The myth of the third-year wide receiver

There's an old theory going around the fantasy football world, one that claims that a wide receiver's breakout campaign tends to come in his third year in the league. It's tossed around rather casually and is widely accepted. But there's just one little problem with it...

It's simply not true.

Leave it to people in the fantasy realm to treat an oft-discussed theory as gospel, without taking the time to actually check the facts. It's understandable; researching years of statistics does take time. That said, it's foolish for any of us to take a statement for granted without the backing evidence. No, cherry-picking Harold Carmichael, Stanley Morgan and Rod Smith as supporting examples isn't going to cut it.

For one thing, for every Carmichael, Morgan and Smith, there's a Reggie Brown, Mark Clayton or Troy Williamson, 2007 breakout candidates who didn't break out at all. Chances are if you picked them, you now side with me on third-year receiver debate.

But again, cherry-picking examples -- good or bad -- proves nothing. It's the overall numbers that tell the true story. I culled year-by-year statistics of each of the top 50 all-time players in terms of receiving yards, totaled them by the player's year in the league and scaled the results to 16 games. Maybe it's not a complete study -- it doesn't include every receiver to play the game -- but I'd argue it's the receivers who mattered that we care about, right? I don't think anyone needs to see what insight Johnny "Lam" Jones' career numbers might provide us about receivers' year-to-year development.

Here are the results:

There's growth there among the third-year receiver class. But here's the startling truth: It's the second-year receivers who experienced the most notable bump of all, 47.7 percent in receptions, 60.4 percent in receiving yards and 74.8 percent in receiving touchdowns. Apparently it takes one year, not two as traditionally thought, of experience before a receiver tends to get a real feel for NFL competition.

That's great news for that 2007 draft class, one that boasts some interesting, high-upside names: Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis, Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez, Dwayne Jarrett, Calvin Johnson, Jacoby Jones, James Jones, Sidney Rice and Steve Smith (the Giant, not the Panther). If you're planning to toss an extra buck or two, or a few earlier draft spots, a receiver's way, it's that crop, not those a year their senior, who should warrant it.

The second-most likely year for a receiver to break out? In touchdowns, it's the third-year class (13.8 percent), but in receptions and receiving yards, it's the fourth (17.4 and 12.8). You can even make a case for those fifth-year receivers, who see their numbers across the board increase by 12.8/9.5/18.2 percentages.

Doesn't sound like there's anything too special to that NFL Year No. 3, does there?

So is there anything about receivers that can be learned breaking the numbers down by age? Absolutely. A few things to be aware of:

• A receiver's breakout year -- his biggest statistical improvement in terms of percentage increase over the season before -- comes in his age-23 season. Combine that with the second-year receiver findings and that's great news for the aforementioned Bowe, Ginn, Gonzalez and Smith, as well as tight end Greg Olsen.

• Receivers tend to hit their statistical peaks in their age-27 seasons and can sustain close to that level of performance for as long as four more years. Among this year's "yet-to-peak" age-27 crop: Bernard Berrian, Anquan Boldin, Brown, Nate Burleson, Lee Evans, D.J. Hackett, Donte' Stallworth and Benjamin Watson.

• Receivers begin to decline by their 32nd birthdays, but it's their age-36 season in which the drop-off is most notable. By the way, Joey Galloway, Marvin Harrison and Joe Horn will all be 36 years old to start the season, the oldest receivers in the league.

The full results by age:

A parting thought: Even if you remain on the other side of the third-year receiver debate after reading the above evidence, 2008 is hardly the year to support it. This year's third year class includes Marques Colston, Santonio Holmes, Greg Jennings and Brandon Marshall, all household names!

Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.