DK Metcalf was the ninth receiver picked in the 2019 NFL Draft, scooped up by the Seahawks with the very last selection of the second round. Halfway through his rookie year, Metcalf is outperforming all eight drafted before him — and every other rookie receiver, for that matter.
Metcalf leads all rookies with 525 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He’s caught nine passes for at least 20 yards, and four for at least 40 yards.
It’s not that surprising that he’s putting up numbers in the NFL. After all, he looked and performed like a superhero at the NFL Combine. Metcalf is 6’3, 228 pounds and built like the Juggernaut. Somehow, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds — a time typically only sniffed by players 30 pounds lighter.
That blazing sprint was so ridiculous it almost made it easy to forget Metcalf also posted elite marks in the vertical jump, bench press reps, and broad jump too. And still — even with a combine performance that won’t be forgotten any time soon — 63 players were taken before Metcalf.
His limited production at Ole Miss played a part. Metcalf caught just 67 passes in three seasons with the Rebels, while his teammate A.J. Brown had 160 receptions in just his last two seasons. Brown was picked 13 spots ahead of Metcalf.
The even bigger concern, though, was that Metcalf posted cartoonishly awful numbers in the 20-yard shuttle (4.5 seconds) and the 3-cone drill (7.38 seconds). His weight, wingspan, 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, and bench press results are all in at least the 93rd percentile among receivers since 2011. His 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill times are in the third and second percentile, respectively.
The numbers say Metcalf is the football equivalent of a battleship. He’s big and fast, but ask him to turn and, well, you’re gonna have to wait a few seconds or else he’s gonna tip over.
Fortunately for Metcalf, the Seahawks have always embraced the receiver for exactly who he is. If Metcalf is a havoc-wreaking battleship, why ask him to be anything else?
Metcalf doesn’t need a complicated route tree to win
The first month of Metcalf’s career consisted of the Seahawks essentially asking the rookie receiver to do one thing and absolutely nothing else. He lined up on the left side of the field and ran straight ... over and over again.
It worked pretty well too. Metcalf was among the best in the NFL at running go routes in September. But now the Seahawks are slowly starting to work in other tools into Metcalf’s arsenal. Shallow crossing routes that send Metcalf running across the field have been particularly effective as of late.
While it’s different than the go routes Metcalf ran often in September, ultimately, it asks him to do the same thing. Start running when the ball is snapped and don’t stop until he’s in the end zone, or as close as possible.
If Metcalf is lined up one-on-one against a defensive back, he’s a load to deal with. That’s how the Seahawks wound up with a huge 54-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of Week 9 against the Buccaneers. Rookie cornerback Jamel Dean never stood a chance at keeping up with Metcalf once the receiver crossed with Tyler Lockett and Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards chased the latter.
A similar play design worked in Week 6 against the Cleveland Browns, although it didn’t have another receiver crossing Metcalf. It was just Metcalf easily cruising away from Browns cornerback T.J. Carrie, who made the mistake of playing 10 yards off the line of scrimmage from him.
That’s why the small addition to Metcalf’s route tree is an important one. It gives him the chance to be explosive, even when defensive backs back up and wait for Metcalf to run vertical routes into their lap.
Metcalf may never be more than a big-play receiver, and that’s OK
As exciting and productive as Metcalf’s rookie season has been, here’s the rub: He’s only averaging 3.2 receptions per game. Nearly two-thirds (64.4 percent, to be exact) of his rookie-leading 525 receiving yards came on a grand total of nine receptions.
He’s been good for a big play or two every game, but not much else.
Critics cautioned against drafting Metcalf for that exact reason. His poor performance in the combine change-of-direction drills suggested the receiver would have issues running clean routes to get open. There was never really a doubt that he’d be able to run straight and catch a deep ball every once in a while.
For now, there’s not a ton of evidence that Metcalf will ever be able to do much else except take the top off the defense on a limited basis. He may always be a player who needs a Tyler Lockett-type counterpart to rack up receptions, and plenty of his rookie success is owed to Russell Wilson, arguably the best deep passer in the NFL.
Russell Wilson finished in the top 3 in basically every major deep passing category this year. pic.twitter.com/Qpp0II7EUz— PFF (@PFF) January 23, 2019
But hey, if that’s all he ends up being able to do, that’s not too bad, right?
Metcalf has a chance to finish his rookie season with over 1,000 receiving yards (he’s currently on pace for 932.8). He’s one of only four players — along with Stefon Diggs, Kenny Golladay, and Mike Williams — who has at least 25 receptions and averages over 18 yards per catch. What team wouldn’t a player who makes plays like this?
I honestly believe that within a few years, D.K. Metcalf will be one of the most feared wide receivers in the NFL.— Jared Feinberg (@JrodDraftScout) October 11, 2019
He fits what Seattle does: goo vertical off play-action.
His size, speed, and elite athleticism are hard to contain.#WR1 pic.twitter.com/UNwWzX0buW
The Seahawks may not have the next great 100-reception receiver in Metcalf, but their second-round pick is a perfect addition to the offense anyway. That’s something we all probably should’ve seen coming — three-cone drill, be damned.