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Dating back to the mid-1990s, wide receivers who emerge for their first WR1 (top-12) season do so on average 1.3 seasons into 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 target 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 quarterback quality. One more point of reference is even the No.2 receiver for an elite (top-8) quarterback hits as a WR1 16% of the time. In contrast, 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 is specifically looking for WR1 producers for 2021 who have yet to produce such a season-to-date.
On to the 2021 wide receiver breakout candidates...
Despite Chase Claypool having a successful rookie season, JuJu Smith-Schuster seeing more than 100 targets, and Eric Ebron being a mid-TE2 in fantasy standing, Diontae Johnson was WR18 in aPPG in 2020. Johnson's biggest roadblock was dropping the ball, which is a non-sticky statistic year-over-year. Positive variables pointing to a higher (and ultimately top-12) finish in 2021 include drop regression, a better run game (enter Najee Harris) to extend more drives, and Ben Roethlisberger closer to full strength rather than the seemingly near retirement iteration of last season.
Lockett has a mid-WR2 peak season under his belt but has yet to break through for a top-12 aPPG finish. For Lockett, the formula is clear - attached to Russell Wilson and targets flowing primarily through Lockett and D.K. Metcalf (2020 breakout) in Seattle's passing game. Will Chris Carson's health (and possibly Rashaad Penny's) point to few passes overall in 2021? Lockett has an above-average touchdown rate for his career, and with (still) WR3 and tight end questions entering 2021, Lockett is a projected focal point yet again.
Brandon Aiyuk was injured to begin his rookie season in 2020 but was an instant impact player mid-season once healthy and active. Aiyuk was WR19 in Year 1, a strong success indicator for multiple WR1 seasons in his future. Deebo Samuel has yet to finish higher than WR34 in aPPG and, with less pedigree than Aiyuk as well, should not be considered a serious threat to Aiyuk's WR1 stature on the depth chart. One variable to monitor is the 49ers quarterback situation, as Jimmy Garoppolo has been a middling fantasy option. Trey Lance offers elite rushing upside, which could tilt the 49ers offense even more run-heavy.
Davis has WR38 and WR28 aPPG seasons under his belt to date, and the Jets paid Davis to be the leading receiver in free agency. Zach Wilson is a rookie quarterback variable, but strong targets are plausible, if not likely, for Davis with the notable competition Elijah Moore (Round 2 rookie), Jamison Crowder (slot-centric), and Denzel Mims (Round 2 pick in 2020).
Lamb is on the success track post-Year 1 after a WR32 aPPG finish. Lamb was WR16 in total points the opening month of last season, while teammate Amari Cooper was WR1 overall when Dak Prescott was healthy and had the Dallas offense humming. The rest of the season, post-Prescott injury, was a different story. Amari Cooper is still working back from ankle surgery and should be monitored heading into training camp and the season. If Cooper is a slow starter, Lamb has projectable top-12 upside even with Michael Gallup being a quality fantasy option himself on the depth chart.
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