By Ryan Noonan, 4for4
Special to Yahoo Sports
We're not playing with last year's stats. Unfortunately, a common leak for the average fantasy football gamer is they often lean too heavily on what happened last season. The football season is short, so we're constantly forced to deal with small sample sizes when it comes to parsing through actionable data versus ignorable noise in a 17-game season.
At 4for4, we're in the business of forecasting results, and for this article specifically, wide receivers. The most productive way to do that is to look at performance on a granular level — think per play, snap, or target. When your league-mates reference year-end stats to summarize what someone did last season, they're missing the forest through the trees.
Our own T.J. Hernandez did a tremendous job looking at the most predictable statistics year-over-year for wide receivers. T.J.'s work indicates that — surprise! — targets are the most predictable year-to-year stats for wide receivers. Receptions, yards and fantasy points are simply the results of those targets. Also, air yards and target depth have proven to be among the most stable year-to-year metrics and can help predict yardage output for wide receivers. A tremendous amount of advanced metrics continue to flood in every year that can help us get even more granular here, and I'm hoping to do so in this piece.
We can debate the definition of a breakout until we're blue in the face, but that's not really fun. So, for this article, I'm looking at younger players who'll exceed expectations based on current ADP. In your opinion, some of these players may have already had a breakout season, and that's fair.
However, I'm telling you that I believe they'll be even better.
In past seasons, Alex Gelhar has taken a stab at forecasting breakout wide receivers for us. I echo his sentiments on the common situations and traits that go into forecasting breakouts at the wide receiver position:
Frequent Breakout Indicators
A strong finish to end the prior year. Players who end the year on a high statistical note will often carry that success into the upcoming season.
Lack of an established No. 1 target. No true alpha on a team opens the door for a breakout star to step in and claim the throne.
Vacated or up-for-grabs targets. If a player is on a team with a sudden amount of open opportunities following the departure of a big-name player, their path to a breakout season is much easier.
Strong draft/athletic pedigree. The NFL Draft is also far from an exact science, but the draft capital a team spends on a player, along with that player's athletic profile, can sometimes indicate future success.
2022 Wide Receiver Breakout Candidates
Kadarius Toney, New York Giants
If you listened to our NFC East preview on Move The Line, you'd know I'm pretty bullish on this Giants' offense. Yes, there are a lot of question marks, but new Head Coach Brian Daboll has shown the ability to maximize the talent on his roster and scheme gameplans around that talent. Unfortunately, we didn't get a lot of Kadarius Toney reps in 2021, but what we saw was electric, and I expect Daboll and company will let him lose in 2022.
Daboll and new Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka are already impressing Toney and his teammates with their innovative system. According to Toney, "It's not as pen and paper. Instead of just running it technical, it gives a chance to win instead of having to do it a certain way every time." We saw Toney work out of the slot nearly 60 percent of the time last season, but his versatility and the addition of Wan'Dale Robinson in this year's draft will likely move Toney outside a bit more this season, which doesn't matter if the coaching staff shows a willingness to scheme touches to their electric, second-year playmaker.
Toney's 2.17 yards per route run last season ranked 17th in the league, and he did most of that on a bum ankle. According to Player Profiler, Toney led the league in Juke Rate, evading tackles on two-thirds of his touches last season, statistical proof of what your eyes tell you when you watch his tape. When he was on the field, he was a target hog, earning a 28.9% target rate on the season, the seventh-highest in the league. His ability to create elite separation at the top of his route against both man and zone looks makes him a quarterback-friendly target and a steal at his current seventh-round ADP.
Josh Palmer, Los Angeles Chargers
Due to his late breakout age and pedestrian college production, Josh Palmer isn't a prototypical breakout candidate. Still, an increased opportunity down the stretch as a rookie last season should carry over to 2022. The last time we saw the Chargers play in 2021, Palmer saw nine targets, hauling in four balls for 45 yards and a score in Week 18's matchup against the Raiders. The nearly 130 air yards in that game were also encouraging, especially in a game that the Chargers needed to advance to the playoffs.
After the Chargers ignored the wide receiver position this offseason, early camp reports have Palmer as the clear front-runner for the third wide receiver role to start the year. In an offense that ranked fourth in Pass Rate Over Expectation (PROE) last season, the third wide receiver role in Los Angeles is coveted. His 2021 game log won't wow you, but note that 28 of his 49 targets came in the final five weeks, a noteworthy trend for a young talent tied to a Justin Herbert-led offense. Palmer also caught 100% of his contested catches last season. That matters more for a receiver like Palmer, who doesn't have insane quickness and separation, and it shows that Herbert trusts him to win regardless.
Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos
Per Rich Hribar, Jerry Jeudy has been a top-30 scorer in just four of his 26 career games. That is not what we anticipated from this dynamic talent coming out of Alabama. However, I want to continue to bet on his talent, and this offseason has brought on new opportunities for Jeudy to emerge.
First, the good news. New Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson is a massive upgrade from Jeudy's first two years in Denver, which involved more Drew Lock than anyone wants to experience. There's also the expectation that new Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett will let Russ cook more, leading to increased opportunities for Jeudy after Denver ranked just 25th in PROE last season. The bad news also helps Jeudy's target volume, and that's the loss of Tim Patrick to a season-ending ACL tear. Patrick's absence hurts the offense as a whole but clears a path for Jeudy, along with Courtland Sutton, to be the clear top targets for Wilson this season.
Jeudy's shown an elite ability to create separation, with a league-leading average of 2.45 yards between him and the nearest defender when the pass arrived last season, and that's after dealing with a high-ankle sprain. At his current fifth-round ADP, you're already paying for the breakout a bit, but trust that it's coming.
George Pickens, Pittsburgh Steelers
A highly touted five-star recruit out of Alabama, George Pickens walked into the SEC as a true freshman and delivered on his upside in Year 1 for a run-first offense at Georgia. He led the Bulldogs in receptions, targets and receiving yards as an 18-year-old while facing the best competition in the country. Unfortunately, the 12 games Pickens played as a freshman matched the 12 combined games played as a sophomore and junior. An ACL tear cost him almost all of the 2021 season, but the pedigree is still top-notch, and he performed well enough at the combine to earn late first-round consideration before falling to the Steelers in the 2nd round.
The Steelers have a near flawless history of drafting and developing wide receivers. Mike Wallace (3rd round), Emmanuel Sanders (3rd), Antonio Brown (6th), Martavis Bryant (4th), JuJu Smith-Schuster (2nd), and Diontae Johnson (3rd) are all recent success stories for Pittsburgh, and none of them came with a first-round tag. It wouldn't shock me to add George Pickens to this list, and daily highlight reels from training camp make it difficult to temper expectations. Questions remain about the quarterback position for the Steelers, but at pick 126 on Yahoo right now, Pickens offers unrivaled upside in the late rounds of your draft.
Ryan Noonan is the Sports Betting Manager at 4for4. He's been leaving draft rooms with the best team on paper since 1998, and his knowledge of football, golf, and the NBA has helped him to leverage sportsbooks, fantasy leagues, and DFS ever since. Constantly trying to find an edge, Noonan focuses on player props, leveraging lookahead lines, scheduling anomalies, and team totals to try and beat closing lines in the NFL. He is the host of our flagship betting podcast, Move The Line NFL. You can find more of him @RyNoonan on Twitter.
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