From a pure physical traits standpoint, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf is one of the most gifted players in the NFL. However, that does not always show up in the stat sheet for the fourth-year pro. Metcalf is in the midst of another strong year as he has posted 924 receiving yards (16th in the NFL), his yards per game of 66 is 22nd and his six receiving touchdowns is tied for 15th. Now whilst those numbers are very good the first two years of DK have not matched the last two years below the surface. Metrics across the board for the former second round pick have slipped and down below we are going to take a look at why that is and how it could be corrected.
Historically over the course of his career Metcalf has struggled to create separation, because let’s be honest, he is not a great route runner. He never has been one and thanks to his physical gifts he does not have to be one. Metcalf’s average yards of separation has dropped from 2.6 yards each of the previous two seasons down to 2.3 yards this season. Amongst receivers with 40+ targets that is tied for the 5th worst mark in the league with A.J. Green. The only four players worse than Metcalf and Green are DeVante Parker, rookie Alec Pierce, Marvin Jones, and Allen Robinson. Not a great list.
Separation aside, defenses are also adjusting to how they defend Metcalf. In 2020 the average cushion (yards separating the receiver and the defender guarding him at the snap) given to Metcalf was 5.4 yards. Last season that number jumped to 6.3 and this season it has reached 6.5 yards. On the surface 1.1 yards might not seem like a lot but that is roughly a 17% bump which is significant. Now not every corner is doing this; there are plenty of corners still playing press against Metcalf, such as the 49ers’ Charvarius Ward, whom Metcalf did struggle against last Thursday. But it is a big enough jump that it is something that we have to discuss as a potential reason as to why Metcalf has seen his stats change this season.
One of the more feared yards after the catch threats early in his career, Metcalf has also seen his production with the ball in his hands slip significantly. In 2020, Metcalf averaged 4.7 yards after the catch compared to an expected YAC of 3.2. In 2021 it dropped to a YAC of 4.6 with an expected YAC of 2.9. However, this season his YAC has plummeted down to 2.8, which is almost right in line with his xYAC of 2.5. His YAC of 2.8 is the 8th lowest mark amongst qualified receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones and Russell Gage.
Metcalf’s yards per reception and target have also slipped over the past three seasons. His 15.7 yards per reception in 2020 was the 11th best number in the league and last season it dropped to 12.9 which was 41st. This season it is down to 11.7 which is tied for 56th. His yards per target have had a similar type of fall from 2020 to 2022. They went from 10.1 in 2020 was tied for 8th that year to 7.5 in 2021 which was tied for 75th. This season we have seen a slight jump with him reaching 7.8 yards per target which is tied for 60th.
Also notable is Metcalf’s targeted air yards have also dropped over the past three seasons. It has gone from 13.6 in 2020 to 12.7 in 2021 down to 11.5 this season. Notably though, Metcalf’s percentage share of the teams targeted air yards has hardly changed over the past three seasons. In 2020, it was 37.99% which was fourth in the league. It fell slightly to 36.71% in 2021, good for 7th that season and this year it is 37.83% which is 7th. So effectively the Seahawks are just not pushing the ball down the field as much over the past two seasons but are still determined to get Metcalf the same air yards target share.
What can be done?
His targeted air yards are my gripe with how Shane Waldron has used him over the past two seasons but more specifically this season. As I discussed above, Metcalf is not a great route runner. He can run the whole route tree, but he is never a receiver you are going to entrust in running jerk, whips, or truly selling a double move because that is not his game. In my opinion DK is at his best when he is being targeted down the field on jump balls to where he can use his natural size and athleticism to beat the defender, stack them, outjump them and then high-point the football. Those traits cannot be used when he is running slants, quick outs or hitches.
Waldron has to run more downfield routes in order to truly unlock Metcalf but also to expand this offense more. Defenses are not fearing Seattle vertically because they are not taking many shots. Even if Metcalf is tasked with running go or post routes to clear a safety to open up a dig or something else it is still an effective use of his talents because he is impacting the game in a positive manner for Seattle. With Tyler Lockett missing this week's game against the Kansas City Chiefs I hope we see Metcalf running a few more routes 20+ yards down the field.
(All advanced stats cited provided by Pro Football Reference, ESPN NFL Stats and NFL NextGen Stats)