It’s a widely accepted stance that rookie wide receivers are not productive pieces in fantasy football their first year. NerdBall’s own Pete Rogers took a deep dive into this last week, analyzing just what we can expect from rookie running backs and wide receivers their first year.
When I look back at the 2020 season, it is no exception to that rule. Just 3 rookie receivers finished top 24 last year: Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb and Tee Higgins. Jefferson was in fact the first rookie receiver since Michael Thomas in 2016 to be a top-12 fantasy receiver as a rookie, with Lamb and Higgins finishing as the WR23 and WR24 respectively. With such a small sample size of success in each rookie class, projections for these players in their second year become not just tricky, but downright problematic.
The first question I asked myself was how many second-year receivers truly break out in their second year as I wanted a baseline for what we can expect from the 2020 class. Looking back at the past 5 years, we have seen on average 3 receivers finish in the top 24 at the position, but on average just one top-12 fantasy receiver each year, with last year that player being D.K. Metcalf, who finished as the WR6 in 0.5 PPR scoring in 2020.
Top 24 Second-Year Receivers (2016-2020)
Year Player Team Pos Finish Games Targets Catches Yards TDs 0.5 PPR Points PPG 0.5 PPR
2016 Amari Cooper OAK WR14 15 124 79 1114 4 174.9 11.7
2016 Tyrell Williams SD WR17 15 112 63 989 7 172.4 11.5
2016 Stefon Diggs MIN WR24 13 112 84 903 3 151.3 11.6
2017 Tyreek Hill KC WR6 15 105 75 1183 7 203.7 13.6
2017 Michael Thomas NO WR5 15 141 98 1151 5 194.1 12.9
2017 Robby Anderson NYJ WR15 15 111 62 939 7 167.7 11.2
2018 JuJu Smith-Schuster PIT WR8 15 156 106 1389 6 227.2 15.1
2018 Kenny Golladay DET WR18 15 118 70 1063 5 172.1 11.5
2019 D.J. Moore CAR WR12 15 135 87 1175 4 187 12.5
2019 D.J. Chark JAX WR16 14 113 69 974 8 181.9 13.0
2019 Courtland Sutton DEN WR21 15 116 68 1060 6 177.7 11.8
2019 Calvin Ridley ATL WR22 13 93 63 866 7 163.5 12.6
2020 D.K. Metcalf SEA WR6 15 120 80 1282 10 228.2 15.2
2020 A.J. Brown TEN WR17 13 95 60 922 10 182.2 14.0
2020 Terry McLaurin WAS WR20 14 126 80 1078 3 168.8 12.1
2020 Diontae Johnson PIT WR19 13 137 84 829 7 168.4 13.0
Note: Points are aggregated from Weeks 1-16 of each season, in line with standard fantasy league setup.
What Does 2021 Look Like For 2020 Rookies?
Last year saw 37 rookie receivers drafted, but only 13 of these players finished within the top-100 fantasy receivers, and only 6 in the top 50. Justin Jefferson led the way last year, finishing as the WR8 as a rookie for the Minnesota Vikings, and is in the best position be the top scoring second-year receiver in his class again. His his current ADP of the WR9 feels about right, though I have him as my current WR6 and believe he carries top-5 upside in 2021.
After Jefferson, it immediately gets murkier, as we have to consider the players who flashed in 2020 but who project to see a more consistent 2021.
CeeDee Lamb was the most impressive of the other rookie receivers and with Dak Prescott returning, it immediately lifts Lamb’s potential in a high volume passing offense. It is worth noting though that with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Ezekiel Elliott, there are lots of mouths to feed in the Dallas Cowboys offense.
Tee Higgins saw the second most targets of any rookie in 2020 with the Cincinnati Bengals. With A.J. Green leaving in free agency to join the Arizona Cardinals, Higgins’ stock looked to be rising. Then the Bengals went out and drafted Ja’Marr Chase at pick No. 5 to link up with his former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow. Higgins will likely battle Tyler Boyd to be the WR2 in Cincinnati.
Brandon Aiyuk finished with the second most points per game of the rookie class, and achieved this with mostly backup quarterbacks. Whether it’s Jimmy Garoppolo or No. 3 pick Trey Lance under center, I believe Aiyuk can be a top-20 receiver in his second year, and I currently have him as my WR17 (shoutout to fellow Aiyuk fan Nic Bodiford who has him his WR12 this year).
I‘m also really high on Jerry Jeudy in his second year, and especially since the Broncos traded for Teddy Bridgewater, who should beat out Drew Lock for the starting role and last year proved he could support multiple 1,000 yard receivers in his time in Carolina.
With all that said, there are my top-20 second-year receivers for 2021 fantasy football. Let me know who you think could have the best sophomore year in the comments.
2021 Player Team
1 Justin Jefferson MIN
2 Brandon Aiyuk SF
3 CeeDee Lamb DAL
4 Jerry Jeudy DEN
5 Chase Claypool PIT
6 Tee Higgins CIN
7 Laviska Shenault JAX
8 Henry Ruggs LV
9 Darnell Mooney CHI
10 Denzel Mims NYJ
11 Michael Pittman IND
12 Gabriel Davis BUF
13 Quintez Cephus DET
14 Van Jefferson LAR
15 KJ Hamler DEN
16 Jalen Reagor PHI
17 Devin Duvernay BAL
18 Donovan Peoples-Jones CLE
19 Marquez Callaway NO
20 Isaiah Wright WAS