Yet Another WR Breakout Article

Last year, I wrote an article that examined the so-called 3rd-year WR rule. At the end of it, I concluded that the evidence in support of this rule was pretty flimsy.

Much has happened since I wrote that article:

  1. I got a lot of thoughtful feedback from readers questioning my methods, my conclusions, my definition of "breakout," even my definition of "3rd-year." There were some valid points there.
  2. My database expanded. I now have about twice as much data to look at as I did a year ago.
  3. My database management skills have also improved, so I can take a deeper look than I was capable of last year.

In light of all this, I decided to revisit the issue, and hopefully do it right this time. The main improvement will be that all the data will be laid out for you to draw your own conclusions. For example, here is a snapshot of Muhsin Muhammad's career:

Muhsin Muhammad     47  32 130 173 156                                                            
The numbers you see there are his fantasy point totals for each year of his career: 47 in his rookie year, 32 in his second year, and so on. I'm defining fantasy points in the standard way (yards/10 + TDs*6) and only including rushing and receiving stats -- no return TDs included.

Now, according to my definition of breakout -- which I'll describe shortly -- Muhammad never had a breakout season. If you disagree with that, more power to you. You won't have take my word for it. You can pick Muhsin up out of the "no breakout" pile and throw him onto 3rd-year pile or the 4th-year pile or wherever you think he belongs. Note also that clicking on Muhsin's name will take you to his page at pro-football-reference.com, where you can view his complete career.

What is a breakout?

It's not easy to pin down. Here's what I decided on. A breakout occurs when a player meets the following three conditions:
  1. he scored at least 140 fantasy points;
  2. it was his first year over 140 points;
  3. he scored at least 50 points better than his previous career high.

Condition 1 is what keeps Muhsin Muhammad from being considered a 3rd-year breakout. In his 3rd year, he certainly did show vast improvement, boosting his production by nearly a hundred points. But, if that only gets you up to 941/6, I'm not that interested. You have to break out to something valuable, and I've set 140 points as the minimum to be considered valuable. No, I don't really have a good reason for choosing 140 instead of 130 or 150 or 142.6. Feel free to adjust it as you see fit.

Condition 2 is what keeps seasons like Derrick Alexander's 2000 from being considered a breakout. Here's Derrick's career:

Derrick Alexander   99  25 164 155 123 109 204                                                    
I've got him classified as a 3rd-year breakout. Yes, his 2000 season was a nice surprise, but not a breakout. Once you've broken out, you can't break out again.

Condition 3 captures the essence of the breakout: a large increase in production over anything the player had previously accomplished. Again, you may prefer 40 or 60 or 100 instead of 50, which is fine.

What is the 3rd year?

Seems like a simple enough question, but it's not. What was Marcus Robinson's 3rd year? He was drafted in 1997, but played no NFL games until 1998. Was 1998 his 2nd year or his 1st? What about Jimmy Smith?
Jimmy Smith          0       0  47 166 156 166 200 169                                            
In 1992 and 1994, he was on an NFL roster, and playing in NFL games, but he had no catches. In 1993, he did not appear in an NFL game (note the difference in his stat line above -- the years he played show up as a 0, but the year he didn't is blank). Do you want to count 92 and 94? I do. If you're healthy and on an NFL team for a year, that's a year of experience in my book. But then there's the issue of how do whether or not to count 1993, when Smith didn't play at all. Was he hurt, or was he just not good enough to make a roster? I don't know. I'm going to define a "year" as a year in which the player played in an NFL game. So for Smith, I'm counting 92 and 94, but not 93. That makes him a 4th-year breakout.

Finally, I want to get some terminology straight. It appears that there are two distinct interpretations of the term "3rd-year breakout rule."

The loose interpretation is correct, but it's essentially useless. It's roughly equivalent to saying that WRs tend to break out sometime in their 2nd, 3rd, or 4th years. That is, they break out after they've had some experience, but before they're too old. That makes just about every young WR in the league a breakout candidate. To some extent, just about every young WR in the league is a potential breakout candidate, but the purpose of a "rule" is to try to narrow down the list a bit, and the loose interpretation of the 3rd-year rule doesn't really help with that. Further, I propose that anyone talking about the loose version of the 3rd-year rule not call it the 3rd-year rule, as that tends to make people believe you're talking about the strict version.

This article is an attempt to address the strict interpretation. And make no mistake, there are lots of people out there who believe in the strict version. Every summer, there are articles at fantasy websites and posts to fantasy bulletin boards that start with a list of 3rd-year WRs, and then begin to consider factors like talent, situation, etc.

Shut up and get to the data, man!

My database contains complete career data for every WR who played anytime after 1986. In there, I found 104 WRs who have at one point in their career eclipsed the 140 fantasy point mark. 28 of those did not have a breakout season according to the criteria listed above. Another 10 "broke out" by scoring 140+ points in their rookie season. Of the remaining 66, here is how many broke out in which year:
Year    How many breakouts
--------------------------
2nd           23
3rd           15
4th           13
5th            7
6th            4
7th            0
8th            4
Again, tinkering with my definition (changing the 140 point condition to 130 or 150, for example, or changing the minimum increase from 50 to 75) will change the breakdown a bit, but I tinkered quite a bit and never found a definition that would make the 3rd year the best year for a breakout.

Let's now go through and try to identify special situations where my criteria might possibly misclassify someone. First, let's check out the 2nd-year breakouts:

FINE PRINT: all data from 82 and 87 was adjusted to account for the strikes.

Anthony Miller      75 187 137  83 148 158 141 192 101  89                                        
Terrell Owens       76 142 205  99 224                                                            
Wesley Walker       95 165  87  44 131  98 129 104 103 174  25  98   9                            
Dwight Clark        23 147 138 121 134 124 131  91  59                                            
Bruce Hill          53 157  97  94  31                                                            
Isaac Bruce         45 258 176 112  55 192 202                                                    
David Boston        59 158                                                                        
Germane Crowell     68 180  62                                                                    
Wes Chandler        60 143 134 150 160 117 107 181 111  74   3                                    
Richard Johnson      1     161 109                                                                
Torry Holt         117 200                                                                        
Flipper Anderson    32 145 135  59 108  79 126  23   0   0                                        
Mike Quick          22 219 159 191 148 145  75  35  20                                            
Sterling Sharpe     85 217 148 121 225 194 221                                                    
Jerry Rice         119 260 251 201 254 228 205 192 253 249 284 187  13 170 114 122                
Andre Rison        108 181 169 178 214 157  88  77 151  85  22  97                                
Al Toon             85 165 128 137  81 112  97  43                                                
Charlie Brown      117 176  38  53 116  10                                                        
Kevin House         86 173  56 107 131 110  51  12                                                
Mark Duper           0 160 179  83 196 108  69  78 111 139 118                                    
Mark Clayton        26 247 125 178 120 197 156  59 177  80  51                                    
Marcus Robinson     10 194 105                                                                    
Antonio Freeman     17 147 198 227 143 146                                                        
There are two guys here that need to be discussed: Terrell Owens and Antonio Freeman. They need to be discussed because every (and I do mean every) article ever written about the 3rd-year WR rule cites these two as 3rd-year breakouts. But I've got them classified as 2nd-year breakouts. Owens could go either way. It looks to me like he did have two legitimate breakouts -- one in his 2nd year and then another in his 3rd. If you want to call him a 3rd-year breakout, I won't argue. Freeman, though, really does look like a 2nd-year breakout to me. Note that he missed four games in his 2nd year, so his per-game production was nearly identical in his 2nd and 3rd years.

Now the 3rd-year guys:

Keyshawn Johnson   132 126 185 166 136                                                            
Ricky Sanders       41  81 188 140  92  99  88  89  66                                            
Floyd Turner        35  64 141   4  22  95  67  59      81                                        
Curtis Conway       40  70 183 152  55  96  66 104                                                
Mervyn Fernandez    24 105 163 115  75  12                                                        
Carl Pickens        39  93 179 226 190  99 133 110  24                                            
Stanley Morgan      63 113 176 139 141  77 100 101 106 209  85  74  67  66                        
Eric Moulds         44  35 191 142 165                                                            
Stepone Paige       89  80 156 149  95 132  88 132  11                                            
Rod Smith           21  36 192 165 126 224                                                        
Mark Carrier        60 127 196 105  82  93 101  83 118 117  56  42                                
Derrick Alexander   99  25 164 155 123 109 204                                                    
Steve Watson         8  15 203  67 145 159 122  88  23                                            
John Taylor         15  45 168 117 155  62 126  83  52                                            
Albert Connell      26  57 156  94                                                                
These are all pretty clear-cut cases of 3rd-year breakouts. The only ones who might be arguable are Keyshawn Johnson as a rookie breakout or Floyd Turner as not worth talking about at all.

The 4th-year breakouts:

Carlos Carson       11  24  61 187 131 111  74 146  89  15                                        
Patrick Jeffers      0   2  45 182                                                                
Michael Haynes      47  96  45 178 141 102 133  84 103  21                                        
Herman Moore        14 121 130 183 253 184 177 128  32  61                                        
Haywood Jeffires     9  11  74 153 160 145 111 114 116  40                                        
Marvin Harrison    133 122 120 239 225                                                            
Derrick Mayes       17  29  57 143  32                                                            
Michael Irvin       96  50  71 200 181 176 160 220 108 172 112  35                                
Robert Brooks       20  20  89 230  59 145  60       5                                            
Amani Toomer         1  32  66 155 166                                                            
Jimmy Smith          0       0  47 166 156 166 200 169                                            
Jake Reed            0  14   7 142 171 174 150  71  76  21                                        
Tim McGee           35  46 105 173  80 104  59  68  22                                            
Jake Reed, Amani Toomer, and Patrick Jeffers could be considered 3rd-year breakouts if you don't count their first years. Herman Moore could be called a 2nd if you have a low threshold for breaking out. Marvin Harrison was injured in his 3rd year, but if you pro-rate his stats to 16 games, he still wouldn't count as a 3rd-year breakout.

Here are the 5th-year and later breakouts:

Michael Westbrook   76  57  73 111 177  10                                                        
Joe Horn             4   7  26  96 183                                                            
Art Monk            98 125  53 103 181 140 134  91 129 167 113 155  87  52  76  11                
Yancey Thigpen       0   0  33  79 161  36 182  67  89  41                                        
James Jett          95  25  24  84 152 125  67  48                                                
Terance Mathis      25  41  58  43 200 158 119 120 179 138  97                                    
Roy Green            2   0 107  64 212 227 100  87 101 152 112 105  36  11                        
Henry Ellard        28  98 112  67  98 202 187 156 123  91 108 175 131 113  73  12                
Michael Jackson     39 120 124  42 125 204 116  48                                                
Drew Hill           15  54  55   9      63 171 141 135 174 142 132 135  80  38                    
Raghib Ismail       41  84  70  35  57 155 163  48                                                
Brett Perriman      35  35  50  74 105  63 109 208 133  45                                        
Ed McCaffrey        15  91  46  25  60  97 107 165 144 186                                        
Rob Moore          105 129  99  90 137 121 126 206 128  92                                        
Mike Renfro         47  44  53  51  48  44  70 144  51  90                                        
Thigpen is a 3rd-year if you don't count his first two seasons. Roy Green is an odd case. I believe he was a defensive back when he first broke in, so his breakout may well have been in his 3rd year as a fulltime WR -- I don't know. Michael Jackson is a 2nd-year breakout if you have a low threshold.

Now the rookie breakouts:

Kevin Johnson      146  67                                                                        
Randy Moss         234 212 234                                                                    
Terry Glenn        153  55  97 139 136                                                            
Ernest Givins      145 128 130  97 158 133 146 115  58  46                                        
Eddie Brown        155 124  79 181 117 125  95                                                    
Billy Brooks       162  90 111 116 112 113  54 104  60 142  22                                    
Eddie Kennison     146  42  30 110  74                                                            
Joey Galloway      167 153 184 167  39  12                                                        
Cris Collinsworth  149  75 143 136 143 161  49  29                                                
Louis Lipps        153 193  77  16 150 148  86  79   0                                            
Joey Galloway is another guy that you'll see presented as evidence of the 3rd-year rule, but I don't buy it at all. 167, 153, 184. How is that a breakout? No one on this list could be considered a 3rd-year breakout.

Finally, the guys who, according to my criteria, never had a breakout year:

Darnay Scott       127 113 114 110 125 144                                                        
Steve Largent       93 124 165 178 143 187  68 174 189 165 162 143  76  58                        
James Lofton       119 121 147 177 111 182 186 141 108 118  55  35  95 155 115  18                
Bert Emanuel        89 134 128 153  77  30  19                                                    
Tim Brown          114   1  45  87 111 161 185 194 168 173 155 171 180                            
O.J. McDuffie       19  70 131 141 100 148  64  14                                                
Sean Dawkins        49 104  96  81  92  88 141 103                                                
Irving Fryar        21 118 118  82  80  73 109 121 104 131 169 139 185 168  72  37  86            
Vance Johnson       94  50 110 120 152  93  39  41  82      17                                    
Qadry Ismail        29 100  78  53   0   0 147  96                                                
Webster Slaughter   82 123  64 160 112 109  75 120  97  75  55       9                            
Cris Carter         20 112 128  60 126 106 161 168 239 176 185 173 202 181                        
Stacey Bailey        8 124 150  36   5  51  56  17   4                                            
Eric Martin         76  98 120 152 157 121 104 134 113  37                                        
Gary Clark         124 169 149 132 179 159 194 123 106  83  65                                    
JT Smith             0  62  78  97  23   9   7  68 137 160 130 110  35                            
Andre Reed          94 115 105 139 188 145 185 116 124 187  54 142 119 110  60  16                
Keenan McCardell     1  47  18  95 131 146 125 119 151                                            
Wayne Chrebet       97 109  98 156  81 140                                                        
Jeff Graham          2  77  58 118 154 115  66  72 109 115                                        
Muhsin Muhammad     47  32 130 173 156                                                            
Fred Barnett       121 119 143  17 143  89  74  23                                                
Johnnie Morton      10 110 111 145 116 143  99                                                    
Daryl Turner       132 145  75  51                                                                
Tony Martin         52  55  67  53 130 158 201 126 154 133  39                                    
Quinn Early         68  15  30  67  87 106 114 156 108 115  28   8                                
John Stallworth     32  66  34 125 134 166  26 142  87  10 206 124  53  64                        
Anthony Carter     130 112 134 163 132 150 103  83 109  28   0                                    
Of the players on this list, I'd say the ones who might have a case as 3rd-year breakouts are Largent, McDuffie, and Muhammad. But if you count Largent as a 3rd-year, then you must count Gary Clark as a 2nd-year, and if you count McDuffie as a 3rd-year, then it might make sense to count Stacy Bailey and possibly Bert Emmanuel as 2nd-years.

Conclusions

The goal here is to provide you with enough information that you can draw your own conclusions. But if you want mine, here they are: among WRs who do break out, the 2nd year appears to be the most common year for doing so. With certain interpretations, the 2nd and 3rd years might be equally likely, but I personally don't see any way that the 3rd year is more likely, much less far more likely, as is implied by the 3rd year WR rule. If you see support for the 3rd year WR rule here, you are seeing something that I don't.