Fantasy Football third-year wide receiver breakouts for the 2022 season: CeeDee Lamb, Michael Pittman and more

Fantasy Football third-year wide receiver breakouts for the 2022 season: CeeDee Lamb, Michael Pittman and more

The 2020 wide receiver class could be special. I’m not sure if it ever reaches the level of the 2014 class — which featured Mike Evans, Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Brandin Cooks, and Odell Beckham, among others — but there’s plenty of talent in this 2020 group. And it’s just getting better.

Some of the best performances of these receivers could be coming in 2022, which would be their third season in the NFL. And Fantasy managers should take notice — and be prepared to target several members of this class.

We’re talking about third-year receivers here, and I still believe in this theory. I’ve been writing about third-year receivers for more than 15 years. I’ve talked to numerous receivers and coaches about it, ranging from Jerry Rice and Cris Carter to Steve Smith and Anquan Boldin — and many more.

The third-year wide receiver theory is based on players at the position having a breakout campaign after two full seasons in the NFL. What some receivers have said is it takes at least two years to develop. They have to learn how to hone their craft, develop a rapport with their quarterback and also understand defenses better.

Historically, some receivers you can point to who have broken out in their third season in the NFL include Michael Thomas, Tyreek Hill, Chris Godwin, Cooper Kupp, Evans, DeAndre Hopkins, T.Y. Hilton, Roddy White, Reggie Wayne, Carter, Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson, among others. And last year’s third-year receivers also did well.

For example, Deebo Samuel, Diontae Johnson and Hunter Renfrow had career highs in catches, yards and touchdowns. Marquise Brown had career bests in catches and yards, and DK Metcalf had a career-high in touchdowns.

Now, it’s not always perfect, as A.J. Brown and Terry McLaurin struggled last season in Year 3. Although at least in Brown’s case, injuries played a key factor. And clearly, receivers can still be good in Year 1 and Year 2.

Because of how college offenses are operating these days, many receivers come into the NFL more prepared than ever before. Their maturation process is accelerated, and the learning curve isn’t as steep.

And so rather than Fantasy players gravitating toward third-year breakouts, they are instead just using it as another part of the decision-making process. It’s not necessarily a priority anymore.

I’m still a believer in the third-year receiver theory. It might not be as relevant as in previous years, but I still target receivers entering their third season, expecting this could be a breakout campaign. And many of the guys listed here will be on a lot of my Fantasy rosters in 2022.

The headliner is Justin Jefferson, who has been a star for two seasons. We’ll see if he can get even better in Year 3, and he will be drafted in the first round in the majority of Fantasy leagues.

Right after Jefferson are other standouts like CeeDee Lamb, Michael Pittman and Tee Higgins, and all three of them will be selected in the first three rounds. Then, you have breakout candidates like Darnell Mooney, Gabriel Davis and Jerry Jeudy, and all three of them have immense potential. They will likely be drafted no later than Round 6.

In the next tier, we have Brandon Aiyuk and Chase Claypool, and both are worth drafting with mid- to late-round picks since both could emerge as weekly starters this season in three-receiver leagues. And then you have several guys to take a flier on this year, including K.J. Osborn and Van Jefferson, among others.

We’ll dissect all of the top receivers from the Class of 2020, and hopefully, this group produces plenty of Fantasy stars. I’m excited about this class, and I think it could challenge the 2014 group as one of the best receiver classes of all time.

The Stars

These are guys you’re drafting in the first three rounds in all leagues.

Justin Jefferson

2020 stats: 88 catches, 1,400 yards, seven touchdowns, 125 targets

2021 stats: 108 catches, 1,616 yards, 10 touchdowns, 167 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 103 catches, 1,624 yards, nine touchdowns, 158 targets

Outlook: Jefferson could challenge to be the No. 1 Fantasy receiver this year. He’s been fantastic in two seasons, and he could actually improve in Year 3 under new coach Kevin O’Connell. Jefferson is worth drafting as early as No. 5 overall, and he’s a definite first-round pick in all formats.

CeeDee Lamb

2020 stats: 74 catches, 935 yards, five touchdowns, 111 targets

2021 stats: 79 catches, 1,102 yards, six touchdowns, 120 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 96 catches, 1,310 yards, seven touchdowns, 149 targets

Outlook: Lamb has a dream setup this season with Amari Cooper and Ced Wilson gone, as well as Michael Gallup (ACL) likely limited to start the year. Lamb is easily the go-to guy for Dak Prescott, and Lamb is in the conversation to be the No. 1 overall receiver this year. He’s worth drafting early in Round 2 in all leagues.

Michael Pittman

2020 stats: 40 catches, 503 yards, one touchdown, 61 targets

2021 stats: 88 catches, 1,082 yards, six touchdowns, 129 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 93 catches, 1,167 yards, seven touchdowns, 137 targets

Outlook: I’m excited about Pittman, and I would draft him as early as the end of Round 2. I expect him to be a top 10 Fantasy receiver this season, and he should benefit in a big way with Matt Ryan now in Indianapolis. He has limited competition for targets, and Pittman should be among the league leaders in targets and receptions this year.

Tee Higgins

2020 stats: 67 catches, 908 yards, six touchdowns, 108 targets

2021 stats: 74 catches, 1,091 yards, six touchdowns, 110 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 85 catches, 1,224 yards, seven touchdowns, 130 targets

Outlook: Higgins gets overlooked because he shares the field with Ja’Marr Chase, but he’s no slouch and should be drafted in Round 3 in all leagues. Higgins averaged 15.6 PPR points per game in his sophomore campaign, and he scored at least 23 PPR points in three of his final six games in the regular season. He’s a star, even if he might be in Chase’s shadow.

The Breakouts

These are guys you’re drafting in the first six rounds and have breakout potential.

Darnell Mooney

2020 stats: 61 catches, 631 yards, four touchdowns, 98 targets

2021 stats: 81 catches, 1,055 yards, four touchdowns, 140 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 73 catches, 963 yards, five touchdowns, 125 targets

Outlook: Mooney might not be an elite talent, but he’s in a great spot with the Bears. His competition in the receiving corps is Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St. Brown, Tajae Sharpe, Dante Pettis and Velus Jones Jr. Mooney should dominate targets, and he will hopefully flourish with Justin Fields. Mooney had 13 games last season with at least six targets, and he scored at least 15 PPR points in seven of them. He’s worth drafting in Round 5.

Gabriel Davis

2020 stats: 35 catches, 599 yards, seven touchdowns, 62 targets

2021 stats: 35 catches, 549 yards, six touchdowns, 63 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 46 catches, 826 yards, 10 touchdowns, 78 targets

Outlook: The last time we saw Davis was in the divisional round of the playoffs against the Chiefs, and he had eight catches for 201 yards and four touchdowns on 10 targets. That shows you his upside. And with Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders gone, his role should increase as a top target for Josh Allen. Davis could emerge as a top-15 Fantasy receiver this year. He should be drafted in Round 6.

Jerry Jeudy

2020 stats: 52 catches, 856 yards, three touchdowns, 113 targets

2021 stats: 38 catches, 467 yards, no touchdowns, 84 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 84 catches, 1,212 yards, five touchdowns, 137 targets

Outlook: Jeudy could be the No. 1 receiver for the Broncos if new quarterback Russell Wilson favors him over Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick. I like Sutton better given his big-play ability, but Jeudy could lead the Broncos in targets and receptions. He has star potential, and he’s worth drafting in Round 6.

Next Best

These are guys you’re drafting before Round 10 and could end up as weekly starters if things go right.

Brandon Aiyuk

2020 stats: 60 catches, 748 yards, five touchdowns, 96 targets

2021 stats: 56 catches, 826 yards, five touchdowns, 84 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 61 catches, 876 yards, four touchdowns, 95 targets

Outlook: Aiyuk went from a star as a rookie when he averaged 15.3 PPR points per game to a bust as a sophomore when he averaged just 9.9 PPR points. Hopefully, he’s back to his rookie level, but it’s hard to trust him if Deebo Samuel and George Kittle stay healthy, as well as Trey Lance being an unproven starter. But in Round 9, Aiyuk is worth drafting since we’ve seen his upside before.

Chase Claypool

2020 stats: 62 catches, 873 yards, nine touchdowns, 109 targets

2021 stats: 59 catches, 860 yards, two touchdowns, 105 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 67 catches, 944 yards, four touchdowns, 119 targets

Outlook: Claypool could be a steal in Round 10 based on his Average Draft Position. With Ben Roethlisberger gone, Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett, whoever starts at quarterback, could help Claypool get back to finding the end zone like he did as a rookie. And maybe he goes over 75 catches and 1,000 yards as well. Or he could flop. But he’s worth the risk at the right price.

Keep An Eye On

These are some guys worth drafting with late-round picks.

K.J. Osborn

2020 stats: no catches, no yards, no touchdowns, no targets

2021 stats: 50 catches, 655 yards, seven touchdowns, 82 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 58 catches, 801 yards, eight touchdowns, 95 targets

Outlook: Osborn will be the No. 3 receiver for the Vikings behind Jefferson and Adam Thielen, but he could still be productive in that role. And as we saw in 2021, when Thielen battled injuries, Osborn has huge upside. He had eight games last year with at least five targets, and he scored at least 14 PPR points in seven of them. I plan to have plenty of shares of Osborn this year.

Van Jefferson

2020 stats: 19 catches, 220 yards, one touchdown, 31 targets

2021 stats: 50 catches, 802 yards, six touchdowns, 89 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 40 catches, 606 yards, four touchdowns, 71 targets

Outlook: Jefferson’s situation is worth monitoring because the Rams can still resign Odell Beckham, which is what many expect. But even if that happens, Beckham might not be ready for the start of the season after suffering a torn ACL in the Super Bowl. Jefferson can still be productive playing behind Kupp and Allen Robinson, and Jefferson is worth a late-round pick. He could emerge as a No. 3 receiver in all leagues.

Donovan Peoples-Jones

2020 stats: 14 catches, 304 yards, two touchdowns, 20 targets

2021 stats: 34 catches, 597 yards, three touchdowns, 58 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 46 catches, 837 yards, four touchdowns, 78 targets

Outlook: The outlook for Peoples-Jones will change depending on what happens with Deshaun Watson. A lengthy suspension for Watson means Peoples-Jones is likely hands off for Fantasy managers. But if Watson’s suspension is six games or less then Peoples-Jones has sleeper appeal as a big-play threat for the Browns. Peoples-Jones could be a cheaper version of Gabriel Davis given his role with Watson.

Bryan Edwards

2020 stats: 11 catches, 193 yards, one touchdown, 15 targets

2021 stats: 34 catches, 571 yards, three touchdowns, 59 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 35 catches, 537 yards, three touchdowns, 59 targets

Outlook: The Falcons are counting on second-year tight end Kyle Pitts and rookie receiver Drake London to lead this passing game, and they should do fine. But Edwards might get enough targets to matter for Fantasy managers as the third option in the passing game. There’s no guarantee he’s better than Auden Tate or Olamide Zaccheaus, and you also have potential bad quarterback play coming from Marcus Mariota or Desmond Ridder. But I’m intrigued by Edwards in deeper leagues, and he’s worth a flier given his likely role.

Laviska Shenault

2020 stats: 58 catches, 600 yards, five touchdowns, 79 targets

2021 stats: 63 catches, 619 yards, no touchdowns, 100 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 59 catches, 594 yards, three touchdowns, 91 targets

Outlook: I’m not sure what the Jaguars have planned for Shenault given the offseason additions of Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram, along with Travis Etienne being healthy. Marvin Jones remains in Jacksonville as well, and Shenault might see his playing time limited this year. Ideally, he’s still a top three receiver for the Jaguars while also getting work out of the backfield (he has 29 carries for 132 yards in two seasons), but it’s hard to expect a big role. Shenault is only worth a flier in deep leagues.

K.J. Hamler

2020 stats: 30 catches, 381 yards, three touchdowns, 56 targets

2021 stats: five catches, 74 yards, no touchdowns, 10 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 36 catches, 506 yards, three touchdowns, 70 targets

Outlook: Hamler is the type of receiver who can win your Fantasy week, but you’ll also never know when to start him. He’s going to make several big plays for Russell Wilson this year, but he’s going to be inconsistent in his role as the No. 4 receiver behind Sutton, Jeudy and Patrick. He’s going to be a great DFS and bestball league option, but seasonal Fantasy managers will only roster him in deeper formats.

James Proche

2020 stats: one catch, 14 yards, no touchdowns, three targets

2021 stats: 16 catches, 202 yards, no touchdowns, 20 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 36 catches, 426 yards, two touchdowns, 48 targets

Outlook: The Ravens receiving corps is unproven with Marquise Brown now in Arizona, and second-year receiver Rashod Bateman is expected to be the No. 1 option now. The No. 2 guy could be Proche, who will compete with Devin Duvernay, Tylan Wallace and potentially any veteran who could still be added to the roster. I’m giving Proche a slight nod over Duvernay, another third-year receiver, since Proche should play in the slot. And he had 204 catches during his final two seasons at SMU. 

Devin Duvernay

2020 stats: 20 catches, 201 yards, no touchdowns, 26 targets

2021 stats: 33 catches, 272 yards, two touchdowns, 47 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 40 catches, 334 yards, three touchdowns, 56 targets

Outlook: Duvernay has the chance to improve in Year 3 like Proche, so keep an eye on what happens in training camp with the Ravens. The problem is this will be a low-volume passing attack, and Mark Andrews will remain the go-to guy for Lamar Jackson. Duvernay plays a big role for Baltimore in the return game, but now is his time to shine on offense. If he does, he could be added off waivers during the year.

Tyler Johnson

2020 stats: 12 catches, 169 yards, two touchdowns, 17 targets

2021 stats: 36 catches, 360 yards, no touchdowns, 55 targets

2022 SportsLine projections: 14 catches, 139 yards, no touchdowns, 22 targets

Outlook: I don’t have any expectations for Johnson, but he is someone to keep an eye on in deeper leagues with Chris Godwin (ACL) potentially limited to start the season. While Russell Gage should step up if Godwin is out, the Buccaneers could still give Johnson another chance to prove himself. If that happens, he could be someone to add off the waiver wire.

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