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On DK Metcalf and why all great routes trees are not oaks

NFL: New England Patriots at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Below you’ll see DK Metcalf’s targeted routes over his last eight games. It would be much cooler if we could see all of his routes run, but this will do.

Now let’s look at Tyler Lockett’s last eight games.

What do we see? A great deal of variety in Lockett’s route tree while Metcalf’s routes are mostly of two kinds: deep routes which take advantage of his size, reach, leaping ability and speed; and shorter routes which take advantage of the intimidation those deep routes produce. Lockett runs all over the field. Metcalf’s routes tend to cluster. Lockett moves around the formation. Metcalf does most of his work up the left sideline.

Which is part of why I’ve never really believed in comparisons between Julio Jones and Metcalf. Jones is a more agile and versatile receiver. Metcalf reminds me of a guy who initially rated poorly in efficiency stats, earned some picky criticisms from analysts who often missed the forest for the trees, and even weathered some blame for not fixing the accursed franchise who drafted him. Metcalf reminds me of Calvin Johnson.

This guy.

If you have the time to watch that through, you’ll notice how many of his great plays were the product of vertical routes with little to nothing in the way of a break. Johnson was exceptionally fast, almost as fast as DK, and even bigger—taller with a purported 42.5” vertical. You’ll also notice just how many jump balls he caught. He was in a way always open, but at the same time, he almost always finished poorly in catch percentage. He was asked to make a ton of difficult catches and he wasn’t always able. It’s analogous to the Kobe Bryant paradox. Always an exceptional scorer, Bryant took so many hard shots, that he often performed little better or even worse than league average in eFG%.

Johnson was big, and he was fast, and he could achieve feats of grace one would expect of a much smaller player, but many receivers were more agile. Megatron didn’t run the 3-cone drill. As a huge guy with lots of burst, I wouldn’t be surprised if he would have performed “poorly,” but no one needed proof that he would be great. That’s one big way he differs from DK. Is that because Johnson’s college tape was that much more impressive or is it only that talent evaluation is prone to faddish thinking?

Metcalf had more yards receiving in his rookie season. Both players were not well rated by DYAR.

Metcalf 2019: 105 (39th)

Johnson 2007: 83 (51st)

Lockett is sort of a darling of DVOA, but all other considerations being equal, I wouldn’t trade Metcalf for him. I think Metcalf’s talent is considerably rarer, that he produces more value when he’s not being targeted, he has higher upside, and that DVOA consistently overvalues chain-moving slot receivers. It lacks any kind of positional adjustment, and I think deep threats like Metcalf are something like a center fielder. Slot receivers like Lockett are far more common, like second basemen or corner outfielders. Football has nothing like the consistency of role that baseball has, and so it’s a very loose analogy.

Whatever the case, I do not think Metcalf will ever run routes like Lockett any more than Lockett will run routes like Metcalf. Lockett’s versatility is impressive. Stack up all his many types of routes and I think something resembling a broad and diverse deciduous tree would be made. But if a player could, if a player were not 6’4” 229, or even 6’5” 239, but 10 feet tall and twice as fast as Usain Bolt; if that player tracked every pass perfectly and never suffered a lapse in concentration; if that player had hands so mighty they could pop the football if he wanted, strength to power through every tackle, was never hurt or even able to be hurt, and never fatigued; if such a player existed, he would never run any route but the go. Any break, any complication, would be inefficient. This player would have no need for style or flair or all the foofarah that impresses analysts. The ball would be snapped. He would sprint. The quarterback would pass. He would automatically calculate the most efficient path through the trajectory of the pass to the end zone, run it, catch the ball, and run into the end zone for a score. Every possession. Every down.

Metcalf isn’t the ruthless killing machine I describe above. He does have lapses of concentration, he can be tackled, he does not have Olympic speed, and he needs some amount of guile to succeed. But I do think his route tree is always likely to look like the stately pines of the taiga. Nearer the trunk, it will bush out a bit. These will be routes which target soft coverage. Toward the tip the tree will become ever more narrow, as Metcalf is able to succeed with his athletic gifts, and deviation from the goal becomes unwise and unnecessary. He will never match smaller, more agile players at targeting all of the field. He’ll mostly target a tiny subset of the whole field, the end zone.