It’s easy to get caught up in combine and pro day numbers either way to the detriment of your organization. When Ole Miss receiver D.K. Metcalf ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at the 2019 scouting combine at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, it seemed that all anybody wanted to talk about was his 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill times that were more appropriate for defensive tackles, and seemed to indicate that Metcalf, who caught 67 passes for 1,228 yards and 14 touchdowns in 21 college games, would not be able to run anywhere near a full route tree at the NFL level.
The next step was to observe Metcalf at Seattle’s rookie minicamp, which I did. Pete Carroll had no concerns about Metcalf’s ability to do more, and neither did Mississippi receivers coach Jacob Peeler, who said on a Seattle radio station around that time that most of Metcalf’s route limitations were schematic.
“These are things he did every day at practice,” Peeler said of Metcalf’s potentially expanded palette. “If you watch him run routes, and I know people are trying to find something to flaw him on. Because when you saw pictures of him — he’s got the height and everything else, so they’re trying to find something bad about him. The system we were running at the time, that’s what was called for during games. But you’ll see him — he runs slants, digs, comebacks, curls … you name it. He does it at top-level talent, and those will be things that fans will get to see once he gets there. But that’s something I never really questioned with him. He is 6-4, he is 225, so he has some things where big guys are going to be limited, but he was a tremendous asset to our offense. We were sitting at 5-2 when he had his injury, and we finished at 5-7.”
Okay, so, the question remained — if Metcalf could do those things, why wasn’t he?
“Just the ebbs and flows of the game,” Peeler said. “He did some of that in games — he wasn’t just running post and go routes. But his position, at the “X” position, that was the vertical aspect of that position, and he was the best at that.”
Metcalf wasn’t just running go routes in that minicamp. He was ripping the ball away from rookie cornerbacks in contested catch situations. He was running slants. He was running sideline patterns and creating serious problems for defenders with his ability to stretch for the ball. Most of all, he was getting Carroll very excited about his potential.
“Well, it’s almost like, what doesn’t, you know?” Carroll said in May when I asked him what excites him about Metcalf’s potential. “I mean, he’s big and he’s fast. He’s got really good feet, you know, and his catching range was exhibited today. And you know, we’ve got to figure it out, figure out where it is, maybe even more unique than we thought coming in. So, we just develop it as we go. But big and really fast and the catching range was really obvious today.”
I then asked Carroll where Metcalf’s route understanding is compared to where the Seahawks are going to need it to be.
“He’s been coached up well; he had a tremendous offseason working with Jerry Sullivan, one of the great receiver coaches in the history of the NFL. And I’m not taking anything away from where he was. I just know what we’re seeing right now. We’re seeing the guy work really hard at it, getting down and getting in and out of his breaks and stuff. Yeah, he looks like he’s ready to compete.”
Yeah, it looked like he was. In the regular season, Metcalf caught 58 passes on 100 targets for 900 yards and seven touchdowns, and that was just a warmup for what happened in Seattle’s 17-9 wild-card win over the Eagles on Sunday. There, Metcalf set an NFL record for a rookie receiver in his first playoff game, catching seven passes on nine targets for 160 yards and a touchdown. Had Russell Wilson not been hit on a couple of errant throws, Metcalf’s day could have been even bigger.
Not only that, but Metcalf set a franchise record for the most receiving yards in a playoff game. Not bad for a guy who supposedly couldn’t do anything but run in a straight line. Not that Metcalf running in a straight line is a bad thing, as he showed on this 53-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter.
And this 36-yard catch to ice the game with 1:47 left wasn’t too shabby, either.
This isn’t to say that three-cone times aren’t important. Everything is important to a greater or lesser degree when assessing the value of a prospect. But it’s easy to become fixated on the things a player supposedly can’t do at the expense of the things the player has already done, or may do in the future in the right system. Carroll and general manager John Schneider have preached the philosophy for years of focusing on what a player can do, and it’s allowed them to procure several major steals in the draft since 2010. Metcalf, who finished third among rookies in receptions, third in yards, and tied for second in touchdowns, is the most recent example.
We don’t know how many teams who passed on Metcalf did so because he ran a bad three-cone. Perhaps injury issues were also a focus; he missed all but seven games in 2018 with a neck issue. But we also don’t know how many teams talked to Mississippi’s staff about the routes Metcalf ran versus the routes he could run. We don’t know how many times teams saw Metcalf running a quick out to a slant to potentially devastating effect on plays where he didn’t get the ball. We don’t know how many teams followed up on Metcalf’s pre-draft work with Sullivan, of whom Larry Fitzgerald once said, “He’s forgotten more football than most people have ever seen.”
There were a lot of factors that went into D.K. Metcalf’s transition from supposedly one-dimensional draft prospect to dominant postseason performer. Right player, right scheme, right quarterback, right team. But the one common element among most draft steals, no matter the situation, is a commitment to total scouting that goes beyond the one pronounced liability, or the forwarded narrative, and instead dials up the entire picture.
The Seahawks did that with Metcalf, and they were rewarded with a historic performance when it was most needed.