Kids are growing up too darn fast these days. Back in the day, it used to take wide receivers until Year 3 before they had a breakout campaign. Last year, we saw second-year guys like Josh Gordon pace all wide receivers in fantasy scoring, with fellow sophomore Alshon Jeffery not too far behind him. All told, five of the top 30 fantasy scoring wide receivers in 2013 were in their second year in the NFL (Gordon, Jeffery, T.Y. Hilton, Michael Floyd and Kendall Wright). 2014 boasts a deep class of breakout candidates in this mold, so for the next two editions of the "Fantasy Film Study" I'll be taking a deeper look at six of these youngsters. Offensive Rookie of the Year runner-up Keenan Allen has already arrived so he's out, and since everyone and their mother is high on Cordarrelle Patterson, I won't be examining him either. This week's installment features DeAndre Hopkins, Justin Hunter and Robert Woods. Next week will include Kenny Stills, Terrance Williams and Markus Wheaton, so stay tuned for that.
As usual, I was able to take this magical film journey using NFL Game Rewind, which by the way, is vastly improved from last year with a robust new search engine. I encourage you to check it out, and not simply because I'm a company shill -- it's a fantastic and addicting product for football fiends. It's a miracle my social life hasn't tanked since I got it. Now, without further ado, let's head to the tape and see if we can't find a breakout wide receiver or two to target late in fantasy drafts.
Robert Woods, Buffalo Bills
It's been an interesting offseason for Woods. After finishing a promising and productive rookie season where he seemed to gel with EJ Manuel down the stretch, he didn't get a single snap with the first team in the Hall of Fame game even though he performed well, and found himself buried on the depth chart as coaches wanted him to play with a chip on his shoulder. Now, it appears the ship has been righted as Woods is listed alongside Sammy Watkins with the first team on the Bills depth chart. Whew.
Back to the film dive. Woods looked very much the part of a rookie early on last season, as he and his quarterbacks weren't always on the same page. As the season progressed we were able to get a better sense of Woods' potential. The Bills line him up all over the field and take a fair amount of shots to him deep down the field, as 21 of his 85 targets were at least 20 yards downfield. Per Pro Football Focus, Woods hauled in seven of the eight catchable deep balls thrown his way. Below is a better look at one such pitch and catch from Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins. Woods is at the top of the screen, and shows great body control to snag the pass along the sideline, and then breaks back to the middle for some YAC (yards after catch).
If there's a knock against Woods fantasy-wise, it's that he doesn't leap off of the tape at you. He can run solid routes and is good after the catch, but he's not winning all of the hotly contested passes you'd like to see, or doing all of the little things that top receivers do to create space and get open through their route running and body positioning. Still, his progress in these areas was evident as the season wore on, and he already looks to be hitting the ground running in his preseason work. One potential drawback is EJ Manuel. Even though he has a connection with Woods, he is still rather uneven as a quarterback. I'd be higher on Woods if he had a more reliable signal-caller, but alas, this is the NFL and those are rarer than the most hard-to-find comics -- speaking of which, who doesn't love the Flash's old get-up? Those 90s-esque mom jeans and bucket helmet must have really struck fear into the hearts of his enemies. Anyway, back to football. Woods has a legitimate chance to breakout; it just might not be as flashy as some of his wide receiver counterparts.
Justin Hunter, Tennessee Titans
Of the receivers I watched for this piece, Hunter was the only one to stand out on the tape purely based on his stature. Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing around 200 pouns, Hunter is an imposing presence on the football field. His teammates see it too, and any article discussing Hunter's potential is typically littered with showerings of praise from teammates and coaches about how gifted Hunter is and how dangerous he could be. It'd be great if he used those inherent gifts to his advantage more often.
Hunter struggled to adjust to the NFL game in his rookie season and lost playing time as a result. He was only on the field for 340 snaps last season, just over 30 percent of the team's total. Hunter's hands are an issue, as he had a staggeringly high drop rate of 21.74 percrent on catchable balls, and his 43.9 catch percentage ranked 107th out of 111 wide receivers graded by Pro Football Focus. Hunter isn't as polished of a route runner as Woods, which is why 60 percent of his targets were deeper routes, as he lacked the precision and footwork to execute the rest of the route tree.
So, in spite of all of this, do I think Hunter can have a breakout fantasy campaign? Absolutely. Why, you might ask? As I said before, the guy is a physical beast. See Exhibit A below as he breaks tackles and burns past the secondary for a long score (he's at the top of the bunch at the top of the screen).
If that wasn't proof enough, here's a handy compilation of his touchdowns last year. More so than any of the receivers I watched, Hunter has the physical gifts to become an absolute nightmare in the passing attack. Unfortunately, he's also in search of a competent quarterback, and that could be a reason he might not breakout in 2014. However, as I have to continually remind people, Josh Gordon led the NFL in fantasy scoring for wideouts last season with the likes of Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell throwing him the football. Sometimes talent on one end of an aerial attack can make up for a lack of it on the other. That might just be the case with Hunter if he puts it all together in Year 2.
DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Now we've reached the crown jewel of my film study so far. I loved watching Hopkins' tape. Loved it. After a fast start to the season, Hopkins' campaign was lost at sea with the rest of the wreckage of the Texans' 2-14 disaster of a season. It was easy to forget Hopkins was a first-round pick (or even on the Texans) as the season wore on, as 29 percent of his targets and 35 percent of his receptions came in the first three games. However, that wasn't his fault. He was a victim of the circumstances of a deteorating offense and confounding quarterback play.
Of these three wide receivers, Hopkins was the only one to truly look the part of a polished NFL wideout. He runs fantastic routes, catches the ball with his hands and not his body, wins contested catches and is great after the catch. Seriously, Hopkins just flat out catches everything. High passes, low passes, bad passes, and passes behind him were all reeled in -- many in impressive fashion. Per Pro Football Focus, Hopkins was second to only Larry Fitzgerald in terms of the lowest drop rate, as he caught 52 of the 53 catchable balls thrown his way.
I could have stuffed this post to the brim with Hopkins highlight GIFs, but in the interest of saving you time here's one that includes almost everything there is to love about Hopkins. He runs a good route, beats his coverage, but because of a bad underthrow has to track back to the ball and win a tough catch over the defensive back. He's at the bottom of the screen in the GIF below.
If there's a knock against Hopkins, it's that his size (6-foot-1, 214 pounds) isn't ideal for a game-breaking wide receiver. However, that hasn't stopped a number of other "small" but polished receivers from finding fantasy success in the past (see: Antonio Brown, Pierre Garcon, or farther back Steve Smith and Greg Jennings). Hopkins also suffers from having an erratic quarterback under center, just like Woods and Hunter. That being said, Hopkins has the tools and ability to overcome a quarterback deficiency. I'm not too worried after the Texans' disastrous offensive performance in their preseason opener that made Pompeii look like a Jenga game gone awry. There's plenty of time for them to put the pieces together, and one of their best pieces is Hopkins. After watching the tape, he's rocketing up my fantasy draft board.
This was a fun and useful exercise, as all three of these wideouts have been receiving fair amounts of hype in fantasy circles this offseason. From a pure talent perspective, I'm the highest on Hopkins. His situation worries me some, but as a WR4 I love his upside. He's currently being drafted in Round 13 behind the likes of Dwayne Bowe and Tavon Austin. I'd reach a couple rounds higher for Hopkins. As for Hunter and Woods, they're being drafted in the 15th round and going undrafted respectively. Currently being drafted ahead of them are Miles Austin and Danny "Mr. Glass" Amendola. I can't even ... ugh. The order I'd draft these guys is Hopkins, Hunter and Woods, and I'll be targeting all of them if possible late in my drafts. I'd suggest you do the same.
-- Alex Gelhar writes fantasy and features for NFL.com and you can follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar. He's currently trying to breakout as well, but not on the field. He's trying to breakout from the confines of his Chipotle addiction. Early indications are that he might be a year (or more) away still. And yes, his mom is in fact, high on Cordarrelle Patterson. No she's not taking questions.