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.
Higgins finishes as WR33 in aPPG as a rookie, with Tyler Boyd finishing in the Top 36 and A.J. Green soaking up targets in 2020. Joe Burrow missed a chunk of the season but (ideally) returns to full strength and builds on his promising rookie season. The offense should funnel through Cincinnati's three quality receivers in Higgins, Boyd, and Ja'Marr Chase. The rookie Chase is a trendy instant impact player. Still, Higgins' rookie season points to quality top-12 breakout odds in Year 2 outside of extenuating circumstances (injury to himself or Burrow or Chase simply being too good to not be the WR1 in the pecking order).
McLaurin was on this list in 2020. While he did improve his seasonal finish (WR29 in 2019 to WR20 in aPPG last year), the top-12 still eludes the Washington receiver. On the positive side, McLaurin was clearly the WR1 for Washington in 2020, while Ryan Fitzpatrick offers more fantasy upside than Kyle Allen, Alex Smith, and others of the franken-quarterback committee a year ago. On the downside, Curtis Samuel is a massive upgrade for competition for targets at WR2. Dyami Brown (Day 2 rookie) and Adam Humphries (free agent) also boost the depth chart, which was historically weak beyond McLaurin. Add in Logan Thomas off a career year and a backfield who received the most targets in the NFL, and there are reasons for skepticism McLaurin makes a top-12 leap.
Claypool emerged from the boom-bust prospect moniker and Round 2 pedigree for a highlight-filled WR34 aPPG rookie season finish in 2020. JuJu Smtih-Schuster returned on a one-year deal in free agency. Otherwise, Claypool would be a stronger bet (Tier 1) for a breakout season. Diontae Johnson saw the most targets for Pittsburgh a year ago. However, Claypool's profile is that of a potentially dominant alpha wide receiver. Few receivers are Claypool's size (230+ pounds) with movement and now, a success track Year 1.
Sutton was on track as a breakout candidate in 2020 until Denver drafted Jerry Jeudy (Round 1), K.J. Hamler (Round 2), and Sutton himself got hurt early in the season. The quarterback position is less settled than a year ago, with Drew Lock more on the bust track than without games of sample size. Teddy Bridgewater is a serviceable veteran but lacks the upside to foster strong fantasy production around him. Sutton has a top-30 aPPG finish under his belt, but outside of a surprising rise of quarterback play or Jeudy missing a chunk of the season, Sutton is not one of the best breakout bets of the position.
Jeudy is in a similar bucket to teammate Courtland Sutton where the biggest variables are level of quarterback play and competition for targets. The perfect storm would consolidate Sutton and Jeudy into one healthy option and higher upside over the span. Jeudy is on the success track post-Year 1 and has Round 1 pedigree in his favor.
Calvin Ridley has No. 1 overall wide receiver upside this season with Julio Jones gone to Tennessee. Gage is one of the more underrated wide receivers for 2021, considering Gage saw a robust 110 targets a year ago and had a career-best finish to date. Gage has been a low touchdown rate receiver in his career, but regression is a significant factor for finding the end zone year over year. Beyond Ridley, only a rookie Kyle Pitts, Hayden Hurst, or the running back position is a legitimate threat for Gage's targets not to rise. Gage has a puncher's shot at the top-12 in a best-case with regression in touchdowns and efficiency.
2021 ROOKIES: BEST BETS
A heavy majority of recent WR1 seasons from first-year receivers are 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:
As mentioned above, with Tee Higgins, Cincinnati splashed their already quality depth chart (Higgins, Tyler Boyd, Auden Tate, etc.) with Chase as the best player available at 1.05. Chase is a top-1% metric prospect and now with elite pedigree. An instant impact player is within the range of outcomes, with Cincinnati being pass-heavy last season and Joe Burrow (hopefully) healthy from his season-ending injury.
The Eagles struggled as a passing game in 2020, especially at wide receiver. Enter Smith as a top-10 selection with free access to quality targets. Zach Ertz being moved would aid the consolidation of targets, and the entire passing game upside hinges on progression from Year 2 Jalen Hurts, who got by with his legs in a collection of playing time as a rookie.
The Ravens and Lamar Jackson have been a consistent target for 'they cannot pass the ball, Lamar Jackson holds them back' dialogue through 2020. What if part of the problem was a lack of wide receiver talent? Marquise Brown has looked miscast as a de factor WR1, and Mark Andrews has operated as the leading target in recent seasons. Bateman was a college phenom and a high-level producer and overall prospect. Also, Lamar Jackson does have a 36-touchdown season in 2019 to his credit on a mere 401 attempts where eight different Ravens had multiple receiving scores, including 10 to Andrews. Jackson's ultimate passing upside is still a question mark, not the finalized conclusion some have closed the book on entering Year 4.