It used to be that wide receivers were expected to breakthrough in their third professional season, but that timeline has been accelerated in an increasingly pass-happy NFL that has embraced more spread concepts. Receivers now frequently break out in their second season, and many even produce great numbers as rookies. Justin Jefferson was one such example last year as he had one of the most productive rookie seasons at receiver in NFL history. Jefferson already broke out during his All-Pro season last year, so he won’t be on this list. However, there are a number of wide receivers who have the potential for second-year breakouts that make them enticing fantasy football draft picks.
*ADP based on 12-team, half-PPR scoring from Fantasy Football Calculator
CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys
CeeDee Lamb is sadly one of those guys who I absolutely love but likely will not have very many shares of in fantasy football this season. He’s currently being drafted ahead of his teammate Amari Cooper as well as proven stars such as Buccaneers teammates Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. Lamb impressed last season despite a poor situation around him with injuries to Dak Prescott and much of the starting offensive line group, and he should have every opportunity to be even better this year. He was a phenomenal prospect coming out of Oklahoma, and I love his route-running, physicality, and contested-catch ability. However, Lamb was a luxury pick in the first round for Dallas, and they’re going to spread the ball around with Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Ezekiel Elliott demanding touches in the offense. A top-ten finish is absolutely within the range of outcomes for Lamb, but you’re currently drafting him much closer to his ceiling than his floor.
Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers
ADP: Round 6, Pick 10 (#71 overall, WR27)
2020 stats: 60 catches for 748 yards and 5 touchdowns, 6 rushes for 77 yards and 2 touchdowns; WR33
2021 projections: 76.6 catches for 1,011.2 yards and 6 touchdowns, 12 rushes for 124.8 yards and 2 touchdowns; WR23
Just about everything went wrong for San Francisco last season in the year following a Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs, but Aiyuk was one of the lone bright spots as their first-round pick. He only played in 12 games, but his final stat line was still better than most of the receivers in his draft class. Aiyuk’s highlight reel shows off his incredible hands and tremendous YAC ability, and his skillset makes perfect sense in the Kyle Shanahan West Coast offense. Whether it’s Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance under center for San Francisco, I have high hopes for Aiyuk in his second professional season. Aiyuk’s ADP has been steadily rising over this offseason, and the 49ers’ wideout is now being drafted in the sixth round in most leagues. He may not be a sleeper anymore, but he can still be a value in the sixth round, particularly with his ability to contribute on the ground. The 49ers’ passing offense isn’t the highest volume in the league, and he’ll have to compete with George Kittle and Deebo Samuel for target share, but Aiyuk is one of my favorite breakout candidates for this season.
Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals
ADP: Round 6, Pick 12 (#73 overall, WR28)
2020 stats: 67 catches for 908 yards and 6 touchdowns; WR30
2021 projections: 76.8 catches for 1,043.8 yards and 6 touchdowns; WR29
Joe Burrow and Tee Higgins developed strong chemistry early on last season, and Higgins was still productive even after Burrow’s season-ending torn ACL and MCL. It would have been better for Higgins’s breakout potential if they had drafted Penei Sewell instead of Ja’Marr Chase in the first round, especially with Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon also stealing targets. However, Higgins proved last year that he deserves to have a substantial role in this offense, and head coach Zac Taylor is going to run a lot of 3-wide sets with Higgins, Chase, and Boyd. Higgins is the biggest and most physical wide receiver on this team, and he will take over A.J. Green’s former role as the Bengals’ top red-zone target. Higgins’s stat production should end up very similar to what he did last year.
Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh Steelers
ADP: Round 7, Pick 1 (#74 overall, WR29)
2020 stats: 62 catches for 873 yards and 9 touchdowns, 10 rushes for 16 yards and 2 touchdowns; WR19
2021 projections: 75.6 catches for 1,067 yards and 7 touchdowns, 10 rushes for 18 yards and 1 touchdown; WR22
Chase Claypool is another wide receiver who already broke out last season, and I don’t have him projected for a major leap in 2021. The Steelers are going to be more of a run-heavy team after drafting Najee Harris in the first round, and they still have Diontae Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster demanding targets. However, Claypool makes the most of his targets with great YAC ability and a nose for the end zone. He ranked 24th in the NFL in yards per reception among all players who saw 60+ targets. Johnson wasn’t the most efficient last season despite his strong target share, and Claypool is likely to continue to encroach on the top wideout role on this team. The 6’4″ physical specimen ranked sixth in the 2020 wide receiver class as an 83rd percentile SPARQ athlete, and he’s going to continue to emerge as a dominant playmaker this year.
Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos
ADP: Round 8, Pick 10 (#97 overall, WR37)
2020 stats: 52 catches for 856 yards and 3 touchdowns; WR44
2021 projections: 66.3 catches for 1,081.5 yards and 6 touchdowns; WR31
After accumulating 145 catches for just under 2,500 yards and 24 touchdowns in his sophomore and junior seasons at Alabama, Jerry Jeudy struggled to make an impact in his rookie season in the NFL. He had a catch rate of just 46% and had 12 drops on the season. However, I still believe he’s the total package at wide receiver and is going to see a huge target share even with Courtland Sutton returning to full health. Jeudy’s talent is not in question – Jeudy averaged 16.5 yards per reception last year, the seventh-most in the NFL, and showed a consistent ability to create yardage after the catch. Tim Patrick said his issues are “all mental at this point,” and he has all the talent to get open against most cornerbacks in the NFL. Whether he’s catching passes from Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater, he should put it all together in 2021.
Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts
ADP: Round 9, Pick 6 (#106 overall, WR39)
2020 stats: 40 catches for 503 yards and 1 touchdown; WR81
2021 projections: 59.6 catches for 768.4 yards and 5 touchdowns; WR58
I can’t wrap my head around this ADP for Michael Pittman. He’s definitely talented, and he’s set for a larger role in his second professional season. As a big-bodied receiver, he dominates on contested catches and will provide a great possession presence for new Colts quarterback Carson Wentz. However, head coach Frank Reich has shown a tendency to spread the ball around and not let one player dominate receiving work. Wide receivers T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, and Zach Pascal, running backs Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines, and tight ends Mo Alie-Cox, and Jack Doyle are all going to see significant targets this season. There are also ongoing concerns about Carson Wentz – if we’re honest, he was downright awful last season. Pittman is going to have a mini-breakout in 2021 as he continues to improve his game, but I don’t see the path to him returning value on a current 9th-round ADP.
Laviska Shenault, Jacksonville Jaguars
ADP: Round 10, Pick 4 (#118 overall, WR45)
2020 stats: 58 catches for 600 yards and 5 touchdowns, 18 rushes for 91 yards; WR47
2021 projections: 66.6 catches for 753.1 yards and 5 touchdowns, 30 rushes for 156.0 yards and 2 touchdowns; WR38
One of my favorite prospects in last year’s draft, Laviska Shenault, showed off his abilities in his rookie season as he had one of the more productive seasons in this class despite a revolving door at quarterback of Gardner Minshew, Mike Glennon, and Jake Luton. Now, Trevor Lawrence provides a significant upgrade at the quarterback position. D.J. Chark is an uninspiring wide receiver who wasn’t drafted by the new coaching/management regime, and veteran Marvin Jones is coming off a solid 76-978-9 season, but he’s now 31 years old and joining a new team. Shenault did everything under the sun at Colorado, and the 6’1″, 227-lb receiver plays with a dominant blend of strength, physicality, and athleticism. Shenault could become the top pass-catcher on this roster very quickly, and that makes him one of my favorite late-round targets in fantasy with a second-year breakout on the horizon.
Henry Ruggs, Las Vegas Raiders
ADP: Round 11, Pick 9 (#132 overall, WR49)
2020 stats: 26 catches for 452 yards and 2 touchdowns, 9 rushes for 49 yards; WR89
2021 projections: 49.3 catches for 847.7 yards and 5 touchdowns, 14 rushes for 121.8 yards and 1 touchdown; WR46
Ruggs was the first receiver off the board in a very talented and deep class, but it didn’t feel that way last season. He made an impact as a constant threat to take the top off the defense, but Nelson Agholor was the lead receiver for this team, and Ruggs failed to make a consistent impact. Derek Carr isn’t known as a prolific downfield passer as he’s more of an intermediate and short-area technician, but Ruggs has reportedly been working on becoming more of a complete receiver. He was a 99th percentile SPARQ athlete, the best at the wide receiver position in his class, and is one of the best overall athletes in the NFL. However, with Darren Waller dominating targets in a lower-volume offense that wants to spread the ball around, I’m not sure if Ruggs will get enough targets to have a full-scale breakout.
Darnell Mooney, Chicago Bears
ADP: Round 12, Pick 11 (#153 overall, WR55)
2020 stats: 61 catches for 631 yards and 4 touchdowns; WR51
2021 projections: 73.6 catches for 912.3 yards and 5 touchdowns; WR46
Consistently billed as one of the top breakout candidates in the NFL this offseason, Darnell Mooney could be a great value late in the 12th round. He was surprisingly productive in his rookie season, especially considering the inconsistent quarterback play from Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. Either veteran Andy Dalton or rookie Justin Fields will represent an upgrade at quarterback this season. Mooney is undersized at 5’11”, 174 lbs but his NextGen stats were outstanding – he averaged 3.2 yards of separation on his routes which is the same number as Cooper Kupp, Jarvis Landry, and Davante Adams. Anthony Miller hasn’t delivered at wide receiver and Mooney has every opportunity to see over 120 targets this season. If Dalton or Fields can deliver the ball consistently downfield to Mooney, he’s poised for a stellar breakout campaign.
Gabriel Davis, Buffalo Bills
ADP: Round 14, Pick 11 (#194 overall, WR63)
2020 stats: 35 catches for 599 yards and 7 touchdowns; WR54
2021 stats: 50.5 catches for 848.6 yards and 7 touchdowns; WR51
I can’t fathom why Gabriel Davis is damn near going undrafted in many fantasy leagues. I’m higher on him than most – I know that. The Bills added Emmanuel Sanders to a talented group with Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley. But Davis was outstanding as a fourth-round rookie last season despite being just 21 years old and not earning a consistent starting role until midway through the year. Davis’s ability to stretch the field vertically proved a great match with Josh Allen’s impressive arm strength as the duo combined for some amazing highlight-reel plays downfield. I’m expecting the Bills to have one of the best offenses in the NFL again after Allen’s elite third-year breakthrough, and Davis has every opportunity to become the go-to receiver across from Diggs.
Denzel Mims, New York Jets
2020 stats: 23 catches for 357 yards; WR109
2021 projections: 57.9 catches for 879.7 yards and 4 touchdowns; WR56
There were a number of factors that limited Denzel Mims from making a big impact last year. A pair of hamstring injuries kept him out of all of training camp and the first half of the season, and he missed out on crucial practice that would have helped with his transition to the NFL. After he did finally get on the field, Mims found himself in the lowest-scoring offense in the league and was hamstrung by Sam Darnold and Adam Gase. Still, Mims had a 16-game pace of 46 catches for 714 yards despite everything working against him. In his second season, he’ll be working with a new quarterback in a new offense with added competition from Corey Davis and rookie Elijah Moore. However, Mims flashed his big-play potential last season and shouldn’t be going undrafted – his career isn’t over just yet.
Jalen Reagor, Philadelphia Eagles
2020 stats: 31 catches for 396 yards and 1 touchdown; WR88
2021 projections: 52.6 catches for 673.6 yards and 4 touchdowns; WR66
I feel for Philly fans. They begged their team to draft Justin Jefferson in the first round, but the Eagles went with Jalen Reagor one pick before Jefferson went off the board. Of course, Jefferson went on to have one of the most productive rookie seasons in NFL history while Reagor was hardly notable all year as he dealt with mental struggles amidst a litany of injuries and inconsistent quarterback play. Now, the Eagles drafted Devonta Smith as another first-round pick and the football community seems to be out on Reagor. Smith should only help Reagor get open more frequently, and he should benefit from the hiring of Nick Sirriani as the new Eagles’ head coach. This isn’t going to be a high-volume passing offense, but Reagor is healthier, hungrier, and more prepared to produce – don’t count him out just yet.