ASHBURN, Va. -- He has caught long passes for touchdowns and turned short ones into long gains, once busting between two defenders to grab a pass before turning and sprinting for another long score. It's the reason Washington Football Team's Terry McLaurin has turned himself from a third-round pick projected to play special teams into one of the NFL's top young wide receivers.
And yet the play that jumps out to McLaurin highlighted his speed, but someone else had the ball. When he chased down Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith after an interception, tackling him at the 4-yard line, it allowed the defense to hold the Cowboys to a field goal in a Thanksgiving Day win. It also summed up McLaurin. He called it the play he is most proud of this season.
A week earlier, he helped open a running lane by performing another gritty chore: blocking down on a Cincinnati Bengals defensive end. McLaurin stayed with him as the end tried to maneuver around him; teammate running back Antonio Gibson found an opening.
"It's those effort plays I really enjoy," he said, "because they make a big impact on our team. Dirty work is still something I hang my hat on. It's cool to score touchdowns and make big plays, but running guys down and making big plays for our running backs is even more fun."
While that might be true, and it partly explains why he has become a captain in his second season, McLaurin is getting noticed for those catches, big plays and touchdowns. This season, he ranks fifth in receiving yards (963), 11th in catches (69) and second in total yards after the catch (445). Of the players who have caught at least 50 passes, he ranks sixth with 23.2% of them going for 20 or more yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
In two years, he has caught 127 passes, with 10 going for touchdowns, despite playing with five different quarterbacks.
"If he were coming out now, he's definitely be a first-round pick," Washington coach Ron Rivera said.
McLaurin's production has been both helped and hurt by his surroundings. Washington lacks another proven wideout and that has reflected in his numbers: McLaurin has been targeted 100 times and the six other wideouts who have played for Washington this season have combined for 97 targets.
But he also attracts extra attention from defenses. If McLaurin wanted to remain productive, he had to expand his game. He has done that by working on his routes and learning new spots.
In 2019, he caught 13 passes from the slot. This season, he has 23 from the slot.
Before the season, receivers coach Jim Hostler told McLaurin being able to run routes from all three spots was the difference between catching 60 to 80 passes or possibly 100.
"It gives a versatility to our offense and it allows me to see defenses from a different perspective," he said.
McLaurin likes running routes inside because he has more options; defenders must respect potential cuts inside or outside because he has run each successfully. As an outside receiver, he likes the one-on-one matchups, which have not been as numerous as last season.
"It's his quickness, his suddenness," Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller said, "his ability to make tough catches. Just a student of the game."
McLaurin long ago surpassed expectations by taking the same approach he has used for years. When he attended a football camp at Ohio State, then-coach Urban Meyer told him he wasn't yet ready for a scholarship offer. He told McLaurin to go home and catch 200 passes a day. That's what he did. Two weeks later, he attended another Ohio State camp and left with a scholarship.
Before his senior year, McLaurin practiced catching contested passes from a Jugs machine. He credited Buckeyes receivers coach Brian Hartline for helping him improve as a route runner -- and for focusing on hand-eye coordination, helping eliminate drops. McLaurin has been credited with two drops in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
He showed quick improvement as a rookie, too. In spring practices, he struggled to create separation vs. the veteran defensive backs. One of them, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie told him he was running his routes at the same speed so he knew where he was going. When McLaurin returned for training camp, he had sharpened his route running and became the talk of the summer.
It's no surprise to hear Rivera say he'll see McLaurin in practice almost talking to himself, using his hands to run the route.
"You can see him going through in his mind," Rivera said. "He'll sit there and all of a sudden he'll do something like this and you know he's thinking about his release or he's thinking about widening that defender."
He worked on his transition in and out of routes during the offseason, saying he wanted them cleaner. He wanted his body language to improve so he wasn't tipping off routes.
There's a reason he has become a leader at a position that often lends itself to individualistic thinking.
"He's obviously very strong and fast," Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner said. "He can separate. He's getting better at the techniques of just route running. That leadership stuff has really just come about naturally because he's built so much trust with his teammates, and then they have such respect for him based on the work that he puts in and the production that he has."
McLaurin said he is not fueled by any draft-day slights, nor does he worry about his standing with other receivers. Teammates say he just wants to win.
"He's extremely talented, but that competitiveness when it kicks in -- you can see it in his eyes," Washington quarterback Alex Smith said. "He's a guy that you want to get the ball to in those situations. He's grown into really accepting that role.
"It's going to be tough for me to come up with all the great adjectives I'd like to come up with to describe Terry. He's a special, special player."