In Search of 3rd-Year Magic

At some point, it became conventional fantasy football wisdom that wide receivers have a tendency to "break out" in their third season. I decided to take a look at whether that is actually the case.

The first thing I found is that defining a "breakout season" (in terms that a computer can understand) is not easy. I'll look at several different definitions of the term to try and cover all possible angles.

Probably the simplest way to define a players' breakout season is the first season in which he became a legitimate fantasy starter. Figuring one point per 10 yards and 6 points per TD, and a 10-team league which starts 2 WRs, I set the cutoff at 140 points -- roughly 1000 yards and 7 TDs.

I have career data for everyone who was active during 1998 or 1999. Of those, there were 59 different WRs who have at one time posted a season of 140 or more fantasy points. Here is how those 59 broke down in terms of their breakout season:

       ---------  Breakout Year  -------
         1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11  TOT
---------------------------------------------
Number   6  7 10 14  7  7  3  4  0  0  1   59
6 of the 59 were legit fantasy starters in their rookie season, 7 were legit fantasy starters for the first time in their 2nd year, and so on.

Not a real strong case for the 3rd-year receiver rule here. If a receiver is going to break out, it appears that year number 4 is the most popular year to do so. 3 is next, but only slightly ahead of 2, 5, and 6.

Technical note: this is a judgment call, but I proclaimed a player's "first year" to be the one in which he played his first NFL game. Thus Marcus Robinson gets classified as a 2nd-year breakout even though he had been out of college for three years. I think Robinson is the only guy affected by this, but maybe some of you will inform me otherwise when I post some more complete lists below.

Just for kicks, let's see how that compares to the other positions. I set the bar at 140 points for RBs and 225 for QBs (based on 1 point per 25, 6 per passing TD, and -3 per INT):

       ---------  Breakout Year  -------------------
         1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13   TOT
----------------------------------------------------
WR       6  7 10 14  7  7  3  4        1          59
RB      21 12  7  5  3  2  2                      52
QB       3 16  5  7  5  1  1  1  2  1  1  1  2    46
These numbers are what we'd expect. While WRs can take awhile to develop, good RBs are generally good from the start. QBs are a crapshoot, although I was surprised by how many broke out in their second season. That suggests that the possibility that some of this year's sophomore class could well be viable starting QBs this season.

I have heard it suggested that it takes longer for big WRs to break out that it does for speed guys. So I broke the above 59 WRs down by weight:

                ---------  Breakout Year  -----------
                  1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 TOT
-----------------------------------------------------
195 Lbs and up    2  4  6  7  4  2  3  2        1  31
Under 195         4  3  4  7  3  5     2           28
These numbers do lend support to the above hypothesis. More of the burners made their splash earlier than the big fellas. Still nothing at all magical about year #3 for either group, though.

OK, now let's set the bar a little higher, and let's say a breakout season occurs when you reach 180 fantasy points for the first time. There are 32 active (this year or last year) WRs who have accomplished this. Here is when they did it for the first time.

       ---------  Breakout Year  -----------------
         1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 TOT
--------------------------------------------------
Number   1  4  8  6  2  2  4  3  1           1  32
That's Irving Fryar who "broke out" in his 13th year, in case you were curious. With this stricter definition of breakout, year 3 does indeed become the most likely breakout year, but not by much.

OK, now let's look at things from a different angle altogether. Let's say a breakout season occurs when a WR increases his fantasy points by 100 over the previous year's figure. This is not a perfect definition (as you'll soon see), but it captures most of the seasons typically considered in these kinds of discussions. Here is the complete list of such seasons (again, I only have data for players who were active this year or last year.). The last column (labelled "Exp") tells you which year in the player's career the given season was.

LastName     FirstName    Yr     FPT   PrevFPT  DIFF   Exp
----------------------------------------------------------
Robinson     Marcus     1999     194      10     184     2
Bruce        Isaac      1995     258      45     212     2
Rice         Jerry      1986     260     119     141     2
Crowell      Germane    1999     180      68     112     2
Freeman      Antonio    1996     147      17     131     2
Smith        Rod        1997     192      36     156     3
Conway       Curtis     1995     183      70     114     3
Moulds       Eric       1998     191      35     156     3
Alexander    Derrick    1996     164      25     139     3
Jeffers      Patrick    1999     182      45     137     4
Brooks       Robert     1995     230      89     141     4
Harrison     Marvin     1999     239     120     119     4
Irvin        Michael    1991     200      71     129     4
Reed         Jake       1994     142       7     135     4
Mathis       Terance    1994     200      43     157     5
Smith        Jimmy      1996     166      47     120     5
Barnett      Fred       1994     143      17     126     5
Ellard       Henry      1988     202      98     104     6
Bruce        Isaac      1999     192      55     137     6
Thigpen      Yancey     1997     182      36     146     7
Ismail       Qadry      1999     147       0     147     7
Rice         Jerry      1998     170      13     157    14
Jerry Rice 1998 and Isaac Bruce 1999 don't really belong here, but we're more interested in the top of the list anyway. Note that more players made this large leap in their 2nd or 4th year than in their 3rd.

A 100-point increase is a lot to ask, so let's check out the list of WRs who accomplished a 50-point jump in fantasy production from one season to the next:

LastName   FirstName       Yr    FPT   PrevFPT  DIFF   Exp
----------------------------------------------------------
Freeman      Antonio    1996     147      17     131     2
Bruce        Isaac      1995     258      45     212     2
Rison        Andre      1990     181     108      73     2
Crowell      Germane    1999     180      68     112     2
Owens        Terrell    1997     142      76      66     2
Robinson     Marcus     1999     194      10     184     2
Rice         Jerry      1986     260     119     141     2
Conway       Curtis     1995     183      70     114     3
Carrier      Mark       1989     196     127      69     3
Pickens      Carl       1994     179      93      86     3
Owens        Terrell    1998     205     142      63     3
Connell      Albert     1999     156      57      99     3
Alexander    Derrick    1996     164      25     139     3
Johnson      Keyshawn   1998     185     126      59     3
Freeman      Antonio    1997     198     147      50     3
Moulds       Eric       1998     191      35     156     3
Turner       Floyd      1991     141      64      77     3
Smith        Rod        1997     192      36     156     3
Moore        Herman     1994     183     130      54     4
Jeffers      Patrick    1999     182      45     137     4
Slaughter    Webster    1989     160      64      95     4
Chrebet      Wayne      1998     156      98      58     4
Harrison     Marvin     1999     239     120     119     4
Mayes        Derrick    1999     143      57      86     4
Brooks       Robert     1995     230      89     141     4
Toomer       Amani      1999     155      66      89     4
Reed         Jake       1994     142       7     135     4
Irvin        Michael    1991     200      71     129     4
Barnett      Fred       1994     143      17     126     5
Jett         James      1997     152      84      68     5
Thigpen      Yancey     1995     161      79      82     5
Rice         Jerry      1989     254     201      52     5
Westbrook    Michael    1999     177     111      66     5
Moore        Herman     1995     253     183      69     5
Smith        Jimmy      1996     166      47     120     5
Mathis       Terance    1994     200      43     157     5
Bruce        Isaac      1999     192      55     137     6
Jackson      Michael    1996     204     125      79     6
Ismail       Raghib     1998     155      57      98     6
Brooks       Robert     1997     145      59      86     6
Ellard       Henry      1988     202      98     104     6
Ismail       Qadry      1999     147       0     147     7
Carter       Cris       1993     161     106      56     7
Thigpen      Yancey     1997     182      36     146     7
Metcalf      Eric       1995     186     107      80     7
Dawkins      Sean       1999     141      88      53     7
Irvin        Michael    1995     220     160      60     8
McCaffrey    Ed         1998     165     107      58     8
Moore        Rob        1997     206     126      81     8
Perriman     Brett      1995     208     109      99     8
Carter       Cris       1995     239     168      72     9
Rice         Jerry      1993     253     192      61     9
Mathis       Terance    1998     179     120      59     9
Irvin        Michael    1997     172     108      64    10
Reed         Andre      1994     187     124      64    10
Ellard       Henry      1994     175     108      67    12
Reed         Andre      1996     142      54      88    12
Rice         Jerry      1998     170      13     157    14
This definition doesn't completely capture the essence of "breaking out" either, as lots of guys appear more than once. It seems a bit silly to call Terance Mathis' 1998 a breakout year, for example. Anyway, for those of you keeping score, that's 11 breakout seasons in year 3, 10 in year 4, and 7 in year 2.

Conclusions

This study provides evidence for the following: Neither of these conclusions are particularly interesting. What is more interesting is what I was unable to find. Namely, I did not find any strong evidence that 3rd-year WRs are more likely to break out than 2nd- or 4th-year WRs.

To put it bluntly, the evidence in support of the 3rd-year receiver rule appears to be underwhelming at best. By no means am I claiming that this study closes the book on the issue. All of my definitions were admittedly flawed, and I wish I had a more complete set of data. But unless I see some hard evidence in support of the 3rd-year receiver rule (I've never seen any, by the way, just examples), I'm going to cross it off my list of things to consider.