ASHBURN — Terry McLaurin recently pulled up footage from his rookie year. This was out of the norm as the Washington wide receiver says he typically doesn’t go back to watch older tape of himself. But in this case, the 26-year-old went to the archives to study his matchup with Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White.
He said he had to laugh at some of what he saw.
There were the obvious tells — “indicators,” McLaurin calls them — that tipped the cornerback off on the routes he was going to run. On an out route, for example, McLaurin stuttered his feet too soon. There were other routes when McLaurin leaned in with his body too early before changing direction— another giveaway.
“It’s kind of crazy,” McLaurin said, “to see just how much improvement I have made.”
Three years into his NFL career, McLaurin has gone from talented-but-raw rookie to one of the league’s best wideouts, in part because of the homework — like studying the film on White — that he does on opponents.
McLaurin has not only tried to eliminate his tells, he focuses on exploiting the same in the cornerbacks tasked with covering him.
As Washington prepares for Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons, McLaurin is again off to a solid start to his season — one of the highlights for an underwhelming offense as a whole.
Through three games, he’s caught 19 balls for 231 yards and a touchdown. His growth as a premier pass-catcher is never more evident than when he faces off against the same cornerbacks multiple times.
Just look at how McLaurin handled New York’s James Bradberry in Week 2.
Bradberry historically has given McLaurin trouble — he’d limited McLaurin to just two receptions and 16 yards in three previous meetings, according to Next Gen Stats. This time around, McLaurin finished with five catches for 47 yards and a touchdown on seven targets when directly matched up with Bradberry.
It was part of a stellar performance in which McLaurin totaled a career-high 11 catches for 107 yards. Against the Bills, McLaurin caught only four passes for 62 yards — but that, too, was an improvement when considering he caught only four passes for 39 yards in Buffalo as a rookie.
“You gain more experience with each opportunity you get to face a good defender,” McLaurin told The Washington Times on Tuesday, the day he spent promoting a GotMilk? campaign. “You learn a lot from those matchups, from the routes that you win and the routes that you may lose. … Each matchup is different: Just because you had a successful matchup one week, and if you see them again, that doesn’t guarantee you’re going to be successful the next time. And vice versa.”
That’s why, McLaurin says, he tries to go into a matchup without preconceived notions. That’s easier said than done, of course. But against White, for instance, McLaurin watched their matchup from 2019 and all of White’s games in 2020 and 2021 to get a better idea of what he would be facing.
To pick up on an opponent’s habits, McLaurin studies what players like to do depending on the down and distance.
He’ll pay attention to a corner’s reactions in press coverage, looking for which hand they use to jam the receiver at the line. He’ll look at the player’s feet to get a sense of how far they’re backing off once the play snaps.
“All that tells me information for how I can possibly predict and anticipate how they’re going to play on Sunday,” McLaurin said.
By now, opponents are keenly aware of McLaurin’s tendencies, as well. He’s no longer the fresh-faced rookie who caught defenses off guard in 2019 with blazing speed and crafty route running. The Bills and Giants each used White and Bradberry to shadow McLaurin no matter where he lined up on the field.
McLaurin, though, has found ways to make plays — even when defenders are draped all over him. There’s been no better example of that than his 34-yard circus catch down the sideline in Week 1, when McLaurin hauled in a pass despite Chargers safety Nasir Adderley flying in at the last second.
This season, McLaurin leads the league in contested catches with seven — the Adderley play just one of them.
“When the ball is in the air, he’s going to go fight for it and get it,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. “It’s a good thing to know for me, and then also for the quarterbacks. He’s not ever really covered.”
On Wednesday, quarterback Taylor Heinicke showed up to his press conference wearing a “Scary Terry” T-shirt — containing a drawing of a McLaurin wearing a “Friday the 13th”-style hockey mask.
Asked what makes “Terry scary,” Heinicke smiled and pointed to McLaurin’s route running.
“I just envisioned myself being a corner, being one on one (against him),” Heinicke said. “I think that would be a scary deal.”