Life could be getting much easier for Terry McLaurin as he enters his third season as Washington's best receiving threat.
Washington made it a top priority to upgrade the receiving corps around McLaurin. Head coach Ron Rivera wanted to supply the team captain with a certified running mate and actually found a few complementary pieces with Curtis Samuel, Dyami Brown and Adam Humphries. What was one of the offense's biggest areas of need has been flipped to a strength.
The expectation is that the unit will be far more explosive than the numbers it put up in 2020 with these additions in the lineup. And that isn't solely because there's a boost in speed and experience, either; secondaries now have more weapons to defend, and that will allow McLaurin to operate more freely.
"It's not going to necessarily allow those teams to play with the safety on the hash," McLaurin said, "and those double coverages I was seeing a lot last year."
It's true that McLaurin, who at many points was the only drafted receiver on the field for Washington last year, was the focal point for defenses. He was double covered at a similar rate to most "elite alpha" receivers, according to Yahoo Sports' Matt Harmon, and he received the same amount of cushion at the line of scrimmage as T.Y. Hilton, Mike Evans and Odell Beckham Jr., per Next Gen Stats.
Not that it mattered, though, because McLaurin found ways to routinely outperform teams' best cornerbacks. Harmon also points out that McLaurin had a 78% success rate against man and press coverage, which puts him in the 97th and 90th percentile, respectively.
Still, McLaurin can't consistently put up those numbers with all the attention on him, which is why the extra help will come in handy. Panthers quarterbacks had a nearly perfect passer rating (157.9) when targeting Samuel over 20 yards downfield. And Brown? He never dropped a contested pass at North Carolina, and his 18.5-yard depth of target was second-best among receivers with at least 50 targets, per Pro Football Focus.
"I just think it's going to open it up, for me personally, down the field, intermediate and short," McLaurin said. "But also, it's gonna allow other guys to make some plays."
McLaurin can tell when someone has a good "feel" for the game, and that's what he sees in Brown. He doesn't make too many mistakes, McLaurin said, and he knows how to work against zone and man coverage.
"It's just a matter of the quarterbacks getting used to his speed and connecting that way."
It's tough on your body, McLaurin said, to go against those double teams on a weekly basis, but having teammates beside him who can also make plays prevents defensive backs from being as physical. It might take some time for defenses to respect that, but that should change once they see the results.
"We gotta come out here and make people respect that we have these weapons on the outside," McLaurin said. "And that comes with the work that we're putting in now."
And when McLaurin is covered by just one player, it normally resulted in big gains for the offense like it did against the Cowboys when he had seven catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.
But McLaurin and the top outside threats aren't the only things defenses have to worry about. Humphries has operated in the slot for most of his career and been one of the better players to do so, particularly with Ryan Fitzpatrick as his quarterback. And McLaurin has been impressed with Steven Sims Jr., Cam Sims and the rest of the receivers on the roster.
"Isaiah [Wright] and [Antonio Gandy-Golden] have made some strides," McLaurin said. "Steven is looking good. Cam Sims is looking strong as well. So I'm excited by the group of guys that we have this year."
McLaurin had 1,118 yards last season; the next-best wide receiver was Cam Sims with 477 yards. Rivera and his staff want to narrow that gap in 2021. It gives McLaurin some room to breathe, and that will create more problems for defenses to handle.
"Most top receivers have another guy or another two guys outside of them," McLaurin said, "and that helps everybody."