While the global COVID-19 pandemic keeps the majority of the sports world closed, the 2020 NFL Draft is set to take place as scheduled in under four weeks. With boredom setting in for many after having practiced social distancing for the past couple of weeks, the draft is something to look forward to. In the 2019 NFL Draft the Seattle Seahawks swooped in to grab wide receiver DK Metcalf when he slipped to the end of the second round.
Metcalf’s fall was likely the result of a combination of agility concerns surrounding a poor 3-cone time, along with a significant neck injury suffered in college during the 2018 season. The poor 3-cone time gathered significant attention from many observers, but the 58 receptions and 900 yards Metcalf produced during 2019 demonstrates how understanding what is important to offensive success is more important than a simple measurable. Long story made short for those who weren’t around last offseason, Metcalf’s route running skills were heavily questioned because of the limited route tree he ran playing in an Air Raid offense in college, coupled with his poor agility scores.
Work on a full review of Metcalf’s development as a route runner has been held up by technical difficulties I have been too lazy to work through. That will come at some point in the future, however, for today what I’m going to take a very quick look at will be Metcalf adjusting his routes to the defense in the second level. Again, this is an extremely high level review of a single aspect of his development as a professional receiver, and is in no way meant to be comprehensive. That said, it’s time to turn to the tape.
Both plays come from the divisional round playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. The first is a 2nd & 7 play with 0:57 left in the second quarter. The Packers defense plays a two deep zone. As has been noted multiple times of the Air Coryell offense the Seahawks use under offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, on a pass play all five skill position players will typically go into the pattern in order to stress the defense. Of the route combinations, there will usually be a route combination that should succeed against man coverage and combination that should succeed again zone coverage.
On this particular play, the right side receivers are the ones attacking if the defense is in man. Specifically, David Moore is running a go round at the top of the screen, and after having started out on the line of scrimmage in the slot, Tyler Lockett drives on one of the safeties before settling in on a deep curl route.
Metcalf is lined up on the near side of the field, and he fights through press coverage and past the underneath level of the zone. Jacob Hollister, who started out just inside of Lockett, and Travis Homer coming out of the backfield each run a shallow crossing route to occupy the underneath layer of the Packers defense.
The routes attacking the zone work exactly as they should, and there’s a good sized window for Russell Wilson to throw the ball through between the two linebackers closes to Metcalf, just as Metcalf is breaking in on what appears to be a post route.
Unfortunately, just as Wilson should be delivering the ball, Phil Haynes gets beat at left guard pushing Wilson off his spot. Typically that wouldn’t be a huge issue, as Wilson should be able to step up and let the rush go past before delivering a rocket between the underneath defenders right to Metcalf. However, in this instance Joey Hunt has been blasted backwards by Za’Darius Smith and rather than step up, Wilson spins out of the pocket to the back.
Metcalf, seeing the ball not coming his way, does exactly what he should and comes to a stop splitting the defenders. He’s not doing what many young receivers do and running to a spot on the field. He’s picking his spot based on where the defenders are, and setting up in the soft spot in the zone just like he should. In short, he’s reading the defense and reacting in the exact manner one would hope for from a veteran receiver.
The next play comes early in the third quarter. It’s 2nd & 5 at the Green Bay 38, with the Hawks down 21-3. On this play the Hawks use play action, and both George Fant and Marshawn Lynch stay in to block. The primary target on the play appears to be Lockett, but the Packers have him double teamed very well as he makes his way down the field.
On the other side of the field Nick Bellore occupies the outside defender in the underneath layer of the defense, dragging him towards the sideline. This opens up the throwing lane from Wilson to Metcalf on the near side of the field. Metcalf is running a deep in route, and while his running of the route itself demonstrates his poor 3-cone time translating to the field as it takes him a half dozen steps to change direction, what he does once breaking inside is impressive. Again, rather than running to a spot and sitting down as many young receivers will do, Metcalf runs the route but instantly recognizes that taking it any further would take him right into the defenders.
What he does, therefore, is to plant and begin working his way back to the outside. This prevents the middle linebacker the opportunity to potentially jump any pass thrown that way. Wilson, seeing this develop, instantly delivers a fastball to the outside, which Metcalf leaps and stretches to haul in. The result is a 24 yard gain that could easily have been an incompletion or a sack had Metcalf simply run to a spot and then stopped.
These two plays both demonstrate one of Metcalf’s greatest attributes - his football IQ. In addition to the work ethic that allowed him to develop the physique that made him a pre-draft phenomenon last spring, his understanding of what he needs to do as a receiver and understanding where he needs to be in relation to the defense jumps off the tape regularly.
So, while I’ll get to taking a look at his route running, which is still a skill in development, his understanding of his responsibilities as a receiver when it comes to setting up the defense are far better than what are seen from most rookies. Put that together with his youth and still developing physical skills, and the upside potential going forward is extremely exciting for the youngster.