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The curious case of Terry McLaurin and his lack of first-half targets

Terry McLaurin hauls in a pass against Philadelphia safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson in the Commanders' Week 3 loss to the Eagles. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In the first three games of the season, Washington Commanders star wide receiver Terry McLaurin has been a non-factor before halftime. In three first halves, he has run 58 routes but gotten only six pass targets, three of which were on the mark and only one of which he caught — for nine yards.

Those figures paint a stark picture: McLaurin is running routes at the rate of other star receivers leaguewide but is being targeted like a second or third option, a running back or a tight end. In fact, McLaurin is tied with Commanders running backs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic for 95th in the NFL in first-half targets.

McLaurin’s light early workloads have been surprising. This summer, he signed a three-year, $69.6 million contract to be Washington’s No. 1 wideout, and in the first halves of the past two games, the offense has struggled mightily as the team has been outscored 46-0.

It’s even more surprising considering how many offenses in the pass-happy NFL run through their No. 1 receivers. The Athletic noted 10 receivers had at least 12 targets in Week 1 — a jump from an average of 7.6 players in a given week last year — and that trend has continued deeper into the season. Offensive play-callers are treating Miami’s Tyreek Hill, Las Vegas’s Davante Adams and Buffalo’s Stefon Diggs how they may have once treated a bell-cow running back.

On Sunday at Dallas, McLaurin has a challenging matchup in Cowboys star cornerback Trevon Diggs. In 2020, McLaurin torched Diggs for a 52-yard touchdown. In 2021, McLaurin had just three catches for 40 yards in two games against the Cowboys — and one of those receptions came when Diggs wasn’t on the field. But Commanders coordinator Scott Turner could try to jump-start his sluggish offense by targeting McLaurin as frequently as his peers have been.

Seven active receivers — including Hill, Adams and Diggs — have contracts that average more money per year than McLaurin, and those players are collectively averaging 17 targets, 12 receptions, 134 yards and one touchdown per first half.

McLaurin has 21 targets, 12 catches, 235 yards and a touchdown in three games total.

Carson Wentz’s path from Philly to D.C. says a lot about the modern NFL

In interviews, Commanders Coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Carson Wentz have downplayed McLaurin’s lack of early production as circumstantial. In the second drive of Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia, for instance, Wentz had an easy check-down to McLaurin but for some reason didn’t throw it. During the next drive, on a key third down, Wentz looked McLaurin’s way on a short crossing route, but McLaurin was covered.

Some receivers might complain about the lack of targets or act out. But McLaurin, who has always come across as a mild-mannered kid from the Midwest, has been polite. He said Turner met with him Wednesday and told him, “We want to get some of the guys involved early, but at the same time, we want to set the tempo up front and be physical.”

“I just try to be ready for my opportunities when they do come,” McLaurin said. “Obviously, you want to get involved as early as possible. I know my role in this offense is a big one, and any time I can try to impact the game as early as possible, that’s what I want to do. I think Coach Turner and Carson know that as well. But at the same time, those plays don’t necessarily come up as early as you would want. … I just try to stay prepared for when those plays do come up and control what I can control.”

Even though you’re not the type to voice your frustration, are you frustrated?

“Every receiver wants the ball as many times as they [can have it]. I think that’s myself included,” he said. “But at the same time, I really care about winning, too. If that means me getting the ball ‘X’ amount of times helps us win the game, I’m all for that. If that means somebody else being involved where we’re running the ball effectively, I’m down for that, too. Really, my mentality is not trying to focus on how many times I’m getting the ball or demanding it, necessarily. [It’s] just being ready when the ball comes to me, because if you’re not ready, that’s when you miss those opportunities, and then you’re snowballing a negative effect from there.”

In the first half, Wentz has primarily targeted wideout Curtis Samuel (13 times), tight end Logan Thomas (seven) and rookie receiver Jahan Dotson (seven). The quarterback said the lack of targets for McLaurin is part of a broader issue with the team starting so slowly the past two weeks.

“There’s plays for [McLaurin]. There’s plays for each guy, and we haven’t executed them well yet,” Wentz said. “I’m very confident we will get him and the other guys involved. … I don’t think it’s anything that we want to panic about or force the issue on, because I know he’ll get his.”

So why does McLaurin get more involved in the second half?

“I don’t think it’s anything defenses are doing. I don’t think it’s for lack of trying,” Wentz said. “I think it just comes down to our execution, whether that’s me or just as an offense or just not staying on the field. I don’t think we’ve had many plays as a whole.”

The Commanders have run 89 plays in the first half, tied for 18th in the NFL. They have passed on those plays at one of the league’s highest rates.

Commanders’ win sends a message to Terry McLaurin: Help is here

In the first half against Jacksonville in Week 1, the offense featured Samuel, and his ability to generate yards after the catch forced the Jaguars’ defense to pay extra attention to him. In the second half, McLaurin caught a 49-yard pass down the right sideline for a pivotal touchdown. Rivera pointed to that situation as one of the benefits of remaining more balanced.

“When [certain things prevent us from targeting McLaurin], we’ve got to get the ball to somebody else — and we’ve got to be able to get the ball to them so they can make plays and force them to pay a little more attention over here,” Rivera said. “Then things will open up for Terry.”

On Sunday at Dallas, regardless of whether Washington comes out targeting McLaurin early, Wentz said he’s not worried about his star receiver.

“We all know who we have out there and the special guy that we have,” he said. “Whether it’s early on, middle of the game, late in the game — we know he’ll show up and he’ll make his plays. The hope is always to get him going earlier, because that means we’re all rolling a little bit better earlier. So hopefully we can do that.”