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2010 Draft Prep: The class of third-year receivers

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Robert Meachem definitely buys into the third-year theory for wide receivers. It has worked for him on different levels throughout his playing career.

The Saints wide receiver, like many Fantasy owners, is a believer that wide receivers have a breakout year in their third season.

"It's kind of crazy for me," Meachem said in an interview with CBSSports.com. "My third year has always been my best year, from middle school to high school to college and now the pros. I don't know why. It just has."

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It's been that way for a lot of receivers. They struggle their first two years in the NFL, and then in Year 3 they take off with a big statistical boost. In recent years, Greg Jennings (2008), Braylon Edwards (2007) and Roddy White (2007) took big leaps in production in their third seasons. You can also point to Steve Smith of Carolina (2003), Chad Ochocinco (2003) and Terrell Owens (1998) as previous examples. Even Jerry Rice set his career-high for touchdowns in his third year in 1987 with 22.

As some receivers have said, the third year is when they adjust to the speed of the game and fully understand how to read the defense and run routes. White called it "the learning curve" for an NFL receiver.

"You're buckling down and learning the playbook and just learning how to play the wide receiver position," White said in an interview at the Pro Bowl. "When you first get in the league you just use your athletic ability, but everybody is athletic. Once you start studying and use your technique and things like that, then the game becomes a whole lot easier and slows down. That's when you start making plays."

That's what happened to Meachem in 2009 when he went from 12 catches, 289 yards and three touchdowns in his first two years to 45 catches, 722 yards and nine touchdowns. He was one of several third-year breakouts last year, including Steve Smith of the Giants, Sidney Rice and Mike Sims-Walker.

Each wide receiver had a different story, which helped in their breakthrough year. Smith, who had 65 catches, 637 yards and five touchdowns in his first two years, stepped up as the Giants' No. 1 wide receiver with Plaxico Burress gone. He developed an instant rapport with Eli Manning and set the franchise single-season record with 107 catches, and his 1,220 receiving yards were the second-highest total in team history. He also added seven touchdowns.

"It was a breakout year for me," Smith said in an interview at the Pro Bowl. "It was just an opportunity. I was starting. They put me in position to make plays."

Rice not only got healthy, but he also had a premier quarterback in Brett Favre. Rice went from 46 catches, 537 yards and eight touchdowns in his first two injury-plagued years to 83 catches, 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns in 2009.

He said adding Favre and staying healthy were the reasons for his success, but he also realized it was a learning process in his first two years.

"It takes time to understand what's important," Rice said in an interview in July. "A lot of people come into the league, young people, and don't understand all the things like taking care of your body, the extra stretching, the extra film work. It took me a couple of years to catch on to that. With the addition of Brett, he made sure I was watching film all the time and understanding what was going on. It was great for me."

For Sims-Walker, it was all about staying healthy. He only played in nine games in his first two years and had 16 catches for 217 yards. But last year he played in 15 games and finished with 63 catches for 869 yards and seven touchdowns.

He didn't call it a breakout year. All Sims-Walker said in a recent interview was that last year should be called "about time."

"It felt good to be healthy," Sims-Walker said. "It was good to make plays."

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict which wide receivers will have a breakout season in their third year. In 2009, Calvin Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, Anthony Gonzalez and Steve Breaston saw their stats decline in their third year after two productive seasons to start their career. Each one struggled with injuries, but they also had inconsistent play.

This year, the best third-year wide receiver is DeSean Jackson, but he has already become a star. In his first two years, Jackson had 124 catches, 2,068 yards and 11 touchdowns, so it's hard to call him a potential breakout. The hope is that he doesn't regress like Johnson or Bowe, and there's a chance that could happen with a quarterback change from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb.

But Jackson is expecting another big year in 2010.

"I'm definitely a very confident person," he said at the Pro Bowl. "I just have to keep it going and keep putting in the hard work and demanding to be great. I just have to keep pushing myself to the limit. Just never be content."

While Jackson is the best receiver in the Class of 2008, he's not the only pass catcher that Fantasy owners should target as third-year breakouts. Our top third-year receivers include Pierre Garcon, Donnie Avery, Mario Manningham, Chaz Schilens, Early Doucet, Eddie Royal, Devin Thomas, Davone Bess, Josh Morgan and Earl Bennett. Outside of Garcon, most of these receivers qualify as sleepers. And even Garcon is a questionable option after he played well in 2009 with 47 catches, 765 yards and four touchdowns, but now Gonzalez returns to the Colts, which adds another talented player to a crowded receiver corps, including Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Austin Collie.

But Garcon remains confident he can make plays. He's using last year as a learning experience, and he's ready to do more.

"You have to come into the league and learn," Garcon said. "You have to see for yourself because the NFL is so different from college. You have to realize it takes time. I learned from last year. I learned from my mistakes, and I have to take those lessons and try to get better. I have a lot more years ahead, but I’m starting to realize now what it takes to be successful in the NFL."

Spoken like a player who finally gets it. That's what happens with receivers in their third year. They start to understand how to play the position, and it shows in their production.

And that's when smart Fantasy owners benefit.

A look ahead ...

Here is the list of the Top 10 members of the 2008 Wide Receiver Class to watch. It will be hard for some, like Jackson, to improve in their third year, and not everyone on this list is due for a breakout season. We've ranked them in order of how they should be drafted, but don't be surprised if someone we didn't mention comes out of nowhere this year to be a star.

DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia
2008: 62 catches, 912 yards, two touchdowns
2009: 62 catches, 1,156 yards, nine touchdowns
Jamey Eisenberg's 2010 projection: 75 catches, 1,185 yards, eight touchdowns
Dave Richard's 2010 projection: 77 catches, 1,201 yards, nine touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 23 overall (Round 2)
The main concern with Jackson is the quarterback switch from McNabb to Kolb. He should still post great stats, and he's a threat as a rusher with 233 yards and two touchdowns in his first two years. But Jackson isn't among the top wide receivers when it comes to targets, and that lack of involvement could hurt. He finished at No. 20 in targets among wide receivers the past two years with 119 in 2009 and 121 in 2008. He makes plenty of big plays, but we'd like to see him more involved on offense. Hopefully that happens in 2010. Jackson remains a No. 1 Fantasy wide receiver, and he should be drafted by Round 3 in all leagues.

Pierre Garcon, Indianapolis
2008: four catches, 23 yards
2009: 47 catches, 765 yards, four touchdowns
Jamey's 2010 projection: 58 catches, 824 yards, seven touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 55 catches, 790 yards, seven touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 72 overall (Round 6)
Garcon will remain a vital part of the passing game in Indianapolis, but the Colts receiving corps gets crowded this season with the return of Gonzalez. While Peyton Manning will involve everyone, it's going to be hard to please Wayne, Clark, Garcon, Gonzalez and Collie on a weekly basis. Garcon still has the chance to see his production rise since he will remain the starter opposite Wayne -- Gonzalez is expected to be the slot receiver with Collie the No. 4 option -- but he might not eclipse last year's production by a wide margin. He remains a No. 3 Fantasy wide receiver, and Round 6 is a good spot to reach for him. But don't be surprised if there are some weeks where he struggles.

Donnie Avery, St. Louis
2008: 53 catches, 674 yards, three touchdowns
2009: 47 catches, 589 yards, four touchdowns
Jamey's 2010 projection: 47 catches, 655 yards, five touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 46 catches, 606 yards, four touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 158 overall (Round 14)
Avery is one of our favorite third-year wide receivers because he plays in a favorable division in the NFC West, he's on an indoor surface where he can use his blazing speed and the Rams will likely be playing from behind on a weekly basis. That means plenty of passing, and Avery should be considered a sleeper along with fourth-year wide receiver Laurent Robinson. The problem for Avery will be quarterback play since rookie Sam Bradford will take time to develop, and there's also the inconsistent A.J. Feeley. Still, someone in St. Louis has to catch the ball, and Avery is poised to take a leap in production. He's worth a late-round pick on Draft Day in all formats.

Mario Manningham, New York Giants
2008: four catches, 26 yards
2009: 57 catches, 822 yards, five touchdowns
Jamey's 2010 projection: 47 catches, 716 yards, four touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 43 catches, 634 yards, four touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 149 overall (Round 13)
Manningham will likely be the No. 3 wide receiver for the Giants this year behind Smith and Hakeem Nicks, but the Giants showed last year they're not afraid to throw the ball at will. It's believed coach Tom Coughlin will scale back the passing for the Giants this year, but Manningham can still be worth a late-round pick. While he's dealt with a groin injury in training camp, Smith and Nicks have been limited with knee injuries, which could open the door for more targets in Manningham's direction. And the Giants have a history with wide receivers having a breakout year based on Smith's performance in 2009. Could Manningham be next? It's possible, so take a flier on him on Draft Day.

Chaz Schilens, Oakland
2008: 15 catches, 226 yards, two touchdowns
2009: 29 catches, 365 yards, two touchdowns
Jamey's 2010 projection: 41 catches, 544 yards, five touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 36 catches, 458 yards, four touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 155 overall (Round 13)
Foot problems have derailed Schilens in the early part of his career, and he was limited to eight games in 2009. But this could be the year he puts it all together. If he can stay healthy, Schilens finally has a quarterback who can get him the ball. The Raiders added Jason Campbell in a trade from Washington this offseason, and he's a significant upgrade over JaMarcus Russell. The Raiders don't have a lot of talent at wide receiver, which is why Schilens and Louis Murphy should be considered sleepers. Schilens also benefits from playing in the weak AFC West, and with the Raiders likely playing from behind in most games he could see an increase in targets and production this year.

Early Doucet, Arizona
2008: 14 catches, 90 yards
2009: 17 catches, 214 yards, one touchdown
Jamey's 2010 projection: 43 catches, 578 yards, four touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 46 catches, 595 yards, four touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 159 overall (Round 14)
Doucet will see an increase in playing time with Anquan Boldin now in Baltimore. Larry Fitzgerald remains the No. 1 wide receiver in Arizona, Breaston moves up to No. 2 and Doucet takes over at No. 3. He flashed his potential in the playoffs last year when he led the Cardinals in receiving in two games with 14 catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns. The key for Doucet will be Matt Leinart and how he does taking over for the retired Kurt Warner. The Cardinals have an easy schedule in 2010, and they're still going to throw the ball plenty of times to keep Doucet involved. He's worth a late-round pick on Draft Day, and he has potential to be considered a sleeper.

Eddie Royal, Denver
2008: 91 catches, 980 yards, five touchdowns
2009: 37 catches, 345 yards
Jamey's 2010 projection: 47 catches, 548 yards, four touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 49 catches, 580 yards, four touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 140 overall (Round 12)
Royal had a breakout year as a rookie and then one of the worst sophomore slumps we've ever seen. His production dropped by 54 catches, 635 yards and five touchdowns. For some players, what Royal lost in stats would be a career year. He has the potential to improve this season because with Brandon Marshall gone he should see more targets, but you can't trust Royal as anything more than a late-round flier. His big year came under Mike Shanahan, but Josh McDaniels doesn't seem interested in using Royal as a significant contributor on offense. The Broncos also drafted two rookies in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, and even Jabar Gaffney has more Fantasy value. We'd like to see him bounce back, but you can't count on Royal in 2010.

Devin Thomas, Washington
2008: 15 catches, 120 yards
2009: 25 catches, 325 yards, three touchdowns
Jamey's 2010 projection: 38 catches, 551 yards, four touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 44 catches, 621 yards, five touchdowns
Average Draft Position: No. 153 overall (Round 13)
When last season ended and we compiled the list of third-year wide receivers, Thomas was among the players we highlighted with the chance to see his value rise in 2010. But so far in training camp Thomas has been a disappointment, and he was even listed behind Joey Galloway on the opening depth chart. Think about that for a minute. Thomas could still emerge once the season starts and we like his potential, especially with McNabb the new starter for the Redskins. But Shanahan is the one who has to like Thomas and make sure he's on the field. We still suggest taking a flier on Thomas in deep leagues, but he's one of those players whose value has declined in training camp.

Davone Bess, Miami
2008: 54 catches, 554 yards, one touchdown
2009: 76 catches, 758 yards, two touchdowns
Jamey's 2010 projection: 46 catches, 589 yards, three touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 47 catches, 549 yards, three touchdowns
Average Draft Position: Not drafted
Bess has been one of the best possession receivers in the NFL the past two years, and he's also been the best receiver for the Dolphins over that span. But with Brandon Marshall now in Miami, Bess could see his catches and yards decline. He's still going to be the slot receiver with Brian Hartline likely the starter opposite Marshall, and we can see Bess still being in the 50-catch range. But he only has three touchdowns in his career, and his best value is with a late-round pick in deep leagues where you get a point per reception. Bess will benefit with Marshall drawing plenty of attention from opposing defenses, but he's not going to post dominant stats in 2010.

Josh Morgan, San Francisco
2008: 20 catches, 319 yards, three touchdowns
2009: 52 catches, 527 yards, three touchdowns
Jamey's 2010 projection: 42 catches, 541 yards, three touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 40 catches, 495 yards, three touchdowns
Average Draft Position: Not drafted
The 49ers offense is on the rise with the improved play of quarterback Alex Smith as well as developing weapons in Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. Frank Gore is already an established star, so you'd think there aren't enough chances for Morgan to make plays. We disagree, and Morgan showed last year he could help Fantasy owners. His final stats from 2009 put him on the verge of being a useful No. 3 Fantasy wide receiver. If Crabtree, Davis and Gore continue to draw the attention of opposing defenses then Morgan could end up as the benefactor in his third year. He's the type of breakout player you want to target with a late-round pick on Draft Day.

Five who could surprise ...

These wide receivers from the Class of 2008 aren't being drafted in the majority of leagues, but they are worth putting on your scout team in case they get a few breaks. And in deeper formats, these receivers could be considered late-round fliers since this is their third year in the NFL.

Earl Bennett, Chicago
2008: no catches
2009: 54 catches, 717 yards, two touchdowns
Jamey's 2010 projection: 45 catches, 555 yards, two touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 42 catches, 518 yards, three touchdowns
Average Draft Position: Not drafted

Jordy Nelson, Green Bay
2008: 33 catches, 366 yards, two touchdowns
2009: 22 catches, 320 yards, two touchdowns
Jamey's 2010 projection: 28 catches, 334 yards, two touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 24 catches, 282 yards, two touchdowns

James Hardy, Buffalo
2008: nine catches, 87 yards, two touchdowns
2009: one catch, 9 yards
Jamey's 2010 projection: 22 catches, 312 yards, three touchdowns
Dave's 2010 projection: 24 catches, 323 yards, three touchdowns

Andre Caldwell, Cincinnati
2008: 11 catches, 78 yards
2009: 51 catches, 432 yards, three touchdowns
Jamey's 2010 projection: 31 catches, 281 yards, one touchdown
Dave's 2010 projection: 34 catches, 320 yards, two touchdowns

Keenan Burton, St. Louis
2008:13 catches, 172 yards, one touchdown
2009: 25 catches, 253 yards
Jamey's 2010 projection:21 catches, 311 yards, one touchdown
Dave's 2010 projection:17 catches, 224 yards, one touchdown

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter . You can also follow Jamey at @jameyeisenberg . Do you have a question or a comment for our Fantasy staff? Drop us a line at dmfantasyfootball@cbs.com .

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