Kids are just 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. Now, we're seeing 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 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, and last week I took a look at DeAndre Hopkins, Justin Hunter and Robert Woods. Now, I've turned my attention to Markus Wheaton, Terrance Williams and Kenny Stills, with a bonus appearance by Kenbrell Thompkins.
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 few more breakout wide receivers to target late in fantasy drafts.
Markus Wheaton, Pittsburgh Steelers
Wheaton's rookie season was in a word, forgettable. He flashed in the preseason and played in the first four games, but a finger injury that required surgery cost him the next four games and ultimately, his rookie season. Wheaton was lost on the field when he returned. Missed assignments and incorrect reads on routes caused his playing time diminish as the season wore on. That, friends, is how one ends up with a season stat line of six catches for 64 yards and zero touchdowns. So why then, are fantasy pundits (myself included) so high on Wheaton? Let's go to the tape.
Wheaton was a third-round pick in 2013 out of Oregon State and is an absolute burner. He can fly, and his speed should be a perfect complement to Antonio Brown's skill set in offensive coordinator Todd Haley's scheme. Wheaton lines up all over the field, and receives as many bubble screens as he does deeper routes. He's shifty in the open field and has a knack for making guys miss. However, it's his route-running prowess and rapport with Ben Roethlisberger that have fantasy enthusiasts and his own teammates salivating over his potential. Just watch him school Bills corner back Stephon Gilmore on this touchdown from Week 2 of the preseason.
Wheaton's hands have been a little inconsistent, but not enough to warrant ignoring him in fantasy drafts. Emmanuel Sanders dropped plenty of opportunities last season and still finished with 67 receptions, 740 yards and six scores. Wheaton should easily surpass those numbers, as he figures to take a few targets away from the stellar Brown, whom teams will be keying in on more. Even though he and Big Ben were on different pages in Thursday night's preseason game, Wheaton has now become one of my top late-round wide receiver targets. I'd probably take him as high as 12th round as my WR4, as his ability and opportunity could meld into a fantastic fantasy season.
Terrance Williams, Dallas Cowboys
Willams, a third round pick out of Baylor, finished 2013 third in fantasy scoring among rookie wide receivers, and 40th overall. After watching his tape, I wouldn't be surprised if Williams vaulted into the top 25 at his position. The biggest factors that could contribute to a breakout for Williams are that he has Dez Bryant opposite him to take the focus in coverage and Scott Linehan is now his offensive coordinator. Linehan's offenses in Detroit were always near the top of the league in terms of pass attempts, twice leading the league in that category (2011 and 2012).
Williams himself is a solid route runner, shows some good wiggle after the catch and has great speed. Check out the GIF below, where he hauls in a pass from Tony Romo and turns on the jets, leaving the defense in his wake.
Williams doesn't pop off of the tape like other receivers, but really shines when improvising with Romo when he scrambles or a play breaks down. Overall, his opportunity is far greater than other second-year breakout wide receiver candidates, as he has the triple threat of a quarterback/coordinator/No. 1 wide receiver working in his favor. Williams is absolutely worth a late-round pick as a WR4 or WR5.
Kenny Stills, New Orleans Saints
Let me start this off by saying I like Kenny Stills as a football player. He has fantastic speed, showed good hands and body control and overall does a lot for the Saints offense. I just don't like him in terms of fantasy this season. Here's why.
Stills' primary role in the Saints offense, as my colleague Marcas Grant describes it, is to run wind sprints. Last season, 43.1 percent of ALL of his routes were go routes (i.e. he runs straight upfield towards the end zone). And even though Drew Brees had a 139.3 passer rating while targeting Stills (the best mark in the league), that's not exactly a recipe for fantasy success. The Saints drafted Brandin Cooks for a reason, and between him, Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, Stills is likely the fourth option in the passing attack. If he were on a team with less premier pass-catching targets I'd definitely take a flier on him. But as it stands in 2014, I won't be the one to call his name. As a closing note, I'll leave you with this GIF of Stills' fantastic touchdown catch against the Patriots last season.
Kenbrell Thompkins, New England Patriots
Surprise! Last week in Part 1 of my dive into second-year wide receivers I promised the three players you've seen above. But I couldn't resist the temptation to heap more work on myself and take a look at Thompkins as well.
Thompkins was an undrafted free agent last season, but his potential was undeniable. He caught two touchdowns against the Buccaneers, then lit up the Atlanta secondary for 127 receiving yards and a touchdown the following week. He also hauled in the game-winner over Jabari Greer in the unforgettable Week 6 game against the New Orleans Saints. Yet, in between all of these flashes were instances that showed Thompkins wasn't quite ready for primetime. He had numerous miscommunications and reads in the Patriots complex offense, and on top of that dropped a number of simple catches (11.11 percent of his catchable targets, per Pro Football Focus).
For much of the offseason, Aaron Dobson was perceived to be the sleeper wide receiver in the Pats offense to target. However, while Dobson has worked his way back from a foot injury, Thompkins has worked his way into becoming one of Tom Brady's most trusted targets. Need proof? Look no further than the tight back-shoulder throw the two connected on in last week's preseason game.
Nothing Thompkins did was particularly spectacular on this play, but Brady trusted him enough to throw that pass. That speaks more than anything else. If Brady trusts someone, he'll go to them often (see: Welker, Wes, Gronkowski, Rob). Edelman and Gronk (when he returns) will still get their share of targets, but the Patriots chuck the ball a lot. Taking a chance on Thompkins in Round 14 or later is worth a shot in case this type of trust and production continues.
Whew. That completes a two week dive into seven potential second-year breakout fantasy wide receivers. Since lists are handy and easy to read, here's how I'd rank them in terms of draftability:
For Hopkins and Hunter, pure talent is what puts them at the top of the list. Williams and Wheaton have the better quarterback situations, but that doesn't always equate to immediate fantasy success. All told, most of these guys are worth rostering, and make ideal targets at the end of fantasy drafts. It's always more valuable to take guys with upside late as opposed to established (but unspectacular) veterans like Steve Smith or Greg Jennings (two wide receivers I love as football players for the record). Good luck in your upcoming drafts, and thanks for reading. Until next time.
-- Alex Gelhar writers fantasy and features for NFL.com and you can follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar. He has a potential new favorite fantastically terrible movie in "Samurai Cop" and will be seeing it at The Cinefamily next Thursday in Los Angeles. He encourages you to join him if you can.