Week 1 of the NFL season can typically be the time of wild overreaction. Football Outsiders has long called this period National Jump To Conclusions Week. Even so Week 1 still gives us our first real look at what could happen on the field in a given season. Each year, there are performances that can stand out in the first game of the year, sometimes fluky, others more real. While it can take time to separate the former from the latter, a bit of digging can help try to figure out what is sustainable and what might just be a one-game blip.
With the current passing boom in the NFL, a number of receiving performances popped in Week 1. Looking deeper at the individual performances and the underlying factors, we can take a look at three standouts games from Week 1 and why these, in particular, could last.
John Ross, Cincinnati Bengals
Week 1 line: 7 receptions on 12 targets for 158 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Let’s start with maybe the most surprising of the bunch. The former No. 9 overall pick spent his first two years in the NFL jumping between being injured and ineffective. Last year, Ross was one of the least efficient wide receivers in the league among highly targeted wide receivers. He had the worst positive play rate (the percentage of plays with positive Expected Points Added) among 83 wide receivers who saw at least 50 targets in 2018.
83 WRs with at least 50 targets charted by EPA/target and positive play% per @SportsInfo_SIS. The outliers are something.
Green: Tyler Lockett
Gold: Michael Thomas
Red: Kelvin Benjamin
Orange: John Ross pic.twitter.com/sscLkuDfxZ
— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) February 20, 2019
But out went the old coaching staff and in came Zac Taylor, who after a week looked the most Sean McVay-like of the McVay coaching tree. That detail is great for Ross.
Cincinnati had the highest passing rate on early downs in the first half and the Bengals were extremely productive on those plays. The Bengals also worked to spread the field with 69% of their offensive snaps in 11 personnel.
Ross got a mix of targets that settled between the Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods roles in the McVay offense. Ross was targeted deep often enough — he had 45.2% of the Bengals’ targeted air yards, which was the eighth-highest among receivers in Week 1 — and he was the target on a few plays designed to get him into space.
His first touchdown — a 33-yard score — was one such play. The Bengals used Ross on a pre-snap jet motion (a McVay staple), then ran a flea-flicker, with Ross isolated in space and then down the sideline against a linebacker with eyes caught in the backfield.
This play probably works without the flea-flicker and likely will throughout the season. Getting Ross in motion before the snap could be incredibly helpful in creating more mismatches. Per Sports Info Solutions, Ross was the target after motion on just two passes last year. Those totaled one reception and two yards. (To add another McVay parallel, Robert Woods was the target on 18 plays when he was also in motion last season, the third-most of any receiver in the league).
One hangup here and something Ross and Taylor will have to balance is mixing in productive intermediate routes with the boom and bust-type shots. Ross still only had a 44% positive play rate on Sunday, the only player in the top-10 of receiving EPA to fall below 60%. But given how well Zac Taylor grasped most offensive philosophies in his head coaching debut, that might not be as big a worry as it would have been for the Bengals in the past.
He’s also not going to get the benefit of a safety badly misjudging a should-be interception, but even without that touchdown, Ross’s performance would have been encouraging.
Michael Gallup, Dallas Cowboys
Week 1 line: 7 receptions on 7 targets for 158 yards
Gallup’s day against the New York Giants wasn’t super flashy, but it was extremely effective and resulted in the highest EPA among receivers in Week 1, 11.4 per SIS.
What stood out most about Gallup’s day, and what bodes well for him going forward, was the chemistry with Dak Prescott. Amari Cooper got most of the attention and had a day on his own — six catches, 106 yards, and a touchdown — but Gallup was often a go-to option for Prescott. There were a few plays where Gallup was the main read on play-action or an RPO, like the two plays below:
Other plays showed of Gallup’s ability to find space between defenders with trust from Prescott that he would be there.
And while there was a play where Gallup had a nice catch deep down the sideline, he won’t be the consistent deep threat on the team — he had 26.5% of the team’s air yards, opposed to Cooper’s 39% — but Gallup can settle in with the intermediate passes and run after the catch. Per Next Gen Stats, Gallup was expected to have 6.3 yards after the catch per reception in Week 1 and he averaged 12.
Gallup won’t explode for 150-plus yards every game, but he appears to be the reliable possession receiver for the Cowboys’ offense. For a team that used 41% play-action in Week 1, Gallup has a steady role with upside.
Terry McLaurin, Washington Redkins
Week 1 line: 5 receptions on 7 targets for 125 yards and a touchdown
Washington shocked a lot of people when they jumped out to a 17-0 lead over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 1. While they weren’t able to hold off the Eagles for the entire game, they were still the only team to have a higher DVOA than their opponent and lose in the opening week.
A big part of the early lead was due to rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin. McLaurin, a former Ohio State Buckeye, was a third-round pick and overshadowed by teammates such as Parris Campbell, but McLaurin’s college production was just as good or better. On a per-target basis, McLaurin added more to the Ohio State offense than Campbell did in 2018. McLaurin then caught some eyes at the Senior Bowl, but was still overlooked next to the other receivers in his class.
In college, McLaurin showed the ability to run good routes and create separation, two things that were apparent in Week 1 against the Eagles. Per Next Gen Stats, only two players were targeted at least 15 yards down the field and had three or more yards of separation on average, McLaurin and T.J. Hockenson.
McLaurin showed off his speed with a 69-yard touchdown catch in which he ran straight past Eagles cornerback Rasul Douglas. But more impressive was his 22-yard catch at the end of the second quarter. He was wide against Ronald Darby, stuttered off the line, and adjusted back to the ball in the air over the cornerback down the sideline.
There is little doubt right now McLaurin is Washington’s No. 1 receiving option. Only Chris Thompson had more targets. Both Vernon Davis and Paul Richardson also had seven targets, but the two combined for eight catches and 95 yards. McLaurin was also on the field for 93% of Washington’s snaps, which only trailed Trey Quinn (97%). McLaurin even had a few catches over the middle, taking over what was assumed to be Quinn’s role on the team.
The advanced metrics like McLaurin’s performance, too. He had 42.9% of the team’s air yards and finishing third in receiving EPA.
Washington might not have a great offense throughout 2019, but they’re likely going to have to throw the ball often. Already through one Week 1, McLaurin showed he has the game that deserves to be incorporated often.