The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For Washington’s Terry McLaurin, the little things are adding up to something big

Terry McLaurin has 963 receiving yards to rank fifth in the NFL through Week 12. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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ESPN analyst Todd McShay can’t forget one of the most forgettable moments ahead of the 2019 NFL draft. It was March 20, and after trekking from one pre-draft showcase to another, McShay was in Columbus, Ohio, alongside dozens of NFL scouts, coaches and general managers for Ohio State’s pro day. ESPN’s cameras closely tracked the Buckeyes’ projected first-rounders, but McShay was in search of more — the skill that separated these players from the hundreds of others hoping to hear their name called during the draft.

He got an earful about one of them.

Urban Meyer, who had just retired as Ohio State’s coach, raved about the kid and urged McShay to watch the special teams tape. Newly appointed coach Ryan Day encouraged the same and mentioned the player’s precise route-running and love for the game. Whatever you need him to do, he will do, Day told McShay.

But in between hits for “SportsCenter,” McShay got the best intel.

“I’ll never forget: During his pro day, I was talking to one of the guys that worked in the building for Ohio State,” he recalled. “I don’t think he was officially on their staff. He was working at the facility, setting things up and all that. He made a point to pull me aside and said: ‘The one guy you can’t miss on is Terry McLaurin. Every day he’s here doing stuff. Some of the coaches don’t even see how hard he’s working.’ ”

McLaurin, a two-time captain and three-year starter at Ohio State, “checked all the boxes,” as many analysts wrote, but he didn’t check the one that labeled him a future top-tier talent. He had the freakish speed (a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the combine), the rare athleticism and the durability. He was a perfect teammate and an even better pupil, and he had enough reckless abandon to throw his body around as a gunner in punt coverage.

“That’s really where you saw the speed and the toughness, and that’s where it was easy to buy in to Terry,” said Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl. “Going into Senior Bowl week, most teams had late-round grades on him. He was like a fifth-, sixth-, seventh-rounder for most teams.

“What you didn’t see a lot of was what he showed here in Mobile as a route-runner. He turned people inside out all week. Nobody could cover him.”

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But because he was part of a crowded wide receivers room at Ohio State, McLaurin’s college stats were mediocre, never topping 701 receiving yards in a season. So he was labeled a “special teams ace” and drafted behind 11 other wide receivers to wait for “his moment,” as he has said.

He didn’t wait long. Just 25 games into his pro career, McLaurin is not only the Washington Football Team’s top receiver and 37 yards from his first 1,000-yard season. He’s also a team captain and one of the NFL’s most impactful and complete players, with game-saving tackles and highlight-reel catches that have turned some of the game’s biggest stars into his biggest fans.

“He’s a f---ing animal,” former Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chad Johnson said on a recent podcast. “… I talked about him as a rookie. His second year, he’s picking up right where he left off. He’s so freaking good. Now, if we can just get some consistency at the quarterback spot, sky’s the limit. When in doubt, he’s always there. He’s like life insurance. Or he’s like birth control. He will be there.”

Focus, then fire

Few get to see it live and up close, but the ones who do rarely forget it. McLaurin, the polished and clean-cut 25-year-old who says and does all the right things, has a fire that, when fueled, can ravage a defense.

Even his own defense.

In training camp as a rookie, he torched Josh Norman, nearly broke the ankles of Troy Apke and put Deion Harris on skates.

In training camp this year, McLaurin beat Greg Stroman on a go route along the left sideline and, after diving for the touchdown grab, punted the ball and flexed in celebration.

“When he flips that switch on game day, you can see it,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “You can see it in his eyes. You can certainly see it in his play.”

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs found that out this season. One play after the rookie was caught talking trash, McLaurin burned him for a 52-yard touchdown. Diggs didn’t talk much after that.

“I’m pretty calm throughout the game, [but when] you kind of poke at me a little bit, that kind of ups my play and my energy a little bit more,” McLaurin said after Washington’s Week 7 win.

McLaurin’s swagger and workman mentality are a rare blend for a position that thrives on selfishness. Wide receivers want targets. They are paid to catch passes. Many publicly declare they want more. But McLaurin views his role with a wider lens and strikes a balance that belies his experience.

Although he ranks fifth in the league in receiving yards (963) and second in yards after the catch (447), McLaurin is not in a bunch of TV commercials or sponsored by a dozen brands. He doesn’t have a personal website or his own logo stamped on T-shirts and hoodies like so many other players do.

“He hasn’t done that yet, even though he has no shortage of opportunities, because he wants to focus on being the best receiver he can and help the team win,” said his agent, Buddy Baker. “That’s truly his agenda. He realizes that if I go out and I don’t perform anymore, then, first of all, that stuff is not going to have any value anyway. It’s about the long term over the short term. I think that’s kind of how he views football but also how he views life.”

Nagy puts McLaurin in an elite group of players who emanate “greatness” upon first meeting because of his maturity. “You can just feel it,” Nagy said. “And that was really clear with Terry. He was obviously here [during Senior Bowl week] on a business trip. This was all about business to him, yet he still had fun with it.”

Washington Coach Ron Rivera, who eyed McLaurin in the 2019 draft while he was with the Carolina Panthers, has said McLaurin, in Year 2, is already a “leader by example” for the team’s young offense. After his team’s first victory over Dallas, McLaurin gave an impromptu speech in the locker room to encourage his teammates to enjoy the results of their hard work. Days later he was unanimously voted a team captain, and this past week he was named Washington’s nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award.

“A lot of young guys come in and they don’t know how to act, they don’t know how to prepare, they don’t know how to take care of themselves,” Rivera said. “Terry’s one of those guys that prepares the right way every day.”

He also treasures the dirty work.

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One of McLaurin’s signature plays at Ohio State came on a score against Penn State in 2018. He didn’t catch the game-winning touchdown, though. He took out three defenders with a single block to clear a path to the end zone for teammate KJ Hill Jr.

One of the plays McLaurin is most proud of this season happened in Washington’s Thanksgiving win at Dallas, when he chased down linebacker Jaylon Smith on an interception return. McLaurin reached 20.99 mph, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, before catching Smith at the 4-yard line and saving four points when the Cowboys settled for a field goal.

“Yeah, my job is to catch passes, but once the ball is intercepted, my job is to get them on the ground,” McLaurin said. “… The dirty work is still something I hang my hat on. It’s cool catching touchdowns and making big plays, but running down guys and making big plays for our running backs is also even more fun.”

Never at rest

Almost immediately after his standout rookie season ended, McLaurin contacted Pete Bommarito, a well-known trainer to NFL hopefuls and veterans alike. Bommarito Performance Systems, in Florida, is at various times the offseason hub for players such as Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs, Von Miller and Chris Jones, Frank Gore and even Washington’s Morgan Moses.

“The main thing I really was looking for in an offseason program was to get around more NFL guys — receivers, running backs, skill player guys who can really help push me in the offseason,” McLaurin said.

After shedding the “special teams” label in Year 1, McLaurin didn’t want another label as simply a rookie sensation. So he started working early.

“A lot of my receivers don’t come in January, but Terry had a very specific plan,” Bommarito said. “He wanted to get going.”

Atop his list was improving his footwork and route-running, to get in and out of his breaks faster and create more separation with defenders. Other priorities included improving his ability to gain yards after the catch, to turn six-yard hitch routes into 12-yard gains.

“That’s huge for your offense and opens up even more plays that you can call,” McLaurin said.

He wanted to get better at grabbing contested catches — “That gives confidence to your quarterback and your coaches because it’s like, ‘Even when he’s covered, he’s not,’ ” he said — and to use his speed more efficiently.

“He obviously has the talent. He has the speed. But a lot of players have talent and speed. A lot of players work hard,” Bommarito said. “It’s the ones that focus on every conceivable thing. Receivers are passionate about running routes, and you’ll see when we have those types of training stimulus, they’ll be focused and all-in. But with Terry, he had the same focus even if we were doing a warmup, a prep, a corrective exercise, in the weight room, on the medical table.”

From January until the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of the country in mid-March, McLaurin worked — every day, sometimes for five hours. Four days per week were in the weight room, four days per week were on the field for positional work, and joint preparation and recovery were scattered in between. His workouts were centered on the finer points of his performance, such as joint mobility at high speeds, alignment to promote symmetry in his movements, and acceleration and deceleration in his routes. Also important: taking care of his body during the season to keep him on the field and playing at a high level.

When NFL facilities opened for the start of training camp in July, McLaurin’s focus shifted to the finer points of receiving — while learning a new system and getting to know a new coaching staff and many new teammates. New wide receivers coach Jim Hostler told him that, to have the production of many No. 1 receivers, he had to learn to play comfortably inside and outside.

“It’s a shift in mind-set,” McLaurin said. “… The footwork is a little different in some of the routes you run inside. So you could run a basic in-route from the slot, but the timing and the footwork is a lot different than if you were to run an in-route from outside the numbers. The biggest thing I’m trying to focus on is making sure my steps are right, making sure it marries up with the quarterback.”

Example: In the fourth quarter against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 2, McLaurin caught a quick pass from Dwayne Haskins on a slant and beat three defenders for a 24-yard touchdown.

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This season, while accounting for 36 percent of his team’s receiving yards, McLaurin has run 22 percent of his routes and averaged 16.2 yards per catch from the slot. Last year, he was inside for 16.7 percent of his routes and averaged 13.7 yards. He also has impressed with his refined route-running, made contested catches appear routine and racked up yards after the catch seemingly with ease.

In the fourth quarter against the New York Giants in Week 9, McLaurin ran a deep post route from the slot, caught the ball as one defender whipped him around, then sped past three others to gain 48 yards after the catch for the touchdown. The 68-yard play was Alex Smith’s first touchdown pass since returning from a devastating leg injury.

Two weeks later, in a win over Chad Johnson’s former team, the Bengals, McLaurin turned in one of his more memorable plays of the season. Lined up outside, McLaurin split two defenders on another post to catch a 50-50 ball with cornerback William Jackson III hanging on him. Those 42 yards helped set up a touchdown for running back Antonio Gibson six plays later.

“He will be a top-five receiver in two years,” Johnson predicted during the podcast interview. “He has a peculiar skill set that not many others have. Maybe two or three other receivers have the skill set: the footwork, the speed, the ability to transition with little to no time for DBs to recover.

“It’s small stuff that the average fan can’t see. It’s special. It’s special.”

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