I've been writing about third-year receivers for a long time. And every time when I write this story, it seems harder to defend that wide receivers will still have a breakout campaign in Year 3 because so many are so good in their first and second seasons. But then I look at the stats, and it tells a different story.
Last season, we highlighted nine third-year receivers (I took out the "others to consider for deeper leagues"), and five of them (Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Gabe Davis, Jerry Jeudy and Brandon Aiyuk) set career-high stats in some capacity. So even though guys like Jefferson, Lamb and Aiyuk were successful in their first two seasons, they still did something special in their third year. And hopefully that will happen again in 2023.
As we look at the wide receiver Class of 2021, it's top heavy with guys who have already proven themselves to be elite. It starts with Ja'Marr Chase, who could be the best receiver in Fantasy and reality. Then you have Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, and all four of these guys are being drafted in the first two rounds of most Fantasy leagues based on early Average Draft Position data, which makes sense.
Can those four receivers improve in their third year? That would be amazing, but you shouldn't expect a huge statistical leap. Most likely, the receivers who will improve in their third year will come from other guys in this class, including Kadarius Toney, Nico Collins, Rashod Bateman, Elijah Moore, Rondale Moore and Terrace Marshall Jr.
Those are the receivers with the most room to grow with their production, and you can see a path to success for all of them. We'll break down all the top receivers in this class and when to invest in them on Draft Day. But first, a little background on why third-year receivers might still matter.
The reason we like to discuss third-year receivers is this is the season when things start to click for players at the position. What some of the best receivers in NFL history have told me -- and I've spoken to Jerry Rice, Cris Carter, Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin, among many others about the topic -- is that it takes at least two years to develop. They have to learn how to hone their craft, develop a rapport with their quarterback and also understand defenses better.
Historically, some receivers you can point to who have broken out in their third season in the NFL include Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, Chris Godwin, Cooper Kupp, Mike Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, T.Y. Hilton, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Carter, Terrell Owens, Keyshawn Johnson, Deebo Samuel, Diontae Johnson and Marquise Brown. And now Jefferson, Lamb, Jeudy, Davis and Aiyuk can be put in this category as well.
Now, it's not always perfect, and guys sometimes have their best season in Year 1 or Year 2. Because of how college offenses are operating these days, many receivers come into the NFL more prepared than ever before. Their maturation process is accelerated, and the learning curve isn't as steep.
And so rather than Fantasy players gravitating toward third-year breakouts, they are instead just using it as another part of the decision-making process. It's not necessarily a priority anymore.
For me, I'm still going to give these guys an extra bump in my rankings, especially the ones on the cusp of having a big season. And the ones I plan to target the most are Collins, Bateman and Elijah Moore.
Of course, I'm also excited about Chase, St. Brown, Waddle and DeVonta Smith. Let's hope for them -- and us -- that Year 3 is even better than what we've seen in the first two seasons.
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These are guys you're drafting in the first three rounds in all leagues.
- 2021 stats: 81 catches, 1,455 yards, 13 touchdowns, 128 targets
- 2022 stats: 87 catches, 1,046 yards, nine touchdowns, 134 targets (12 games)
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 95 catches, 1,235 yards, nine touchdowns, 144 targets
Chase should be the No. 2 overall pick in PPR and 0.5-PPR leagues, right behind Justin Jefferson. Chase has been a monster during the first two seasons of his career, and he averaged 20.1 PPR points per game in 12 games in 2022. The only receivers better than Chase last season in that category were Cooper Kupp (22.3), Jefferson (21.6) and Tyreek Hill (20.4). If Chase continues to get 11.2 targets per game and can get back to averaging 18.0 yards per catch like he did as a rookie then he could be better than Jefferson in 2023.
- 2021 stats: 90 catches, 912 yards, five touchdowns, 119 targets
- 2022 stats: 106 catches, 1,161 yards, six touchdowns, 146 targets
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 95 catches, 1,061 yards, six touchdowns, 131 targets
I love that St. Brown remains bitter about the 16 receivers drafted ahead of him in the 2021 class, including guys like D'Wayne Eskridge, Amari Rodgers, Anthony Schwartz and Dez Fitzpatrick. St. Brown has the most receptions of all the receivers in this class and trails only Chase, Waddle and DeVonta Smith in yards and touchdowns. St. Brown was one of seven receivers with at least 100 receptions last year, and he could repeat that performance again with Ben Johnson calling plays and Jared Goff still under center in Detroit. St. Brown is an excellent pick in Round 2 in all leagues.
- 2021 stats: 104 catches, 1,015 yards, six touchdowns, 140 targets
- 2022 stats: 75 catches, 1,356 yards, eight touchdowns, 117 targets
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 70 catches, 1,131 yards, six touchdowns, 107 targets
Waddle went from a high-volume receiver as a rookie with 140 targets and 104 receptions to a big-play threat as a sophomore at 18.1 yards per reception. He's arguably the best No. 2 receiver in the NFL behind Hill, and Waddle is worth drafting in Round 2 in all leagues. The lone concern for Waddle is the health of Tua Tagovailoa because Waddle's numbers were terrible last season when Tagovailoa was out with concussion issues. But hopefully the addition of Mike White in Miami can help Waddle if White is pressed into action. The best-case scenario is Tagovailoa plays the majority of the season, and Waddle could join Hill as a top-five receiver in 2023.
- 2021 stats: 64 catches, 916 yards, five touchdowns, 104 targets
- 2022 stats: 95 catches, 1,196 yards, seven touchdowns, 136 targets
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 76 catches, 965 yards, seven touchdowns, 112 targets
Smith, like Waddle, is one the best running mates in the NFL behind A.J. Brown. And Smith has shown the kind of progression you like from a third-year receiver because his numbers increased from Year 1 to Year 2. Hopefully that rise continues in 2023. Smith shares the field with two standout receiving options in Brown and Dallas Goedert, but Smith was still No. 13 among receivers in targets last year. And over his final six games in the regular season, Smith averaged 19.8 PPR points per game, with at least eight targets in each outing. Smith showed enough last season that you should draft him toward the end of Round 2.
These are the third-year receivers you should be targeting who have breakout potential.
- 2021 stats: 39 catches, 420 yards, no touchdowns, 57 targets (10 games)
- 2022 stats: 16 catches, 171 yards, two touchdowns, 20 targets (nine games)
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 50 catches, 541 yards, five touchdowns, 67 targets
Toney is one of the biggest wild cards for Fantasy managers this year at any position. He could be the No. 1 receiver for the Chiefs and emerge as a must-start option in all leagues. Or he could be a total bust. His career has been closer to the latter so far, which is why the Giants traded him to the Chiefs last season, and he had little involvement in Kansas City's offense. But Andy Reid has talked up Toney enough this season that he's worth drafting as early as Round 8 in most leagues, and he could be a third-year breakout. The hope is he stays healthy and emerges as the No. 2 target for Patrick Mahomes behind Travis Kelce.
- 2021 stats: 33 catches, 446 yards, one touchdown, 60 targets (14 games)
- 2022 stats: 37 catches, 481 yards, two touchdowns, 66 targets (10 games)
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 52 catches, 722 yards, four touchdowns, 94 targets
Collins is one of my favorite sleepers this season, and I'm hoping Year 3 in the NFL is his best year to date. The Texans receiving corps is wide open this year with Collins, Robert Woods, John Metchie III and Nathaniel Dell all fighting for targets, but I like Collins the best coming into the season. He showed positive flashes last year during Weeks 10-13 when he had 36 targets and averaged 11.2 PPR points per game. I think he's capable of much more than that, and I'm willing to draft him as early as Round 8. New quarterback C.J. Stroud should lean on Collins quite a bit in 2023.
- 2021 stats: 43 catches, 538 yards, five touchdowns, 77 targets (11 games)
- 2022 stats: 37 catches, 446 yards, one touchdown, 65 targets
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 55 catches, 660 yards, three touchdowns, 99 targets
Moore is another one of my favorite sleepers, and I love his move from the Jets to the Browns. In Cleveland, he should be the No. 2 receiver opposite Amari Cooper, and Moore should emerge as a top target for Deshaun Watson. As a rookie with the Jets in 2021, Moore averaged 12.5 PPR points per game and looked poised for stardom. But he struggled as a sophomore due to poor quarterback play and was seemingly in the doghouse with the coaching staff in New York, averaging just 5.4 PPR points per game. The offseason reports so far in Cleveland have been encouraging, and Moore should rebound in his third-year campaign.
- 2021 stats: 46 catches, 515 yards, one touchdown, 68 targets (12 games)
- 2022 stats: 15 catches, 285 yards, two touchdowns, 28 targets (six games)
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 48 catches, 819 yards, four touchdowns, 81 targets
It's discouraging that Bateman is again dealing with foot problems this offseason, and he was limited to six games in 2022 because of a Lisfranc injury. Hopefully, Bateman will be fine for training camp, and he should be the No. 1 receiver for the Ravens when healthy. We'll see how Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers fit in, but Lamar Jackson should have the best rapport with Bateman in this new, up-tempo offense in Baltimore under coordinator Todd Monken. Bateman could end up as a weekly starter in all three-receiver leagues and might even crack the top 24 if he can stay on the field.
- 2021 stats: 54 catches, 435 yards, one touchdown, 64 targets (14 games)
- 2022 stats: 41 catches, 414 yards, one touchdown, 56 targets (eight games)
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 65 catches, 619 yards, two touchdowns, 87 targets
Moore has a big opportunity in front of him with DeAndre Hopkins gone from Arizona, and he should be the No. 2 receiver opposite Marquise Brown. The potential problem for Moore and all the Cardinals is the health of quarterback Kyler Murray (ACL), who might not be ready for the start of the season. With Murray, Moore has the potential to be a weekly starter in three-receiver leagues with the target bump he should get. Without Murray, it will be hard to trust Moore as anything more than a bench option. I love getting Moore with a late-round pick in all leagues, and the upside could be incredible.
- 2021 stats: 17 catches, 138 yards, no touchdowns, 30 targets (13 games)
- 2022 stats: 28 catches, 490 yards, one touchdown, 47 targets (14 games)
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 34 catches, 569 yards, two touchdowns, 57 targets
Marshall has the chance to be the best receiver for the Panthers this season. Or he could struggle yet again in Year 3. Carolina lost D.J. Moore this offseason when he was traded to Chicago, but the Panthers added Adam Thielen, D.J. Chark and rookie Jonathan Mingo. Given Thielen's age (32), Chark's recent injury history (15 combined missed games the past two years) and Mingo's inexperience, we could see Bryce Young lean on Marshall quite a bit. Now, Marshall has to prove himself before Fantasy managers can fully trust him, but he's a good late-round flier in all leagues.
Others to consider ...
- 2021 stats: 33 catches, 353 yards, four touchdowns, 49 targets
- 2022 stats: 72 catches, 769 yards, three touchdowns, 107 targets
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 53 catches, 580 yards, three touchdowns, 81 targets
Palmer would have been one of my favorite third-year receivers if the Chargers hadn't selected Quentin Johnston in the first round of the NFL Draft. Now, Palmer is fourth on the depth chart behind Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Johnston, and it will be hard for Palmer to produce on a consistent basis. There's always the chance of an injury, and Allen and Williams missed a combined 11 games last year. But with everyone healthy, Palmer isn't expected to get enough targets, which crushes his upside in 2023.
- 2021 stats: no catches, no targets (eight games)
- 2022 stats: 18 catches, 298 yards, one touchdown, 35 targets (13 games)
- 023 SportsLine Projections: 30 catches, 491 yards, two touchdowns
The Rams receiving corps is thin with Cooper Kupp entrenched as the star, but the best No. 2 option is likely Van Jefferson. That leaves Atwell, Ben Skowronek, Puka Nacua and Demarcus Robinson fighting for targets, and Atwell could emerge as the best No. 3 receiver. While I would gamble on Nacua first, Atwell showed last season that he could be a playmaker for the Rams when he scored two touchdowns over the final eight games. In deep leagues, you can take a flier on Atwell, especially if he emerges as the No. 3 receiver in training camp.
- 2021 stats: 11 catches, 133 yards, no touchdowns, 20 targets
- 2022 stats: 39 catches, 376 yards, no touchdowns, 61 targets
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: 45 catches, 466 yards, two touchdowns, 72 targets
Like Atwell, Skowronek will compete to be the No. 3 receiver for the Rams, and he could be worth a late-round flier in deeper leagues. And Skowronek could be a nice surprise based on how he played at times last year. He had five games with at least five targets, and he scored at least 10 PPR points in three of them. Unfortunately, he missed the final three games of the season with a calf injury and was dealing with a foot injury in minicamp, so that's something to monitor. But if he's third on the depth chart for the Rams then he could be helpful for Fantasy managers as well.
- 2021 stats: 12 catches, 165 yards, no touchdowns, 25 targets
- 2022 stats: five catches, 143 yards, two touchdowns, 14 targets
- 2023 SportsLine Projections: eight catches, 161 yards, two touchdowns, 20 targets
I'm including Brown in this section with the hope he can be more involved in his third season in the NFL. The Commanders clearly have a top trio at receiver with Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel, so Brown will struggle for targets. And he hasn't shown enough yet in two seasons to warrant more playing time. But he could be a surprise receiver in Fantasy and reality if given more opportunities, and maybe this is the season it happens. He's someone to monitor during the year to potentially add off the waiver wire.