Sophomore Breakouts and What We Can Expect From Last Year’s Rookie Receivers

Rookie wide receivers have it tough, transitioning from a collegiate level to a professional one takes time. Playing against smaller, slower, and less football intelligent college athletes compared to grown men in the NFL is challenging; the adage of third-year breakouts comes from this logic. But latterly more and more receivers have started to break out in their sophomore year because of the transitioning to a more pass-happy league. These players could be hard to find, so this article breaks down three that will exceed expectations, and give profiles on the rest of the rookie class.


All Breakout Sophomores In the Last 10 Years and the Correlation

In the past ten years, there have been 16 wide receivers who became wide receiver ones in their sophomore year: Mike Wallace, Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, AJ Green, Julio Jones, Randall Cobb, Alshon Jeffery, Josh Gordan, Deandre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Micheal Thomas, Tyreek Hill, and Juju Smith-Schuster. 38% of those wideouts were not ranked top 50 in their position in half-ppr in their rookie year. And only two were already wide receiver ones their rookie year. The data doesn’t show any magic numbers or stats, all it says is that anyone can break out as a sophomore even underwhelming rookies. We can not say who will breakout using last year’s numbers, but we can examine the odd breakouts and look into what factors they had in their rookie and sophomore year.

The three receivers we’ll be looking into are Alshon Jeffery, Allen Robinson, and Juju Smith-Schuster.

When looking at these three wideouts, there are two coherent trends present: vacated targets and improved quarterback play. The mentioned studs all had those two things in common. Allen Robinson’s breakout was the easiest, as he was already getting 4.8 receptions a game as a rookie. What catapulted him as a wide receiver one was the emergence of Blake Bortles as an elite QB. Bortles rookie year saw him threw shy of 3000 yards and six more picks than TDs. But his explosion into stardom (4400yds and 35tds) might have explained Allen Robinson’s sudden breakout. Additionally, Robinson took 80 out of the 110 vacated targets and was very efficient averaging almost 18 yards per reception.

Alshon Jeffery’s breakout was eerily similar to Allen Robinson’s. Alshon Jeffery played under a horrible Jay Cutler and only had a measly 48 targets in 10 appearances. But the departures of Devin Hester and Kellen Davis help explain the astronomical 100 target increase into his sophomore year. Moreover, Jeffery also had better QB play as Josh McCown replaced the Woeful Cutler. McCown was surprisingly good over his five-game stint, only throwing one interception and helping the Bears to a 0.500 season.

Juju Smith Schuster had the most promising rookie campaign out of all there of these stars, posting numbers of 917 yards and 7tds along with being in the top ten of yards per route run. Unlike the other two, Juju exploded year two becomes of his efficiency and not just because of the uptick in volume; Juju was a significantly better receiver than both Allen Robinson and Alshon Jeffery. Big Ben did have a better season in 2018 (albeit marginal). And like the other three, Juju’s fantasy relevance was augmented by the absence of Bell’s abnormal 106 targets and the departure of Martavius Bryant.


Takeaways

From this sample, three criteria must be satisfied to constitute a breakout campaign: Improved QB play, vacated Targets, and talent/efficiency. Two out of the three sophomores had significantly superior QB performances, while the other pass-catcher was a very talented rookie. And all had an abundance of vacated targets in their respective offenses.

How to Measure This
1- QB play is probably the easiest to measure as younger QBs are more probable to take as step compared to vets. And we can measure past breakouts using passer rating.
2-Vactaed targets are also easy to measure by looking into offseason moves and departures
3- Talent is a little hard, but can be quantifiable by yards per receptions. Although yards per route run is a better indicator for talent, statistics about it date back to two years.

From looking at the graph above QB improvement helps but isn’t absolutely necessary. Receivers who are very efficient don’t need as much volume to breakout as less efficient receivers.

Hunter Renfrow could be ignored as the Raiders brought in Henry Ruggs to replace his role as the slot (where he got most of his production). And the Cardinals brought in Deandre Hopkins killing any value Isabella had. Just using our knowledge of trends Terry Mclaurin and Preston Williams are the most likely to breakout. Slayton and J.J Arcega Whiteside also have a shot.


Disclaimer

Just because a rookie exhibited all three traits doesn’t make them primed for a breakout, football is complicated and has many little nuances that not even I can explain. It’s just that the traits were common in the sample and could potentially help us find sophomore breakouts, not guarantee them.


Clear Breakouts

Terry Mclaurin

2019 stats: 13g 58 receptions, 919 yards, 7tds

If you’re a Redskins fan- sorry Washington fan- then you know how good Mclaurin is; if it wasn’t for horrible overthrows the star would have over 1150 yards and 8tds!

Mclaurin led the league in a contested-catch rate, but the most jarring stats come from PFF. PFF has him as the second-best rookie receiver in the last decade behind Odell Beckhem Jr.

Scary Terry is a remarkable route runner with 4.35 speed and the ability to make picturesque catches, but the most inordinate factor in his favor is the improvement of QB play. We’ve seen breakouts sparked by more efficient quarterback performance, McLaurin played with an aging Case Keenum and a rookie Haskins- both below average QBs. It will be hard for Washington to start a worse quarterback this season, and Haskins is probably ready to make utmost strives in his sophomore year.

Additionally, there is a slew of vacated targets. Mclaurin can improve on his already high 23% target share last season. There is even a case for Mclaurin to lead the league in targets as he is the complete alpha on a team lacking receiving talent. Terry accounted for 37% of all of Washington’s receiving production with only a quarter target share, imagine what he could do with more! Scarry Terry already proved himself as one of the best receivers in the league when he torched Jaire Alexander and did solid against a stout New England Defense.

As a rookie he was highly efficient with dreadful QB play and is expected to see a boost in targets; he will be almost guaranteed to break out next season.

Terry Mclaurin is currently being drafted at his floor (middle of the pack WR2) and has the upside to see 140 targets on a team that will be playing from behind a lot.

Projected stats: 80 receptions, 1260 yards, 8 TDS


AJ Brown

2019 Stats: 52 receptions, 1051 yards, 8TDS

NASHVILLE, TN – DECEMBER 15: Detail view of rear nameplate on the jersey of A.J. Brown #11 of the Tennessee Titans as he is announced before the game against the Houston Texans at Nissan Stadium on December 15, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. Houston defeats Tennessee 24-21. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

Brown is probably the most talented receiver in this class, leading the league in yards per route run showing extreme efficiency with low volume. Furthermore, he was ranked 6th in yards after contact for receivers and shown prodigious big-play ability in his rookie year. His numbers were so well last year that they are bound to regress but by how much? The reason Brown had such a high YPRR was because of the Titans’ low passing volume. From week ten on (Brown’s breakout), the Titans only threw the ball for a paced 400 attempts; this is astronomically low and would easily be worst in the league (Titans already ranked 32 in pass attempts). Even worse is that the Titans threw the ball a combined 63 times in the playoffs even when they were loosing (49% of passing attempts in playoffs came in the conference final loss).

Another cardinal issue is that Brown was utterly shut down in the playoffs, although the Titans weren’t passing the ball that much, Brown only saw five receptions. A variation of sophomore slump could potentially explain this phenomenon. The Patriots, Ravens, and Chiefs all knew of Brown’s ability so they game planned around him and tried to shut him down, putting their top corners on the rookie could explain his astronomical dip of production.

If we give Brown his weeks 10-17 target share and boost the Titans passing attempts to 450 just for the sake of positive regression, we can project Brown to have 108 targets. A.J Brown will likely top his last year numbers, but like Mike Evans and Amari Cooper, he’ll be an unreliable option week to week, highly depending on big plays and touchdowns. Expect Brown to finish the year great statistically but be a boom or bust weekly play depending on the match-up.

Projected stats: 67 receptions, 1150 yards 7TDS


Marquise Brown

2019 stats: 14g 46rec, 584 yards, 7TDs

The final clear breakout is also the second Brown on this list. Marquise Brown flashed week one as he torched the Dolphins in both his and Lamar’s breakout game. Additionally, Lamar Jackson averaged a 123 passer rating when targeting Brown (6th in NFL). Sadly, following the performance, he banged up his ankle week two and didn’t look like the same player. Ever since Marquise Brown has been posting vigorous workouts on social media and reportedly gained 23 pounds; the Raven should be fully healthy heading into next season and play as he did in week 1. Alas, the foremost factor in Brown’s potential breakout is the vacated targets and lack of receiving talent on the Ravens. Both the departures of Hayden Hurst and Seth Roberts free up 72 targets that could spark a breakout (although low). Marquise Brown was only 144 pounds when he signed with the Ravens explaining how he got injured so quickly. Now he is 180 pounds and will be much more durable while maintaining a similar speed to before. He was very unreliable in his rookie year but could create a safe floor in PPR from the lack of receivers in Baltimore-even as a rookie, before injured, he averaged eight targets a game.

Brown has the upside to be Lamar’s number one target on an offense that will be one of the best.

Projected stats: 78 receptions, 1014 yards, 6TDs


Short Run Down On Other Sophomores

N’keal Harry

  • Could emerge as the WR 1 of the team with Edelman’s sure-fire regression
  • Could have a Victor Cruz-like breakout
  • He was a star in college
  • Worth a late pick

Deebo Samuel

  • World class yard after catch receiver with some rushing floor like Robert Woods
  • The injury will make him start slow
  • Could be the second target to a top-scoring offense
  • Worth a mid to late-round pick, but more of a stash until he recovers from injury

Mecole Hardmen

  • One of the most efficient rookies last year
  • The coaching staff took him off special teams indicating more involvement
  • Hard to see him get much volume as he’ll be 4th fiddle behind Hill, Kelce and, CEH
  • Could blow up in the next few years with Kelce’s eventually regression and Hill’s spotty injury history
  • Great late-round sleeper

J.J Arcega Whiteside

  • Not a good receiver but could get targets on a receiver-lacking Eagles team
  • Very late-round flier

Parris Cambell

  • Injuries derailed his rookie year
  • As of now, he doesn’t have a starting role and Rivers doesn’t target slot receivers much
  • Very late round sleeper

Andy Isabella

  • Won’t get much work as he’s the 5th option on a loaded Cardinals team
  • Don’t draft

Dk Metcalf

  • Absolute stud and physical specimen
  • Led the league in red-zone targets and could get double-digit touchdowns
  • Coaching staff came out and said that he’ll be used in more intricate ways (more routes)
  • Lockett and the run-heavy nature of Seattle cap his upside, but he is still a strong breakout
  • Mid round pick who can start right as a WR2 right away

Diontae Johnson

  • Mentioned in our sleepers list
  • The consensus number one breakout by most analyst
  • Great route runner that gets a lot of separation and is phenomenal with the ball in his hands
  • Was productive with awful QB play
  • Late round must draft

Jalen Hurd

  • Was running back turned receiver in Baylor
  • Can replace the Deebo Samuel role in San Fran’s offense early in the season
  • Shined in the preseason
  • Great late-round flier

Miles Boykin

  • Could be the third or second option in the Ravens offense
  • Ceiling capped by other sophomore Marquise Brown
  • Super deep flier

Hunter Renfrow

  • One of the most efficient rookies averaging 2.5 YPRR (yards per route run)
  • Would be a guaranteed breakout if it wasn’t for the Raiders drafting Henry Ruggs
  • Raiders said that they will move him out of the slot (where got most production)
  • Still worth a deep round flier but not as much upside as before

Darius Slayton

  • Could emerge as Daniel Jones number one target
  • The excess of offensive weapons limit his upside
  • Solid late-round pick

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