Busting The Third Year Wide Receiver Breakout Myth


I was watching a piece on the NFL Network yesterday about third year wide receiver breakout, talking about how the players matured in the third year, and pointing to the first two games for Mike Wallace, Hakeem Nicks, and Kenny Britt. It mentioned that Jerry Rice broke out in his third season with 22 touchdowns in 12 games. They then went to Sterling Sharpe, NFL Network commentator and former receiver, noting that he was ahead of the curve, breaking out in his second season.

But is that true? I mean, Hakeem Nicks had over 1,000 yards and 11 TD’s last year. Mike Wallace had 1,257 yards and 10 TD’s. Both finished in the top 10 among wide receivers as 2nd year players. I don’t see how you could look at them and somehow determine that they are breaking out this year, and not last, unless you are just blindly repeating an axiom. Kenny Britt is at least an arguable case. He missed 4 games last year, or he would have had about 1,000 yards and double digit touchdowns, but he does so far appear to be on his way to a much bigger season.

Then there’s Jerry Rice. Yes, he had an amazing 22 touchdowns in 12 games in 1987. However, all he did as a 2nd year receiver was have 1,527 yards and 15 TD’s, which both rank 17th all-time still. How that doesn’t count as a 2nd year breakout, I don’t know. Thus, even though they were discussing 3rd year breakouts, Sterling Sharpe was actually in line with the others, breaking out in year 2.

But let’s broaden it out and see when receivers breakout. Defining a breakout is not easy, and there are a myriad of ways to do it. I don’t see any that justify a belief that year three is a magical year for breakouts. Doug Drinen looked at it a decade ago, first by looking at when players reached certain milestones for a first time, or all seasons with a dramatic increase over the previous year, then by following up a year later with more rigid definitions that required a player to both reach a certain level (140 fantasy points) for the first time, and increase by at least 50 points.

I went back through with slightly different definitions, not that I think anything in the above is wrong. Sometimes people mean breakout when a player goes from nowhere to good, and sometimes when they go from good to elite. I went through every player who debuted since 1978, and had at least 3 1,000 yard seasons, and then added the remaining wide receivers who had at least 6,000 receiving yards. It gave me a nice round 100 wide receivers to look at.

I’m going to define breakout as the largest increase in a receiver’s career over anything they had done previously (not just the year before, which could have been depressed by injury), or over a replacement level starter, whichever is higher. I put that second qualification so that we could evaluate rookies and players who were little used early on. I set the replacement level starter baseline at 80 points (where every 10 yards receiving is 1 point, and a touchdown is 6). That would equate to about 560 yards and 4 touchdowns being replacement level, which feels about right.

I went through all 100 wide receivers to find the biggest breakout year. Some had their breakouts as rookies, such as Randy Moss in 1998. By my definition, some players who were solid starters for several years broke out later, such as Tim Brown (year 6) and Cris Carter (year 9), by going from good to elite numbers. Some players never really “broke out”, but rather just gradually improved over time. James Lofton was a first year breakout by my method, Ike Hilliard was a third year breakout, and Sean Dawkins was a seventh year breakout, but if you want to say those players never had a specific breakout, I’m fine with that.

Anyway, to the first round of data, here is the largest breakout year (I used years since draft year for all players drafted, and years since first year on roster for undrafted free agents) for all 100 receivers, from Jerry Rice to the likes of Shawn Jefferson and Ricky Proehl. I list year (1 would be a rookie), and average magnitude of breakout.

Year No. Magnitude
1 16 75.0
2 22 88.8
3 18 72.7
4 17 65.3
5 11 81.2
6 6 50.5
7 2 64.0
8 5 60.8
9 3 58.7

What if we get rid of all those breakouts that weren’t really big, and just focus on the upper half of breakouts? Here are the 50 biggest breakouts over prior performance among our 100 wide receivers, and when they had their biggest surge:

Year No. Magnitude
1 10 90.0
2 13 111.0
3 8 98.9
4 8 90.4
5 7 95.9
6 1 90.0
7 1 91.0
8 1 99.0
9 1 71.0

Or what if, rather than focusing on the magnitude of the breakout, we look at the career quality of the player, so that we just look at the upper half. Here’s a summary of the biggest breakout season for all wide receivers since 1978 to have at least 4 different 1,000 yard receiving seasons in their careers.

Year No. Magnitude
1 8 80.8
2 13 100.2
3 8 80.4
4 7 76.4
5 9 75.7
6 5 57.2
7 1 91.0
8 0 0.0
9 1 71.0

If you will notice, if you subtract those numbers from first chart, years 3 & 4 do tie, barely ahead of year 2, for most breakouts. The non-elite receivers did tend to break out a little later. However, as it turns out, Sterling Sharpe wasn’t unusual when compared to other elite receivers. Year 2 is actually the biggest breakout year, both in frequency and magnitude.

Again, I don’t see any evidence that there is a third year wide receiver breakout rule, and if you take it too literally, you will miss out on several good players. The only thing we can say about the third year is that over half the good wide receivers will breakout out no later than year 3. But that’s generally not what people mean when they cite a third year wide receiver rule.

[photo via Getty, all data from pro-football-reference.com]