After DK Metcalf, on a jaw-dropping play in October, prevented a pick-six interception return — covering 90 yards to chase down and tackle an Arizona Cardinals defensive back — Terry McLaurin shot the Seattle Seahawks wideout a complimentary text.
The Washington receiver, like everyone who’d seen the clip, was blown away by the athleticism on display in what was clearly destined to become one of the highlight-reel moments of the NFL season.
McLaurin didn’t know then that he’d soon have his own Metcalf-esque highlight when he sprinted to tackle Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith on an interception just a month later.
Ironically, both plays overshadow from what the two second-year players do best: Catch the football.
Metcalf and McLaurin, who meet Sunday for the first time as opponents, each rank in the top 10 of receiving yards this season (Metcalf second, McLaurin 10th) and have been two of the more productive players since arriving to the NFL in 2019.
They’re rising stars from a draft class that, in retrospect, looks to be one of the best group of receivers in recent history. Other standouts include Tennessee’s A.J. Brown, San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel, New York’s Darius Slayton and Baltimore’s Marquise Brown.
But the top two players from that class have been Metcalf and McLaurin — both of whom weren’t the obvious choices to become stars. Metcalf, the 57th overall pick, was the ninth wideout taken, while McLaurin, the 76th overall pick, was the 12th receiver off the board.
“I feel like it was a draft that was probably heavily slept on,” McLaurin said. “I’m not a big guy of saying something is slept on or you made a mistake. I don’t think of it as that. …. But I feel like we had a lot of guys who had potential but for whatever reason they didn’t have that type of recognition coming into the draft.”
McLaurin is right. NFL scouts, executives and draft analysts saw flaws in each prospect that created questions. McLaurin, for instance, was seen primarily as a special teams ace — even by Washington, which quickly found out that the 25-year-old was capable of doing so much more. At Ohio State, McLaurin had limited production in his role as a deep threat. When coach Ron Rivera evaluated McLaurin’s game in college, he said he thought McLaurin needed to improve on his route running.
Metcalf was another prospect who had doubters. Despite Metcalf’s extraordinary physique — he was famously asked to take his shirt off during a pre-draft interview with the Seahawks — there were concerns whether the Ole Miss product could master a variety of routes. Once thought of as a first-round pick, Metcalf fell to the second round.
Since then, though, McLaurin and Metcalf have more than surpassed expectations.
McLaurin topped 1,000 yards on the season this past Sunday — and he only needed 13 games to do it.
“That really is the mark of a consistent player,” Rivera said.
Metcalf, meanwhile, broke that milestone after just 11 games. The 23-year-old has 63 receptions for 1,180 yards, trailing only Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce in yards. Metcalf’s rare blend of size (6-foot-4) and speed (4.33 40-yard dash) has helped produce the fifth-most receiving touchdowns in the league (10).
There are still areas for the two to grow, as well. They both have had to adjust to the attention that opposing defenses now give them. McLaurin, for instance, has had two straight games in which opponents completely shade his side of the field. As a result, the 25-year-old has had two catches for 14 yards and four catches for 30 yards.
“Terry’s such a good football player that you have to pay attention to him, especially as our No. 1,” said Rivera, who noted that if other players step up to produce then that pressure will come off of McLaurin.
Still, what they’ve done is rare. According to Pro Football Reference, Metcalf and McLaurin have the 10th and 18th most receiving yards in the last 20 years among wideouts through their first 29 games. The 2019 draft class, as a whole, has eight players in the top 100 for that span.
Only the 2014 draft class — which produced stars like Odell Beckham and Mike Evans — have more (11).
“You got guys drafted from top to bottom, from the first round to the fifth round or later making an impact,” McLaurin said. “I feel like, since I know a few of those guys, we all just want an opportunity to prove ourselves in this league and earn the respect from our coaches and our teammates.”