The sequel isn’t as good as the original. We’ve heard it a million times, but if it were always the case, then how do you explain “The Dark Knight?” What about “The Godfather II” or “Tha Carter II?”
With athletes, we expect perfection right away, and it’s something I hammer home consistently on the fantasy baseball side of things — if a rookie doesn’t produce out of the gate, we move on to the next one and discard the player who isn’t a star right away. It’s the shiny toy syndrome, folks, and it’s prevalent within the fantasy football community, too.
Growth isn’t linear, and you don’t have to go back too far to see it play out. It’s at every position, yes, but we care about the skill-position players since this is fantasy. Even more specifically, for this column, we are looking at the growth of wide receivers.
The 2022 receiver draft class was considered special, though it was a mixed-bag of results come season’s end. But just because some of the receivers had fantastic rookie years doesn’t mean that the ones who were more quiet are doomed. In fact, it presents us with a perfect buying opportunity to get out ahead of the breakout while the price is still suppressed instead of waiting to get in on the action after the breakout happened.
And the numbers back it up.
Per a fantastic article by Ryan Heath of Fantasy Points, wide receivers gradually improve through Year 5 after underwhelming in their rookie years. The breakouts tend to happen in Year 2 and Year 3 — since 2014, 28 percent of receivers have leveled up in their second year.
Heath — one of my favorite writers — looked into this last year, too, by looking at 331 sophomore wide receivers from 2010-2021 who were drafted in Rounds 3-8 in fantasy leagues — this range helps eliminate the elite-level receivers. He found that your chances to outperform ADP nearly doubles by drafting a sophomore receiver compared to non-sophomore receivers in this range.
That’s what we are hoping to find here. Let’s take a look at the receivers out of the 2022 draft class, what they did last year, what can help them breakout, what could hold them back, and if you should go after them.
Chris Olave, NO
- 2022: 72 receptions, 119 targets, 1,042 yards, 4 touchdowns, 126 fantasy points (non-PPR)
Optimistic Outlook: You’re getting Olave for cheap — especially coming off a rookie season in which he finished as a WR2. What’s more, the addition of Derek Carr only increases his perceived value and puts him on the path to being a WR1.
Pessimistic Outlook: When Alvin Kamara returns from the IR, he’s going to be even more involved in the passing game with Jamaal Williams handling the in-between the tackles attempts. If Michael Thomas is healthy, it could eat into Olave’s target share (24.1% in 2022).
Realistic Outlook: He has a floor as a Top 20 WR this year and will sniff the Top 10.
Garrett Wilson, NYJ
- 2022: 83 receptions, 147 targets, 1,103 yards, 4 touchdowns, 132 fantasy points (non-PPR)
Optimistic Outlook: He went from Zach Wilson to Aaron Rodgers. Even if Rodgers isn’t the player he used to be, it’s a huge upgrade for everyone in the offense. Wilson had 60 more targets than anyone else in the offense last year, and he’s being drafted as a WR1.
Pessimistic Outlook: The hype is real for the Jets, but I have some trepidation about fully buying into Rodgers in his first season in New York. We’re seeing decline with the 39-year-old, and it was after Breece Hall went down to a season-ending injury that we saw Wilson really take off. He averaged 7.4 targets per game before Hall went down and 9.5 after Hall went down.
Realistic Outlook: He’s worthy of a second-round pick. I would prefer Olave, though, in dynasty and redraft formats.
It Takes Two to Tango Tier
Drake London, ATL
- 2022: 72 receptions, 117 targets, 866 yards, 4 touchdowns, 106 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: London moves on from Marcus Mariota to Desmond Ridder (another player written off too early) in hopes of building off a solid rookie season. With Ridder under center, London had his only 100-yard receiving game (as well as his second-highest outing with 96 yards), two seven-catch games, and averaged 9.48 yards per target.
Pessimistic Outlook: The Falcons drafted Bijan Robinson, and he gets to run behind a line that had a league-best 81.2 average run-blocking grade last year, per PFF. What’s more, Atlanta features a run-heavy scheme and you have to account for Kyle Pitts having a bounce-back season.
Realistic Outlook: I’m worried about the necessary volume for London to find his way into WR2 territory. I think a Top 30 finish is more likely, but Atlanta potentially leaning into the run even more with Robinson and using Pitts as the featured receiver worries me.
Jahan Dotson, WAS
- 2022: 35 receptions, 61 targets, 523 yards, seven touchdowns, 96 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: He was better on a per-game basis than Terry McLaurin and Michael Pittman last year, and he’s become one of everyone’s favorite targets this year as a WR3.
Pessimistic Outlook: He has Sam Howell as his quarterback. Not only that, but he has an August NFFC ADP of No. 86 overall and McLaurin has an ADP of No. 51. One of these guys will return value on their draft position and one won’t. It’s hard to not love the talent, but it’s also hard to ignore the situation he’s in.
Realistic Outlook: Up-and-down season but ultimately hurt by incompetent quarterback play.
Treylon Burks, TEN
- 2022: 33 receptions, 54 targets, 444 yards, 1 touchdown, 54 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: He was the sixth receiver off the NFL draft board last year, and he had 15 targets over the final two games of his rookie campaign.
Pessimistic Outlook: He was outscored in fantasy last year by teammate Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, and now DeAndre Hopkins enters the picture. Burks had just a 12.4 target share last season in the 11 games he played. Talent will be overshadowed by Titans’ run-first approach and Ryan Tannehill.
Realistic Outlook: If we could just move on from Ryan Tannehill and a run-heavy approach in Tennessee (456 pass attempts were third-fewest in the league last year), I’d feel better about Burks. I think there’s a buying opportunity here in dynasty, though, as I expect a shakeup after a 2023 season that is likely to test a manager’s patience.
Romeo Doubs, GB
- 2022: 42 receptions, 67 targets, 425 yards, 3 touchdowns, 59 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: Doubs carries over a solid 13-game sample from 2022 and is starting opposite of Christian Watson on the outside in Green Bay. He’s the No. 51 WR off the board in August NFFC ADP.
Pessimistic Outlook: There’s uncertainty at the QB position and AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones are likely to be more involved this year than last year.
Realistic Outlook: If I’m investing in one Green Bay receiver this year at cost, it’s Doubs. Watson feels more like a hit-or-miss option (see below), and I like Doubs’ ability to create separation (3.3 average separation last year) more than Watson. There’s a WR3 here.
George Pickens, PIT
- 2022: 52 receptions, 84 targets, 801 yards, four touchdowns, 114 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: It’s Year 2 of the Kenny Pickett era. Pickens had the fourth-most receiving yards among rookies last year, and he had the fourth-highest average targeted air yards (14.7) in the league.
Pessimistic Outlook: The Steelers ran the ninth-most plays last year but ranked 23rd in the league in total team yards from scrimmage. Pickens failed to eclipse 83 yards in all but one game.
Realistic Outlook: It all depends on Pickett’s development. He’s one of the more polarizing players, and if he can be at least a league-average quarterback, Pickens should be a startable WR each week in fantasy. But with Diontae Johnson going No. 30 among receivers, it’s hard to see how Pittsburgh supports two consistent fantasy receivers on a week-to-week basis. It’s a rich man’s Washington situation.
Christian Watson, GB
- 2022: 41 receptions, 66 targets, 611 yards, 7 touchdowns, 123 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: From Week 10 on, Watson was on another level. He scored all seven of his touchdowns over the span of four weeks, and his yardage production mainly came in three games (107 yards, 110 yards, 104 yards). Watson had 13 red zone targets for the Pack last year.
Pessimistic Outlook: He goes from Aaron Rodgers to Jordan Love. I know that Green Bay fans have gone from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers, but it’s about time the run on generational talent under center comes to an end. Watson was averaging a touchdown reception per every 5.9 receptions, and while he averaged 9.26 yards per attempt last year with Rodgers — 17th-highest mark in the league — it’s another number that looks unsustainable to carry over.
Realistic Outlook: I’m targeting a lot of these guys — especially ones who have underperformed — but I have a hard time understanding Watson’s No. 48 overall NFFC ADP in the month of August with Love under center.
The Targeted Breakout Tier
John Metchie, HOU
- 2022: He battled Leukemia so really, f— football.
Optimistic Outlook: Metchie is the No. 72 receiver off the board in August NFFC drafts, and it’s basically hesitation among drafters for a guy who didn’t play last year. Guess what? It’s your chance to capitalize on it, as he’s competing with the likes of Nico Collins, Robert Woods, and Tank Dell for targets among receivers not named Dalton Schultz.
Pessimistic Outlook: He’s healthy and playing football, so there’s no actual pessimism here. Fantasy pessimism? Well, we haven’t seen him play in the NFL yet, and he’s going to be paired up with a rookie quarterback in C.J. Stroud who will look to establish Dameon Pierce and Devin Singletary in the backfield more to ease the pressure in his first season.
Realistic Outlook: He’s going No. 72 overall, but I’d make a board bet right now that he finishes Top 50 among WRs. He has the pedigree (96 receptions for 1,142 yards in his junior season at Alabama) and so does his QB — the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. He’s also arguably the No. 1 receiving option based on talent in the Houston offense. This is the type of guy you go after before the breakout happens.
Jameson Williams, DET
- 2022: 1 reception, 9 targets, 41 yards, 1 touchdown, 10.1 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: Well, he’ll be healthy and rested. After missing time while recovering from a torn ACL last year and serving a six-game suspension for gambling this year, Williams will be fully ready to go in Week 7. He was targeted seven times in the first preseason game and will be a huge part of the offense.
Pessimistic Outlook: Could he be usurped in the pecking order for Detroit while he misses time? We know Amon-Ra St. Brown is a stud and a potential Top 5 receiver, and while the seven targets in a meaningless game were nice, he also had a big drop.
Realistic Outlook: You can get the No. 12 overall pick in the 2022 draft for a ninth-round pick, knowing that he’s going to miss the first third of the season. Instead of shelling out the FAAB it will take to get him, or a Week 6 breakout WR, you can just have Williams waiting on your bench. I can see a big 2022 Christian Watson type breakout for him after the suspension and I’m not worried about Marvin Jones, Josh Reynolds, or Denzel Mims taking over his role in the offense.
Skyy Moore, KC
- 2022: 22 receptions, 33 targets, 250 yards, 0 touchdowns, 25 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: Is this a Skyy Moore article disguised as a second-year WR primer article? I can’t comment on that. Do I have a bias toward Skyy from watching him play pee-wee football? I also can’t comment on that. Is there a reason that his ADP has been trending up and he’s become a darling of the fantasy football community this year? Yes, there is. His only touchdown came in the Super Bowl (nice flex, Skyy), and the plan for him was never to be heavily involved in 2022. Head Coach Andy Reid said many times throughout last season that Moore’s time would come, and it makes sense for a 22-year-old who played at Western Michigan to take some time to get involved in the offense. The trust for Reid to run a designed route for Moore in crunch time, which flipped a previous play in the Super Bowl to the opposite side, shows the faith they have in the second-year wideout. What’s more, in mini-camp, he was one of the most targeted players.
Pessimistic Outlook: None? Just kidding. There’s a chance Moore is too small and will be put into more of a gadget role in the backfield. Remember, his 1.46-second 10-yard split was tied for the fastest among players at the 2022 NFL combine, so they want to get him into open space, which could take away from a more featured role in the offense.
Realistic Outlook: Outside of Travis Kelce, who is the main opposition for Moore? Kadarius Toney is hurt and won’t be a thing as much as people try to make him one (fetch, for my “Mean Girls” fans). MVS, Justyn Ross and Richie James will have a role, but beyond Kelce’s alpha role, Moore can — and will — be the No. 2 option in the offense.
Alec Pierce, IND
- 2022: 41 receptions, 78 targets, 593 yards, 2 touchdowns, 71 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: Pierce is going No. 175 overall in August NFFC drafts, and he has the upside to finish as a Top 30 receiver. His ability to run quick slants is great, but his ability to get downfield is even better. He now has a quarterback who can actually get him the ball deep in Anthony Richardson (sixth-deepest average depth of target in college last year at 11.5 aDOT) compared to the, umm… interesting quarterbacks who he had at his disposal last year.
Pessimistic Outlook: He’s behind Michael Pittman in the pecking order, and while Richardson is an upgrade on paper, the rookie is still far from a polished product. What’s more, there’s this guy named Jonathan Taylor who, as long as he doesn’t hold out, is the focal point of the offense.
Realistic Outlook: It’s going to be an up-and-down season with Richardson under center, but again, at Pierce’s cost, there may not be a late-round receiver who I’d like to get more than him.
The Questionable Tier
Wan’Dale Robinson, NYG
- 2022: 23 receptions, 31 targets, 227 yards, 1 touchdown, 28.7 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: Despite only playing six games for the Giants, Robinson hauled in nearly four catches per game for an offense that attempted the eighth-fewest passing attempts of the season.
Pessimistic Outlook: Do you believe in Daniel Jones? Do you think that Saquon Barkley is just going to stop being the focal point of the offense? Have you heard of Kelsey Plum’s husband Darren Waller?
Realistic Outlook: There’s a lot working against Robinson in his second year — not to mention his knee injury. Once Waller was brought in, I kind of started to ignore Robinson in my drafts.
Tyquan Thornton, NE
- 2022: 22 receptions, 45 targets, 2 touchdowns, 44.3 fantasy points
Optimistic Outlook: There’s no more Jakobi Meyers in town, which should hypothetically open up more of a role in the offense for Thornton.
Pessimistic Outlook: A source close to the team told me that heading into the Pats’ first preseason game, Thornton didn’t catch a pass from Mac Jones in the 11-on-11 team drills they run every day. Plus, JuJu Smith-Schuster is in town, and Thornton is in jeopardy of being demoted behind sixth-round draft picks Kayshon Boutte and Demario Douglas.
Realistic Outlook: He’s nothing but a late-round deep-league flier anyway, but the continued lack of ability to draft and develop wide receivers in New England is looking to strike again.
(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)