Beyond the numbers with Terry McLaurin

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 23: Terry McLaurin #17 of the Washington Redskins is introduced prior to the game against the Chicago Bears at FedExField on September 23, 2019 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 23: Terry McLaurin #17 of the Washington Redskins is introduced prior to the game against the Chicago Bears at FedExField on September 23, 2019 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images) /

You’re all educated football fans, right? I read the comments. I know you are. So tell me – what do you think of Michael Pittman, Jr.? In case a novice snuck onto the page, I’ll remind you that Pittman is a second-year receiver for the Indianapolis Colts. He has taken over from veteran T.Y. Hilton to become the Colts’ top receiver by a pretty clear margin. By all accounts, Pittman is a good – though maybe not great – young receiver. But this isn’t a story about Michael Pittman, Jr. This is a story about Terry McLaurin.

There are some obvious differences between the third-year Washington Football Team receiver and Pittman. Most noticeably, Pittman is much bigger. McLaurin is a lot faster. But check out their stats two-thirds of the way through the 2021 season. Statistically, on paper at least, McLaurin and Pittman are almost identical. Catches, yardage, touchdowns – there’s a hair’s breath between them.

I bring this up because there are a lot of Washington Football Team fans who believe Terry McLaurin is among the best receivers in the NFL. (SPOILER ALERT – I am one of them.) Yet, I suspect few if any of those fans would put Michael Pittman in the same category. So it is incumbent on fans like us to explain what separates McLaurin from Pittman. Because you will not find it on paper.

McLaurin and Pittman both play for teams that rely on the run. Of course, that eats into their numbers. They also play for teams that do not have a legitimate second option at receiver. Last year, the Colts did have Hilton, but he was already trending down, and this season, he has not been healthy. The secondary receiving options in Indianapolis, as in Washington, tend to be backs and tight ends. There is no other receiver who pulls an opposing secondary’s attention away from the number one guy.

But Pittman has had one major advantage over McLaurin thus far. In his rookie season, he had Philip Rivers throwing him the ball. Rivers’ arm may have deteriorated a bit, but it was still better than almost anyone McLaurin has played with in Washington. And this year, whether you like or hate Carson Wentz, you have to admit that his arm is better than Rivers’ was in 2020.

Terry McLaurin has played with half a dozen quarterbacks in his short career, and only one had a superior arm. That was Dwayne Haskins, and we all know what happened there. Kyle Allen has a pretty good arm, but he has scarcely played. McLaurin has mostly caught balls from Case Keenum, Taylor Heinicke and a one-legged Alex Smith. I think there may have been a Colt McCoy throw in there too. But Ryan Fitzpatrick came and went without ever completing a pass to Terry.

Clearly, McLaurin has not had the benefit of a strong-armed QB who can take advantage of his speed on deep balls.

But you know what – screw the excuses. Instead of listing all the problems, let’s look at what Terry McLaurin does.

First, McLaurin can run any route in the game plan. He can line up at X or in the slot. He could certainly line up at Z but he is too valuable in the other roles to do it. He runs a lot of slants, but he can also run outs. He can run screens, and his great speed allows him to run go routes. The fact that he can and does run every pattern makes him hard to defend. And the fact that he runs precision routes – on every snap – makes it almost impossible. Isolate on him for a section of a game and see how crisp his cuts are. Watch how he sells fakes to create separation.

Terry McLaurin is far and away the top option every time Washington drops back to throw and he still manages to get open. That alone should tell you how good his routes are.

McLaurin tracks deep balls extremely well. His concentration and vision are excellent. Current cornerback William Jackson III learned this when he covered McLaurin in the Washington-Cincinnati game last year. Jackson had Terry blanketed on a deep middle throw but McLaurin leapt high and snatched the ball away from Jackson. During his rookie season, he had made a similar catch against the (then) Eagles’ corner Ronald Darby. (I’m seeing a pattern here.) And of course, his extraordinary body control catch against the Chargers in Week 1 of 2021 suggests he’s only getting better at this.

He has excellent hands. Strong hands that rarely give up a contested catch. Early in his rookie year, he served notice with a spectacular one-handed twisting touchdown grab against Green Bay. He made a similar grab against the Bears that season. There was the leaping catch against Seattle in 2020, and this year, he helped win the Atlanta game with his remarkable adjustment on a long Heinicke throw.

And to finish off his trio of outstanding receiver skills, he runs very well after the catch. He rarely goes down immediately upon catching the balls. He showed this off best on his long touchdown against the Giants in 2020, breaking several tackles on his way to the end zone. But he does it in smaller ways week in and week out.

In many ways, Terry McLaurin reminds me of Gary Clark. He has the heart and toughness of the legendary member of the Fun Bunch. Clark was known for his spin move after the catch and McLaurin is pretty good at that himself. Both Clark and McLaurin gets pounded but Terry, like Gary, rarely seems to come out of a game. Of course, McLaurin has about three inches and thirty pounds on Clark, while being as fast or faster. With that combination, the sky is the limit.

Then there is the play against Dallas on Thanksgiving, 2020. Both teams were 3-7, but still desperately clinging onto postseason hopes in the weak NFC East. Dallas had beaten Washington in all but one game they had played on Thanksgiving, and Washington held onto a seven-point lead late in the third quarter.

Alex Smith got pressured on a pass around mid-field and got picked off. The once-speedy Jaylon Smith had a convoy to the end zone and a tied ballgame. And then Terry appeared. He had to avoid a blocker in his path but he still ran Smith down and caught him inside the ten. Dallas went backwards on two plays and had to settle for a field goal. They would be Dallas’ final points. Washington would score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter and rout the Cowboys. The playoffs appeared on the horizon.

That game may have been the turning point of the season, and that play may have been the turning point of the game. It would have been easy to give up. But in the same way that Darrell Green once tracked down the uncatchable Tony Dorsett almost 40 years earlier, Terry McLaurin ran down another Cowboy and cemented his position as Washington’s best player.

The fact that Terry McLaurin is an accomplished receiver who may be best-known for making a tackle is my best evidence for why he is among the best receivers in the league. Better than the above-average Michael Pittman. McLaurin is a leader. His play is inspirational.

The NFC will select four receivers for the Pro Bowl. There may be more, provided the game is actually played and injuries crop up. Cooper Kupp, Davante Adams, and Justin Jefferson are shoo-ins. They deserve the honor. But the fourth spot is open as of now. McLaurin’s numbers, with five games to go, put him behind several other players the likes of Curtis Godwin, Tyler Lockett, Deebo Samuel and Mike Evans. I guess CeeDee Lamb deserves some consideration as well, but I don’t feel the need to call any more attention to over-hyped Cowboys.

If you go just by numbers, McLaurin falls into that second tier of players who are very good, but not great. That’s why you need to look deeper than the numbers. Because Terry McLaurin clearly is great.

Projecting a contract extension for Terry McLaurin. dark. Next