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Biggest Wide Receiver Breakouts of 2021 - Fantasy Football Year In Review

Deebo Samuel - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Injury News, DFS Lineup Picks

What is a breakout? In fantasy football, we tend to use so many different adjectives to define players and it's hard to keep track of what they all mean. Fantasy managers often see players "break out." We all remember the Peyton Hillis', Gary Barnidge's, and Robert Tonyan's of the world, am I right? Those aren't breakouts. Those my friends, are one-hit wonders. A breakout requires a change in performance moving forward. The expectation of what a player will provide in the future needs to have been adjusted. It can be difficult to identify the difference between a breakout player vs a one-hit-wonder. Ultimately, we're attempting to predict the future, which is an inexact science, and yet, we're going to give it our best college try.

A few other parameters exist, but again, the term breakout is a fairly subjective one. Still, if we're talking breakout, we need a level of play that was fairly unexpected. A receiver being ranked as the WR34 in the preseason and finishing as WR23 isn't exactly what we're looking for. We need to see a sizable leap in performance from what the expected outcome was prior to the season's start.

Now that we have our definition of what a true breakout is, we can start identifying just who were the biggest breakouts at receiver in 2021. We'll be looking at a handful of guys who not only vastly outperformed their preseason expectations, but who have also set a new standard for what we'll come to expect in the future.

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Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers

No player broke out like Deebo Samuel broke out. He was routinely drafted as a WR3 across many platforms, often in the WR32–WR36 range. As far as the sizeable leap in performance talked about earlier, Samuel finishing as the WR3 will certainly qualify as such. While there might be some concerns as to what his 2022 role might look like and without question, there will be some regression in regards to his rushing touchdowns, there's no reason to think Deebo doesn't have a top-12 finish within his range of outcomes.

Simply put, Deebo put on a show in 2021 and he gave us all something, as fantasy football managers, we've really never seen before. There were essentially two seasons for Samuel in terms of how he was used. In Weeks 1–9, the third-year pro became a true alpha-receiver. He averaged 10 targets per game, the sixth-highest in the league during the time span. He was sporting an absolutely ridiculous 35.2% target share, but that wasn't the only sign of him playing like a true alpha-receiver. He also averaged 110 receiving yards, which was second to only Cooper Kupp's 113. During the first nine weeks of the season, Deebo only had six carries. If there are some concerns regarding Deebo's 2022 fantasy value if his rushing production dries up a bit, fantasy managers only need to look at Weeks 1–9 to see that he can still provide immense value. During those first nine weeks of the season, he was the WR2 on a points per game basis, averaging 17.6 per game.

His previous career-high in receiving yards was 802 yards as a rookie. Samuel smashed that in his third year, racking up 1,405 yards. He also doubled his best-receiving touchdown output from three to six. What's crazy is he was able to do that despite averaging just five targets per game in Weeks 10–18, half the season. It's insane to think about what kind of season he would have had if his utilization in Weeks 1–9 had continued because he was matching Kupp step for step.

In Weeks 10–18, he had 53 carries for 343 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. As crazy as it is to think about what he would've done had his receiving utilization continued all year, it's equally as crazy to think about what kind of season he would've had if he was used as the do-it-all playmaker he was used as to end the 2021 campaign. In Weeks 10–18, he was actually better for fantasy managers on a per-game basis, averaging 20 points, which was once again only second to Kupp. Any way you slice it, Samuel broke out and there's no reason to think he won't continue dominating in 2022.

 

Marquise Brown, Baltimore Ravens

Marquise Brown wasn't drafted as a WR3 or even a WR4. Think about that. He was drafted as the WR51 on Sleeper and WR63 on Yahoo!. He ended up finishing as a back-end WR2, coming in as the WR23, but that doesn't paint the full picture of the kind of breakout season the former Alabama receiver had in 2021.

Lamar Jackson struggled with injuries to end the 2021 campaign and didn't play from Weeks 14–18, so let's take a look at the first 13 weeks of the season to get a better idea of what Brown was up to. During the first 13 weeks of the season, the third-year pro was the WR12 on a points per game basis, averaging 13.8 points. He was averaging more points per game than Keenan Allen, DeAndre Hopkins, D.K. Metcalf, D.J. Moore, Tyler Lockett, and Terry McLaurin.

In Weeks 1–13, Brown averaged nine targets per game, which was tied for ninth-highest in the NFL. He also averaged the 12th-most receiving yards at 75 per game. If we extrapolate his stats prior to Jackson's injury, Brown would have finished with 153 targets, 100 receptions, 1,275 yards, and nine touchdowns. In terms of half-PPR fantasy points, we're talking 231.5, which would have ranked as the WR8 in 2021.

The big thing that is going to worry fantasy managers entering 2022 is the emergence of Rashod Bateman, the Ravens' first-round pick from the 2021 draft. He missed the first five weeks of the season due to a groin injury and when he did return to the lineup, he continued to split playing time with the rest of the receivers on Baltimore's depth chart. While there's no reason to expect Bateman to not be a full-time player in his second season, there's also no reason to think that Brown can't be incredibly effective even with Bateman doing his own thing.

As it currently stands, there looks to be a very clear-cut top-three in terms of Jackson's 2022 pass-catchers between Brown, Mark Andrews, and Bateman. One thing to consider is while many expect Bateman to make a second-year leap, there's no guarantee that actually happens. If it doesn't, it just means Jackson will continue to lean on Brown and Andrews even more. If Bateman does take that second-year leap, there's more than enough volume, evidenced by the tweet above, for all three of these guys to get fed.

 

Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins

Can rookies breakout? Absolutely they can. If that's the case, some might be wondering where Ja'Marr Chase is on this list, but here's the thing with Chase – the expectation for Chase was he'd become a top-12 receiver and a top-12 finish was always in the cards for him, even as a rookie. Waddle was drafted as the WR41 on Sleeper and WR53 on Yahoo!, but managed to finish as the WR16 – that's a breakout.

There were some concerns entering his rookie season, namely DeVante Parker, Will Fuller, and Mike Gesicki – the Dolphins had a crowded group of pass-catchers. But, Will Fuller like Fuller has always done, got hurt. Parker himself missed a handful of games too and their passing attack was forced to revolve around Waddle and Gesicki. Needless to say, Waddle delivered.

He finished with 142 targets, the 12th-highest among receivers. He clearly made the most of those targets by breaking Anquan Boldin's rookie reception record and finished the 2021 season with 104. Not that it matters how the breakout happens, but most fantasy managers and draft experts viewed the rookie as a deep-ball expert, but he showed he could excel as a route-running tactician. He averaged just 62 air yards per game, which was tied for 54th among receivers. That doesn't mean his deep-ball skillset was wrongly attributed, it just means it was untapped as a rookie.

The Miami offensive line was one of the worst in the NFL and it didn't give Tua Tagovailoa much time to work with, which limited the opportunities for the second-year signal-caller to truly attack defenses down the field. If that offensive line improves in year two, Waddle's deep-ball skillset could yet be tapped into. He showed he's a true alpha-receiver with an all-around skillset, which has his career arrow solidly pointing up.

 

Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts

Michael Pittman Jr. didn't have a very good rookie year, one that was negatively affected by a nagging foot injury, but he entered the league as a big possession receiver who could command a large target share. Entering his sophomore season, there were a lot of signs that pointed to Pittman being a prime candidate for a breakout season, but that didn't have any positive effect on his preseason ADP. He was drafted as the WR46 on Sleeper and WR55 on Yahoo!. When the 2021 season finally closed its books, he was WR15.

The hope, entering the 2021 season, was that the former USC standout would command a healthy target share for the Colts and he held up his end of the bargain. His 25.9% target share was 15th in the NFL. Unfortunately, the Colts relied very heavily on their run game and they finished with just 520 pass attempts, which was 27th in the league. The cabinet behind Pittman is incredibly bare. T.Y. Hilton could be gone, Parris Campbell cannot get healthy, Jack Doyle is over the proverbial NFL hill, and Zach Pascal is extremely limited. There's no reason to not expect another big-time target share for Pittman in 2022.

He finished with seven games of 11 points or more. Unfortunately, the second-year pro didn't produce any high-end games, the ones fantasy managers crave, but he was a fairly consistent performer. He finished with 88 receptions – 18th in the NFL. He should continue to be a solid PPR performer. The other positive for Pittman is he was heavily used in the red zone. He finished with 17 red-zone targets, which was tied for 14th among receivers. In the red zone, the sophomore receiver had a 25% target share – ninth in the NFL.



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