Wide receiver in the NFL is one of the most unique positions from a physical standpoint. Across the position there is a wide variance between the physical build of receivers and the roles they play in an offense. Even within those roles, there are no set parameters around how a receiver should play his part.
It’s one thing to recognize a receiver’s skillset but it’s another to embrace it and allow that player to do what he does best and put him in a position to do so. In 2020, we’re starting to see a few receiver breakouts that coincide with offensive coaches figuring out the best way to implement these talents. Two of the biggest in 2020, D.K. Metcalf and Robby Anderson, have worked speed to their advantage in differing ways.
Standing at 6-foot-4 and 229 pounds, Metcalf is a real-life Madden Create-A-Player playing wide receiver. Following a 100-target, 900-yard receiving season during his rookie year, Metcalf has already seen 39 targets for 496 yards. That yardage total currently ranks third in the NFL, behind only DeAndre Hopkins and Stefon Diggs.
Metcalf had no issues with straight-line speed (his 4.33 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine was in the 95th percentile for wide receivers), but some injury concerns and his three-cone and short shuttle performances, in the second and fourth percentile, respectively, cause him to be the ninth receiver selected in the 2019 NFL Draft.
While it’s true we’re probably not going to see any highlight of Metcalf embarrassing cornerbacks on a whip route, but he’s not going to be asked to do that. When the Seattle Seahawks started implementing Metcalf into the offense last season, they let the big fast man do big fast man things. He wasn’t forced to run intricate routes. He was a deep ball receiver paired with one of the league’s best deep ball throwers in Russell Wilson. This year, they’re basically building the entire plane out of big fast man things.
Through Week 5, Metcalf leads all receivers in EPA on targets of 20 or more air yards, per Sports Info Solutions. What’s made Metcalf so dangerous on these routes is that there isn’t really a correct way to defend them.
Play him close in press in an attempt to throw off the timing and the defensive back might be the one getting thrown instead, like he was on Metcalf’s 38-yard touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 1.
Because of Metcalf’s alignment, that’s typically been the case this season. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Metcalf has seen an average cushion of 4.8 yards from defenders off the line of scrimmage, which is the 13th lowest figure in the league among receivers and tight ends with at least 15 targets.
It’s even worse for defenders when they wait to press him after Metcalf has already started his route. Against the Miami Dolphins, cornerback Xavien Howard played off and tried to press late, but Metcalf was able to run right through the corner’s physicality to create separation down the sideline.
When defenders play further off Metcalf, he’s used a newly refined double move to create separation. It’s something where Metcalf’s perceived lack of lateral agility works for him instead of against him. Defenders are desperate to jump in front of what’s supposed to be a poor break from a receiver. But Metcalf has an elite stop and start ability that puts him well behind any corner who falls for the false step.
Even when the double move doesn’t completely fake out the corner, it can cause the defender to hesitate just enough and get lost in coverage, as it did against Cameron Dantzler and the Minnesota Vikings on a key fourth-and-10 on Seattle’s final drive in Week 5.
Per Sports Info Solutions, Metcalf already has four receptions, 192 yards, and a touchdown off double moves in 2020. He had just three receptions for 105 yards in all of 2019.
Metcalf and the Seahawks have also worked in an increased rate of slants when there is space off the line. Last season, Metcalf had 10 receptions on 12 slant targets for 134 yards and six first downs. So far in 2020, he already has six receptions on nine targets for 84 yards and six first downs with a touchdown thrown in.
The Seahawks have allowed Metcalf to be his best self running fast down the field and also now have the counters to the counters, all while keeping the role relatively simple. But even without much route-running nuance, there are few defenders who can keep up with what Metcalf does well.
As a free-agent, Robby Anderson was available for all 32 NFL teams this past offseason. Anderson didn’t sign with the Carolina Panthers until April 1 on a two-year, $20 million deal with just $10 million guaranteed.
During Anderson’s career with the Jets, he was the clear deep threat. So much of his role in the offense was running in a straight line down the field whether the quarterback could get the ball to him or not. But with the Panthers under his former college coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady, Anderson’s speed has been put to use in the short game.
As a result, Anderson is fifth in targets, third in receiving yards, and 15th in EPA. A lack of touchdowns (just one) is holding back that EPA, but Anderson has been one of the league’s biggest surprises and one of the best down-to-down receivers this year. He’s clearly been the go-to for Carolina, averaging 7.2 receptions per game. His previous career-high was 3.9, set in 2017.
The role Anderson has been put in with the Panthers is a complete turn from what he was asked to do with the Jets, but in volume and structure. Take a look at Anderson’s target and success heat map across the 2018 and 2019 seasons with the Jets…
…then compared that to where he’s been used in Carolina this season.
It’s not just that he’s getting used on shorter routes, but the role has worked by going against the expectation that Anderson is going deep. The Panthers are getting Anderson into space more than he’s ever been in his career and that’s led to easy chunk gains. The Panthers have used Anderson’s speed to create separation right off the line and using that for easy throws over the middle of the field.
Carolina’s offense so far has been built around getting Anderson in space. They went to that on the first play of the game in Week 5 against the Falcons. Anderson motioned outside to the left and when the corner backed off before the snap, it left plenty of room for Anderson to get off the line, catch the ball, and turn to run after the catch.
Anderson’s version of Metcalf’s double move has been a hesitation step off the line that puts opposing corners in a dilemma. When Anderson plays it slow off the line, the defender gets put on his heels waiting for the break, Once Anderson sees the defender off balance, he’ll make his break, typically for a slant. He worked that in the slot against Patrick Peterson and the Arizona Cardinals…
…and used it this past week on the outside against Atlanta.
Only Terry McLaurin and Cooper Kupp have more yards after the catch on targets between 1 and 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Anderson nearly has more targets and already has more yards after the catch on short targets than he did over the previous two seasons with the Jets.
Robby Anderson Targets 1-10 Air Yards, 2018-2020
|Year||Targets||Yards||Yards After Catch|
This role has fit perfectly with what the Panthers want to do with Teddy Bridgewater. It’s not all dink and dunk, too. Despite Anderson’s lower aDOT role, he has still accounted for 39.98% of Carolina’s air yards per Next Gen Stats, the 10th-highest rate for a receiver, and just tenths of a percentage below teammate D.J. Moore (39.18%), whose average target depth is nearly two and a half yards deeper than Anderson’s (12 to 9.4).
Speed is still the basis of Anderson’s game, but instead of hoping for the best on sprints down the field, the Panthers have harnessed that speed into a more effective role in space. What could make this more devastating for opposing defenses is that there are still big plays to be had. Anderson can still get deep and has a few times this season, but the big breakaway play hasn’t happened yet on these short-intermediate routes, but they’re waiting.
If the NFL has taught us anything it’s that speed kills and it even more dangerous when used correctly.