With his jaw-dropping combine performance and memeable stature, D.K. Metcalf has become the central figure of a broader discussion regarding the use of measurements vs. college production when projecting how players will fare at the next level.
As the NFL has caught up to college offenses, there’s been something of a shift toward the latter, especially at the quarterback position, but both aspects are apparently still highly valued during the evaluation process. It’s no secret Metcalf’s profile has recently been bolstered by some insane physical feats, while at the same time causing some to caution against overvaluing certain skills over others.
As knowledgeable as they may be, it’s not exactly fair for analysts to treat those two factors of his stock — athleticism and substantive production — as being mutually exclusive from one another. He’s both a physical freak and has proven himself capable of making a difference on the field when healthy.
In his first fully active season at Ole Miss, he racked up 646 yards and seven touchdowns, despite having to share targets with the more experienced trio of A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge, and Van Jefferson. Metcalf’s hot start to 2018, which included hilariously early strikes on Texas Tech and Alabama, demonstrated his ability to pose a constant big-play threat without sacrificing efficiency.
With 14 yards per target and 22 per catch last season, he managed to lead the Rebel receivers in both marginal explosiveness and efficiency; that’s not something you should be able to do when passes travel an average of 13.4 yards through the air before reaching you. On top of that, the argument that he can’t be a high-volume receiver is weakened by the fact that he was on pace to reach 1,000 yards before suffering his season-ending neck injury in Fayetteville.
Granted, if scouts want to bring up durability concerns, either because of his injury history or 1.6-percent body fat (counterintuitively), they may have a legitimate case to hold off on going all in on the guy. In addition, his list of weaknesses as a route-runner is not a short one, possibly foreshadowing an inability to consistently generate offense when he’s not lining up against teenagers. Still, while the obsession over the combine is downright silly at times, there’s no denying that what he just did turned a lot of heads for good reason.
A player’s combine numbers in a vacuum generally don’t hold a ton of predictive value when trying to project draft position or performance in the pros. Some workouts, like the bench press, don’t even translate to functional strength on the field all that well (we are still allowed to gawk at D.K.’s 27 reps, though). They do serve as a nice complement to someone’s existing body of work, and in a lot of cases, confirm reasons to be either hesitant or excited about a guy. In Metcalf’s case, his combine performance may have given him a bit more momentum, putting the league on notice that he wasn’t just an edge rusher mistakenly listed as a wideout.
Among the many ridiculous things he did on Saturday, perhaps most important in shedding light on what he can do in the league is his speed score of 129.7, the third-highest recorded since 2000. On top of that, his 10-yard split of 1.45 seconds is the fastest since it started being recorded in 2003, demonstrating a lethal short-area burst that, combined with his size, can punish smaller defensive backs for trying to press him.
It can’t be overstated that strong combine numbers on their own don’t serve as amazing predictors of NFL performance, but D.K.’s 40-time shouldn’t be shrugged off. Out of any college stat or combine drill, the 40-yard dash has the strongest link to future success for pass-catchers, serving as a possible precedent to putting up explosive numbers in the pros. While the comparisons to Julio Jones don’t take in a complete picture, they’re perfectly valid in this specific context.
If we’re on the topic of what matters most at the combine, his times from the three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle are noteworthy, as he ended up in the bottom-three percentile in both. Each workout is meant to test change of direction, since being able to turn and accelerate is pretty important at nearly every position. Only four receivers have recorded a slower three-cone time since 2000 — granted, three are on NFL rosters, but one is now listed as a tight end.
There may be what some consider red flags on his draft profile, but his rare combination of speed and strength essentially guarantees that someone will be intrigued enough to take a chance on him in the first round. What he does when he steps on the field, though, is what will shape pre-draft evaluation arguments for years to come.
If Metcalf makes a seamless transition into pro ball, figures like the speed score could become a bigger part of the mainstream conversation, and high-volume college production won’t be quite as important. If he’s something of a bust, his story could serve as a cautionary tale against giving more weight to physical skills over everything else, whether that’s fair or not.