Back around the time I started playing fantasy football (98-99), there were always articles popping up about the magical "third year" for wide receivers. In a receiver's third year, this was when he would understand the offensive system and would play up to his fullest potential as a pro. Which meant those wide receivers with two years already under their belts broke out and had monster statistical seasons in their third year. Obviously this idea has broken off in recent years. With so many receivers playing in pro-style offenses in college, many receivers would be a big part of the offense right off the bat. One such player who sticks out in my mind is Michael Clayton. Picked 15th overall pick in the 2004 Draft by the Buccaneers, Clayton literally blew up in his rookie season with 80 catches, 1193 yards and 7 touchdowns. He got a ton of hype in his 2005 sophomore year, only to fall flat on his face for the rest of his career.
There have been other guys like Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson who all had breakout years in their second year. But guys like these are very rare. Big guys who have more talent than some of the players already in the NFL will usually have success very early on compared to others.
The perfect example I can find of a player who followed the third-year theory is Panthers WR Steve Smith. Here are Smith's stats for his first three seasons in Carolina:
Used primarily as a return specialist in 2001 and 2002, Smith finally broke out when given the chance and turned into an offensive stud. What makes Smith even more special is he is one of the first players to show that you don't have to be a big man to succeed as an NFL receiver. At 5'9/185, Smith's physique was rare back then.
Below are the Top 5 candidates who are entering their third year as a pro. As you will see, this year's third-year receivers are nowhere near as strong as last year's candidates.
For the rest of the receivers entering their third year in 2012, check out NFL.com's Draft Tracker from the 2010 Draft.
1. Dez Bryant – Cowboys: Bryant came 72 yards short of eclipsing his first 1000-yard season in 2011 and there is nowhere to go but up as the former Oklahoma State standout looks to capitalize on his third year in the league in 2012 after racking up 15 total touchdowns in 2010-2011.
His numbers could suffer a bit if the team decides to re-sign Laurent Robinson, but Bryant is still worthy of WR2 status. Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin points out that Bryant "still doesn't know how to run routes." But if he shows more discipline, can stay out of trouble (He allegedly got into a "physical altercation" at a Miami nightclub over the weekend, but was not charged) and stops freelancing on the field, there is no reason he can't have that breakout season in 2012. He is clearly a great talent, so hopefully a full offseason of practices will shape him up. Bryant would have even more added value if the team continues to use him on punt returns.
2. Demaryius Thomas - Broncos: Thomas dealt with foot injuries in his rookie year and missed 6 games, but did show some promise when he put up 8 catches for 97 yards and scored his first NFL touchdown against the Seahawks in 2010. He was expected to miss half or all of the 2011 season after tearing his achilles tendon during a workout back in February. But again, he showed promise during the regular season, putting up 4 catches for 144 yards and 2 scores again Minnesota in Week 13 and 7 catches for 116 yards against New England in Week 15. During the Wild-Card round of the playoffs against the Steelers, Thomas broke an NFL Playoff single game record for yards per catch (51.0). He followed that up with a 6 catch-93 yard day against the Patriots in the Divisional round.
Thomas should have a big season with Peyton Manning under center. Really the only thing holding him back right now is his injury history. I'll stick him in as a high-end WR3 right now, but his value could go up during the Summer.
3. Antonio Brown - Steelers: A 6th-round pick in 2010, Brown wasn't graded very high coming out of Central Michigan. A knee injury to fellow 2010 rookie Emmanual Sanders in the early stages of the 2011 regular season paved the way for Brown to have great success in just his second year. Targeted a team-high 124 times, Brown finished the season 2nd behind Mike Wallace with 69 receptions and 1108 receiving yards.
Because Wallace is still considered the team's No. 1 receiver, Brown should continue to see a lot more single coverage in 2012. Sanders will take some of the plays, but Brown's route running has improved so much that he will be the No. 2 heading into the regular season. And since he led the team in targets last year, he could be a strong upper-tier WR2 in PPR leagues.
4. Mike Williams - Buccaneers: Like Clayton, Williams had a strong rookie campaign (964YDs/11TDs), only to peter out in 2011. Some of the blame can be placed on Williams, but most of it was from a lackluster offense that performed terribly and Josh Freeman, who seemed to regress as the 2011 season wore on.
Unlike the top 3 guys I mentioned above, Williams will need a lot of luck in order to have that break-out season that was expected last year. Much of that luck will come from whichever coach is hired to lead the team in 2012. With Raheem Morris out, maybe a new guy will bring back new life into Williams and the offense. But until then, Williams is nothing more than a middle-of-the road WR3.
5. Jordan Shipley - Bengals: Like I stated above, this class just isn't as strong as 2011's third-year receiver class. So trying to find the 5th guy who I think could put up decent numbers in 2012 was rough. Shipley had a mildly successful rookie season in 2010, catching 52 passes for 600 yards and 3 touchdowns. Much like a poor-man's Wes Welker, Shipley will do most of his damage in the slot next season after missing a majority of 2011 with a torn left ACL injury against the Broncos early in the season.
It remains to be seen whether Shipley had a good rookie season because of his talents or because he had Carson Palmer throwing him the ball. He notched only 4 catches with Andy Dalton throwing to him, so I view Shipley as nothing more than a WR3/Flex option playing with a new quarterback and coming off such a serious knee injury.
Did I leave off anyone who deserves more recognition? Think Danario Alexander or Brandon LaFell could be better third-year options over Shipley? Leave some feedback below and lets hear your opinions.