CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Terry McLaurin was asked which was tougher: The 39-yard reception with a defender draped all over him? Or the 12-yard touchdown catch that he came up with, also despite having a defender right on top of him.
He went with the shorter one.
“When you’re in the red (zone), everything is contested,” McLaurin said after Sunday’s 27-21 win over the Carolina Panthers.
For Washington’s wide receiver, it was just another typical day of being incredible.
Entering the weekend, McLaurin already led the NFL in contested catches with 21, according to Pro Football Focus. And that number is sure to rise following Sunday’s win, thanks to McLaurin‘s two eye-popping grabs against the Panthers.
In an uneven year for Washington, McLaurin has been incredibly reliable — and his improvement in hauling in contested catches has taken his game to another level.
Against Carolina, McLaurin finished with five catches for 103 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s a killer,” said teammate and wide receiver DeAndre Carter “He takes big hits and still makes plays. He embodies who we are as a tough, tough hard-nosed kid.”
The highlight-reel plays have focused the NFL spotlight on McLaurin. He is no longer seen as the overlooked wide receiver out of Ohio State that fell to the third round of the 2019 NFL draft. These days, the more appropriate debate seems to be where McLaurin ranks among the NFL’s best wideouts.
As good as McLaurin was over his first two seasons, the 26-year-old hadn’t shown the ability to haul in contested catches as consistently as he has this year. According to Pro Football Focus, McLaurin caught 11 contested catches in 2020 and 15 as a rookie. Through 10 games, he’s surpassed that number.
McLaurin has tried to address that aspect of his game. In college, coaches hammered home the area was a weakness for McLaurin — who was a sparingly-used deep-threat at Ohio State valued more for his leadership. McLaurin began working extra hours after practice to catch more balls.
Since then, McLaurin has gotten stronger, and he regularly fights through contact. Last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he withstood a crushing hit on third-and-6 and still held onto the ball to pick up the first down. The play was particularly important because Washington went on to score its game-sealing touchdown.
The wide receiver proved to be just as vital this week. McLaurin’s 39-yard catch, for instance, came on third and 9 and kept Washington’s first scoring drive aline. A few moments later, quarterback Taylor Heinicke found Cam Sims for a 6-yard touchdown.
On McLaurin’s 12-yard catch in the end zone later in the game, the wideout snuck into a small gap in coverage — helping the Burgundy and Gold tie the game at 14. To complete the catch, McLaurin had to take a devastating hit from Panthers safety Jeremy Chinn.
Chinn’s hit drew a pass interference penalty, but there was no need to accept it — McLaurin had caught it.
“One of my goals this year was to be a better contested-ball catcher,” McLaurin said. “When you have those opportunities with the ball in the air and you can come down with ‘em, it just gives a lot of energy and confidence to your quarterback, your offense and your team.
“It’s something I’m always constantly working on.”
McLaurin’s work has separated him from the pack. Prior to the weekend, the next closest receiver to McLaurin in contested catches was New England’s Jakobi Myers with 14.
“I’m very happy he’s on our team,” Heinicke said.