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2011 Draft Prep: Third-year wide receivers

Senior Fantasy Writer
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It seems like every season the third-year wide receiver theory is questioned by Fantasy owners. Most still believe in it and will draft as many third-year receivers as possible, hoping for a breakout campaign. Others say it's a thing of the past.

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The third-year wide receiver theory is based on players at the position having a breakout campaign after two full seasons in the NFL. What some receivers have said is it takes at least two years to develop. They have to learn how to hone their craft, develop a rapport with their quarterback and also understand defenses better.

We've been at a crossroads with third-year receivers the past few seasons. With the way college teams are throwing the ball, along with pass-happy offenses in the NFL, rookies and second-year receivers are developing faster every year. Just look at the Class of 2009 with Hakeem Nicks, Mike Wallace and Jeremy Maclin already establishing their dominance last year.

But that doesn't mean we aren't seeing breakthroughs in third-year receivers. If you look at the interactive visualization below, you will see that last year, five of 12 receivers who had significant playing time from the Class of 2008 had a breakout campaign, including Steve Johnson, Mario Manningham and Davone Bess.

You can also see that seven of the Top 20 receivers in NFL history based on receptions had breakout years in their third season. And if you look at receivers ranked in my Top 20 for 2011, seven also had a breakout season in Year 3.

While you're never going to have a perfect class, there still remains the chance for several breakout receivers, and that's what Fantasy owners who believe in the theory look at heading into this year. Some of the best receivers in NFL history also buy into the third-year receiver theory as well.

"Wide receiver is a skill," said former NFL standout Cris Carter in an interview with CBSSports.com this offseason. "It takes so much time, and there are so many things you have to learn. It takes three to five years to understand the position.

"Now, more people are throwing the ball and more colleges are throwing the ball so kids are coming into the league more ready to have breakout years, and kids have to play. If they spend a high draft pick on you like A.J. Green or Julio Jones, you are thrust into playing. I still think the curve is still around the same. It's like being a quarterback. You see guys come in that are successful, and it seems like we have more young kids that are being successful. But there's still a learning curve. There are so many things you have to learn, they're still in the process of learning."

Zegura's Fantasy facts ...
Our Nathan Zegura shares his take on four third-year WRs you may have to decide between on Draft Day
Hakeem Nicks: Heading into 2010, Hakeem the Dream was my top breakout wide receiver and I called for a top 10 finish, which he delivered despite playing in only 13 games. Nicks caught 79 passes for 1,052 yards and 11 TDs last year and built on his excellent rookie year. He was the seventh-ranked Fantasy WR in standard formats and finished the year T-10 with eight games of 100-plus yards or a TD. So why did I like Nicks so much heading into his sophomore year? Nicks turned in some of the best metrics I had ever seen for a rookie receiver. In 2009, despite averaging 16.8 yards per catch (T-5 for best in the league), Nicks caught 63 percent of his targets (an amazing number for a big-play rookie) and averaged 10.7 yards per target, fourth-best in the league. With more chances as he became a starter, it was easy to predict more production. Heading into Year Three, I think Nicks still has room to grow and is the third-ranked wideout on my board. Again, his metrics were incredibly solid and most importantly, he showed improvement in the one area that was a sore spot as a rookie. Last year, Nicks was seventh with 9.8 targets per week, but the extra offensive and defensive attention didn't really take away from his metrics. He still caught 61.7 percent of his passes and averaged 8.2 yards per target, which is very solid. I know it was down a couple of yards from 2009, but anything over eight yards per target is excellent and with defenses keying on him he lost some of the big plays and saw his yards per catch fall to 13.3. The biggest jump in Nicks’ game came inside the 20, which is where Fantasy leagues are won. After turning just one of his seven Red Zone targets into scores as a rookie, Nicks scored seven Red Zone TDs in 2010 (T-2nd) and his 41.2 percent Red Zone TD rate was the best among the 20 most targeted wide receivers and fourth best among the 50 receivers with at least 10 Red Zone targets. Nicks has emerged as the clear go to guy for Eli Manning and with his excellent efficiency both between the 20s and in scoring situations, he will remain a top Fantasy option for years to come. If he gets even better in Year Three (and plays 16 games), we may have to trademark Nicks for Six because the kid has huge potential. Bottom Line: I love him as a No. 1 wide receiver for your teams and think he is a great value in the second round.
Percy Harvin: Sidney Rice has left the building and Harvin enters the 2011 season as the clear top option in the passing game for the Vikings. Fortunately for Percy, the team brought in the very capable Donovan McNabb to play quarter back, so he will have a veteran who has helped his No. 1 option have solid numbers year after year. Harvin has everything you look for in a breakout wide receiver and I think he will have a career year in 2011, his third year in the league. Harvin went from 925 total yards and six TDs in 2009 as a rookie to 975 total yards and six scores in his sophomore season despite having his quarterback play go from an elite level in his first season to garbage last year. Despite the turmoil around him, Harvin remained incredibly efficient. He caught 66 percent of his targets and averaged 8-plus yards per target for the second straight year in 2010, despite having his quarterbacks go from 68 percent completions and eight yards per attempt to just 60 percent completions and 6.8 yards per attempt. To me, that speaks volumes about Harvin's talent and his ability to produce under adverse conditions. McNabb has averaged around 7.5 yards per attempt over the last five years, so I expect Harvin to get back closer to 8.5-9 yards per target in 2011. I also expect Harvin's targets to go way up with Rice gone as he will clearly be the No. 1 wide receiver and playmaker in the passing game for the Vikes. He has never been Top 25 in targets despite being a Top 24 Fantasy receiver in each of his two seasons. Year Three should be the breakout for Harvin, as he will see a career high in targets and I expect he will maintain his target conversion rate while increasing his yards per target with McNabb, so we should see his first 1,000-plus yard receiving season. The migraine issues are a thing of the past (fingers crossed that remains the case) and Harvin will now be causing headaches for your Fantasy opponents if you get him on your team. Bottom Line: Everything is aligning for Harvin to take the next step in 2011 and I think he is a Top 20 Fantasy option for sure and a great No. 2 wide receiver for your teams. He has the excellent metrics and will be in line for more chances, and that is a winning formula. The best part is that Harvin can still be had as the 25th receiver on Draft Day, so you can steal him as your No. 3.
Austin Collie: I caught a lot of flack for ranking Collie ahead of Pierre Garcon in 2010, but the numbers don't lie: Collie is the second best wide receiver on that team (don't tell Reggie Wayne, but Collie is probably the best). After an incredibly impressive rookie year in which Collie caught 60 passes for 676 yards and seven TDs, I was pumped to see what he could do in Year Two. After all, Peyton Manning is as smart as they come and Collie had the seventh best target conversion rate in the league as a rookie (66.7 percent) in addition to finishing Top 10 in Red Zone TD rate at 29 percent. To me, that spelled more chances for Collie in his sophomore season and that is exactly what he got. In 2010, Collie saw his targets per game rise to 8 (from 5.6 -- again Peyton is a smart guy) and he turned in an even better set of metrics. He led the NFL with an 80.6 percent target conversion rate, averaged 9 yards per target and dominated in the Red Zone with a 55.6 percent Red Zone TD rate (best among the 66 receivers with at least nine Red Zone chances). In other words, there was no more efficient receiver in the NFL than Collie, who totaled 58 catches for 649 yards and eight scores in only nine games. Collie was a Top 3 Fantasy scorer on a per game basis last year and if it weren't for the concussion issues, he would have been Top 10 for sure at the end of the year. Headed into his third season, the sky is the limit for Collie if he can stay healthy, and yes that is a big if. Collie is one hit away from another concussion and at some point his health and his future quality of life will become a legit and very serious concern. However, when he is on the field, Collie has Manning's trust every bit as much as Wayne or Dallas Clark and he will get plenty of opportunities to make plays week in and week out. If Collie can play 16 games he will be a Top 10 performer because I have never seen metrics like his as long as I have been covering Fantasy Football. Bottom Line: Collie is a great No. 3 wide receiver for your teams because he has legit Top 10 potential and as the 27th receiver taken in drafts, you can survive if you get a shortened season from him. He is so efficient that he is literally the perfect receiver for Manning and I expect this to be one of the most potent hookups in the NFL again in 2011.
Michael Crabtree: Crabtree posted career highs in 2010, but you'd have to consider his first full season a disappointment. Crabtree did not really play in the preseason and his chemistry with Alex Smith suffered as a result. Crabtree finished the year with 55 catches for 741 yards and six TDs in 15 games, which is not really an improvement over his 11 game rookie totals of 48 for 625 and two TDs. Yes, the scores were up, but Crabtree's targets, catches and yards per game were down and his metrics did not show any improvement. He caught 54.5 percent of his targets vs. 56 percent as a rookie and saw his yards per target rise to 7.3 vs. 7.0 due to being a half yard better per catch at 13.5. The touchdowns rose simply from getting some chances that he did not get as a rookie. In 2009, Crabtree saw only four targets in the Red Zone and failed to score a TD. In 2010, Crabtree saw nine looks inside the 20 (still way too few) and turned two into scores. In the good news department, Crabtree did have his first two 100-plus yard games in 2010 and turned in six solid games leading to a 38 consistency rate (T-25th). A closer look at his numbers, however, shows that what he needs most of all are chances, because his metrics are average at best. Crabtree was only the 43rd most targeted wideout in the NFL last year at 6.3 looks per game and to be a solid No.1 he needs to be up around 8.0 or higher. For his career, in the four games that Crabtree has seen 10 or more targets, he has two 100-plus yard games, three games with a TD and has not been below 60 yards in a game. He posted four game totals of 26 catches for 354 yards and three TDs, which extrapolates to 16-game totals of 104 grabs for 1,416 yards and 12 TDs, so the potential is there. He is a third-year receiver, so many are hoping for a breakout season, but I think that while the talent is there, Crabtree's mental approach has to get better. There were too many lapses in concentration, too many bad routes or drops, and too many games where he disappeared (seven Fantasy killer games under 40 yards with 0 TDs in 2010). He will have to learn a new system on the fly and will miss all of the pre-season with a foot injury. Yes, the move to a West Coast offense should favor Crabtree and his new receivers coach John Morton said that he is "going to be a phenomenal football player in this offense." That's all fine and dandy, but I am not seeing the third-year breakout for Crabtree. He has serious competition for targets with Vernon Davis, newly acquired Braylon Edwards and perennial 50-plus catch back Frank Gore all in the mix. Bottom Line: I think Crabtree gets better in 2011, but I am not expecting a breakout or a jump into the Top 20. He does not have any of the things I look for in a breakout wide receiver because his metrics are average to below average and he is not in line for a guaranteed increase in opportunities. I'd say he may even see a decrease in his chances with the arrival of Braylon and the fact that he won't have had any reps in the new offense before the season starts could result in a decrease in his efficiency. If you can get Crabtree as your No. 4 wide receiver, I am fine with that gamble because his downside is limited, but I am not expecting him to breakout and become a must start for your squads.
Nathan Zegura provides Fantasy Football analysis at thefantasyconsultant.com and will contribute to CBSSports.com throughout the 2011 Fantasy season.

Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice told me a couple of years ago that in his third season, he finally "felt comfortable." Rice is also a believer in the third-year theory.

"You start feeling like you belong," Rice said. "The first year, you're like a deer in headlights. You're trying to get used to playing with all those great players. The second year, you feel more at home, but you're still making adjustments. The third year, for me, I finally knew what to do."

But not all wide receivers believe in the theory. Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith told me that even though he had his first dominant season in his third year, he said that's because it was the first year he got to play offense after spending two seasons on special teams. He said it had nothing to do with his service time in the league.

"People are looking for a reason or looking to cling on to something," Smith said. "I think that's a myth. If you have a good player and a baller there, that's going to happen, no matter what year it is."

Wide receivers, like Fantasy owners, are torn on the theory. I see both sides of the argument, but I always look for improvement from wide receivers in their third year. For example, even though Wallace is already an elite Fantasy option, I would be disappointed if he didn't improve his catch total from last year when he had just 60. As his overall game develops, his stats -- at least in one area -- should rise.

And some third-year receivers I'm targeting this year on Draft Day include Percy Harvin, Austin Collie, Mike Thomas and Danny Amendola. All have room to improve this year, and I want them on my Fantasy team.

A look ahead ...

Here is a breakdown of the wide receiver Class of 2009. It will be hard for some, like the guys in Tier 1, to improve in their third year, and not everyone on this list is due for a breakout season. But don't be surprised if someone we didn't mention comes out of nowhere this year to be a star.

Tier 1

These are the third-year receivers who have already had at least one big season with 150 Fantasy points in a year.

Jeremy Maclin: Maclin was a Fantasy star as a sophomore when he outplayed DeSean Jackson, a third-year wide receiver last year, with 10 touchdowns. It might be hard for Maclin to reach that total again, but he's not going to fall off the map as the Eagles offense continues to improve. We consider Maclin a solid No. 2 Fantasy wide receiver in all leagues, and he's worth drafting as early as Round 4. Maclin might even be better than Jackson in leagues where receptions count.

Hakeem Nicks: Nicks is one of those receivers who I can see making subtle improvements in his third year. He scored 11 touchdowns last year, but he also missed three games due to injury. He still has the potential for double digits in touchdowns, especially with Kevin Boss now in Oakland, and his yardage should rise from last year when he had just 1,052. Nicks is a No. 1 Fantasy wide receiver, and he should be drafted in Round 2.

Mike Wallace: As stated earlier, I would be disappointed if Wallace didn't improve on his 60 catches from last year. He has developed from his rookie season when he was just a deep threat to become a well-rounded receiver. And with Hines Ward getting older and Emmanuel Sanders (foot) injured, Wallace could improve on his targets from last year when he had just 100. He is a No. 1 Fantasy receiver, and he should be drafted in Round 3.

Tier 2

These are the third-year receivers on the verge of becoming stars who have had at least one season with 100 Fantasy points in a year.

Kenny Britt: Britt was great last season with nine touchdowns, including a five-game scoring streak from Week 3-7. He could easily improve on his other stats of 42 catches and 775 yards, but I don't want him on my Fantasy team as anything other than a reserve option. There's a possible suspension looming based on his offseason troubles, and he has a hamstring injury again in training camp. He's a No. 3 Fantasy receiver at best, and he should be drafted around Round 6.

Austin Collie: Collie's biggest concern is injury since last season he struggled with concussions and played in just nine games. But prior to getting hurt, Collie was the No. 1 Fantasy receiver, and he still finished the year with tremendous production. He's been medically cleared to return, and Fantasy owners should count on him for his best season to date. He should be considered a No. 2 Fantasy wide receiver in the majority of leagues and is worth drafting as early as Round 5.

Michael Crabtree: The potential is obviously there for Crabtree, but he's heading in the wrong direction for his third year. Not only is he dealing with a nagging foot injury during training camp, but the 49ers sent a clear message that they needed an upgrade at the No. 1 receiver spot by signing Braylon Edwards. Crabtree could still come around this year and play well, and he's good value with a late-round pick. But Crabtree should only be drafted as a No. 4 Fantasy receiver at best coming into the year.

Percy Harvin: Harvin has played well during his first two seasons, and he said this year could be his best yet. We feel the same way since Harvin said his migraine problem is in the past, and he also has a new quarterback in Donovan McNabb. Harvin also assumes the No. 1 receiver role for the Vikings, which means his 110 targets from last season should go up. Harvin is a solid No. 2 Fantasy wide receiver worth drafting in Round 5.

Johnny Knox: Knox is a tough Fantasy option to figure out heading into the season. He was Chicago's best receiver last year, but the Bears added Roy Williams and remain loyal to Devin Hester as a potential starter. If Knox is a reserve (Earl Bennett could be the slot receiver) that will limit his value for this season, but he still has the potential to be a quality receiver. Plan on drafting Knox as a No. 4 Fantasy receiver with a pick around Round 8, and hopefully Chicago will realize Knox needs to be on the field more than any of the other receivers on the roster.

Mike Thomas: Thomas is one of the third-year receivers who could see the biggest boost in production. Not only have his stats improved each of his first two seasons, but he is now expected to see a bigger role as Jacksonville's No. 1 receiver. Thomas had 102 targets last year, and that number will rise dramatically. He should be considered a No. 3 Fantasy wide receiver with the chance to play like a No. 2 option. Thomas will be a steal with a pick in Round 8 or later.

Tier 3

These are the third-year receivers poised for a big season and ready to reach the 100 Fantasy point range this year.

Danny Amendola: Amendola is one of my favorite sleepers for 2011. He actually could have been a third-year receiver last year, but he failed to make a final roster in 2008. That leaves him on the verge of a breakout season this year, and he's headed in the right direction. He is clearly Sam Bradford's security blanket, and he actually led all receivers in red-zone targets last season with 24. His yardage and touchdowns should improve in 2011, and he's worth drafting as a No. 4 Fantasy receiver with the chance to be a No. 3 option before the year ends.

Louis Murphy: The Raiders need help in their receiving corps, and Murphy could end up being their No. 1 option this year. Zach Miller is gone to Seattle and Jacoby Ford is dealing with a broken hand in training camp. On top of that, Ford still has a lot to prove as a receiver, and Murphy has played well in his first two years. Murphy is someone to target with a late-round pick, but he's heading in the right direction this season.

Brian Robiskie: Like the Raiders, the Browns also need help in their receiving corps, and Robiskie has the potential to be their No. 1 option. I still think Greg Little will be their best Fantasy receiver, but Robiskie played well as a sophomore and could improve this year. You should plan on drafting Robiskie with a late-round pick, and his value is higher in leagues where receptions count. Hopefully we can see Colt McCoy continue to look in his direction a lot this season.

Tier 4

These are the third-year receivers who could make an impact in deeper leagues, but they need a lot of help to be successful in standard Fantasy formats.

Ramses Barden: Barden has been a disappointment through his first two seasons with just six catches for 80 yards, but the Giants could have a need for a third receiver if Steve Smith does not return as a free agent or is out to begin the year with a knee injury. It will take a huge improvement for Barden to become Fantasy relevant, but he could be someone to target off the waiver wire if he starts out the season playing well.

Deon Butler: Butler has to prove he's healthy after breaking his leg in Week 14 last year. But prior to getting hurt, he was having a productive campaign and even tied Ben Obomanu for the team lead in touchdowns with four. The Seahawks could use Butler as a slot receiver this season with Sidney Rice and Mike Williams on the outside, and Butler could be useful for Fantasy owners in deep leagues where receptions count.

Jarett Dillard: A foot injury kept Dillard from playing as a sophomore, and he has a lot to prove before Fantasy owners can count on him this season. But Jacksonville needs help in their receiving corps, and Dillard could see plenty of playing time behind Thomas and Jason Hill. He's not worth drafting in the majority of leagues, but if he starts out the season playing well in a prominent role then consider adding him off the waiver wire.

Julian Edelman: Edelman will only be a factor for Fantasy owners if one thing happens -- an injury to Wes Welker. Edelman had a solid season as a rookie in 2009 with 37 catches for 359 yards and one touchdown when Welker dealt with injuries, but he disappeared last year when Welker was healthy. New England also added plenty of weapons since then, and Edelman will have a hard time seeing the field. Ignore him in all leagues on Draft Day.

Brandon Gibson: Gibson put up surprising stats in 2010 with all the injuries the Rams had at wide receiver, but it will be difficult for him to repeat that performance this year. Still, it's hard to overlook what Gibson did with 53 catches for 620 yards and two touchdowns, and he could improve on those stats if given an opportunity. We don't recommend drafting Gibson this season, but if he starts out the year playing well then add him off the waiver wire.

Brian Hartline: Hartline took a step back in his second year after a productive rookie season in 2009, but he is expected to start opposite Brandon Marshall again this year, which should be beneficial. Now, Hartline might be a starter, but he is the No. 3 option in the passing game behind slot receiver Davone Bess. Still, if Hartline and Chad Henne can develop a rapport, Hartline could post quality stats and might be worth adding off the waiver wire.

Darrius Heyward-Bey: Unfortunately for Heyward-Bey, he is becoming one of the bigger busts in NFL history since he was the first receiver drafted in this class in 2009 and has struggled to be productive. This could be the year where he starts to live up to his draft value, but he needs to really step up for that to happen. We don't recommend drafting him in any leagues even with the Raiders needing help at receiver in 2011.

Mohamed Massaquoi: Massaquoi played well as a rookie in 2009 before taking a step back last year. It might be hard for him to get back to his rookie level even in his third season, and he is dealing with a leg injury in training camp. Robiskie and Little have more upside than Massaquoi, and he will likely never be more than a reserve Fantasy option in deeper formats. Ignore him in all leagues on Draft Day even in deep leagues.

Sammie Stroughter: Stroughter isn't expected to develop into a starting Fantasy option in the majority of leagues, but he could end up starting for Tampa Bay this year depending on the health of Arrelious Benn (knee). Josh Freeman can't throw all his passes to Mike Williams and Kellen Winslow, and Stroughter does have 55 catches in his first two seasons. He's not worth drafting in the majority of leagues, but he could see an increase in production in his third year.

Brandon Tate: Tate had a better outlook prior to the season before the Patriots added Chad Ochocinco. Now, Tate is likely the No. 4 wide receiver at best behind Ochocinco, Welker and Deion Branch. Tate still could end up becoming a quality deep threat for New England, but he doesn't warrant a draft pick in the majority of leagues. If he starts out the season playing well then add him off the waiver wire.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Jamey at @JameyEisenberg .

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