“I said, ‘They’re good with everything?’ ” Turner recalled saying to Terrell. “He said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ ”
So Turner called the play and returned to one simple truth that has served Washington for two-plus years:
“I knew we still had Terry,” Turner said Thursday with a smile.
Terry McLaurin, the 2019 third-round pick who was erroneously labeled as primarily a special-teamer by draft pundits, has emerged as not only Washington’s leading receiver but also its finest player with a ceiling still far from view.
Through four games this season, McLaurin has played all but four offensive snaps for the highest rate (98.3 percent) among all wideouts, ranks seventh in receiving yards (354) and is tied for fourth with 10 explosive plays (16 or more yards). He also leads the league with 11 contested catches, according to Pro Football Focus, and he’s done it all while transitioning to the seventh quarterback (Taylor Heinicke) and third positional coach (Terrell) of his career.
Yet McLaurin, at least nationally, has a celebrity that seems to pale in comparison to those of most No. 1 receivers. And he has the pay to match; McLaurin, who is still on his rookie contract, has one of the lowest base salaries on Washington’s roster and, according to the contracts website Over the Cap, is the NFL’s biggest bargain among pass-catchers and running backs with a projected average annual value of $18.4 million — roughly $17.5 million more than his current average pay.
“He’s so underappreciated, and maybe it’s because Washington hasn’t won a ton or the quarterback he plays with is not elite or whatnot,” former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “He belongs in the conversation of one of the top receivers in the NFL.”
But as McLaurin draws more fans with his acrobatic catches and refined route-running, perhaps his greatest skill is one few get to see: his preparation.
“He’s like a seven-year vet already, in terms of his practice habits and his preparation,” Coach Ron Rivera said. “Our first year [in 2020], there really wasn’t anything to compare him to because we really didn’t see him until training camp. Then when you see him in camp, you notice there’s always this one guy doing everything at the high level. He runs his routes hard, he takes every one of his reps hard, there’s nothing easy or simple about what he does, and I’ve seen that in a lot of good players.”
Every year, McLaurin says, he tries to markedly improve one skill while honing many others. Before the 2020 season, he set out to gain more yards after the catch — and he finished the year with 946, tied for ninth in the league.
Before the start of this season, he focused on his releases, or the start to his routes, and sought the help of former wide receiver Doug Baldwin for coaching and advice.
In his eight-season career with the Seattle Seahawks, Baldwin kept detailed profiles of the defensive backs he faced. In season, his film study and note-taking would serve as guides to the game ahead, and as he faced corners repeatedly, he would refer back to old notes and update them if a player’s technique or tendencies changed.
“We actually did talk about that, but I don’t know if it’s unique to me,” Baldwin said of his time with McLaurin. “I learned it from Sidney Rice. It’s just what I used and what was successful for me, what benefited me. I relayed that to Terry, but Terry is already well on his way in that regard.”
Since his rookie season, McLaurin has developed into an avid note-taker, jotting down tidbits here and there during meetings before practices, then filling his notebook as the weeks progress.
He’s a visual learner, he says, so transcribing the thoughts and personal reminders that fill his head become his pregame reading. A final checklist that stays ingrained in his mind, as visuals from game film reappear in real time.
“I try to make little bullet points,” he said. “I remember [former Ohio State coach Urban Meyer] used to call them sound bites. It’s not like, ‘Hey, the DB does this when I do this.’ It’s like, ‘Five yards, he shoots his hand; 10 yards, he’s opening up and running.’ Little sound bites that can jog my memory. … So now when you go into Sunday, it’s like: ‘This is the look. This is it.’ You’re confident because you not only practiced against the look, now you’ve seen the look on film and you know what you want to do.”
McLaurin said his film study has evolved over the years, refined not by a single instance or instructor but by his experiences and his own belief that it begins with a mind-set.
“You got to go in with a mind-set of, ‘Okay, what do they like to do in these situations?’ ” he said. “ ‘What does a DB like to do when I take an inside release versus outside release?’ You got to know what you’re kind of looking for instead of just watching, because if you just watch, you kind of catch yourself, like: ‘Oh, that was a cool play. He got open,’ versus: ‘Why did he get open? Why did that play work? Why did this DB do this versus this concept of this formation?’ ”
Those studies led him to the end zone in Week 2 against the New York Giants, when he remembered a look from film, saw the leverage he wanted from cornerback James Bradberry and ran a slant to the middle for a touchdown.
It led him to another touchdown in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons, when Heinicke hit him for a 33-yard over-the-shoulder catch along the sideline as cornerback Fabian Moreau trailed in coverage.
“The first thing is you got to have a plan of what you’re going to do,” McLaurin said. “That comes with the game plan that you start to gather over the course of the week. Then you start watching the film, then you practice against those looks, then the next day, you watch yourself against those plays.
“Then you start studying your opponent.”
Baldwin believes there’s a psychology to playing wide receiver and to really gain an advantage one has to understand himself before breaking down his opponent.
“Early on in my career, I had unreasonable expectations of where I wanted to go,” Baldwin said. “At my tallest, I’m 5-11. At my heaviest, I’m 195 [pounds]. I wasn’t going to be Calvin Johnson; I’m not that kind of receiver, even though in my mind I wanted to be. Really breaking down those walls of ego and pride, and really becoming vulnerable with yourself, then you are able to see who you really are as an athlete, what you are as a person.”
McLaurin concedes that in his early years, critical coaching was at times hard to hear. But now, in his third year as a pro, he welcomes extra eyes on his game.
When Jim Hostler and Terrell were hired as receivers coaches in Washington last year, they showed McLaurin how his route-running at the time was giving tells to defenders. So often he relied on his speed to carry him past defensive backs, but as he ran, he crossed over his body a bit and stuttered his feet when getting into his breaks.
“Being a fast guy, I’m like, ‘I’m still going to be able to run away from these guys,’ ” McLaurin said. “But when you start seeing it show up in the game, you see a DB jump routes because you’re shortening your stride or you’re crossing over your body or you’re raising up, you’re looking down at the ground. That matters. That could be the difference between a catch and an interception.”
With an understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, McLaurin, like Baldwin, attempts to break down the nuances of his opponent. What does he like to do? What makes him comfortable? How does the defense try to take away a No. 1 receiver?
The questioning can go beyond football.
“I’m trying to figure out who that is as a person,” Baldwin said. “For example, I played Darrelle Revis in one of the Super Bowls. I studied him not as a football player but as a man. . . . In situations when the emotional part of the game starts to get in, you have to know how to attack a person.”
Over the course of a game week, McLaurin accumulates his “sound bites” and visuals from film study, takes them to the field for practice, then reviews the tape of that until every visual becomes a clearer picture of what could happen Sunday.
“What separates the NFL from the other levels is those guys are really smart and you can be getting a look all week and then you get into the game and you’ve got to adapt because it’s a different look,” McLaurin said. “Or [the DB] understands that you’re exploiting that weakness, so he switches it up. You’ve got to be able to adapt and adjust on the fly. And basically, if your preparation is as good as you think it is, then it’s going to show on Sunday.”
Truth comes on Sunday
Scott Turner grimaced on the sideline as Heinicke fell backward while lobbing a pass toward the middle of the end zone. What Turner didn’t see at the time was McLaurin, who had burned his defender along the left sideline to briefly break open in the end zone after that defender fell while trailing him.
“He beat him bad,” Turner said. “I mean, it was a really nice route.”
By the time the ball arrived, however, McLaurin was covered (and possibly held) in the back of the end zone, forcing him to dive forward for the catch.
“When the ball’s in the air, it’s his,” Orlovsky said. “I don’t know if that’s something you can teach.”
McLaurin’s catch made the rounds on social media, eliciting raves from analysts and players alike. For a moment, he was a star, a celebrity, among receivers. Moments later, running back J.D. McKissic dived across the pylon for the game-winning touchdown.
But when the sounds of the crowd chanting his name — “TER-RY! TER-RY!” — and the thrill of the victory faded, McLaurin returned to Northern Virginia to restart his routine. More film. More sound bites. More reps, more routes and more ways to gain an edge.
“I know I’ve gotten to play for high-profile places, but I’ve always been the guy who’s had to kind of grind to get the respect,” he said. “And I have no problem doing that. Once you kind of start feeding into all that other stuff — ‘I should be this, I should be on this list, I should be on that list’ — then you kind of get a little prideful.
“The truth is going to come out on Sunday. That’s always been my mind-set on how I work and prepare, is to just be ready for Sunday. The rest usually takes care of itself.”