ASHBURN, Va. -- The decision was an easy one: A young Jahan Dotson liked catching the ball a lot more than he enjoyed pushups. His cousin would toss Dotson footballs at a local park, forcing him to make diving catches. A dropped ball equaled 10 pushups.
"I got tired of that real quick," said Dotson, a first-round pick by the Washington Commanders in the 2022 NFL draft. "So, catching the ball is something that I will do."
Even if it means hauling in a pass like a rebound in basketball, or reaching up high to snag one with two hands, or extending far to the inside for a throw. All of which the rookie receiver has shown in training camp and during a stellar college career at Penn State.
It's why Dotson wasn't easily impressed while watching and discussing some of his college highlights in the spring at Washington's practice facility. The Commanders loved Dotson for many reasons, including savvy route running and a mature approach, but some of those catches at Penn State revealed another reason he stood out. He played bigger than his listed height of 5-foot-11.
"Not to sound cocky, but I do it so often and I practice that all the time because you never know when it comes up," Dotson said.
The New Orleans Saints traded up with Washington to select receiver Chris Olave at No. 11 overall, and Dotson, at No. 16, was the fifth of six wideouts picked in the first round. Though he is the shortest of the six, his hands (9.5 inches) are bigger than two of the receivers selected above him and his 36-inch vertical leap was matched only by Garrett Wilson (No. 10, New York Jets) among first-round receivers at the scouting combine -- measurements that help explain why Dotson plays bigger than his size.
Five plays from his Penn State career help explain why the Commanders are excited about him.
Sept. 18 vs. Auburn, first-and-10 from the Penn State 23: Dotson, aligned inside the numbers to the right, ran a deep crosser to break free 20 yards downfield. A safety eight yards behind him prepared to grab an interception on a pass that appeared too high. Instead, Dotson jumped high and twisted back to his left for the 22-yard catch.
"The ball was a little over my head, so I had to make an acrobatic catch and pluck it," Dotson said. "Interceptions are hard to come by, so knowing I'm taking one away from the defense and moving the sticks is definitely cool."
Said Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz: "He catches the football as natural as anybody I've been around."
Jahan Dotson comes out of nowhere to make incredible catch
Sean Clifford heaves the ball downfield, and Jahan Dotson outjumps three Illinois defenders to haul it in.
Oct. 2 vs. Indiana, second-and-goal from the 8: Dotson lined up on the numbers and sold a crossing route, only to turn up to the back of the end zone. Another high pass resulted in another twisting catch and a touchdown.
"It's my attention to detail and my focus," Dotson said. "When the ball is in the air, I'm fully locked in on the ball and nothing else. I get tunnel vision and feel I can come down with those plays. I love catching the ball. I keep a football with me anywhere. I get on the Jugs machine as much as possible."
Dotson still must prove himself in the NFL. While Washington felt he was one of the most pro-ready players in the draft, others wondered if the Commanders picked him too high (ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. had Dotson ranked as the No. 22 overall prospect and Scout's Inc. ranked him No. 25).
But, in practice, he's shown the work with his hands has paid off.
"He has hands like [former Indianapolis Colts receiver] Reggie Wayne," said former NFL receiver Santana Moss, who provides analysis on the Commanders' website. "Reggie would catch a BB in the dark, it was that effortless. That's how I see Jahan. The stuff he's doing is very polished. ... I credit that to his catch radius and having mitts. Look at his hands, it's like a suction cup. Carson is out there slinging the ball, but you don't hear it hit [Dotson's] mitts."
Jahan Dotson makes a leaping grab for the TD
Jahan Dotson pulls in a great catch and keeps himself in-bounds long enough to get Penn State a touchdown.
Oct. 23 vs. Illinois, first-and-10 from the Penn State 22: On a pass down the right side for Dotson, three defenders converged. One reached up for the ball, but Dotson jumped as he ran and stole it. After he and Jartavius Martin landed, they stared at one another, and Dotson shook his head.
"He was like, 'I thought I had that one' and I was like, 'No, sir,'" Dotson said.
Does he understand how frustrating that situation is for a defender?
"I don't care to be honest," he said.
In Washington's first week of training camp, Dotson caught a 40-yard contested pass over the shoulder from Wentz. It impressed fellow receiver Terry McLaurin, who liked that Dotson maintained the same path on the route. That allowed Wentz to hit him on his outside shoulder. Dotson also didn't raise his arms until the last minute, preventing the defender from reacting fast enough.
"I'm still working on that skill a little bit as well," McLaurin said. "You have to use little subtle things like that to keep [defenders] from getting their hands in on the ball. So that was really good to see from a young guy."
Dotson makes back-to-back one-handed grabs, scores TD
Jahan Dotson grabs an impressive one-handed catch and makes magic again on the next play for a Penn State touchdown.
Nov. 27 vs. Michigan State, first-and-10 from the Spartans' 27: With snow covering the field, Dotson sprinted down the right sideline, making a leaping catch a foot from the boundary. As he catches the ball just inside the 3-yard line, he starts to fall out of bounds, but stretches the ball over the pylon for the score.
"That was the craziest weather game I've ever played in," Dotson said. "It's hard to get your footing down, your hands are freezing and it's hard to catch the ball. Those are all distractions; you just have to keep the main thing the main thing."
The main thing, for Dotson, involves the details and having a plan at receiver. It's why veteran Commanders cornerback Kendall Fuller called him a "pro ever since Day 1."
In the spring, Dotson faced Fuller on consecutive days out of the same formation and against the same coverage. He beat him to the outside on the first day. On the second, Fuller anticipated another outside cut. Dotson knew it, so he broke inside for a wide-open grab.
"To get the same look and have a counter off it, that's big," Fuller said. "That's a vet move."
Oct. 31, 2020, first-and-10, Ohio State 20-yard line: Dotson was jammed at the line, but the pass was lofted to him at the 10-yard line. As the defensive back, Shaun Wade, leaned backward Dotson, reaching high, grabbed the ball with his outstretched right hand and never stumbled as he ran into the end zone.
"The play before, I had a go route, and I made a pretty cool catch for about 40 yards," Dotson said. "I was dead tired and trying to come out of the game to get water, but we were going hurry-up. I got a horrible release and the DB jammed me to the sideline, but I fought at the end and gave my quarterback a chance."
Dotson trained with NFL receivers this offseason, including Chris Godwin and Jarvis Landry, and his close friend KJ Hamler. But he also learned from former teammate and tight end Pat Freiermuth, a second-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021.
"Pat does a great job of boxing people out and playing big," Dotson said. "Watching him every day and how he maneuvers and attacks the ball in the air ... We have the same mindset when the ball is in the air, that it's ours. People call it 50-50 balls, but we think it's 100 to zero."
Those who know Dotson nod their head in agreement.
"In that 2020 season, he had some drops early on, whether it was in camp or whatever," said Penn State receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield, a former college wideout. "He just gradually continued to improve to a 'wow' factor. 'Oh, he caught that.' That goes to his competitiveness."
During Washington's rookie minicamp in May, receivers coach Drew Terrell pulled him aside and told him he needed to run faster.
"He didn't look like he was trying or running, but he is. He's just that smooth," Terrell said. "He's not a guy you have to game plan for -- 'how are we going to get this guy the ball?' He can go out and produce naturally. That's what he put on his college tape."