The NFL’s wide receiver talent pool is getting a bit too full. At some point in the near future, an analytics person might even lump them in with running backs as the only concepts in the universe without matter. Call me crazy?
One of the main arguments against running backs has been that they are easily replaceable by talent on rookie contracts, so why should a team pony up for a workhorse back if they can steer James Robinson onto the field for a fraction of the cost? Will we eventually reach the same conclusion for teams that have a Gallup in the stables and a McLaurin in the garage?
Consider that after four weeks, the top eight in rushing yards are 26 or younger and Melvin Gordon is the only back in the top 17 who is 27. Not until you reach 35-year-old Adrian Peterson at 18th in rushing yards do you find a running back who is over 27; then you have to go all the way down to the 27th leading rusher, David Johnson, to find the next.
Despite Peterson and Frank Gore defying preconceived notions about running backs and age, the overwhelming majority of backs are under 28 and those who are past their mid-20s might have to begin planning for their post-football careers. Latavius Murray, Mark Ingram and Rex Burkhead are the only other backs in the league who are at least 30 (none are over 31) and have 100 rushing yards after four games.
How does this compare to wide receivers?
While the difference is not as drastic as compared to backs, it is drastic as compared to the recent past, and the 2020 receiving leaders list still heavily in favor of youth over experience.
Setting aside running backs and tight ends, we see that out of the top 30 wide receivers in yardage through four games, only 34-year-old Julian Edelman, 30-year-old Adam Thielen and 31-year-old Cole Beasley are over the age of 28.
It’s also worth noting what type of receivers Edelman, Thielen and Beasley are, which is, to put it simply, not fast or big or explosive. As a matter of matter, the over-30 running backs like Peterson and Gore, who are much older than almost all receivers in the league, are probably to some degree faster and more explosive than most of the over-28 receivers.
Among the top 30 wide receivers in yardage, 13 are on their rookie contracts. That includes seven players drafted within the last two years.
DK Metcalf was a second round pick in 2019 and is tied for the NFL lead in yards.
Terry McLaurin was a fourth round pick in 2019 and is fifth in yards.
Justin Jefferson was a mid-first round pick in 2020 and is eighth in yards.
CeeDee Lamb was a mid-first round pick in 2020 and is 12th in yards.
Scott Miller was a sixth round pick in 2019 and is 24th in yards.
Marquise Brown was a late first round pick in 2019 and is 25th in yards.
Darius Slayton was a fifth round pick in 2019 and is 27th in yards.
Jerry Jeudy was a mid-first round pick in 2020 and is 28th in yards.
Everyone from Miller on up is on pace to cross over 1,000 yards this season. They won’t all get there and some who are not on “pace” have not yet played their best football. But if there are 15 receivers this season on rookie contracts to cross over 1,000 yards, it would not be surprising. Many of them also did not require teams to spend early first round picks on them, if not a first or second round pick at all.
Stefon Diggs is tied with Metcalf and was a fifth round pick; Robby Anderson went undrafted; Beasley went undrafted; Allen Lazard went undrafted; Keenan Allen, Michael Gallup, Tyler Lockett, Cooper Kupp were all third round picks; Jamison Crowder was a fourth round pick; Tyreek Hill was a fifth round pick and even if he fell in the draft for a highly publicized reason, everybody goes at some point in the draft because of reasons.
Wide receivers who were drafted in the top-15 who currently rank in the top 30 for yards include Amari Cooper, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham, DeVante Parker and Jeudy.
Wide receivers drafted in the top 10 since 2013 are: Sammy Watkins, Cooper, Corey Davis, Evans, Kevin White, Mike Williams, Tavon Austin and John Ross.
Running backs drafted in the top 10 in that same time period: Saquon Barkley, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley.
Now, which of those positions has been the most scrutinized for using high draft picks on them?
Second question, who are the best players on either list? Which position has produced more top-10 stars and more top-10 or top-15 busts? The worst running back drafted in the top-15 since 2013 is Melvin Gordon, twice good enough to represent the AFC in the Pro Bowl.
The fact that there are so many good receivers outside of the first round is either good news for wide receivers. Or as bad as it’s been for running backs.
Go back to 2015 and you’ll find that going into Week 5, there were five wideouts over the age of 30 who were in the top-20 for yards: Larry Fitzgerald (third in yards at that point), Brandon Marshall (fifth), Steve Smith (ninth), James Jones (14th) and Vincent Jackson (19th). Smith was 36, but averaged 95.7 yards per game before getting injured.
Receivers in their first two seasons on the list included Cooper, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Beckham, Jordan Matthews, Donte Moncrief, Jarvis Landry and Willie Snead.
“They” criticize running backs for losing the battle of attrition. How have receivers managed to get credit for doing better with their health or being able to consistently produce when there are many Allen Hurns and Jordan Matthews and Donte Moncrief’s out there?
Just like running backs, teams have shifted their attention towards giving roster spots and reps to younger wide receivers over their older, more expensive counterparts. And when wide receiver classes come into the league like we’ve seen in 2019, 2020 and 2021, which is supposedly better than both of those elite groups of prospects, why should we expect teams to continue to favor those who are crossing over the age of 28 and costing over $15 million per season?
Analytics poured their brains out to die on the hill of “running backs don’t matter” but do they dare turn their attention to arguably the second-most popular players on most teams after the quarterback: the guys who make those catches we love to share with others? Because if there’s one thing that translates across the football universe, it’s a one-handed, toe-tappin’, careening-towards-earth touchdown grab that defies physics as our brain had understood it.
Which brings me to Terry McLaurin.
Death. Taxes. Terry McLaurin.— Ohio State Football (@OhioStateFB) October 4, 2020
What a throw by @dh_simba7, what a grab by @TheTerry_25 ‼️
: #BALvsWAS on CBS pic.twitter.com/dPOtJ6HWGM
“At the end of the day, McLaurin projects as a day three selection who should provide solid depth to a team’s receiving corps. He has immediate special teams value and though it might take time for him to get consistent volume from a receptions standpoint, he has the potential to develop into a consistent contributor. In time, he should be able to get starter-level reps as a number two receiving option.”
“Plays smaller than his size (6’0”, 208 lbs) and isn’t one to run through traffic or make a lot of 50-50 receptions.”
“McLaurin is an appealing prospect because of his speed, route running skills and proven special teams ability. Those traits are ideal for a mid-round pick as he develops at the next level. I do have some concerns about his ball skills that impact his projection. McLaurin should be a high quality special teamer at the next level with the upside to become a top three option in an NFL passing game.”
I can’t blame anyone for being “wrong” about McLaurin because in reality nobody knows anything about the actual pro careers ahead for draft prospects. Until they play at the NFL level, as proven over and over again, it’s impossible to know how they’ll perform. Nobody knew that over his first 20 games in the NFL, Terry McLaurin would be one of the best in the league at his position.
McLaurin has already played with three different quarterbacks, none of them good, three different head coaches and two different offensive coordinators, but he’s remained consistent against some of the best competition in the league.
Despite being the 13th wide receiver drafted in 2019, McLaurin was an immediate contributor, catching five passes for 125 yards and a touchdown in his debut last Week 1. He was also old for a rookie, he turned 24 in Week 2, but McLaurin didn’t waste any time in taking advantage of his most valuable playing years.
And he’s elevated his game to an even higher level to being his second season.
Even though quarterback Dwayne Haskins was benched this week, McLaurin has had at least 60 yards in every game, over 100 yards twice and is fifth overall with 387. McLaurin has averaged at least 8.4 yards per target in all four contests, something he only did six times all of last season.
He has done this against four defenses that rank in the top-16 for net yards per pass attempt allowed. The secondaries feature varying level of the word “stars” like Marlon Humphrey, Patrick Peterson, Darius Slay and Denzel Ward but how much of McLaurin’s production came against them?
Week 1 vs Eagles
Total game: 5 of 7 targets, 61 yards
Against Darius Slay: 2 of 3, 28 yards
Week 2 vs Cardinals
Total game: 7 of 10 targets, 125 yards, 1 TD
Against Patrick Peterson: At least some of it!
I don’t have the full numbers with Peterson in coverage, but clips above and below show McLaurin making plays against him, including a touchdown. It’s not necessarily always “on” or “over” Peterson, he’s beating the whole defense, which is even better and the point of football.
Terry McLaurin burns Patrick Peterson for the touchdown! pic.twitter.com/XBmFabjZUI— Barstool OSU (@BarstoolOSU) September 20, 2020
Cut up of Terry McLaurin vs the Cardinals. Worth noting he's not always part of the read on some of these plays, but wanted to highlight how often he beat coverage. Gave Patrick Peterson a tough game. #WashingtonFootball have a stud WR in McLaurin. pic.twitter.com/PV461N9h4m— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) September 22, 2020
Terry McLaurin: 90.2 receiving grade on targets 1-19 yards ️ (4th among WRs)— PFF (@PFF) September 25, 2020
Up next: a banged-up Denzel Ward (groin) and the #Browns pic.twitter.com/AWLuBMmLqu
Week 3 vs Browns
Total Game: 4 of 8 targets, 83 yards
vs Denzel Ward: I didn’t see any of these catches coming with Ward in the area.
Week 4 vs Ravens
Total Game: 10 of 14 targets, 118 yards
vs Marlon Humphrey: I saw McLaurin catch one short first down against Humphrey, most of his production was when being covered by Anthony Averett.
People will say that Jalen Ramsey is the best cornerback that McLaurin will have faced in his career up to this point, but that is both true and potentially meaningless. We don’t yet know if Ramsey will cover McLaurin at all. It might seem like he should, much like Ramsey covering Darius Slayton against the Giants and taking out their only perceived weapon, but the Rams may also trust Darious Williams or Troy Hill to do so and trust zone coverage to take care of one of the worst passing offenses in the league.
Because Washington may have one of the best under-26 weapons in the league, but they’ve also just named one of 2019’s worst quarterbacks as their new starter and haven’t a receiving threat on the team besides McLaurin; 31-year-old Dontrelle Inman is the number two wide receiver on Football Team, catching 11 of 21 targets for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
By many accounts, Ramsey (who is also 25, but entered the NFL three years before McLaurin) is having his best season to date. It’s only four games, but there’s also little reason to be skeptical of a cornerback with his pedigree reaching another level of abilities as he prepares to turn 26 in two weeks. Ramsey signed a five-year extension with the team to prove he’ll have value into his thirties, from covering McLaurin this Sunday ...
All the way up to potentially covering the replacement for McLaurin’s replacement if some day soon wide receivers find out what it’s like to be treated like running backs.