One of the most frustrating positions to fill, as a fantasy owner, is the wide receiver position. League rules generally require two or three starters, and after that first one, the others are a crapshoot. The fantasy owner knows that (barring injury, of course) a starting quarterback is going to touch the ball every play and probably throw at least thirty passes. The fantasy owner also knows that a starting running back will touch the ball twenty times or more. However, there is no such script for wide receivers. Even Randy Moss had a couple of four-catch, 25-yard efforts in 2003.
How can you predict which receivers will flourish and which will flounder? One method is to use the "Third Year Receiver Theory". This theory states that it generally takes a wide receiver a couple years to adjust to the NFL and learn how to play the position before breaking out in their third year. Sounds logical enough, right? But does the theory have any basis?
A look at some of the receivers entering their third year in 2003 should shed some light on the subject.
What does this all mean? Of the twelve players listed, half of them took a big step forward in 2003. Chris Chambers, Chad Johnson, Santana Moss, and Steve Smith established themselves as solid fantasy starters and Reggie Wayne proved he could be a solid complement to Marvin Harrison. Why did this happen? Some of it can be explained by circumstance. Chambers proved to be the only reliable receiver on the Dolphins despite QB issues. Chad Johnson entered the season as the clear #1 receiver and had established a solid rapport with his QB. Santana Moss became the #1 option on the Jets when Laveranues Coles left via free agency (after his breakout third year). Steve Smith took advantage of an injury to likely #2 WR Kevin Dyson and made the most of it. Reggie Wayne finally earned the #2 position behind Marvin Harrison when Qadry Ismail left.
What about those players who didn't have the big third year? Does that disprove the theory? Not necessarily. Rod Gardner came off a great 2002 season, but was relegated to #2 WR when the Skins brought in Coles and had to deal with a QBBC. Freddie Mitchell was the #3 WR for the Eagles despite the fact he was clearly more talented than the receivers in front of him. Quincy Morgan had to deal with a QB shuffle throughout the season and received the most attention from the defenses. Jerry Porter missed a good chunk of the season with an injury and never had a solid QB when he returned. Koren Robinson was an enigma and clearly had a bad year after breaking out in 2002. David Terrell caught more passes than he had in the past, but still couldn't succeed with the Bears' QB roulette. Furthermore, he was locked into the #3 WR slot behind Marty Booker and Dez White. Finally, Derrius Thompson changed teams and struggled mightily.
Essentially, those third-year receivers who were put into a position to succeed generally did succeed. With that said, let's take a look at some of the receivers entering their third years in 2004. Which ones will break out and have big years and which ones won't?
Marc Boerigter, Chiefs: Boerigter burst onto the scene as an older rookie in 2002 with eight TD catches. He took a big step back in 2003 and managed only 11 receptions the entire year while dropping many catchable passes. He's still competing for the #3 WR spot with Dante Hall and draftees Samie Parker and Jeris McIntyre. He probably is not a candidate to break out in 2004.
Deion Branch, Patriots: Branch emerged as the top receiver (receptions and yards) amongst a group of previously indistinguishable Patriot receivers in 2003. He had a decent season, but not one that would warrant fantasy attention. In the Super Bowl he stepped forward and carried the team with ten receptions for 143 yards and a TD. With Troy Brown and David Patten clearly on the downsides of their careers (and Patten in jeopardy of making the roster), Branch could really step it up in 2004.
Antonio Bryant, Cowboys: Bryant had a disappointing 2003 season. He only approached 100 yards in receiving in one game and finished with only two TDs on the season. To make matters worse, the Cowboys have two of Coach Parcells' favorite receivers (Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn) playing in front of Bryant, so the deck is stacked against him already. On the bright side, when the season starts Glenn will be 30 years old and Johnson will be 32. I doubt Bryant will have the big year in 2004, but he's worth grabbing late in a redraft league as he may be called upon to make some plays this year.
Reche Caldwell, Chargers: Caldwell was given the opportunity to shine in 2003. However, he was injured for much of the season and finished with only eight receptions for eighty yards. He'll be battling for playing time in 2004 with Kevin Dyson and Tim Dwight (neither of whom have been able to avoid injuries themselves) most likely starting the season as the top two. I would not expect Caldwell to enjoy much success in 2004 with QB issues aplenty.
Kelly Campbell, Vikings: Campbell stepped into the #2 position for the Vikes last season when D'Wayne Bates was injured and played fairly well. However, the signing of Marcus Robinson to start opposite Randy Moss will relegate Campbell to the #3 or #4 position if Nate Burleson plays well. Campbell does not appear to be a player on the verge of a breakout season.
Tim Carter, Giants: When Ike Hilliard went down with an injury in 2003, Tim Carter would have had a great opportunity had he not been battling concussions all season long. He had an outstanding training camp and appeared to be making big strides. Now, with QB issues looming in NY, Carter remains at the #3 position but will be battling Willie Ponder and David Tyree (both second year players) and JuJuan Dawson and James McKnight (both veteran free agent acquisitions) for playing time. If Carter can hold off the competition, he could be in a good position to make a bigger impact in 2004 if either Toomer or Hilliard miss time.
Andre Davis, Browns: Had this been written in March or April, the report would have been much more positive. Since that time, however, the Browns have re-signed WR Dennis Northcutt and drafted TE Kellen Winslow. What appeared to be a nice WR lineup of Quincy Morgan and Andre Davis (certainly appealing to fantasy owners) has once again been muddied. Davis has the ability to bust out and have a big season. He's had two solid seasons in a WRBC already. But now that the Browns have three talented WRs and a stud TE looking for passes from new Brown QB Jeff Garcia, it is more difficult to predict a big season for Davis. Grab him late if you have roster space.
Robert Ferguson, Packers: Hopefully some of you realized that Ferguson is not really a third-year player. However, he was inactive for almost the entire 2001 season, so I'll include him here anyway. Ferguson is currently listed at #2 on the depth chart behind Donald Driver and ahead of Javon Walker, but that could all change quickly. The biggest obstacle Ferguson faces (other than quality competition for the ball) is staying healthy. Ferguson missed a good deal of time in 2003 with a number of nagging injuries. Any of the three Packer WRs can put up big numbers, but Ferguson will probably be the one least coveted by fantasy owners, so he's worth waiting for.
Jabbar Gaffney, Texans: He looked promising after the first month of the 2003 season, then all but disappeared after that. Andre Johnson is the clear #1 WR in Houston, but Gaffney could step it up in 2004 and establish himself as the #2 guy. He is more talented than Corey Bradford, but needs to really show he can be counted on. Many seem to feel that the Texan offense is ready to break out and Gaffney could be one of those sleeper WRs that everyone forgets about. He fits the profile of the third-year break out WR to a tee.
David Givens, Patriots: Along with Deion Branch, he seems the likely candidate to start at WR for the Pats in 2004 (even though Troy Brown was recently given a two-year contract extension). Givens really came on at the end of 2003 and put up good numbers. He also excelled during the play-offs. Givens also is entering the final year of his contract, although the Pats are making attempts to sign him to a new contract already. Givens is a player that could take his performance to another level in 2004.
TJ Houshmandzadeh, Bengals: 2003 would have been the third-year for TJ, but he missed the entire season with an injury, so 2004 will really be his third as a player. Housh runs good routes and has great hands, but he is surrounded by excellent receivers. Chad Johnson, Peter Warrick, and Kelley Washington are all very talented and will limit Housh to third-and-long situations.
Ashley Lelie, Broncos: Lelie was expected to have a breakout season in 2003 as Rod Smith was slowing down. However, he finished with nearly the same stats as his rookie year. But now Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe have retired and Rod Smith is a year older. Clinton Portis is gone as well. So this is the best possible situation for Ashley Lelie to succeed. Of all the third-year WRs, I think Lelie will have the best numbers. He has been working hard during the off-season and has been practicing with Jake Plummer. Look for a true break-out season.
Darnerian McCants, Redskins: McCants has prototypical size at 6' 3" and 215 pounds. He is also coming off a couple seasons where he improved and contributed. (He had six TDs in 2003.) However, McCants is not in an ideal situation to flourish. He will be playing behind Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner in an offense that will feature Clinton Portis first and foremost. However, the Skins recently signed him to a three-year contract extension, so they must have some plans to use him. He's probably not worth drafting, but keep an eye on him.
Justin McCareins, Jets: I know, I made exceptions for Robert Ferguson and TJ Houshmandzadeh because of injuries or inactivity, so I have to do it for McCareins too. After all, McCareins only had three receptions in 2001, so it was a mulligan year for him. He exploded onto the scene last year with more than 800 yards and seven TDs. In the off-season he went from the overcrowded Titans offense into a #2 position behind Santana Moss in New York. Look for him to make the most of this opportunity and ignore the fact that receivers don't often succeed in their first year with a new team.
Antwaan Randle El, Steelers: Randle El seemed to be locked into the third receiver position behind Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress following the 2003 season, however Burress is creating a rift between himself and the team which may open the door for Randle El to get more opportunities. He has seen two to three balls a game during his first two years, and an increase to four to five would make him a dangerous wideout that could sneak into your starting lineup. This is a situation that bears close attention.
Josh Reed, Bills: When Reed was handed the #2 position when Peerless Price left prior to the 2003 season, there was great expectation for Price-like numbers. However, Reed did little to excite his owners. He had a decent season considering the poor play of the Buffalo offense. Reed knows that a lot was expected of him and the drafting of Lee Evans in the first round of the 2004 draft should be enough wake-up call to kick him into high gear. I think the 2003 expectations were premature, but Reed has to be considered legit for 2004.
Donte' Stallworth, Saints: Stallworth took an impressive rookie campaign and promptly flushed it down the toilet in his second year. Stallworth started out well with a 100-yard game to open the season, however in weeks four through fourteen, he managed only five receptions. He did finish with a bit of a flourish including a 100-yard receiving effort in the final week of the season. The Saints drafted LSU WR Devery Henderson in the second round and expect him to push for a starting job. I'd expect Stallworth to get his head straight and hold Henderson off and have a breakout season in 2004.
Javon Walker, Packers: It's a crowded receiving corps in Green Bay with Donald Driver and Robert Ferguson, not to mention Ahman Green who is heavily involved in the passing game. However, Walker, who is still listed as third on the depth chart at WR, managed to lead the Pack in receiving yards and TD receptions in 2003. Favre clearly has confidence in Walker and he could emerge as the #1 WR by the time the season begins. Draft Walker with confidence. He'll reward his owners well.
There are a number of third-year receivers who will be in excellent position to have breakout years in 2004. While some of them will clearly be targeted as early picks by owners, many of them will be available in the later rounds of your drafts. Players like Lelie, Stallworth, and Reed are coming off disappointing seasons and that may still be fresh in the minds of some owners. Others like Gaffney, Givens, and Randle El might not be on the minds of owners at all and would be great selections late.
Not all of the players listed above will have that magical third-year breakout season, however history has shown that given the right situation, many will.
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Revised: 08 Oct 2014 11: 56: 18 -0700 .