The 2019 NFL Draft’s wide-receiver class is a “Have it Your Way” menu of options, headlined by the mercurial draft stock of Mississippi’s D.K. Metcalf. While reviews are mixed, the receiver is held up by many as the top wideout in the draft, and the Buffalo Bills don’t have a number-one threat on their roster at the moment. Let’s analyze the tape and see what makes Metcalf so enticing (and where he could improve).
You’re all familiar with the Metcalf prospectus by now—an incredible combination of size, speed, and strength (but lacking on the agility front). Everything he showed in the weight room and on the track translates to his football tape as well. The play below is a perfect distillation of Metcalf’s best traits. He has the strength and technique at the line to instantly neutralize press coverage, the acceleration to open a ten-foot gap between himself and the cornerback, the catch radius to grab a slightly overthrown pass without diving, and the speed to bring the play to the end zone.
Metcalf’s route-running technique has pluses and minuses. I love his hand-fighting off the line of scrimmage, which combines with his ludicrous strength to win against the press. His speed forces cornerbacks to play him conservatively in man coverage. He’ll include double moves and pace variations into his routes in order to take advantage of his best traits (acceleration and speed).
However, his footwork and body movement doesn’t carry a whole lot of subtlety. When running his routes, patient defenders can identify the breaks (or the false cuts) and close on the pass. It probably doesn’t help that he ran an extremely basic route tree at Ole Miss: fades, comebacks, hitches, posts, and not much else.
Metcalf’s catching technique is excellent when working with his best traits—jump balls and difficult adjustments—and less effective on tricky situations like balls thrown into his body at waist height. He’ll let the ball into his chest, and sometimes positions his hands awkwardly around the pass, and it led to multiple drops I saw on his tape.
Metcalf’s three-cone drill and short shuttle were both terrible results at the Combine—indicating poor change-of-direction ability. This is apparent on the play below. Running a comeback, Metcalf catches the ball, and needs nearly a full two seconds to stop and change direction to run after the catch.
Of course, the other facets of his athletic ability compensate for that weakness. He quickly accelerates to high gear and is ten yards downfield before the cornerback can touch him.
Metcalf does a nice job of using his upper-body strength to separate from cornerbacks at the catch point. Sometimes he’s a little too strong for his own good, and he’ll earn the occasional Offensive Pass Interference penalty.
Because of Metcalf’s trouble with turning around, he can lose concentration in the transition from separation to catching. This doesn’t always result in drops, but near the sidelines, it means he can lose awareness of his feet and end up catching the ball out of bounds.
I did not see Metcalf blocking very often in the games I watched, with the Rebels preferring to have him run out decoy routes (or running RPO concepts that didn’t point in his direction). He didn’t always engage defenders when the play was headed his way, but when he did, his incredible upper-body strength was instantly noticeable. This is a player with dominating upside as a blocker.
In the right setting, with enough experience, D.K. Metcalf could be an incredible vertical threat for an offense. Think of how Martavis Bryant was playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and now imagine a player with an extra 20 lbs of muscle mass on top of that speed. However, he’s not for everybody. Put in a complicated west-coast offense, I think Metcalf would absolutely struggle to break into the league. I have legitimate concerns about his injury history and his unrefined route-running technique. There are other receivers in this class I like better than Metcalf.
Based on my observations of his game play, Metcalf would be a high-risk, high-reward draft selection for the Buffalo Bills. As a deep threat with size, he fits the Bills better than he would fit many other teams. Overall, though, I wouldn’t sign off on drafting Metcalf in the first round without trading down first.