Note: Since I no longer have access to the necessary college film to chart prospects and their Reception Perception samples, I’ll be taking RP data from the NFL level and using it to frame what we can expect from these incoming rookies and their best role as pro receivers. You can get access to Reception Perception data on the Top 50 NFL receivers in the 2019 Ultimate Draft Kit.

D.K. Metcalf is thrilling. He’s a tough evaluation. D.K. Metcalf has a monstrous ceiling on a play-to-play basis. He’s not a lock to maximize that more often than he does not.

All of these things can be true.

If you have any sort of appreciation for truly unique specimens at the wide receiver position, Metcalf is impossible not to fall for. Watching Metcalf stride down the field and go up for the ball with his monstrous frame is a sight to behold.

Taking in his performance feels as rare seeing a beast like Julio Jones acrobatically win the ball in the air, Tyreek Hill chop his feet to leave a defender in the dust, Odell Beckham dip with perfection on the comeback route or any number of truly special events we only get from the very elite of the wide receiver position today.

Metcalf is hard not to fall for. His game makes you dream, get drunk on possibilities. As with any good bender, you’re left wondering at the end how much you remember was a real expression or just “getting lost in the moment.” The key to unlocking Metcalf’s evaluation will lie in discerning what was an over-projection brought on by the flush creeping into your face and what is the sober reality.

Prospect Profile

Writing off possible red flags simply because they come from factions of prospect analysis that may not be your own is foolish. As such, even if you don’t take an analytical approach to scouting, you should not simply wave off worries brought on by Metcalf’s lacking production resume.

Injuries were an issue at times but Metcalf accrued just 1,215 yards on 65 catches over the last two seasons (19 games played). He was not the leading receiver on his team in either season. Teammate A.J. Brown outkicked both of those numbers in 2018 alone.

These notes don’t mean Metcalf will be a failure. They don’t mean there isn’t a good, valid reason why the numbers came to be. But that doesn’t mean they don’t mean anything at all.

Metcalf has a number of positive points in his draft profile that lends towards a player that doesn’t need to apply the regular rules. His blazing speed (4.33 40-yard dash) combined with an utterly rocked-up 6-foot-3, 233-pound frame is rare. No doubt about it. It translates to the field, as well. Metcalf can eat up chunks of yardage in a flash. He gets over the top of the defense with ease.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Beyond the physical ability, Metcalf has a fighter’s mindset with the game. He attacks the ball in the air. He’s ferocious with the ball in his hands. It’s hard to imagine Metcalf not being a plus addition in both the contested catch and YAC game at the NFL level.

Route Running

We have arrived at the portion of the program where the audience may break in two. While draft analysts, football writers, and any sentient beings can all agree that D.K. Metcalf is a physical freak with strong ancillary traits, we likely won’t get a consensus on his route-running ability.

Let’s start positively. Metcalf is a damn good receiver off the line. He doesn’t have the wide array of blistering footwork moves like a Miles Boykin but he does have strong upper body attacks to get free from press. With his size and explosiveness, the mere fact that he’s often the aggressor at the line brings him an advantage.

In addition to the power, Metcalf is smooth with his dip release from press coverage. Given his build, Metcalf will likely draw a decent amount of reps against press as an X-receiver. We shouldn’t be worried about his ability to release from the line on those plays. He is not raw off the line of scrimmage.

Further down the route, however, Metcalf does have some developing to do on certain patterns. His freakish speed and fury help him earn separation on straight-line or break stem routes like the post. Any of the routes that require more nuance, fluidity or quick change of direction and you’re going to notice problems.

Metcalf is stiff when asked to alter his course. Higher-level routes with multiple breaks aren’t his specialty. It’s not a crushing blow to his NFL outlook but it is a reality.

The job of the coaching staff that drafts Metcalf won’t be to throw their hands up as he doesn’t run the pristine routes they drew up in their playbooks. What they have to do is carve out a role to best utilize the dramatic strengths of the truly unique weapon now in the fold.

We have a recent example of a technically raw player being eased into a full-time receiver gig by settling into a simplified role. It wasn’t some fresh-faced rookie. It was veteran receiver Josh Gordon, returning after a near three-year absence from football.

As a prospect and player at the height of his powers, no one would call Gordon anything but a wide receiver dreamboat. Not just from an athletic perspective but as a technical player too. Yet, it’s fair to assume that after a long layoff from playing while trying to tackle off-field demons, Gordon likely lost the rep habits of wide receiver technique brought on by years of dominating the position.

To mitigate any issues there, the 2017 Cleveland Browns did not trot Gordon right back into a high-degree of difficulty X-receiver job. As his Reception Perception sample from that year shows, Gordon played a different role:

Gordon was deployed “off the line” on 64 percent of his snaps that year. Alternating between flanker and slot allowed Gordon to get away from press coverage at the line. He obliterated zone coverage that year with an 87 percent success rate. The Browns handed him a simplified route tree with over 60 percent of his patterns logging as a nine, post or slant.

All of this was incredibly smart to take advantage of a wide receiver with such a long gap between his last game and return to the field. With this type of deployment plan and simplified route usage married to a receiver with D.K. Metcalf’s abilities, positive results will follow. If I was coaching a team this plan is exactly what I’d follow in deciding how to use him.

NFL Comparison

Everyone sadly remembers Dez Bryant for what he was when last we saw him. In 2017, a physically compromised Bryant scored below the 10th percentile in success rate vs. man and press coverage in his Reception Perception sample. But let’s not forget what he was in his prime.

Many would respond to his separation metrics with an assertion that as long as he can still be a jump ball receiver, those don’t matter because he was never a great separator. Wrong.

Back in 2014, Bryant posted a 75.5 percent success rate vs. man coverage and 81 percent vs. press. Those scores would fall at the 91st and 95th percentile, respectively. At his peak, Dez was a tremendous separator. Did he do it with league-best detailed technique and nuanced route running? Absolutely not. He was enough of a bull off the line and such a physical freak on a small handful of key patterns that he became a strong separator even with baseline route-running skills.

D.K. Metcalf can be this exact same player. Make life easy on him and work to make a plan to deploy him and a Dez Bryant outcome is within his range. Dez reminded us some freakshows don’t work within our usual framework of route-running and separation. Metcalf may follow in his footsteps.

Conclusion

D.K. Metcalf is not a flawless prospect. His technique and change of direction skills are not at the peak of this class or any over the last few years. That’s ok. He can become a strong starting asset without them.

We have recent NFL examples of players like him overcoming weaknesses. We saw Josh Gordon come back from years away to a role that made his life easier. Even better, we watched another physical freak become a strong separator in addition to a difference-maker with the ball in the air and in his hands to enjoy a truly dominant stretch in Dez Bryant. In the same stripped-down route assignments these receivers thrived in, Metcalf too can carve out a home.

The good outweighs the bad with Metcalf. The potential reward of his play-to-play ceiling outweighs stretch a bit to build a role to accommodate him. If Metcalf lands in a spot where he can play second-fiddle to an established X-receiver with a progressive coach who can get creative with him, we are all in for a treat.


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