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Sophomore WR study, part 1: Top of the heap

Several years ago, third-year wide receivers were the trendiest breakout candidates in fantasy football. It was at that point that it seemed they were able to put it all together mentally with the necessary amount of nuance in their game on the field, ending in impressive fantasy campaigns. However, with the proliferation of passing in the NFL and players coming in more prepared than in years past, it's now more common for second-year receivers to take the next step on the field and in fantasy.

So with that in mind, over the next few days I'm going to perform a deep dive into the 2015 rookie wide receiver class and examine the potential of the most noteworthy fantasy players from that bunch. The class will be broken up into three categories: Top of the Heap, Question Marks, and Wild Cards. Today's article will profile the Top of the Heap category, featuring (in no particular order) Amari Cooper, Tyler Lockett, Stefon Diggs, DeVante Parker, and Dorial Green-Beckham.

Before you rage Tweet me or dive into the comments, the category name is based on a combination of 2015 production, and presumed 2016 opportunity. That's why someone like Kevin White -- who didn't play a snap in 2015 -- isn't featured in this section.

Now, with that out of the way, let's get to it.

Amari Cooper, Oakland Raiders

2015 stats: 130 targets | 72 receptions | 1,070 receiving yards | six touchdowns | 140.70 fantasy points

Amari Cooper, the first wide receiver drafted in 2015, paced all rookies in every single statistical category, with only Tyler Lockett tying his touchdown mark at six. The former Alabama standout entered the league as the most polished route-runner in the class, and showcased that ability on the field by frequently beating top-level cornerbacks, including Darrelle Revis. Cooper proved he's a complete wide receiver, too, making plays in the air, down field, after the catch, and on the boundary. He did battle concentration drops at times, but not to the level that anyone should be overly concerned.

For 2016, Cooper is being drafted as a high-end No. 2 wide receiver, which might seem like a reach to some, but that feels just right for him in June. He's an extremely talented player with an emerging young quarterback in Derek Carr to feed him the football. Carr preferred Michael Crabtree in the red zone last season (13 targets for Crabtree to seven for Cooper), but that could very easily even out this fall. Moreover, Cooper narrowly missed two more touchdown receptions in 2015 by a toe, so it's not like scoring chances will be hard to come by for the youngster. His ability to win in all areas of the field combined with early hype about him taking the next step should cement Cooper as an early-round, high-upside wide receiver pick for this fall.

Tyler Lockett, Seattle Seahawks

2015 stats: 69 targets | 51 receptions | 664 receiving yards | six touchdowns | 102.40 fantasy points

When the Seahawks traded up in the third round of the 2015 NFL draft to select Tyler Lockett, most figured he'd make an immediate impact on special teams (he did) while mixing in now and again in Seattle's low-volume passing attack. Little did we know Lockett would burst onto the fantasy scene like a rocket, finishing second on the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns. Despite being knocked coming out of college for small hands, Lockett boasted an impressive 73.9 percent catch rate, sixth in the NFL among wide receivers with at least 60 targets. Lockett is both a speed demon and route-running technician, using both skills in concert with one another. The threat of his deep speed allows him to vary how quickly he gets on a cornerback, and use that to bait them when he slows down for a comeback or turns on the jets to go deep.

For 2016, Lockett should be a top mid- to late-round sleeper target in standard leagues. The Seattle passing offense took a big step forward in 2015, and Lockett could be the reason it takes another step in 2016. Doug Baldwin isn't likely to score 14 touchdowns again, but he's improved as a player and will be the team's top passing option. That leaves Lockett to face off more frequently against No. 2 cornerbacks which he should be able to exploit on a regular basis. The combination of Lockett's skills, an elite quarterback in Russell Wilson, and high-upside touchdown potential (as both the team's deep threat and potentially picking up the scraps from Baldwin's touchdown regression) makes Lockett a player I'll be targeting often in the middle rounds of drafts this fall. His stock is surely going to rise as the season approaches, too.

Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings

2015 stats: 84 targets | 52 receptions | 720 receiving yards | four touchdowns | 97.30 fantasy points

As a fifth-round pick out of Maryland in 2015, no one expected much of Stefon Diggs in his rookie season. Yet, out of nowhere he led the Vikings in receptions and receiving yards, despite not playing an offensive snap until Week 4. Diggs was a pleasant surprise to watch throughout the season (and in a re-watch for this piece), as he boasts great technique as a route-runner, soft hands and nifty moves after the catch. He will struggle to out-muscle and out-leap defenders at the catch point (something that dogged him in college, too), but he has enough positives in his game tape to be encouraged about what he could bring to the table in Year 2.

Mike Wallace is now gone, but Minnesota invested a first-round pick at the wide receiver position to bring in Laquon Treadwell, an imposing, physical player who will perfectly suit quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Diggs and Treadwell figure to form a solid 1-2 punch, as Cordarrelle Patterson, Charles Johnson and Adam Thielen don't pose too much of a threat to steal snaps or targets on a regular basis. The only bugaboo when it comes to drafting Diggs is the passing attack itself. Since Bridgewater joined the team in 2014, the Vikings have attempted the fourth fewest passes in the league, and haven't been ultra-efficient, as Bridgewater threw just 14 touchdowns in 2015 for a 3.1 touchdown percentage, the lowest among quarterbacks to start 16 games. Now, that isn't to say Bridgewater can't make the leap in 2016 with a true No. 1 wideout in Treadwell and a solid No. 2 option in Diggs, but this offense is built around Adrian Peterson and likely will continue to be for the foreseeable future. With the aerial attack in the Minnesota offense in its current form, Diggs makes for a safe floor late-round pick, but his upside will be a bit capped until Bridgewater advances as a passer or the offense shifts away from a run-first approach.

DeVante Parker, Miami Dolphins

2015 stats: 50 targets | 26 receptions | 494 receiving yards | three touchdowns | 67.40 fantasy points

Just as DeVante Parker's hype train was building up steam last offseason, it went careening off the tracks when he underwent surgery to replace a screw in his foot (inserted there to repair an injury he suffered in college). He returned in time for Week 1, but the team brought him along slowly as he recovered and got in sync with the offense. Parker played a mere 109 snaps in his first eight games, but got into the mix more with 358 snaps over the final eight games of the year. On the field, it was a mixed bag for the former Louisville Cardinal. He looked painstakingly inexperienced at times early on, and would get bullied by veteran cornerbacks. All of this is to be expected given how much offseason work and preparation he missed. However, down the stretch the Parker many expected to see in the NFL finally started to show up. He flashed the combination of size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and raw athleticism that helped vault him into the first round of the NFL draft, as he would out-leap defenders on one play, and then steamroll through tackle attempts the next. Now, the hype train is picking up steam again after Parker finished 2015 on a high note -- as a top-20 scoring wideout from Week 12 on.

The Miami offense endured some changes in 2016, but that could be to Parker's benefit. Adam Gase is now the head coach after three promising years as an offensive coordinator (two in Denver, one in Chicago), and 156 targets are up for grabs after the departures of Lamar Miller, Greg Jennings and Rishard Matthews. The No. 1 receiver in Gase's offense averages around 26 percent of the targets over the last three years, and that could be the role he envisions for Parker. Jarvis Landry looms as Ryan Tannehill's favorite (and most trusted) target, but even if he eats into Parker's total the sophomore could still see anywhere from 100-140 targets based on Tannehill's career pass attempts average. Kenny Stills and rookie Leonte Carroo will factor into the mix, but the draft capital invested in Parker, as well as his size and ability, makes him the best bet to earn a sizeable workload in 2016.

All of these factors are why the team has high hopes for Parker, and plans to move him all over the field to create mismatches (he's learning every wide receiver position this offseason). Parker could become the go-to option in the red zone, too, giving him a high fantasy ceiling for 2016. Of course, his ability to succeed will be tied to two crucial factors -- his health and progression as a route-running technician. Parker has plenty of upside, but he's already missed offseason practices for an undisclosed ailment this year. Furthermore, Parker struggled at times to gain separation in 2015, and could stand to improve the finer points of his game. Still, his natural athleticism and presumed volume make him a perfect high-upside, middle-round wide receiver pick this fall.

Dorial Green-Beckham, Tennessee Titans

2015 stats: 67 targets | 32 receptions | 549 receiving yards | four touchdowns | 80.90 fantasy points

Everyone has a friend that's great to hang out with once and awhile, but is otherwise kind of flaky or untrustworthy. After one year in the NFL, Dorial Green-Beckham is the wide receiver equivalent of that friend. He'll flash his elite combination of size (6-foot-5, 237 pounds) and athleticism (4.49 40-yard speed, 119 inch broad jump) on one play, only to run the wrong route on the next. DGB would look lost at times as a rookie, with numerous miscommunications with his quarterbacks ending in incompletions, or worse, interceptions. Much of this can be attributed to his "gap year" as he didn't play any games in 2014 after being dismissed from Missouri for off field incidents (he joined Oklahoma and could practice, but was inelligible for games). Still, even with all of his inconsistencies on the field, DGB led the Titans wide receivers in yards (549), despite playing just 42 percent of the offensive snaps through the first eight games (versus 76 percent over the final eight).

Entering the 2016 season, DGB's fantasy potential remains a question mark. Many believe he can take the next step, even though fifth-round rookie Tajae Sharpe has allegedly surpassed DGB on the depth chart. However, as NFL Media's Nate Burleson notes in his second-year wide receiver breakouts piece -- it's June. Green-Beckham will have plenty of opportunities to earn that spot back if he applies himself in the coming months. The presence of newly acquired Rishard Matthews, incumbent Kendall Wright, and target hog Delanie Walker mean there are quite a few mouths to feed in Tennessee. If DGB struggles with consistency and the mental side of the game (as he did last year), he could be hard-pressed to find targets. That being said, with an ascendant young quarterback under center in Marcus Mariota, if Green-Beckham does take that next step, he could be in line for a monster season. He's worth a shot as a total boom-or-bust option in the later rounds. Keep an eye on the Titans once training camps open, though, as DGB's role in 2016 could become clearer once the pads come on.

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-- Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexGelhar

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