Heading into the 2019 NFL season, Chris Godwin was the most obvious breakout candidate we’ve seen in some time at the wide receiver position. He became such a popular pick that by the end of the process, if you wanted him, you needed to pay-up for the rights to draft him.
Godwin was a fringe third-round pick by the time August rolled around.
Almost everyone was on board with Godwin as a breakout player because he checked every box. The offensive ecosystem/role was in place, he had a quarterback capable of feeding him and most importantly, any reasonable person could see he was verifiably good at football. All of that outweighed the fact that he played across from an alpha No. 1 wideout. Godwin had all the ability to become, at worst, a 1B.
So here, we’ll look at some receivers I see as candidates to be “this year’s Chris Godwin.” Normally I find the “this year’s version” discussion to be unhelpful. However, with Godwin, it provides an unusually easy template. We’re looking at receivers who have a strong path to volume in their offenses and are verifiably good at football. They’ve put some proof on the table that they can play but for one reason or another, just haven’t reached their true ceiling just yet.
After looking over the landscape, these four young wide receivers stand out. I’ll attach a confidence meter to each in order to keep expectations in check.
Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons
Calvin Ridley is an objectively good starting NFL receiver. That much has been made clear through his first two seasons.
You can argue Ridley has already been too productive to be a fair “breakout candidate” for this coming season. Last year, he finished as WR17 in points per game and maintained a 1,065-yard pace on his 13 contests played. That came after his 10-touchdown campaign as a rookie.
The 2020 season should be the moment when Ridley takes another leap. The Falcons sent away Mohamed Sanu midway through last season and their only significant move was to sign Laquon Treadwell. At tight end, trading for Hayden Hurst makes up for the loss of Austin Hooper but he’s unlikely to see the same type of volume as his predecessor. From a volume perspective, Ridley should have no problem pushing for the type of looks he’ll need to hit a top-15 finish in an offense that will likely skew pass-heavy.
Lining up as the flanker across from a coverage-dictating X-receiver in Julio Jones, Ridley should run wild with high-percentage targets. There really aren’t any negatives in this player’s profile heading into next season.
Confidence meter: Lock
DK Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks
As a rookie last year, DK Metcalf amassed 900 yards as a 15-game starter for the Seahawks. He saved his best for the end of the year, hanging 160 yards and a score on an Eagles team who passed him up in the draft during Seattle’s playoff win.
If you don’t think he’s “verifiably good” you’ve left the plane of reasonable reality. The Seahawks kept things simple for Metcalf. The rookie receiver ran a slant or nine-route on 53.8 percent of his charted routes (per Reception Perception). That is a limited route tree — who cares?
Metcalf was dominant as a route-runner on those patterns and was productive overall. The arrow is pointing all the way up on this physically imposing, athletic receiver.
Now, Tyler Lockett should remain the No. 1 receiver in Seattle. Lockett has been underrated for several years and does everything you want in a front-line receiver. However, that doesn’t mean a 1A, 1B type of situation cannot happen here.
The raw passing volume in Seattle will be nowhere what it was in Tampa last year to facilitate a Godwin-like breakout for Metcalf. But with a shallow pass-catching depth chart for the Seahawks, we could see a situation where Lockett and Metcalf push for 45 percent of the team’s looks, just like Mike Evans and Godwin did last year.
Confidence meter: Very high
Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers second-year wideout is one of the most exciting young route-runners to watch at the position. Diontae Johnson showed flashes of brilliance as a separator in his first season. Even as his quarterbacks left a bevy of yards on the field, Johnson routinely got open no matter who covered him. Everything about his film is pristine.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the odds-on favorite to lead the Steelers in targets and fantasy points this year. However, you cannot run a healthy passing offense through an interior receiver without an outside threat emerging to win at all levels and dictate coverages. Johnson can be that player and if he is, the gap between their stats at the end of the year will not be as wide as the ADP is today.
Unlike the two players proceeding him on this list, Johnson has more players to contend with beyond just the team’s top receiver. The Falcons and Seahawks don’t have a receiver of James Washington’s ability on their roster. Washington’s presence will no doubt shave off targets from a possible ceiling for Johnson.
Everything here hinges on Ben Roethlisberger’s health. If he doesn’t return to something even close to peak form, far too many scenarios exist where the offense isn’t good enough to support two fantasy-relevant wideouts. That risk must be taken into account when pegging Johnson a breakout receiver.
Confidence meter: Medium-high
Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears
We should all know by now the Bears have one elite wide receiver in Allen Robinson. The team is still in the hunt for someone to step up behind him and they have a great candidate to do just that. 2020 is Anthony Miller’s year.
Miller already showed us he’s a verifiably good player. His college evaluation was stellar and he looked like a Doug Baldwin-type player on film. Miller hasn’t been healthy often enough in his NFL career to reach that potential but was productive when he got his chance in 2019. When the Bears deployed him as a full-time player (Weeks 11-16), Miller averaged 5.7 catches and 72 yards per game. That’s a tiny sample but it comes out to a 91-catch, 1,155-yard full-season pace. You should believe in his ability.
The Bears might not be the best offensive ecosystem but the opportunity should be there. Robinson shouldn’t cede any work but with the tight end room a jumbled mess and 35-year old Ted Ginn Jr. the likely No. 3 receiver, Miller can carve out a strong No. 2 receiver’s level of work. Robinson can still push for 150 targets while Miller collects at least 100.
The skills and opportunity are there for a fine breakout season. He will just need the quarterback play to cooperate. We should all sell on the idea that Mitchell Trubisky can be the guy to do that. However, if Nick Foles is both healthy and comfortable enough in an offense crafted by two coaches he knows well, Miller could really erupt in 2020.