Both before and after he was drafted, DK Metcalf was an easy target for criticism. He seemingly checked all the boxes of criticism a prospect is crushed for: Workout warrior, unbalanced athletic profile, freshly injured, product of the air raid offense. All of those criticisms, in some respect, were reasonable. However, Metcalf also proved to be a tremendous example of how important a player’s mental makeup and football intelligence is. It was immediately apparent that not only did the Seahawks have an incredibly hard worker in Metcalf, but a savvy, obsessive football player who would do anything in his power to improve.
And did he ever.
For even Metcalf’s loudest critics, it seemed likely that the rookie would be able to have an impact as a vertical threat. His straight line speed and size were, and are, undeniable. Instead, Seattle’s rookie wideout enjoyed a linear development over the course of 2019; instead of ticking off boxes which reaffirmed the doubts surrounding his play entering the NFL, he grew different facets of his game on the way to becoming a bona fide starter at wide receiver.
A massive part of Metcalf’s success beyond vertical routes as a rookie was clear as early as Week 1, and was a good example of his intelligence on the field. Metcalf was able to have consistent success over the middle of the field—catching 10 of 14 targets on slants*—despite a second-percentile three cone and third-percentile short shuttle because he has an awareness of his strengths and limitations, and knows how to maximize the former in order to mitigate the latter.
(*All charting data via The Quant Edge’s WR/CB tool.)
Metcalf continuously used head fakes and vertical steps to force cornerbacks to open their hips and play off him, allowing Metcalf to break inside and manufacture separation. As early as Week 1, Metcalf showed a clear awareness of the respect defensive backs had for his straight line speed, and used it to his advantage.
Another hugely encouraging sign from Metcalf’s debut against the Bengals—and one which continued throughout 2019—was the rookie’s recognition of what to do out of structure. It’s crucial for any receiver who plays with Russell Wilson to keep working after the play breaks down—it’s why Tyler Lockett, Sidney Rice and Doug Baldwin had continued chemistry with Wilson—and Metcalf had that connection from the start.
For all of Metcalf’s rapid development, he still made his money on vertical routes as a rookie. Of Metcalf’s 100 targets on the year, 36 came on either go, fade or post routes. Vertically is where his low-point came, when he let three catches, 97 yards and a TD slip through his hands in Philadelphia in Week 12, and it’s where he found redemption in the playoffs.
Despite Metcalf entering the NFL as a bona fide deep threat, his commitment to development and refinement extended to his play as a vertical receiver, too. On several occasions, we saw Metcalf utilize double moves to shake free downfield. Metcalf and the coaching staff seem to recognize the areas of strength which defenses will pick up on, and they worked to vary Metcalf’s traits in those areas.
Similarly, as the season progressed, Metcalf’s releases off the line became more active. It’s fair to expect that defenses and cornerbacks will pick up on Metcalf’s little tricks—particularly his use of jab steps and head fakes—and so he must continue to learn the subtleties of the position to keep finding success. If the end of the season is any indication, that is something he will do.
Metcalf’s lack of agility and change of direction, which was made evident through his athletic testing, forced doubts to arise about how complete a route tree he could ever run. Early on, we saw it expand a bit through slants and other in-breaking routes. As the season progressed, we saw it develop further by way of curls and comebacks. Despite only really running the two routes during the second half of the season, they accounted for a quarter of his targets.
In a similar way to how Metcalf uses savviness to manufacture separation over the middle, he is able to win coming back to the football because of superior positioning. Despite choppy steps and slow turns, Metcalf puts himself between the ball and the defensive back—who has allowed Metcalf space because of the cushion his vertical ability affords him. With his physique, there is simply no legal way for a cornerback to get back into the play when that happens.
As Metcalf’s success as a possession receiver increased, so did Wilson’s trust in him on intermediate routes. By the end of the season, Wilson and Metcalf’s connection on back-shoulder throws became automatic, and that has to be overwhelmingly exciting for the Seahawks. A back-shoulder throw is predicated on timing and trust, and Wilson and Metcalf have proven to have that between one another already.
The final piece of Metcalf’s rookie season development saw a previous low get corrected. Just as his poor game during Seattle’s first trip to Philadelphia would be redeemed, he spent the final month of the season putting his lowly performance in Week 4 behind him. In that game, a trip to Arizona, Metcalf was targeted four times, three of which were end zone shots which fell incomplete as the rookie receiver either mistimed his jumps or played soft at the catch point. It was entirely frustrating: A receiver with Metcalf’s athleticism and build should have consistent success on contested catches.
In Week 15, Metcalf hauled in an easy touchdown grab over Donte Jackson, timing his jump perfectly and pulling down the score over the helpless cornerback. Another touchdown in a similar fashion would follow in Week 17, as Metcalf began to high point the football superbly. Of course, Metcalf used his newfound success above the rim to call game in a historic playoff debut.
Over the course of the season, Metcalf put to bed worries over his unbalanced athletic profile and one-trick pony reputation by developing subtle nuances to his game and a terrific partnership with his quarterback. Slowly, the Seahawks began to integrate him across formations—strictly a left-sided receiver at Ole Miss, a limitation with crippled Kevin White and other highly drafted receivers’ development—Metcalf ended the season having played 63 percent of the time on the left, 26 percent on the right and 11 percent in the slot.
Concerns over his health became similarly unfounded. Not only did Metcalf have a healthy 2019, he displayed superb toughness after the catch. So much so that one of Seattle’s go to quick-hitters became a screen out to Metcalf on the perimeter.
Among all the criticisms of Metcalf as a prospect, the only one that really stuck during his rookie season was that of ball security. Though he registered only seven drops, he did add three costly fumbles. The fumble issue should be easily addressed, while the one of drops is a work in progress. There is reason for optimism there, too.
Metcalf’s drops were generally a product of focus, rather than any glaring weakness in his technique. That is something that is entirely correctable and something he worked to correct; he was consistently seen working the JUGS machine after practice in 2019. We saw a few examples of incredible concentration, too, which should lead one to believe that his focus will rise and the drops will fall.
On the surface, Metcalf’s rookie season was a roaring success: The most yards, touchdowns and catches by a rookie in the Pete Carroll era; the second most catches and yards and third most touchdowns in franchise history; he joined an illustrious list of wideouts before his 22nd birthday; the most receiving yards by a Seahawks receiver in playoff history; and the most yards by a rookie in playoff history.
Underneath the surface, it’s even more exciting. Metcalf developed a fairly complete route tree, actively addressed shortcomings in his game during the season and played his best football in December and January.
The most exciting part, however, is that Metcalf—on the path towards stardom—is only just getting started.