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The Drive: Dreaming of DK Metcalf’s Potential

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Mississippi v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

It is not possible to know how good DK Metcalf will be. Today, I don’t really care. Seattle drafted Metcalf on my birthday, and I look at the young wide receiver as a gift. Sometime very soon, that gift will be unwrapped, and for all I know, it might be an avocado. But while we can still crease the wrapping paper with nervous anticipation, let us dream about just how good Metcalf might be.

To do this, I am going to extrapolate from Brad Oremland’s work at Football Perspective. Specifically, I wanted to know what happens when a team adds a player who will come to be known as either the fastest receiver or the best deep threat of their era. Let’s jump right in.

Oremland identifies Mal Kutner as his era’s (1945-54) fastest receiver and Hugh Taylor as his era’s best deep threat. Here they are posing for a photo at that year’s Pro Bowl, held in the territory of Hawaii.

Those jauntily knotted kercheifs indicate both were playing while battling King’s Evil. Really underscores how soft people of today have gotten, doesn’t it? I whizzed last week’s column down my leg while battling nothing more severe than a mild case of bonus eruptus. Thank goodness for transdental electromicide.

Scrofula not withstanding, both players made sizable contributions to their teams.

Chicago Cardinals AY/A season prior to Kutner’s rookie season: 2.3

Kutner’s rookie season: 5.2

Before Taylor: 3.7

Taylor’s rookie season: 7.4

Neither team changed quarterback. Chicago stuck with Paul Christman. In Washington Taylor received for some scrub named Sammy Baugh—think that’s pronounced “bog.” But the presence of a rare deep threat greatly improved the efficiency of those offenses.

While I could shtick through many decades of this kind of unfunny material, let’s hasten to a summary. The remaining best deep receivers as identified by Oremland are: Crazy Legs Hirsch, Del Shofner, Lance Alworth, Paul Warfield, Cliff Branch, James Lofton, Henry Ellard, Randy Moss.

The remaining fastest receivers: Bob Boyd, Shofner, Alworth, Bob Hayes, Branch, Isaac Curtis, Wesley Walker, Willie Gault, Raghib Ismail, Moss.

And here is the average improvement in AY/A from the prior season to the first season the best deep receivers broke out (which is admittedly a subjective evaluation (these were not the players’ best seasons, necessarily, just the first in which I feel confident that they were major contributors)).

Best

Previous season: 5.0 AY/A

Season of break out: 6.6 AY/A

Fastest

Previous season: 4.7 AY/A

Season of break out: 6.7 AY/A

I chose adjusted net yards an attempt (AY/A) simply because it’s the best passing stat of which we have data dating all the way back to the 40s.

Improvement was near universal. Only Warfield failed to improve his team’s AY/A. It remained 6.5 both seasons. Jim Brown may have had something to do with that, as no back has ever intimidated opposing defenses quite as much as Brown. One tends to sell out to stop the rush when the opposing running back is among the biggest players on the field, is all.

Either way the improvement is very substantial. Passing efficiently wins games. In a second I am going to catch a bus to go buy some good beer. See y’all.

Before I do, let me be intellectually honest. We do not know if Metcalf will become the best deep receiver of his era. Most likely, he will not. Arguably he’s already out of the running for “fastest.” The above sample could not be more cherry-picked. Yet I think it’s striking how quickly and how much a great deep threat improves an offense. Warfield, Hayes, Lofton, Walker, Gault and Moss all “broke out” in their rookie seasons. Shofner and Alworth did so in their second season, and Branch his third. I am only old enough to remember Moss but Moss transformed the Vikings. In one season, under the same coach and with many of the same players, Minnesota added six wins, nearly a thousands yards of offense, and tripled the efficiency of their passing offense.

Dreaming of potential is fun. Yet most players no matter how good they are or become do not radically change the future of a team. The Rams defense declined slightly in Aaron Donald’s rookie season. Likewise Baltimore and Ed Reed. The Rams were modestly worse in Todd Gurley’s rookie season than they were in 2014. Kansas City only improved slightly when Travis Kelce emerged in 2014. David Bakhtiari was supposedly a marked improvement over Bryan Bulaga, but the Packers offense declined significantly in 2012. I’m just sort of skimming the ranks of the 2018 All-Pro team, an admittedly flawed process, and there are exceptions, teams which improved after the emergence of a great player. Presumably teams on average do get better but I would guess not all that much and not all that quickly.

A team can scheme to pass protect. Rushing effectively depends on so many players, not to mention timing and scheme. And defense winning championships is an incomplete truism. It should be an elite offense paired with an elite defense wins championships. If you can only have one, choose the offense. But for as long as I’ve watched football, one type of player seems to least depend on his teammates. One type of player seems most capable of dramatically transforming an offense and a team’s future. One type of player is rare enough, able to master his talents early enough, and assigned a role important enough to be at times even more valuable than the quarterback throwing him the pass. That is the deep wide receiver.

Today we’re dreaming on the potential of DK Metcalf, but it’s not a Disney dream, not toxic wish fulfillment which alienates us from real life, but a hopeful and realistic projection of a rare talent perfectly matched to another rare talent, Russell Wilson. It’s a good dream. A good wish, one worth building a foundation under, one worth feeling nervous anticipation about, one which might actually come true.

A distinction we should never underestimate.