The NFL is a copycat league, and when something good happens, you often see teams try to replicate that success the following year. That could be the case with the wide receiver class of 2015.
The year before, in 2014, we might have had the greatest collection of receiver talent ever from one draft class with guys like Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks, Jarvis Landry, Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, Davante Adams, Donte Moncrief, Kelvin Benjamin, John Brown, Martavis Bryant, Jordan Matthews and Quincy Enunwa. Those are some of the best receivers in the NFL now, and some still have the chance to develop into stars.
Five receivers were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft that season (Watkins, Evans, Beckham, Cooks and Benjamin), which was the most since 2009. And seeing Beckham, Evans, Benjamin, Landry, Watkins and Matthews play well as rookies set the tone for the NFL Draft in 2015.
That looks like a mistake.
There were six receivers taken in the first round of the NFL Draft in 2015 with Amari Cooper, Kevin White, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Breshad Perriman and Phillip Dorsett. Cooper has been excellent with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, but White, Parker and Perriman have struggled with injuries and inconsistent play, while Agholor and Dorsett have been total busts.
Going past the first round, we've already seen Devin Smith suffer two ACL tears, Dorial Green-Beckham cut by his second team (Tennessee and Philadelphia) and three receivers already change positions -- Ty Montgomery (running back), Tony Lippett (cornerback) and Neal Sterling (tight end). It might not be fair to call this receiver class a failure just yet, but they need to prove themselves this year.
And it looks like that is going to happen.
There are several receivers entering their third year in 2017 who are poised for a breakout campaign, and this is the season when many receivers in NFL history have taken the next step in their careers. While Cooper has the chance for a slight uptick in value, Fantasy owners should be excited about guys like Jamison Crowder, Stefon Diggs and Parker.
Additionally, two undrafted receivers who are entering their third season in 2017 have the chance to be breakout candidates with Willie Snead and Cameron Meredith. Tyrell Williams benefits with the back injury to rookie teammate Mike Williams, and we still have the chance to get quality production from other guys like J.J. Nelson, Perriman, White, Tyler Lockett and Devin Funchess.
The third-year receiver theory is something some Fantasy owners still buy into but others ignore. I'm still a believer, and I've done numerous interviews with receivers over the years who say this is the season when receivers tend to "get it."
Some of the best receivers in the NFL, past and present, have had a breakout year in their third season, including Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, Adams, T.Y. Hilton, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Cris Carter, Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson. Hall of Famers like Carter and Jerry Rice are among those who have told me they agree that the third season for a receiver is important because of development.
Now, this doesn't mean a rookie or second-year receiver can't be a star. Former Baltimore receiver Steve Smith was one dissenter who told me he doesn't believe it takes three years for a receiver to develop. But the consensus is a receiver's third season is when a certain comfort factor happens with understanding routes, reading defenses and getting a rapport with his quarterback, among other things.
Evans said he "absolutely" improved in his third season, and Snead said this is the best he's felt with his play, as well as the timing being right with his opportunity to have a career year.
"I feel like it's my time," Snead said. "I just have to make the most of it."
The receivers of that 2015 class might have struggled through their first two seasons, but in 2017 we could see several breakout performances that would be great for Fantasy owners.
Tier 1 - Definite starter: Amari Cooper
Cooper was the No. 22 Fantasy receiver in standard leagues as a rookie and No. 12 last year. But we hope he can do even better this season, and his production has trended in the right direction for his first two years. His biggest obstacle has been teammate Michael Crabtree getting more targets and touchdowns each of the past two seasons, and Cooper hasn't been a red-zone weapon with only two touchdowns inside the 20 in his career and no catches inside the 10-yard line over that span. We'd love to see a bump in both of those areas, and another couple of touchdowns could easily push Cooper into the top 10. Cooper is worth drafting in Round 2 in most leagues.
Tier 2 - Potential starters: Jamison Crowder, Willie Snead, Stefon Diggs
Crowder was the No. 30 Fantasy receiver last year in standard leagues when he was the No. 3 receiver for the Redskins behind DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon. Those two are gone now, taking with them 216 targets, 135 catches, 2,046 yards and seven touchdowns. Terrelle Pryor was added as a free agent, and the Redskins are hopeful Josh Doctson, who struggled with injuries as a rookie last year, can step up. But even if those two are great, as well as tight end Jordan Reed, we should still see Crowder have a career season. It's doubtful he scores more than seven touchdowns, but 75 catches and 1,000 yards won't be a stretch. He's a low-end No. 2/high-end No. 3 Fantasy receiver in all leagues and is worth drafting no later than Round 6.
Cooks is gone, and Snead now has the chance to be featured even more for Drew Brees as the starter opposite Michael Thomas. The Saints brought in Ted Ginn as a free agent, but Snead should have the chance for a career season, which also happens to be a contract year. Snead's also no stranger to third-year breakouts. He did that with 106 catches for 1,516 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior at Ball State. Last year, Snead got off to a great start with 14 catches for 226 yards and two touchdowns on 17 targets in his first two games before hurting his toe, and injury that lingered all season. He's healthy now and is worth drafting as a low-end No. 2/high-end No. 3 Fantasy receiver no later than Round 6.
We hope this is the season Diggs puts it all together because he's had flashes of brilliance the past two years but has been far from consistent. In 2016, Diggs had four games with double digits in Fantasy points in a standard league and five games with four points or less. The same happened in 2015 with four games of at least 10 points and six games with four points or less. He's also struggled with injuries with six missed games over the past two years. We hope he's healthy and can have a breakout campaign, but the Vikings offense, with Sam Bradford at quarterback, lowers his upside. He's only worth drafting with a mid-round pick in standard leagues, but his value is higher in PPR. He should be drafted no later than Round 6 in PPR since he should catch at least 90 passes this year.
Tier 3 - High-upside No. 3 options: DeVante Parker, Cameron Meredith, Tyrell Williams
It's easy to get excited about offseason hype because players, especially talented ones, can look great in shorts and without pads. But there's reason to be optimistic about Parker given his pedigree as the former No. 14 overall selection from Louisville, and all the reports so far have been glowing. The Miami Herald reported in May that Parker has been "so impressive this offseason he has coaches hopeful he can finally develop into the dominant threat the Dolphins were expecting" in 2015. The report also said Parker is healthy and "going hard during his workouts." His outlook would have been better if Kenny Stills left as a free agent, but even with Stills, Jarvis Landry and the addition of Julius Thomas, we still expect a big year for Parker. Parker is worth drafting as a high-end No. 3 Fantasy receiver in Round 7 in the majority of leagues.
Meredith has the chance for a lot of production because of a lack of talent at the receiver position in Chicago, especially if White continues to deal with health issues. The Bears added Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright and Victor Cruz this offseason, but Meredith should be their No. 1 receiver after his performance in 2016. He had seven games with double digits in Fantasy points last year, including four in a row to close the season. Meredith had six games with at least eight targets, and he scored at least 10 Fantasy points in a standard league in five of those outings. The quarterback situation in Chicago could be dicey with Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky, but Meredith should see well over 100 targets, which puts him in the conversation as a No. 3 Fantasy receiver with top 30 upside. He's worth a mid-round pick in all leagues.
Williams was the No. 14 Fantasy receiver last year in standard leagues, but he benefited with Keenan Allen going down in Week 1 with a torn ACL and Travis Benjamin battling a knee injury all year. This season, not only is Allen expected to be back at 100 percent, but the Chargers also selected Mike Williams at No. 7 overall in the NFL Draft. Along with Hunter Henry, Antonio Gates and Benjamin, that's a lot of mouths to feed when everyone is healthy -- but not everyone is healthy. Mike Williams is dealing with a back injury that could be a problem all year. If he's out, Tyrell Williams still has the chance to be a No. 3 Fantasy receiver with upside. It will be hard for him to improve on his 2016 production with Allen back, but Williams is worth drafting with a mid-round pick in all leagues since he should remain a prominent weapon for the Chargers this year.
Tier 4 - Late-round fliers: J.J. Nelson, Breshad Perriman
I was excited about Nelson when the offseason started because of Larry Fitzgerald's potential retirement and the uncertainty with John Brown over his health. But since Fitzgerald is committed to play, and Brown (thankfully) is back to full strength, that should lower the value for Nelson this year. Nelson still has the chance for some big moments this season, and we saw in 2016 that he can play well when he has enough targets. He had five games last year with at least seven targets and had either 75 receiving yards or a touchdown in each of those outings. He also closed the season with a touchdown in four of his final five games. Nelson is easily the No. 3 receiver when everyone is healthy, but he can still be productive with Carson Palmer playing behind Fitzgerald and Brown. Nelson is worth a late-round pick in all leagues.
Perriman has done everything right this offseason, but it might not matter after the Ravens added Jeremy Maclin in June. That should limit the upside for Perriman, who will be No. 3 on the depth chart behind Maclin and Mike Wallace. We still expect Perriman to have his best season in the NFL, but that's not saying much after he missed his rookie season in 2015 with a broken leg and had minimal production as a sophomore in 2016. He will likely have several splashy plays in his third year, but it's hard to expect him to be consistent, especially playing behind Maclin and Wallace, plus the addition of Danny Woodhead out of the backfield. Perriman is still worth drafting with a late-round pick, but he should be the third Ravens receiver off the board in the majority of leagues. We had high expectations for Perriman this year, but the addition of Maclin unfortunately lowers his breakout potential.
Tier 5 - On the bubble: Tyler Lockett, Kevin White, Devin Funchess, Nelson Agholor
Lockett is expected to be fine from last year's broken leg sustained in Week 16, but he still has plenty to prove before Fantasy owners can trust him. He played great as a rookie in 2015, but a good portion of his production that season came after Jimmy Graham injured his knee in Week 12 and was lost for the year. Without Graham, Lockett had 23 catches for 318 yards and three touchdowns, which was nearly half of his production in 2015 over the final five games. Graham was healthy last year, and Lockett suffered with a sophomore slump. We hope he can rebound this year, but he'll still be third at best for targets behind Graham and Doug Baldwin. And with Seattle hoping to run the ball more, it could be hard for Lockett to have a breakout campaign. He's only worth drafting with a late-round pick in deeper leagues.
White was the first receiver taken in this draft class, but he's been limited to four games over two seasons because of a broken leg and ligament damage in his ankle. He has yet to score a touchdown in the NFL, and he still has plenty to prove before Fantasy owners can trust him. If he can get healthy, as we said with Meredith, there's a chance for him to make plenty of plays in this offense. But Fantasy owners definitely need to see him perform in training camp and the preseason first before committing anything more than a late-round flier in deeper leagues on him.
There's a chance for Funchess to play well for the Panthers this season. Even with the addition of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, Funchess could still be a significant contributor in Carolina this year. Ginn is gone, which opens up targets down the field, and Benjamin has struggled with his conditioning this offseason. That could help Funchess earn more targets and have a third-year breakout campaign. Of course, Cam Newton is coming off shoulder surgery, and this offense isn't expected to have multiple playmakers in the passing game, especially when you factor in Greg Olsen. Funchess is only worth drafting with a late-round pick in deeper leagues, but he could be a waiver-wire addition during the year.
The reports this offseason have been glowing for Agholor, but it might be too late for him to wow Fantasy owners. With Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith coming to Philadelphia, and with Zach Ertz, Darren Sproles and Matthews still there, there are too many mouths to feed for him to make an impact. He might actually be ahead of Smith on the depth chart, but he would need to outplay Jeffery, Ertz and Matthews before Fantasy owners can take notice of him. He's only worth a late-round flier in the deepest of leagues.