When the Washington Football Team selected Terry McLaurin 76th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, the thinking was that he would immediately become one of the club's best special teams players, with the hope of him developing into a starting-caliber wide receiver.
Entering the draft, part of the reason McLaurin wasn't considered a top prospect was that he was considered a "body-catcher" and had below-average extension and high-pointing skills. Speed was never a doubt for McLaurin -- he ran a 4.35 40-yard dash at the Combine -- but experts worried about his ability to accelerate early in his routes.
Three years later, none of those weaknesses have rung true. That's not saying draft experts were wrong at the time, either. Rather, it's a testament to McLaurin's improvement, work ethic and dedication to his craft since arriving in Washington.
"Not a lot of people know, that was probably one of my glaring weaknesses in my game, especially in college," McLaurin said Sunday. "The coaching staff expressed that to me. I started attempting to improve on that day-in and day-out. It was just an insatiable thing that I had to create if I wanted to play at this level."
Not only has McLaurin improved as a contested ball catcher, but the third-year wideout has become the NFL's best at it. Entering Sunday's game against the Panthers, McLaurin had 21 contested catches on the season -- the most in the NFL and eight more than the next pass-catcher, Adam Thielen.
Then on Sunday, McLaurin hauled in three more impressive contested catches, finishing with five total receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown in Washington's 27-21 victory over the Panthers.
"Terry McLaurin continues to make plays for us and doing the big things and doing the dirty work," head coach Ron Rivera said postgame.
"He's a killer. You [saw] the game he had," wideout DeAndre Carter added. "He takes big hits and still makes plays. He embodies who we are as a football team. Tough, hard-nosed kid. He's balling this year."
McLaurin's first contested catch of the day came at the end of the first quarter on a deep shot down the left sideline from quarterback Taylor Heinicke. McLaurin had 1-on-1 coverage against Panthers cornerback Donta Jackson, a matchup Heinicke liked. McLaurin worked back to the football perfectly and hauled in a 39-yard catch.
"I see Terry 1-on-1, and I’ve said it numerous times, when you see him 1-on-1, you give him a shot," Heinicke said. "It’s because of the catch he got today. He continues to make plays and you just want to keep giving him shots."
Heinicke stuck to his word and continued to give McLaurin chances. Down seven just before halftime, Washington's offense was threatening once again. Lined up in the slot from 12 yards out, McLaurin had another 1-on-1 opportunity, this time against Panthers star safety Jeremy Chinn.
Heinicke threw the ball in a place only McLaurin could catch it, and the third-year receiver hauled in the pass despite blatant defensive pass interference.
"That play wasn’t really supposed to go to him," Heinicke said. "It was a bit of a decoy guy and it was supposed to go to the next guy. He crossed that safety space and he was open so I gave him a shot and again, he continues to make plays and I’m glad that he’s on our team."
As a senior at Ohio State in 2018, McLaurin found ways to produce despite his limited volume. Of his 35 receptions that season, 11 went for touchdowns. His 20.0 yards-per-catch led the Buckeyes as well. Yet, many of McLaurin's touches came on long passes or plays designed to get him the ball in space, not in contested catch situations.
Although McLaurin will admit he struggled with contested catches in college, those issues did not translate to the NFL. As a rookie in 2019, McLaurin led the NFL in contested catch rate, hauling in 68% of his contested catch targets.
Despite his early NFL success hauling in contested catches, McLaurin set out a goal for himself this season to be better in that area.
"This is my third year, one of my goals this year was to be a better contested-ball catcher," McLaurin said. "When you have those opportunities with the ball in the air and you can come down with them, it just gives a lot of energy and confidence to your quarterback, your offense and your team. I think it’s something I’m always constantly working on."
Now, midway through the 2021 season, there is no wide receiver better than McLaurin when it comes to contested catches. He's the best, and the numbers say so by a wide margin.
"I just try to put myself in a position to make those plays," McLaurin said. "Be aggressive with my hands, trust them and come down with the play. It’s exciting and I just hope I can continue to put the work in to make sure that it keeps continuing."