The Gut Check No.532: Three Imminent Wide Receiver Breakouts

Matt Waldman profiles three wide receivers he expects to deliver breakout years for fantasy GMs.

I have a habit of repeating myself. It happens when you get older and you're trying to remember where you placed your car keys that have been resting snugly in your pocket as you wander around the house to all the regular spots you leave them.

It also happens when I'm trying to share hard-earned knowledge about football players and I can sense folks don't want to hear it: Clyde Edwards-Heiaire would not be Western Missouri's Marshall Faulk in 2020 is a good example.

I get it, when you're young, you never know when old people are sharing wisdom or spouting nonsense. And if you think I'm old, then bless your toddler heart, there's a lot more life coming at you sooner than may be ready to handle it.

Hopefully, you'll be ready to handle a reminder about three wide receivers worth noting (again) as emerging talents with bright futures, because there's a good chance that their future is now.

CeeDee Lamb, Laviska Shenault Jr, and Denzel Mims are three of the most talented receivers from the 2020 NFL Draft that didn't experience a statistical breakout but should be high on your list as breakout candidates for 2021. I'm loosely defining a breakout as top-24 production at the position.

By this definition, Lamb had his breakout as the No.24 PPR option in 2020. However, Lamb clearly lacked the resources to make the most of his talent for much of the year. Because a top-12 year is so attainable for Lamb in 2021, the bar should be higher for him when defining a breakout campaign. Of this trio, Lamb is the most likely to deliver a breakout performance.

Laviska Shenault Jr was the 45th-ranked PPR option last year. In contrast to Lamb, there are external factors that could derail a breakout campaign that I'll detail. Still, he's far more refined talent than credited and could emerge as a dominant force for the Jaguars, AFC South, and NFL.

The 107th-ranked PPR receiver last year, Denzel Mims only caught 23 targets in 9 games. The quality of those efforts are enough to consider him a viable breakout candidate in an offense that should make life easier on him as a receiver. However, it's not Mims but Keelan Cole who is the third receiver worth noting. Sims may have a still have bright future but his scheme has changed and Cole, who can play inside and outside and has strong skills at the catch point, appears to be the better fit.

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Welcome back, young people. I see you bought your pass to the pool below the gym floor. Sorry, sometimes the old's enjoy nonsense. Today is one of those days.

CeeDee Lamb

Lamb earned 74 catches last year, starting all 16 games despite working with three different quarterbacks after Week 5. Nearly 40 percent of his receptions came at the 30 percent mark of the season. Extrapolate his work with Dak Prescott for a full 16-game campaign and Lamb catches around 93 balls for 1386 yards and scores 6 touchdowns.

With Andy Dalton and unproven backups behind an injury-riddled offensive line, Lamb finished 453 yards and a score behind that extrapolated pace. The projected total would have put Lamb above Tyler Lockett as the No. 8 PPR option in 2020, just three fantasy points behind Justin Jefferson.

The Wednesday after Dak Prescott's injury, I wrote about Lamb being Andy Dalton's Tyler Boyd...But Better. I showed NFL Next Gen Stats heat map of Dalton's work as a starter in Cincinnati and how that matched up well with Lamb's role in Dallas.

Dalton started and finished eight games. Lamb was the leading receiver or No.2 option among the corps in five of those contests and still delivered enough production to qualify as the 36th-ranked fantasy receiver during that stretch--only 21 fantasy points behind the 23rd-ranked Amari Cooper and 21 points ahead of the 42nd-ranked Michael Gallup.

Lamb's 2020 total of 211.7 fantasy points in PPR was only 15 behind Boyd's 2019 totals with Dalton and only 10 points away from 2018's campaign. As good as Boyd is, Lamb is a more dynamic player in every respect: routes, catch radius, defeating press coverage, and as a ballcarrier.

None of the quarterbacks that worked with Lamb and the Dallas receiving corps had the knowledge of pre-snap and post-snap adjustments with the receivers that Prescott had and this limited the potential for big plays. If you presume a quality adjustment pre-snap results in 20-50 extra yards per play and this happens every 2-3 games, that alone is 160-300 yards Lamb could have earned with Prescott based on the conceptual rapport these two developed during training camp and the first five games of the year.

That's 16-30 fantasy points in yardage alone, which would have put him in the range of 11th to 15th in PPR formats before even factoring the number of catches that led to this yardage or if this adjustment resulted in a touchdown. This is a legitimate point of analysis when considering that Lamb was the clear 1-B to Cooper's 1-A in the Cowboy's progression order with Prescott under center.

During the first five weeks of the season, Lamb and Cooper each had a pair of 100-yard games and while Cooper had twice the number of receptions in three of those five efforts, Lamb's totals never dipped below 59 yards and he earned a steady 5-8 catches every week, good enough to be the No.11 PPR receiver in fantasy just 1.6 points behind his teammate Cooper.

More important (and impressive) is how Lamb did the work:

  • Old-school, contested-catch toughness.
  • An array or efficient release techniques.
  • Veteran feel and manipulation of zone defenses.
  • Field-stretching quickness.
  • Acrobatic adjustments to the football.
  • Soft, flexible, and technically sound hands.
  • The best routes of any wide receiver prospect in this great class—yes, better than Jerry Jeudy.
  • Athletic ability and technical skill to play any receiver role in any alignment.

Lamb is a great football player and the plays below provide a great on-field-visual argument as to why he will be a great fantasy option in 2021.

Expecting 1,200-1,300 yards from Lamb, even with Cooper and Gallup on the field is not unrealistic. In fact, it should be an expected total. Lamb will be rising up my board this summer after toying with initial projections that reflected more work on the outside that leads to a lower efficiency. However, I can't imagine Lamb earning more time on the perimeter than in the slot.

This is must-have player in a prolific offense.

Laviska Shenault Jr

The Rookie Scouting Portfolio is rooted in an evaluation process where if the questions you're asking about the player can't be answered in a Yes/No manner then the question needs reexamination. Over the 16 years I've been studying talent in a systematic way, I've updated the criteria multiple times after discovering that the film didn't fit the questions. This let me to learning from wide receiver coaches with NCAA and NFL experience who've coached and tutored some of the best route runners in the game.

It has been 5-6 years since I've made significant changes to the wide receiver criteria, but after a couple of years of research and assessment outside of what I do for the publication, I updated the RSP's wide receiver checklist for the 2021 class. It has over 100 points of criteria that I used to study receivers:

I tested this checklist on the 2020 class prior to working with the 2021 group and there were some differences in grades--not a lot of major changes so I didn't apply them to the 2020 class moving forward because I hadn't used the 2021 methods extensively and felt that the difference might not be notable after spending a few years with the new criteria.

Still for the sake of entertainment, if not worthwhile information, Laviska Shenault Jr was one of the few who already had a strong grade who had an even higher grade. Shenault was a better technician with routes than advertised. After all, he was used so often as a gadget-utility player at Colorado and lacking a top quarterback that it was easy to overlook the quality of his route game if the quantity of reps and production isn't as compelling.

Shenault performed details as a rookie that I often don't see from top athletes at the position. In addition to Shenault settling well into the open zone, he transitions with a quick turn and single step. There's no wasted movement here. Marqise Lee was a first-round pick who didn't perform this detail and minimized potential gains as a result.

Here's a smooth break after selling the vertical route against tight man-to-man coverage. He also protects the ball well at the catch-point with a good attack and pull-down of the ball.

Shenault has earned praise from media, players, and his head coach for his recent OTA performances. Meyer labeled Shenault "one of your best playmakers on offense."

One of the concerns outlined in the article is that Shenault will be used less as a gadget and more as an outside receiver. I've heard complaints that the new regime is negating one of the best qualities of Shenault's game.

Personally, it think it's about allowing Shenault to be a receiver where he can impose his physicality rather than getting beaten up as a part-time runner behind the line of scrimmage. I like it.

John Shipley labeled Shenault "the Jaguars' best skill player during OTAs -- he has been that impressive." He detailed Shenault's route running and penchant for playmaking and consistency as a pass-catcher.

We've seen players have strong OTAs and training camps only for their momentum to hit a brick wall in September, never to be heard from again. However, Shenault was good last year and the fact he's even better this spring is a great sign, especially paired with one of the best deep throwers of this rookie class who also creates well off-script.

Shenault has a shot to be what Dez Bryant could have been if Bryant had a more versatile route game. Although there will be concerns about "too many mouths to feed," as I said on the Audible last week, if you're in a league where your competition uses the "too many mouths to feed analysis," start shopping for what you would buy with that league's prize money.

Marvin Jones Jr and D.J. Chark Jr are talented receivers but Shenault essentially produced on pace with Chark last year--out-pointing the veteran on the basis of one extra game that Chark missed. While it's possible any of these three options could lead the Jaguars, Jones is the most likely to take on a supporting role from the slot.

If Chark is the split end, he'll likely challenge for the lead in yardage and challenge Shenault for the lead in touchdowns. Jones and Shenault will likely challenge each other for the lead in catches. Overall, Shenault will be among the top two options in every meaningful category as the flanker.

Denzel Mims Keelan Cole

I was going to tell you a lot about Mims, whose tape in limited time as a rookie was promising.


It's still possible that Mims, a player with an excellent catch radius, toughness over the middle, and skill against press coverage, could become part of the three-man starting rotation with Corey Davis and Elijah Moore as the two other projected options. Although after OTAs, Keelan Cole is the player running with the starting lineup and connecting often with Zach Wilson.

According to this report, Jets GM Joe Douglas has shown interest in acquiring Cole for the past two years. I'm not surprised. Here's what I wrote about Cole In Week 14 of 2020 in anticipation of this year:

Keelan Cole: Seeking the next Robert Woods-like fantasy transformation where a talented receiver toiling in a bad situation finds new digs and becomes a fantasy starter? Cole belongs on the list of candidates. If you're a regular reader, you know why. If not, the short version: Cole can play the slot and the perimeter. He has shown the ability to win like a primary receiver against excellent man-to-man cornerbacks. Jacksonville has saddled its receivers with quarterback play that has been mediocre, at best.

For those of you about to join my dad, my best friend, and a persistent troll as part of my three loyal readers of my work, here's past video analysis on Cole that supports this idea.

Cole is more than a slot receiver. He made his initial splash as the most dynamic playmaker of the Jaguars' receivers during his rookie year and did it against some tough defenders.

And if a defender doesn't jam Cole, he'll eat them alive with his quickness in and out of breaks. He also tells a good story against off-coverage.

Here's a thread on Cole after his 2017 debut that breaks down more of his game.

You can see the rest of the thread here. As we see, 2017 wasn't the beginning for Cole. He lost his confidence early in 2018 and with the help of Keenan McCardell, he rebuilt it. But that time, the rest of the organization lost interest in Cole as a primary option, drafting other players and leaving crumbs for the former UDFA.

I'm a fan of players who can show the maturity to rebound from a loss of confidence after a slump. It's usually an indication of mental toughness that few individuals possess in any field.

Joe Douglas obviously saw it and coveted it. Now Cole is part of the starting rotation on a one-year, $5 million deal. A lot of media are drawing parallels between Robert Saleh's staff and scheme to the 49ers. It's the most obvious connection, but the Browns and Vikings also run this scheme.

Think of Cole as the Jarvis Landry or Adam Thielen of the Jets. Although he also has the contested-catch skills to earn the Justin Jefferson or Odell Beckham Jr roles. Either way, Cole becomes a player you should be adding immediately in dynasty formats and a late-round option in re-draft and best-ball.

As for Mims, his story is a potential example of what can happen to a talented player acquired by a bad team. The turnover of coaching regimes can lead to schemes that don't fit the recently drafted player. Mims might wind up a victim of this change.

Mims would be a great fit for a team like Seattle's scheme of 2020 in the DK Metcalf role. This competition has only just begun, so approach these fluid situations with measured steps. Mims is currently valued higher than Cole, so you can draft both and likely get the high-end value from one of them regardless of the outcome.

The only real risk is if Zach Wilson bombs early or gets hurt and there's not a starting-caliber option to distribute the ball.

Lamb, Shenault, and Cole are legitimate breakout candidates capable of fantasy WR2 production in most formats. Other than Lamb (barely), none of them have attained this level of performance. You can get each one in your draft because of their ADP distribution in the early, middle, and late rounds.

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