Seahawks fans, and even some in the local media, figuratively jumped for joy when the team selected D.K. Metcalf in the second round of this year's draft. At 6' 3" and 228 pounds with blazing 4.33-speed, Metcalf has the physical makeup of a typically dominant "X" receiver that fans have long dreamed about.
The Seahawks made what seemed inevitable official last week, releasing Doug Baldwin because of an accumulation of injuries that may force the veteran to retire. This opens up a large number of targets in the offense, with Metcalf likely to be the primary beneficiary.
I developed a three-year success model I use to project all college receivers. To give you some background, it’s a machine-learning model I created that predicts the odds of fantasy success for college receivers during their first three years in the NFL. Specifically, it tries topredict the odds that they will have at least one top-36 season during that time. Click here for a full explanation of the model and its methodology.
I’ll be publishing this year’s findings later this spring, but I can share Metcalf’s outlook with you now. It gives him only a 21% chance of producing a top-36 fantasy season over his first three years. That is much lower than the general perception. However, there are reasons to suspect that the model is underestimating Metcalf.
First, it relies heavily on college production, and Metcalf's was suppressed due to injuries. Granted, the ability to stay on the field is extremely important, and if Metcalf cannot stay healthy, he will not have a top-36 fantasy season. Nonetheless, there is a lot of randomness in injuries (see Keenan Allen's career). Furthermore, the Seahawks would not have taken Metcalf if they did not think he could contribute a full season each year.
Second, Metcalf's production was also suppressed due to playing with another great player, A.J. Brown. This is reminiscent of what happened with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. The model never liked Beckham due to his low college production, and Landry's presence is the best explanation for what happened there. In that instance, the model clearly failed.
Analysts, too, are underestimating Metcalf. To be fair, he played almost exclusively on one side of the field in college, and there’s good evidence that this has historically been an indicator of reduced chances of NFL success. They’ve also pointed out that Metcalf primarily ran just two or three routes in college, with a suggestion that this indicates a low chance of success in the NFL. I have not seen real evidence that such a correlation exists.
Again, there are mitigating factors. Metcalf stuck to one side of the field and a handful of routes because of the scheme at Mississippi, not his own limitations. A team that was obviously needy at the receiver position likely wouldn’t have grabbed a limited player with so many other options available at the time.
Metcalf creates an extremely difficult challenge for defenses because of his speed and size. Metcalf specializes in go-routes, where he uses his 4.33-speed to get behind defenders. Few cornerbacks can keep up with him, and even if they could, he can beat them for jump balls, using his 40.5" vertical jump.
In college, cornerbacks often lined up deep to give themselves a head start in defending deep passes, but this leaves him open for curls and slants. In the NFL, you would normally expect cornerbacks to instead defend the deep pass by pressing Metcalf at the line of scrimmage. Well, good luck with that.
For these reasons, I expect NFL defenses to give extra help to the cornerback covering Metcalf. They can't get beat deep, they can't give him a big cushion, and they can't press him, so the best remaining option is to let two defenders share the responsibility for defending him. The cornerback can focus more on preventing short routes if he has safety help on deep passes.
If that happens, the primary beneficiary may actually be Tyler Lockett. However, defenses may wait for Metcalf to prove that he can beat them before they give him extra attention. The Seahawks should be happy to use that to their advantage. Pete Carroll's old school offense loves to run the ball and then use playaction to throw deep. Metcalf should be the primary receiver on the opposite end of those targets from Russell Wilson
Given the historical accuracy of the 3-Year Success Model for wide receivers, I've learned to trust its judgment. For that reason, I still set Metcalf's success odds, defined as being a top-36 receiver, in line with the model at about 25%
However, the model doesn't say anything about range of outcomes, and some players do have wider ranges than others. Metcalf fits that bill. His range of outcomes includes being a draft bust at one end, and being a dominant "X" receiver, at the other. With that potential upside he is well worth a gamble late in drafts.