Gold Rush: Year 2 Wide Receivers

Author Ryan Boser
Is Cordarrelle Patterson on the brink of a sophomore surge? (Photo: Icon SMI)
Is Cordarrelle Patterson on the brink of a sophomore surge? (Photo: Icon SMI)

Josh Gordon and Alshon Jeffery owners struck it filthy stinking rich in 2013. They’ve enjoyed fame and fortune ever since, and they’re hungry for more. Conversely, anybody who missed out is gearing up for a historically frenzied quest to uncover the next crown jewel of the fantasy landscape.

Discovering an undervalued young WR to hitch your wagon to is a treacherous endeavor, and most of us won’t make it. Cholera. Dysentery. And worst of all, Rookie Fever. I’ve broken down the symptoms here. It’s almost always fatal; you can hunt for food all day but you can’t force a rookie to “eat” (copyright Evan Silva).

Fortunately, there’s a much safer route. Below is a list of the top 30 Year 2 WR performances of the last five seasons (PPR scoring). The key takeaway here is that most of the league’s brightest young stars didn’t truly break out in Year 1, or the mythical Year 3, but in their sophomore seasons.

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The next chart breaks down the Year 1 performances of the 2013 rookie class. If you clicked the link above, you know that Keenan Allen is an exception to the rule; no rookie has reached fantasy WR1 status in the last decade, and Allen’s Year 1 numbers put him in the 99th percentile over that span.

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Instead of chasing rookie fool’s gold, percentages suggest that you’re much better off panning for production in this stream of sophomores:

(Players I can envision delivering WR1 production).

1. Keenan Allen, SD
Allen doesn’t possess towering size or blazing speed, and for that reason there are questions about whether he’s already hit his ceiling. Personally, I think he’s only just scratched the surface. Allen entered his rookie season as a young 21YO still slowed by a lingering knee injury. Uninvolved until Week 4, his final 13 games extrapolate to a full 16-game slash of 84/1,250/10 (WR12), and he added a 6/142/2 exclamation point against Denver in a Divisional Playoff loss.

Allen plays bigger and faster than his measurements, and he dominates the intermediate level with a lethal blend of route running, hands, versatility, intelligence and athleticism. San Diego did nothing to improve their WR corps this offseason, leaving Allen locked in as Philip Rivers’ main man. He should flirt with 100 receptions, and while there isn’t much room for him to improve on his current ADP (WR11), I’d be surprised if he didn’t at least match it.

2. Cordarrelle Patterson, MIN
Physically freaky and extremely unpolished, Patterson is essentially the opposite of Allen, giving him both a higher ceiling and a lower floor. We saw the full spectrum over the season’s final five games, as Patterson scored six times (three receiving, three rushing), ranged from 4-to-141 receiving yards, and averaged just 3.2 rec/game. Patterson also joined Randall Cobb, Percy Harvin and Dez Bryant as the only rookies in this six-year sample size to score multiple return TDs (two apiece). Side note: I use return ability as a tiebreaker in standard drafts; nothing more, nothing less.

As a dynamic Year 2 WR playing for Norv Turner, Patterson’s the far-too-obvious favorite to become “The Next Josh Gordon.” The truth is they’re very different players—Gordon’s a downfield stud and Patterson’s a guy the Vikings need to manufacture short touches for. Still, as early reports have confirmed, Turner will do a much better job of showcasing Patterson’s ability than Bill Musgrave did. Currently being drafted as the WR13 at MyFantasyLeague, most of Patterson’s upside is already baked into his ADP. His weekly game logs won’t be nearly as smooth as Allen’s, but the ups will outweigh the downs in Year 2, giving him a fair shot at cracking the top-12.

(Players I can envision delivering WR2 production).

3. Terrance Williams, DAL
The fantasy community is really sleeping on Williams. Despite inconsistencies, he flashed big-play ability in Year 1, averaging 37.4 YPC on his five touchdowns. The departure of Miles Austin has thrust Williams into an incredibly enviable position: he’s locked into the starting lineup of a Romo/Linehan offense… in a division that plays to shootouts… opposite defensive focal point Dez Bryant. In Scott Linehan’s five seasons in Detroit, the Lions finished 6th, 3rd, 1st, 1st and 5th in passing attempts.

Williams is exactly what this exercise is all about. He’s currently—and foolishly—being drafted behind three R1 rookies (Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks). Of the 38 R1 WRs drafted in the last decade, here’s what we’ve gotten out of them in Year 1: zero WR1s, five WR2s (13.1%), six WR3s (15.7%) and seven WR4s (18.4%). That leaves 20 (52.6%) guys who didn’t even crack the top-48. Williams already cracked the WR4 threshold in Year 1, and the stars are aligned for him to make a big Year 2 leap and vastly outperform his current ADP (WR36).

(Players I can envision delivering WR3 production).

4. Markus Wheaton, PIT
Broken fingers derailed Wheaton’s rookie campaign, but things have lined up quite nicely for the 2013 3rd rounder this offseason. Emmanuel Sanders and Jericho Cotchery left behind a combined 113/1,342/16, and all the Steelers did to replace them was bring in an aging Lance Moore, punch line Darrius Heyward-Bey and raw 4th-round rookie Martavis Bryant.

Before the 2013 draft, I often described Wheaton a cross between Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace, in that he’s a sub-6’ receiver who can win at the intermediate level with quickness/smarts/routes, as well as vertically with plus speed. If Wheaton can hold onto the starting job opposite Brown, and Todd Haley makes good on his promise to run a more up-tempo, no-huddle offense, there will be a ton of room for Wheaton to outperform his WR54 (12th round) ADP. Keep close tabs on this situation throughout the summer.

5. Aaron Dobson, NE
Add a pair of foot injuries to an already inconsistent player, and Dobson was all over the board in Year 1. He’s penciled in as Tom Brady’s “X” receiver, but he’s missed the entire offseason schedule while recovering from a March stress fracture surgery.

Dobson’s size and situation have made him a popular breakout candidate in the industry, but I’m a bit more cautious. He’s young player who really needed a strong offseason of work, and now he’s already behind the eight ball. Rob Gronkowski (assuming he’s active), Julian Edelman, Shane Vereen and even Danny Amendola will all get theirs, so I’m expecting more scattershot production from Dobson. I’d love him in a best ball format where I’d be protected from his off weeks, but even in typical leagues he’s a cinch to outperform his current WR58 (13th round) ADP.

6. DeAndre Hopkins, HOU
I have a bad taste in my mouth about Hopkins. After racking up 12/183/1 in his first two NFL games, he scored just once over the next 14 contests, while never eclipsing even 80 yards in a game. I still believe in his talent, but I hate his fit with new QB Ryan Fitzpatrick.

My mental image of Hopkins is that of a fierce competitor going up over a CB deep down the sideline and attacking the ball. My mental image of Fitzpatrick is that of a slappy scrub who will dink you and dunk you down the middle all day long, because he doesn’t have the arm strength to get the ball deep or outside the hashes. While this worked out beautifully for guys like Kendall Wright (who trailed only Wes Welker in slot targets) and Delanie Walker last season, 89% of Hopkins’ targets came from the outside (per PFF). I’m fully expecting the Texans to hide Fitzpatrick’s popgun arm in Bill O’Brien’s multiple-TE sets. If Andre Johnson leaves, I’ll revisit this situation, but I have a hard time seeing Hopkins outperforming his current WR35 ADP. This bronze ranking is a tenuous one.

(Players I can envision delivering WR4 production).

7. Kenny Stills, NO
Stills put together a nice little rookie campaign, but any hopes of him becoming much more than your typical Saints situational deep threat were likely dashed when the team traded up seven spots to select dynamo Brandin Cooks 20th overall. Still, the New Orleans passing attack is a big pie, and even a modest Year 2 uptick would put Stills squarely on the WR4 radar. His WR50 ADP is a tad low.

8. Tavon Austin, STL
The Rams used the No. 2 overall pick on road grader Greg Robinson, then invested a 3rd-rounder on RB Tre Mason to complement Zac Stacy, so it’s no secret what they want to do on offense. The year prior, they traded up from No. 16 to No. 8 to select Austin, yet seemingly had no clue how to utilize his unique talents. What’s worse, even when Brian Schottenheimer did put Austin in position to succeed, the undersized rookie looked completely overmatched and out of place at the NFL level.

Despite all that disappointment, Austin’s name and lofty draft status have contributed to a rather generous ADP of WR40. Sure, I’ve built the case for drafting with a strong Year 2 bias when it comes to NFL freshmen and sophomores, but like any other draft strategy/guideline, it ultimately still comes down to the individual player. Personally, I don’t believe in Austin (or Sam Bradford), so in this rare instance, I’d opt for one of the two rookies going just behind him (Jordan Matthews or Kelvin Benjamin).

9. Justin Hunter, TEN
Like Dobson, Hunter is another name I’ve regularly seen tied to Alshon Jeffery. Frankly, I don’t get it. Hunter has that same coveted height/length as Jeffery, but that’s where the comparison ends.

The Titans are built to pound the rock, both in terms of personnel and coaching philosophy. Kendall Wright is locked in as a target hog, Nate Washington has quietly averaged 59/896/4.7 over the last three seasons, and TE Delanie Walker has new head coach Ken Wisenhunt publicly swooning. That leaves the one-dimensional (deep routes) Hunter as a low-volume target of low-percentage passes from a QB who can’t hit the ocean from the beach. Hunter certainly has long-term appeal, but I wouldn’t go any higher than his current WR49 ADP in redraft leagues.

10. Marquess Wilson, CHI
In our exhaustive search for “The Next Alshon Jeffery,” it seems the only place we haven’t looked is one spot behind “The Real Alshon Jeffery” on Chicago’s depth chart. Sure, Marquess Wilson is blocked, but the WR3 job is his to lose, and if one of Brandon Marshall or Jeffery were to go down, I’d have no problem envisioning Wilson stepping right into something like 85% of their production.

Don’t be fooled by Wilson’s 7th-round draft status—he was an early-round prospect who plummeted due to character concerns (he quit the Washington State team). He has Jeffery’s height/length, and he’s packed 20 pounds onto his lean frame this offseason working out with Marshall and Jeffery. Playing against distracted defenses as a WR3 in a Marc Trestman offense, Wilson could flirt with WR4 production, but his real value is as a long-term dynasty asset. He also makes for a rare WR handcuff for either Marshall or Jeffery at the end of your draft.


11. Marlon Brown, BAL
A 2013 UDFA, Marlon Brown seemingly got a vote of confidence when Baltimore punted on WRs in the draft and instead inked rapidly-declining 35YO Steve Smith. The 6’5” Brown’s seven receiving TDs trailed only Keenan Allen among rookies last season. Consider him a solid dynasty stash.

12. Robert Woods, BUF
The signing of red zone threat Mike Williams and the enormous draft day investment in Sammy Watkins all but crushed Woods’ fantasy value. Steve Johnson’s departure provides a glimmer of hope, but this still has the look of a bottom-dwelling pass offense under EJ Manuel.

13. Kenbrell Thompkins, NE
He’s second in line for the starting “X” spot in New England’s offense, so keep close tabs on Aaron Dobson’s recovery from foot surgery.

14. Da’Rick Rogers, IND
Rogers saw both his short- and long-term value take hits this offseason with the signing of Hakeem Nicks and the drafting of 3rd-rounder Donte Moncrief. Still, he’s much closer to meaningful action than Moncrief, and Nicks’ body can’t be trusted, so he’s a name to keep on speed dial.

15. Justin Brown, PIT
There’s an opportunity to be seized in Pittsburgh, and the 2013 6th rounder drew some strong buzz at Steelers OTAs.

16. Ace Sanders, JAX
The diminutive gadget weapon ranked No. 3 among rookie WRs with 51 receptions last season, but the drafting of 2nd-rounders Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson almost certainly daggers his fantasy relevancy.