Dating back to the mid-1990s, wide receivers who emerge for their first WR1 (top-12) season do so on average 1.3 seasons in their NFL career. This puts a heavy majority in the Year 2 to Year 3 subset. Only 19% of said breakout receivers were in Year 4 and beyond. Year 1 (30%) is even more common than beyond Year 3. So we are targeting the first four years (primarily the opening three seasons) of a wide receiver's career to give the best probability.
Other criteria include draft position (early is more optimal than later), opportunity (depth chart upward movement or stature), and level of quarterback play. For example, the top fantasy receiver of a top-8 quarterback is a WR1 more than half of the time (58%), while a bottom-half quarterback produces a WR1 just 15% of the time. The second quartile of quarterback level is a decent 42% for WR1 production, but still a clip below the top grouping of quarterback quality. One more point of reference on this before is even the No.2 receiver for an elite (top-8) quarterback hits as a WR1 16% of the time, while the other 24 quarterback situations around the NFL have produced No.2 receivers into WR1 level for fantasy less than 1% of instances.
Also, this specifically looking for WR1 producers for 2020 who have yet to produce such a season-to-date.
On to the 2020 wide receiver breakout candidates...
Amari Cooper and Kenny Golladay are fine-line inclusions as both have their peak season-to-date as WR13 and WR14 respectively. Both are entering their fourth season (or later). Both have elite quarterback options and are projected as the top receiver on their depth chart, a pairing which results in a WR1 season more times than not historically. Cooper has three WR2-level seasons in his career and two more of WR3 variety, making him one of the most productive recent fantasy options despite not breaking through with a WR1 campaign yet. Golladay has back-to-back WR2 seasons and Matthew Stafford was on track for one of his best seasons in 2019 before an injury ended his year. A full season from Stafford and Golladay is a prime candidate to break through the WR1 threshold as well.
D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley are close to low-hanging fruit as well with WR2-level seasons in 2019 as second-year receivers. Ridley has the better quarterback (Matt Ryan), but more competition for targets with Julio Jones and added Hayden Hurst a notable addition. Moore has lesser competition for targets, but Teddy Bridgewater has been an unspectacular fantasy facilitator in his career and Carolina has a host of moving pieces from coaching to quarterback at play for 2020. Both have Round 1 NFL Draft pedigree with Moore possessing the stronger metric prospect profile. Both are in the ideal Year 2-3 window to hit their first WR1 season.
Will Fuller V has been a frustrating fantasy option through four seasons with his frequent soft tissue injuries and lingering missed games. However, Fuller has shown dynamic upside any game with Deshaun Watson also healthy and DeAndre Hopkins was traded this offseason. Brandin Cooks is the notable addition, with also a mention of Randall Cobb, but Fuller has a golden opportunity for a WR1 season if healthy for even most of the season. D.K. Metcalf is in alignment with many of the criteria for a breakout season. Entering Year 2, Metcalf is coming off a promising rookie season WR40-45 in PPR PPG, a strong metric profile from Day 2, and paired with Russell Wilson. Tyler Lockett is also coming off a strong season as competition for targets, but seeing their pecking order flip in 2020 would not be a surprise.
A.J. Brown was a fantasy darling in 2019 as a late-season surge in production even on a run-centric team. Corey Davis' fifth-year option was not picked up by Tennessee and the Titans did not notably boost the receiver depth chart. The reasons to push Brown below other options on the list include the Titans' low-volume passing attack and banking on Ryan Tannehill to continue his torrid career-best stretch in 2020, a shaky historical bet. Marquise Brown has the likely WR1 position in Baltimore and the team traded away Hayden Hurst as one of the top tight ends from a position-friendly offense. The Ravens drafted Devin Duvernay on Day 2, return a largely-invisible Miles Boykin who was drafted on Day 2 in 2019 and added highly-productive James Proche on Day 3 of this year's draft. Working against Brown is the regression-worthy passing profile entering 2020 of Lamar Jackson, whose touchdown rate is likely to decline steeply and the Baltimore run game could be more prominent than ever with the Day 2 addition of dynamic J.K. Dobbins to Mark Ingram II and company in the backfield. However, Brown is entering the optimal Year 2-3 zone for a WR1 season and has Round 1 pedigree.
D.J. Chark Jr finished as a mid-WR2 as a second-year receiver in 2019. Gardner Minshew is a limitation as he is an unlikely bet to finish as a top-8 quarterback for the optimal probabilities to fuel a WR1 season and top-16 may also be unlikely. The Jaguars (to-date) have passed on boosting the quarterback position in free agency and added only Jake Luton from the Day 3 draft subset this offseason of note. Chark had minimal competition for targets last season but sees a boost in 2020 with Laviska Shenault Jr and Collin Johnson additions through the draft and Tyler Eifert a wildcard addition to the tight end group which was essentially invisible last season. All could squeeze Chark for targets to prevent him from taking the next step into the top-12.
Terry McLaurin has later Day 2 pedigree and is coming off a WR3-level fantasy season as a rookie. Dwayne Haskins is the main limitation or question for McLaurin in 2020 to probability-wise take the next step to a top-12 season. Washington was notably passive in adding passing-game weapons outside of running back (and possibly wide receiver) hybrid weapon Antonio Gibson in Round 3. Washington did not draft a tight end, opting for Thaddeus Moss as a UDFA, but did find a strong profile on Day 3 at receiver with Antonio Gandy-Golden.
Deebo Samuel might be Tier 1 for some on a hierarchy of breakout candidates, but Samuel sees additional competition for targets in 2020 with Brandon Aiyuk a Round 1 selection (and a better metric profile in a similar receiver genre), Jalen Hurd is slated to return from injury, and Jimmy Garoppolo has been a middling producer to-date his career yet to give optimal WR1 odds to his leading receiver. Add George Kittle as one of the elite tight ends in the NFL and the WR1 for the 49ers could be viewed as the WR2 in practicality, which means Garoppolo needs to be a top-8 quarterback to give much chance at a top-12 receiver season.
Darius Slayton surged from Day 3 to be a relevant rookie receiver in the WR3/4 fantasy range on the season. Pedigree is not there, but once a receiver produces to a quality level, the pedigree impact is reduced to some degree. Daniel Jones had promising moments in 2019, but projecting to top-8 status is a leap. Also, Sterling Shepard, Golden Tate, and especially Evan Engram (missed a chunk of 2019) form a crowded environment for Slayton to see a strong enough target uptick.
N'Keal Harry deserves mentioning with his Round 1 pedigree and elite metric prospect profile. However, Julian Edelman should still collect targets to at least hinder Harry's upside (for now) and the Tom Brady-less offense takes a notable downshift in expectations across the board. John Ross is worth a mention from merely the combination of draft pedigree (top-10), athletic potential, and the 'what if' factor of Joe Burrow entering the Bengals offense and being a dynamic game-changer to the passing game. The Packers were notably absent from drafting receivers this year despite the clamor for the position being a priority by outsiders. Devin Funchess was the notable addition to the passing game in the offseason with the WR2 role behind Davante Adams wide open. Funchess missed 2019 with injury and is the classic post-hype sleeper available for pennies in fantasy leagues. While not an ideal setting in terms of the pecking order with Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, and now Clyde Edwards-Helaire as notable offensive weapons, Mecole Hardman has speed, Round 2 pedigree, and Patrick Mahomes II. That alone makes him a WR1 candidate if the perfect storm of big plays and injuries around him occur.
2020 Rookies: Best Bets
A heavy majority of recent WR1 seasons from first-year receivers are some, unsurprisingly, Round 2 - or - better draft pedigree. They see earlier and more playing time and generally have high expectations to be starters within their first two seasons. Here are the notable players and situations for a Year 1 splash:
They splashed the pot with Henry Ruggs III and Bryan Edwards to boost a receiver position which stumbled in 2019 to offer much. It was Darren Waller and a juggling act of other contributors. With two top-100 picks added and Edwards with an elite metric profile combined with Ruggs' athleticism, Derek Carr is a prime bounce-back candidate who could end up with a WR1.
Alshon Jeffery has lost a step (or three) in recent seasons and his injuries, but the receiver depth chart was already open in Philadelphia. Enter Reagor's elite combination of thickness, athleticism, and production and he is on the rookie shortlist to hit the ground running with Carson Wentz.
The Colts add Philip Rivers, a quarterback boost from a year ago, and Pittman has drawn comparisons to the sturdy short and intermediate game of Michael Thomas. T.Y. Hilton missed a chunk of last season plus is on the back-half of his career as a sub-sized receiver. Add Eric Ebron's departure and a perfect storm for strong targets heading Pittman's way in 2020 is within the range of outcomes.
The most overt open WR1 landing spot was the Jets entering the NFL Draft. Mims slipped outside the top-50 but still secured Round 2 pedigree with a strong (top-15%) metric profile. The biggest hurdle will be Sam Darnold taking two steps forward as a fantasy facilitator to give Mims decent odds of a WR1 year even if he is the unquestioned top receiver there by the season's start.