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The Drive: On the talents of DK Metcalf

NCAA Football: Kent State at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

What if DK Metcalf is not that talented? The question is so contrary to public perception that it might be construed as trolling. I may ask if he is a good football player. I may ask if he will be able to stay healthy. I may ask if Metcalf’s exceptionally rare athleticism will translate to performance on the football field. But I may not ask if he is in fact talented.

Yet that is precisely what teams across the NFL did over the past two days. No one questions Metcalf’s character. He has what are sometimes called good bloodlines—a rather icky expression defines as:


(usually of animals) the line of descent; pedigree; strain.

Metcalf’s father played pretty dang recently for the Chicago Bears. While I do not think he has the blood of an NFL player, exactly, he surely has the inside information on how to succeed.

First-hand knowledge of how to do something is a bit like a chess opening. We tend to associate chess with intelligence and specifically tactical and strategic thinking, but the amount a player is likely to think while plotting out his first fifteen or so moves will always, always pale in comparison to how much everyone has thought in hundreds of years while plotting the first fifteen or so moves of a chess match. It is better to memorize than reason because to memorize is to learn the reason of thousands. To quote Bobby Fischer—sane Fischer discussing chess and not mad Bobby Fischer spreading his hatred:

“In chess so much depends on opening theory ... if you just brought [the champions before the last century] back from the dead they wouldn’t do well. They’d get bad openings. ... Memorization is enormously powerful.”

Metcalf is fifteen steps ahead of the average person drafted by the NFL. He has good habits, reasonable expectations, and knowledge so complete he probably won’t know how complete until it’s tested. However smart or hardworking Metcalf may be, however well his particular perspective and demeanor may fit what is expected of him as an NFL player, to have primary knowledge of what it means to be an NFL player in the 21st century is a rare advantage. Dude’s prepared like few people are ever prepared to do anything.

As for his injuries: Nothing is chronic or at all likely to recur; then again, maybe he’s too heavy to be so fast, maybe he’s too rocked up to ever be consistently healthy, maybe something about the physics of his body, the forces endured by his joints, the reciprocal force he absorbs when colliding with another player, the way he falls, the way he gets tackled, make him injury prone. Maybe he is lacking talent.

The etymology of that word is pretty dang interesting, actually. From one of my favorite websites

talent (n.)

late 13c., “inclination, disposition, will, desire,” from Old French talent (12c.), from Medieval Latin talenta, plural of talentum “inclination, leaning, will, desire” (11c.), in classical Latin “balance, weight; sum of money,” from Greek talanton “a balance, pair of scales,” hence “weight, definite weight, anything weighed,” and in later times sum of money,” from PIE *tele- “to lift, support, weigh,” “with derivatives referring to measured weights and thence money and payment” [Watkins]; see extol.

An ancient denomination of weight, originally Babylonian (though the name is Greek), and varying widely in value among different peoples and at different times. [Century Dictionary]

According to Liddell & Scott, as a monetary sum, considered to consist of 6,000 drachmae, or, in Attica, 57.75 lbs. of silver. Also borrowed in other Germanic languages and Celtic. Attested in Old English as talente). The Medieval Latin and common Romanic sense developed from figurative use of the word in the sense of “money.” ...

“Will” tends to be the domain of talent’s complement, skill. Or, if we want to think of it as inclination, we might categorize that as “love.” As in, from Fischer again: “You can only get good at chess if you love the game.” Talent also means “a very large sum of money.” Roughly $14,000, but really much more than that, as “According to wage rates from 377 BC, a talent was the value of nine man-years of skilled work.” We get the modern sense of talent in part from the Bible, and this often vexing passage: “29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.” Sorry, mods. I lack certain talents.

One is brevity.

Metcalf is by all reports a good, like very very good, young man. He has a tremendous head start in adjusting to the strange and demanding world of playing in the NFL. His injury history is not terribly worrisome, though maybe he lacks talent in staying well. But for as big and chiseled and fast and explosive as Metcalf is, talent evaluators did not believe in his potential. So he slid.

It is 2019, and I think it’s fair to say no one has the first clue of how to properly define wide receiver talent. Here’s a sampling of smart people offering conclusions to how well performance in the Combine correlates to success on the field for wide receivers:

Cynthia Frelund: “Here are 12 numbers from the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine that my model flagged as being important trends and/or predictive for NFL success: ...

“1.45 seconds”

“D.K. Metcalf’s 10-yard split of his 4.33-second 40-yard dash clocked in at 1.45 seconds. This is the fastest 10-split by any combine runner in my database (starting in 2003). For some context, this is faster than Julio Jones’ 1.50 10-yard split and 4.42 second 40-yard dash and they are similar heights: Metcalf checked in at 6-3 3/8 and 228 pounds, while Jones was 6-2 3/4 and 220 pounds. I don’t mean to suggest they are the same; I am only saying that results like Metcalf’s help generate more positive momentum, countering his injury history at Ole Miss.”

Paul Park: “Wide receivers and running backs were marked by a strong correlation between their fast speed and their draft orders. For quarterbacks and wide receivers, only 4 out of 80 correlations showed some kind of significance, which is almost consistent with a random chance model. This indicates that other than for the draft order, the Combine measurements failed harshly as an effective predictor for players’ career (1721-5).”

Bill Lotter: “In terms of predicting success, the combine is most important for DE, OLB, and CB. It’s least important for WR and FS. WR was the only position for which the combine didn’t have significant predictive power.”

There are more out there. Findings disagree. If anyone had fully figured this out, I suspect research would end. That said, there is infinite room between ignorance and fully figured out, and I do not think any of this work should be ignored. Only, how best to interpret these data?

The final idea expressed by Lotter seems to have carried the day this year. Success in college was prioritized. Success in the NFL Combine was discounted. Ten years ago, Metcalf probably really would have been drafted in the top ten. Darrius Heyward-Bey was drafted seventh overall in the 2009 draft. He did a little bit of this at the NFL Combine, but has done a whole lot of this since then. That’s two decent seasons for Antonio Brown. Brown’s performance at the 2010 NFL Combine is fairly summed up with this picture:

Brown was small. Brown was slow—or lacked top-end speed. This sentence is part of his Combine profile: “Route running skills could use some refinement.” And within two seasons, he made all that seemingly irrelevant. Brown, through the power of his success, has helped redefine what is considered talent for a wide receiver, and Brown is really nothing at all like Metcalf. Metcalf is really an awful lot like the player who helped get Heyward-Bey drafted so highly, best wide receiver of 2008, Andre Johnson. Here’s an excerpt from a very old Len Pasquarelli post ESPN has been cool enough to archive:

“If the name of the position was wide athlete and not wide receiver, University of Miami star Andre Johnson certainly would have solidified his status as a premier draft choice on Thursday, as Hurricanes players staged their on-campus workout for NFL scouts. ... Johnson was timed at between 4.42-4.48, according to three scouts, in his first 40-yard dash. On the second, he ran between 4.37-4.40, scouts said. He also recorded a 41-inch vertical jump, a long jump of 10-feet, 9-inches, and a time of about 4.10 seconds in the short shuttle drill. Notable was that Johnson, universally assessed as one of the top two wide receivers in this year’s draft pool, was measured at 6-feet-1 7/8 and at 224 pounds.”

Life is cyclical. We know a great deal and yet nothing for certain. Ca. April 2019, a crazy-fast, ludicrously built, crazy-strong dude named DK Metcalf slipped to the 64th pick in the NFL Draft because his particular talents were not considered the the talents necessary for him to succeed. But as for him being crazy-strong, check this video out if you can. It is of Metcalf killing himself to excel in supposedly inconsequential drill.

At rep 22 you will see the spotter’s hands loom over the bar in preparation of Metcalf giving up or failing or just petering out. The young man has already done it, he’s already posted one of the best bench press numbers of his entire class. He has nothing to prove and little to gain and maybe did not gain from those final excruciating reps. But then there’s those eyes. Watch those eyes. Metcalf taps into something deep inside him, an adamantine will to succeed, and those eyes glow and pop with such intensity to lift that bar right off his chest again and again and again and again and again and again. The weight, the worth of the man, and 20 years of nurture, beam right out of those eyes, and while what he’s doing is irrelevant, how he’s doing it thrills me to the bone.

Talent’s a funny thing. I used to think Damian Lillard wasn’t talented enough. If you’ve watched the NBA playoffs, you’ve likely seen a commercial in which a woman whose name escapes me is interviewing him, and she’s a tall, strong woman who sits high in her chair, and he looks almost like a child next to her. He’s lean. He has a small frame. His body shrinks in a sitting position. Even standing, he looks small, almost fine-boned in every way compared to someone like Russell Westbrook. And I doubted Lillard. Holy hell, did I doubt Lillard. But I’m a born-again fan of Damian Lillard. Like so few athletes, Lillard has uncanny talent for self-improvement. Russell Wilson’s got it. Ichiro had it. And it allows Lillard to be one player today and another, better player tomorrow.

That is the one talent we do not know yet whether Metcalf has or at least has enough of. It is not simply a matter of hard work. Nor will it be determined by his strength of character. It is an intense need to be better, the best, ever almost asymptotically approaching perfection as if perfection is that other hand in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. The talents Metcalf were given may not make him the best wide receiver prospect. He may forever be fighting his own momentum, and therefore forever slow out of his breaks. He may be too strong for his frame and forever barely surviving the car-crash like force of his own explosiveness. He may lack guile and subtlety as a route runner and that lack may be no more easily overcome than slow feet or a small frame. But it seems to me that DK Metcalf has some talent, some talents, and should he tap into his inner Lillard, his inner overachiever, that which radiates from his eyes before rep 26, he could probably make this whole giant, explosive, indomitable superman skill set work.