None of Jalen Reagor, Laviska Shenault, Van Jefferson, Bryan Edwards, Devin Duvernay, Quez Watkins, James Proche, Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Tyler Johnson, Freddie Swain, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Denzel Mims, Quintez Cephus, Collin Johnson nor Kendall Hinton profile as a third-year breakout due to a mixture of underwhelming career performance to date and lack of projected target volume ahead of 2022.
This leaves us with eight true contenders to breakout for the first time in 2022 during their third season playing professional football.
Jeudy put some truly mesmerizing route-running ability on tape as a rookie before underwhelming in 2021. Still, Denver's quarterback play was far from ideal, and Jeudy was never fully healthy after suffering a Grade 3 high ankle sprain in Week 1.
Enter Russell Wilson, who is one of just 10 quarterbacks to have enabled multiple top-12 PPR wide receivers in a single season over the past decade. The Tim Patrick (ACL) injury is truly unfortunate for one of the game’s more underrated talents, but it does make three-WR sets awfully clear between Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and K.J. Hamler. It’s fair to give Jeudy the lead over the latter receiver in two-WR sets given Hamler’s recent return from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list while recovering from last season’s nasty ACL tear and hip dislocation.
Betting on Jeudy is banking on the 2020 NFL Draft’s 15th overall pick playing the best football of his life with an elite quarterback under center. It’d certainly make sense if Sutton and Hamler also flirt with career-best campaigns, but Jeudy is worth strong fantasy consideration in the middle rounds due to his upside to work as an upside WR1 should he become's Wilson favorite target.
Verdict: Third-year breakout feels inevitable. Buying.
Aiyuk managed to come on rather strong down the stretch in 2021: He was stuck in Shanahan’s doghouse and only played 75% or more of the offense’s snaps once in Weeks 1 through 7, but from there on out, he resembled the sort of second-year stud that many expected:
- Weeks 1-7: 1.5-16-0.2 (2.7 targets); 4.1 PPR points per game
- Weeks 8-NFC Championship: 4-61.8-0.3 (5.9 targets); 11.9 PPR points per game
Aiyuk worked as the overall PPR WR16 from Weeks 8 through 18, but that’s a bit deceiving considering he only played 11 games during that stretch. On a per-game basis, Aiyuk was the WR25 during the stretch.