Excitement was evident throughout the nation's capital on Thursday, April 25, 2019. It was the first night of the NFL Draft and the Washington Commanders believed they had found two impactful players in quarterback Dwayne Haskins and pass rusher Montez Sweat.
Yet for the Commanders, the real victory from the 2019 draft did not come until over 24 hours later. Washington used its third-round pick on Terry McLaurin, a speedy wide receiver from Ohio State who had plenty of potential. Not even they could have predicted McLaurin would turn into the player he's become.
Three years later, McLaurin has emerged as one of the NFL's best young wide receivers. He's topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of the past two seasons despite a carousel of below-average QB play. The 26-year-old is one of the team's leaders -- he's a two-time team captain -- and due for a large pay raise, one both sides hope to agree upon before the 2022 season.
Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline -- who spent one season coaching McLaurin in Columbus -- "100 percent" believed the wideout had the tools to become elite but admitted he didn't think it would happen this quickly.
"I remember having this conversation with him through his rookie year as rookie minicamp and rookie fall camp. He felt good and he had a lot of momentum building," Hartline told NBC Sports Washington. "But I told him to focus on maximizing his opportunities. If you know Terry – and Terry is a speak-it-into-existence kind of guy – when he gets focused on something, he's going to accomplish it. He took it to heart and the rest has become history.”
Part of the reason for McLaurin's slip to the third round was due to his limited production as a Buckeye. Entering his senior season in 2018, McLaurin had just 40 career receptions -- even though eight of them went for touchdowns.
Hartline, who played at Ohio State before enjoying a seven-year NFL career with Miami and Cleveland, returned to his alma mater as the wideouts coach just before McLaurin's senior year. At first impression, Hartline knew McLaurin "had a lot of skills," specifically citing his speed and strength. McLaurin just needed some polishing in a few areas.
"The cerebral approach to the game was there, he just wanted to learn more about it," Hartline said. "So he just needed to focus on a couple of things. Two things were his feet -- his cleanliness of roots and stems of breaks at the top end. And secondly, consistency and confidence in catching the football.”
As a senior, McLaurin ended up posting 35 receptions for 701 yards (20 yards per catch) with 11 touchdowns. Although he was not the focal wideout of Ohio State's talented offense, McLaurin made plays when his number was called. Still, at the end of the 2018 season, McLaurin wasn't super high on many draft boards.
When professional teams would reach out to Hartline about McLaurin, he made it clear the wideout was a special talent. Hartline told teams McLaurin's lack of usage was due to the numerous talented players on the Buckeyes' offense more than anything else.
"We really had a large group of players that could do some things. A lot of guys were playing," Hartline said. "A lot of guys carrying certain roles and probably that lack of the ability to do everything maybe had an impact on things. Obviously, I tried to vocalize that to everyone that's asking about [Terry]."
Following his senior season, McLaurin was invited to the Senior Bowl. And down in Mobile, Ala., McLaurin had a week to remember. The wideout turned in excellent practices and shined in the game itself with several NFL scouts in attendance. Still, McLaurin saw 11 other wideouts hear their name called during the 2019 draft before Washington stepped in.
"He did a great job in the Senior Bowl and proved a lot of us right," Hartline said. "But you know, I guess at that point, sometimes certain teams to be a little more hardheaded, I guess. Obviously, Washington was paying attention – they said enough was enough and took him.”
Help is needed
Although McLaurin has had a stellar start to his NFL career, Washington has failed to surround him with other talented wideouts. In 2019 and 2020, no other Washington wide receiver had more than 360 receiving yards besides McLaurin.
Last year, the Commanders attempted to help relieve pressure from McLaurin by signing Curtis Samuel -- McLaurin's old roommate at Ohio State -- to a three-year deal. Yet Samuel was bothered by injuries all year and played in just five games.
Once again, wide receiver is a need for the Commanders. And after failing to add an impact player at the position during free agency, many draft experts believe Washington will use the No. 11 pick Thursday night on one of the 2022 class' top receivers. And, it just so happens that two of the consensus top pass-catchers in the class hail from Ohio State, too.
With the 2022 NFL Draft just days away, both Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave are expected to be top-20 picks. Wilson has the chance to go in the top 10 -- NFL Network draft guru Daniel Jeremiah graded him as the No. 5 overall player in the class. Olave, although a sure-fire first-rounder, should be on the board when the Commanders select at No. 11.
When Ohio State held its Pro Day on March 23, several members of the Commanders' brass were in attendance, including head coach Ron Rivera. After the workout concluded, Rivera was even captured speaking directly with Olave and Hartline, too.
Washington's interest in both players isn't hidden. As far as fit with the Burgundy and Gold, Hartline believes both his former players would mesh well.
“They are plug-and-play players. It doesn't matter," Hartline said. "I don’t know the full strategy to the [Commanders] offense or know their depth. But either way, it doesn't matter. They're elite players.”
Jeremiah agrees with Hartline that both Wilson and Olave would be great fits in Washington -- he just doesn't think Wilson will still be available when it's the Commanders' turn to pick. The NFL Network analyst graded USC's Drake London as his No. 2 wide receiver in the class but sees a scenario where Olave is the direction Washington goes 11th overall, too.
"McLaurin already kind of gives you more of a kind of a complete receiver," Jeremiah said. "I think there's been a healthy obsession with speed in this league, so I would probably come down to Olave and [Alabama's] Jameson Williams. I would lean to Olave just because I think he's a more complete receiver. ... He's a silky-smooth route runner who can do so many different things. He tracks the ball really, really well. He's incredibly smart. Their coaches down there rave about him. They love him."
Outside of McLaurin, the Commanders are counting on bounce-back years from Samuel and tight end Logan Thomas in 2022 after injury-riddled campaigns. But speaking on Monday during Washington's pre-draft media session, Rivera wouldn't rule out the chance of adding another dynamic playmaker early on.
“I don't think it necessarily impacts it," Rivera said. "Would it be a luxury thing, stuff like that? Yeah, absolutely. ... It could be exciting. It could be fun. But you know, we're going to address this as we go through the draft on what player that's available we feel can impact us.”
Although Wilson and Olave will both likely hear their names called on Thursday night, each player's path from Columbus to the NFL was different.
Coming out of high school, Olave -- a San Diego native -- was considered a three-star recruit by most scouting services. As a freshman in 2018, he had to fight for playing time behind McLaurin and future NFL draft picks Parris Campbell and K.J. Hill. Olave finished his true freshman season with 12 receptions for 197 yards and three touchdowns -- two of which came in the Buckeyes' rout over rival Michigan.
During his freshman year, Olave leaned on the veteran in the room for advice. That'd be McLaurin, who took Olave under his wing that season. The two formed a close relationship and Olave even referred to Washington's standout as a "big brother" during the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine.
"Chris looked up to Terry a lot," Hartline said.
Over the next two years, Olave went from a rotational wideout to one of the best receivers in all of college football. In 2019, he led the team in receiving yards (840) and touchdowns (12) and finished second on the Buckeyes in receptions (48). In 2020, the pandemic cut Ohio State's schedule down to just seven games, but Olave still put up an impressive stat line of 50 receptions, 729 yards (104.1 yards per game) and seven touchdowns.
Olave had the chance to turn pro last spring, as draft experts considered him a likely late-first round pick. Instead, Olave opted to return to Ohio State for his senior season, a decision that Hartline fully supported.
The Buckeyes' title hopes fell short in 2021, but Olave turned in another outstanding campaign. The 21-year-old even improved his draft stock by returning to school. He's cemented himself as a first-round pick and likely top 15 selection. The decision to return to Columbus for one more year surely paid off.
“That’s the one thing about Chris. Not that it’s wrong to leave early, but we always get on guys for leaving early but we never reward the ones that stay back when they could’ve left," Hartline said. "Chris is one of those guys that made a very, if you will, adult decision to come back, finish his degree, want to be captain, want to chase the intangibles and not just the money. I’m not saying three-and-out is wrong, but it says a lot about what Chris stands for.”
Wilson's journey from Ohio State to the NFL has been a bit different. He arrived in Columbus in 2019 as a consensus five-star recruit and one of the nation's best overall players. It didn't take long for him to make an impact, either, as he worked his way up the depth chart immediately. As a true freshman, Wilson recorded 30 receptions for 432 yards and five touchdowns while playing in all 13 games.
Wilson took a major jump forward in 2020, as he and Olave formed arguably the best wide receiver duo in college football that season. The then-sophomore finished with eerily similar stats to Olave: 43 receptions, 723 yards and six touchdowns. In 2021, Wilson took an even bigger step forward, finishing with 70 receptions for 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns while making a strong case as the best wideout in college football.
"Sometimes opportunities sell differently to different players. It doesn’t mean the future is not bright," Hartline said. "It took Garrett three [years], it took Chris four to get his degree. Sometimes the path at which we take can be different per person, but the goal is still the same. I think the guys know that.”
A long time coming
When Wilson and Olave hear their respective names called on Thursday night, it will snap a 15-year drought for the Buckeyes. It's hard to believe, but Ohio State has not had a wide receiver selected in the first round since 2007 when both Tedd Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez were drafted.
That's not to say the Buckeyes haven't produced talent at the position. McLaurin, Samuel, Michael Thomas and Hartline himself have all experienced NFL success. Multiple other Buckeye wideouts are currently in the league in Campbell, Hill and Noah Brown.
“A little surprised," Hartline said of the drought. "But there’s a lot of variables. I’m glad we’re back.”