During the course of NFL history, a number of wide receivers have recorded their first big statistical campaign in their third NFL season. It's happened with stars such as Harold Carmichael, Steve Largent, Terrell Owens, both Steve Smiths (Panthers, Giants) and Sidney Rice (to name a few) and was true again last season with the emergence of Steve Johnson. There also is a more recent trend of second-year receivers breaking out (DeSean Jackson and Mike Wallace come to mind) that can also help us unearth potential draft bargains, so it's worth noting which wideouts fitting this description (who haven't already established themselves) could be on the cusp of a strong year in fantasy land. Here's a look at the top second- and third-year wideouts to target in the middle to late rounds.
Third-year wide receivers
Kenny Britt, Titans: If there is one third-year wide receiver considered the favorite to break out in 2011, it's Britt. He has the size and athleticism to make a major impact, both for the Titans and in fantasy circles, so a season with 1,000-plus yards and double-digit touchdowns is well within reach. Although his propensity for off-the-field troubles is cause for a bit of concern, it's going to be hard to look past Britt if he's still on the board in the middle rounds.
Michael Crabtree, 49ers: Crabtree recorded career bests in receptions, yardage and touchdowns last season, but his numbers still weren't overly impressive. In fact, he finished just 34th in fantasy points among wide receivers and was hard to trust in a prominent role for most owners. With that said, Crabtree is also dealing with a foot injury that will cause him to miss his third straight preseason. So despite his immense talent and upside, the Texas Tech product is a risk-reward pick.
Johnny Knox, Bears: A speedster with the skills to stretch defenses, Knox developed into the best fantasy wideout on the Bears' roster in 2011. He still ranked a mediocre 25th in fantasy points at the position and was mostly inconsistent from a statistical perspective. Although he clearly has 1,000-yard potential in coordinator Mike Martz's offense, Knox lacks the size and toughness to beat the league's top cornerbacks on a regular basis. He's still well worth a middle to late-round choice.
Mike Thomas, Jaguars: Of all the third-year wideouts in 2011, Thomas might best fit the "sleeper" description. He showed glimpses of potential last season, recording 66 catches for 820 yards in 16 games (11 starts). With Mike Sims-Walker no longer in the mix, Thomas should fit in as one of the top options in the pass attack for David Garrard -- that should equate to more targets. Look for him to be drafted as a No. 3 fantasy wideout.
Austin Collie, Colts: Before he suffered the first of multiple concussions, Collie was one of the most productive fantasy wideouts in 2010. Those injury issues are sure to drop his ADP in most leagues, but that doesn't mean he can't turn into a nice bargain. With a superstar quarterback like Peyton Manning under center, Collie could post career numbers -- if he can avoid further concussion problems. Consider him a risk-reward, middle- to late-round selection.
Second-year wide receivers
Jacoby Ford, Raiders: Ford, who has drawn comparisons to Carolina's Steve Smith because of his size and playmaking skills, is a virtual lock to see a prominent role for the Raiders. He's a versatile athlete -- serving both as a wide receiver and return man on special teams -- so Ford has added value in leagues that reward points for return yards and touchdowns. If he wins the right to start, Ford could be a very nice draft bargain.
Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers: Sanders didn't finish his rookie campaign with great numbers, but he was clearly more prominent in the Steelers' pass attack down the stretch. In fact, his snap count increased to nearly 70 percent from Week 10 until the end of the season. Although he is likely to open 2011 behind Hines Ward, it wouldn't be a shock to see Sanders score more fantasy points. He's well worth a late-round selection.
Arrelious Benn, Buccaneers: Benn was overshadowed by Mike Williams last year, and he required an offseason surgical procedure to repair a torn ACL. Although he's expected to be back in time for training camp, Benn will need some time to regain mental and physical confidence in the knee. That makes him unlikely to make a significant impact in 2011, but Benn will warrant a late-round selection in most seasonal fantasy formats.
Jordan Shipley, Bengals: Shipley showed some statistical potential last season, finishing second among rookie wideouts in receptions (52) while amassing 600 yards and three touchdowns. The former Texas standout has cemented his role as the Bengals' top slot receiver moving forward, and changes in the pass attack could mean more opportunities in 2011. Although his stock is still limited to the late rounds, Shipley is well worth a look in all leagues and has added value in PPR formats.
David Gettis, Panthers: Gettis finished his rookie season with 508 yards while averaging 13.7 yards per catch and leading the Panthers with three touchdown receptions. Of course, the team's unstable quarterback position dings the fantasy appeal of each of Panthers' wide receivers, even one-time fantasy star Steve Smith. Gettis will be worth a late-round flier in larger leagues, especially if the team parts with Smith this offseason. Otherwise, he could end up being waiver-wire fodder.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question for Michael on anything fantasy football related? Send it to AskFabiano@nfl.com or tweet it at Michael_Fabiano!