After the Breakout

Around this time of year, there's a lot of focus on trying to figure out which players are going to break out this year, and rightly so. But what about the guys that broke out last year? Did they sneak up on a few unsuspecting defensive coordinators last season -- defensive coordinators who have spent the whole spring watching films and muttering to themselves, "fool me 16 times, shame on you, fool me 32 times, shame on me..."? Particularly with receivers, it's reasonable to believe that the Marcus Robinsons and Patrick Jeffers of the world might get a little extra attention this season, and their numbers might suffer a bit as a result.

Let's check it out.

I defined a breakout season to be a season in which the player:

Using these specifications, the 1999 breakout players were:

Now we proceed with the usual plan: find other players who had similar seasons, and see what happened to them the following year. First the running backs:

                                ---- Fant. Pts. -----
LastName     FirstName  YEAR     PREV  Brkout   NEXT    EXP
-----------------------------------------------------------
Anderson     Jamal      1996      26     189     189     3
Bennett      Edgar      1993      31     161     171     2
Brown        Gary       1993      15     172     114     3
Hearst       Garrison   1995      28     143     104     2
Heyward      Craig      1994      34     159     191     7
Hoard        Leroy      1994      58     188      65     5
Holmes       Priest     1996       0     169      73     2
Johnson      Anthony    1996      41     167      58     7
Kaufman      Napoleon   1997     114     218     123     3
Levens       Dorsey     1997     139     253      60     4
Loville      Derek      1995      13     217      61     6
Means        Natrone    1994     118     231     108     2
Murrell      Adrian     1995      24     144     175     3
Parmalee     Bernie     1994       2     154     182     3
Staley       Duce       1998       5     186     193     2
Thomas       Thurman    1989     121     263     261     2
Williams     Harvey     1994      19     179     203     4
Let me explain all that. The year listed is the player's breakout year. The PREV column tells you how many points he scored the year before his breakout. Under Brkout, you'll see the player's total for his breakout year, and the NEXT column lists his total the next year. Finally, just for fun, I added the EXP column, which tells which year of the player's career his breakout season was. For example, Harvey Williams breakout season (1994) came in his fourth year.

OK, now that we understand what it means, we can break it all down. First the summary: in their breakout seasons, these backs averaged 188 fantasy points. In the following season, they averaged 137 points, a decrease of 27%. If you've read many of my other articles, though, you know that an overall decline is to be expected of any group of players who perform well in a given year. So the question is: is that a typical decrease, or is it more of a thud? If you look at all backs who scored over 140 fantasy points in a given year, they will decline by about 15ext year. So it does appear that the dropoff here is larger than expected. Let's divide them into groups and take a closer look:

Got Better the Next Year:

Heyward      Craig      1994      34     159     191     7
Murrell      Adrian     1995      24     144     175     3
Parmalee     Bernie     1994       2     154     182     3
Williams     Harvey     1994      19     179     203     4
It's interesting that, while these guys continued to improve upon their breakout years, they all dropped off a cliff very soon thereafter. On an unrelated note, kudos to anyone who would've guessed or remembered that Bernie Parmalee was a relatively productive fantasy player for not one but two years. Seems like ages ago.

About the Same the Next Year:

Anderson     Jamal      1996      26     189     189     3
Bennett      Edgar      1993      31     161     171     2
Staley       Duce       1998       5     186     193     2
Thomas       Thurman    1989     121     263     261     2
For you youngsters out there, Thurman Thomas used to be a very, very good back. Jamal Anderson is the only guy anywhere on the list who was able to step it up to a completely new level. He essentially had two legitimate breakouts, which is very rare. Staley might have a chance to do the same, but I wouldn't bet too much on it.

Got Worse the Next Year:

Brown        Gary       1993      15     172     114     3
Hearst       Garrison   1995      28     143     104     2
Hoard        Leroy      1994      58     188      65     5
Holmes       Priest     1996       0     169      73     2
Johnson      Anthony    1996      41     167      58     7
Kaufman      Napoleon   1997     114     218     123     3
Levens       Dorsey     1997     139     253      60     4
Loville      Derek      1995      13     217      61     6
Means        Natrone    1994     118     231     108     2
Aside from Levens and Hearst, whose declines were due to injury, this is a virtual who's-who of one-hit-wonder RBs. Don't you get the feeling that a year from now, Tyrone Wheatley's name will fit right in here?

The lesson: it is not uncommon for an RB to come out of nowhere, have a great year, and then quickly descend back into mediocrity (or worse). In fact, breakout running backs seem to be more likely to suffer a drop in performance the next year than equally good running backs who were more established. In other words, don't be afraid to bet that a breakout running back was a fluke. If, after examining all the relevant information, that's the conclusion you come to, then be confident about it.

So what does that mean for last year's breakout crop? As usual, I'll temper my comments with the obligatory set of disclaimers: nobody knows what's going to happen, and a huge chunk of a players' success or failure depends on his situation, and other factors not being measured here. In short, you probably know as much as I do. For what it's worth, though, I'll throw my opinions into the ring.

I already mentioned that I don't much care for Wheatley this year. Curtis Enis, on the other hand, I like. He's young, and his failure to produce earlier in his career, unlike Wheatley's, is easily explained by a serious knee injury. I'm less sure about Charlie Garner, but I like him as well. There's no shame at all in being beaten out by Ricky Watters in his prime and Duce Staley. If Garner gets the majority of the 49ers' work, he'll match last season's numbers. Finally, Stephen Davis is a real stumper in my mind. His breakout was much more dramatic than most of the ones under consideration here, and I still have a hard time believing that anyone who was at one time considered Skip Hicks' equal is any good. On the other hand, his numbers from last year speak for themselves, and he's still relatively young. Personally, I don't plan to take him, but I'm fully prepared for the possibility that I'll get drubbed twice by whoever does.

OK, what about the receivers? Here are the pre-1999 breakouts:

                                ---- Fant. Pts. -----
LastName     FirstName  YEAR     PREV  Brkout   NEXT    EXP
-----------------------------------------------------------
Alexander    Derrick    1996      25     164     155     3
Brooks       Robert     1995      89     230      59     4
Bruce        Isaac      1995      45     258     176     2
Conway       Curtis     1995      70     183     152     3
Ellard       Henry      1988      98     202     187     6
Freeman      Antonio    1996      17     147     198     2
Irvin        Michael    1991      71     200     181     4
Mathis       Terance    1994      43     200     158     5
Moulds       Eric       1998      35     191     142     3
Reed         Jake       1994       7     142     171     4
Rice         Jerry      1986     119     260     251     2
Smith        Jimmy      1996      47     166     156     5
Smith        Rod        1997      36     192     165     3
The summary: these receivers collectively lost 150f their value the season after they broke out. The group of all receivers scoring over 140 fantasy points tend to lose about 19%, so our breakout receivers were about the same -- actually slightly better. This says that, unlike breakout running backs, breakout wide receivers are most likely here to stay. Take a look at the list; you won't find many one-year-wonders. Unlike the running back list, most of these guys continued to play at a high level after their breakout. I was actually a tad surprised by this. I would've guessed that receivers were more likely to have the defenses "catch up with them" the next year, but that's not the way it turned out.

This bodes very well for Misters Crowell, Harrison, Jeffers, Ismail, and Robinson. They are most likely for real.