'His journey was different': How Commanders WR Terry McLaurin became one of NFL's best

ASHBURN, Va. -- As he started to answer a question about his newly signed mega-contract, Washington Commanders receiver Terry McLaurin coughed briefly, staving off another round of tears. He'd shed enough since signing the deal and he didn't want to do it again at a news conference in July.

For McLaurin, the money wasn't the issue. Or at least not the main one. Yes, with the three-year extension worth up to $68.2 million that he signed in the summer he could take care of his family. But it was more than the financial windfall, it was vindication of his approach and efforts, it was rewarding the belief others had placed in him.

And that's why, when he recalled his reaction to his contract, the 27-year-old focused on the road he traveled -- being a "kid from Indianapolis" who had a dream to play in the NFL. He called the moment surreal.

"If you're blessed to be in a situation to get a second contract, you know what that means for yourself, your future and your family. That part of it was awesome," McLaurin said when reflecting back.

But, he said, the emotion stemmed from something else.

"I think it was the journey," he said. "My journey was just different."

McLaurin's journey was indeed unlike others. By combining an underrated talent level with an inner competitiveness, a gift for studying opponents and weekly attendance at therapy sessions, he has gone from a third-round pick and expected backup and special teams player to one of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL.

On Monday night, McLaurin enters the NFC East clash against the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles (815 p.m. ET, ESPN ) as one of the bright spots for the Commanders (4-5). Despite playing with nine starting quarterbacks in his three-year-plus career, he has caught 260 passes. This season -- while playing with two different starters -- he has 38 receptions (second on the Commanders) for a team-high 609 receiving yards and is poised to lead the team in that category for the fourth straight year.

Production like that is why Washington gave him an extension. And his appreciation for all the work he has put in and the people who have helped him along the way explains why his emotions came pouring out upon signing the deal, and how he has quietly become one of the NFL's best.

"It was all about how far he had come," his agent, Buddy Baker, said. "I thought his press conference was one of the more impressive things I've seen in all my years in the business."

'I hate losing more than I like winning'

McLaurin likes to retell a story about a recent game of Scrabble in which he had the letters K, Z, Y and X. It's hard to make a word out of those and there was no place on the board he could put them to form another word. Yet he wouldn't concede.

"I'm sitting there for 15 minutes figuring out what word I could make out of it," he said. "I hate losing more than I like winning. When I'm playing video games, I want to win every single game."

Washington receiver Cam Sims said McLaurin is competitive about everything -- including who gets to the meeting room first.

But his football mentality can be seen in how he plays 3-on-3 games in NBA 2K. McLaurin said he's one of the best players in his group so if his team loses, he blames himself.

"When you're in leadership situations like I've been blessed to be in you've got to take that approach," he said.

But McLaurin does not react with tantrums or by storming out of a room. Rather, he breaks down what he did wrong. If he made a certain move in the video game and it didn't work, he's already planning the next one. He always wants a backup plan.

"I try not to do the same things over and over again expecting a different result," McLaurin said.

It's the same mindset that led him to picking the brains of veteran cornerbacks during his first spring practice sessions, and to working on improving his releases in the 2021 offseason with former Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin and to focusing on getting better at contested catches.

Flashback to the Green Bay Packers game. On a third-and-9 play with 2:13 left in the game, quarterback Taylor Heinicke, about to get hit, threw an intermediate out. McLaurin was just starting to break and cornerback Jaire Alexander was all over him. But he outfought Alexander coming back to the ball, making the 12-yard grab.

"That was the kind of play I struggled with early in my career in college," McLaurin said.

"You see that guy, he's fast but he's like, 'No, I want to make the contested catch, I want to be tough,'" former Washington wide receiver Santana Moss said. "He wants to be great."

Then, against the Indianapolis Colts, Heinicke unloaded a deep ball for which McLaurin had to come back more than 5 yards and outjump cornerback Stephon Gilmore. But Gilmore had his hands on the ball as they started to fall to the ground; McLaurin yanked it away as they hit the ground at the 1-yard line with 41 seconds left. Washington scored the game-winning touchdown on the next play.

"He wasn't going to be denied," Washington coach Ron Rivera said. "You can do all the drills you want about it, but a guy that plays with vision, sees the ball and knows when to anticipate a jump, that's the kind of guy that's going to go make those plays. That's what Terry does very well."

Teammate Curtis Samuel said when they roomed together at Ohio State, he saw McLaurin's competitiveness.

"After practice this man is still working," Samuel said. "I'm talking on days we got off I wake up and say, 'Terry, what are you about to go do?' He'd say, 'I'm about to go to the facility, go run some routes, catch some passes.' Where he's at today is all because of that."

'Those little things can help you'

When describing McLaurin's film watching, both he and his position coach use one word: deliberate. It's not about the hours spent watching his opponent, it's about his ability to pick out what he needs.

"A lot of times you can get lost in film and you don't know what you're looking for," he said. "You look up in an hour and it's like, 'What did I really watch?'"

McLaurin starts by knowing who he is as a receiver: a vertical speed guy with a hard release. He watches opponents to see how they defend that type of receiver, while also dissecting any weaknesses.

Then he has a checklist for what he wants to see: How do they play press man, both in how and when they jam a receiver and also their footwork? How do they play off man coverage? What style in his repertoire might work versus that particular corner?

"Most people during a long season, they fall off," Sims said. "But with T, he just picks it up. He watches more film. He just does a lot more things."

There's a reason; having that bank of knowledge also can help if he needs to adjust during the game.

"Those little things can help you," McLaurin said.

Against Green Bay, after studying Alexander, McLaurin knew he could not waste movement at the line. In the third quarter, for one of the few times in the game, he found himself matched against Alexander in press man coverage. McLaurin was ready with a plan, based on film study.

"I knew he hadn't gotten a feel for my speed to that point so I wanted to make him run with me and make him play at my speed," he said.

That play set up a smaller catch the next week. In a win over the Colts, McLaurin watched how Gilmore played press man. He was different from Alexander: Gilmore liked to "inch out" to maintain cushion. So McLaurin attacked by stepping hard to the outside -- the same action that beat Alexander. As Gilmore opened wide and backpedaled, McLaurin cut inside for a 9-yard catch on second-and-10.

"I put a lot of those releases on film and knowing how he'd react to that I could get the inside release I wanted," McLaurin said.

'He's out ahead of his emotions'

McLaurin started going to therapy in January and continues weekly sessions. With burgeoning expectations, not just in his professional life but in his personal one, McLaurin said he needed help.

"I do struggle with, 'I could be doing more; I'm not doing enough,'" McLaurin said.

His analytical approach led him to look at the work he had put in, then compare it to the results. They didn't always match up, which led him to sometimes spiral down a negative rabbit hole. He had to learn how to adjust to, as he said, "life happens."

"How do I deal with it? How do I adjust? How do I not let it throw off my whole psyche?" McLaurin said.

He said if anything went wrong, as a person known for being in control, his day could be ruined. Something small became magnified in his head.

"I could be having a good day and I drop my food on the floor," he said. "That one event can throw off my whole day because it was like, 'My food fell on the floor, now I have to go get another one!' I get in a very bad mood. Now I understand that it's just a bad event that happened. How do I respond from that? That's where I can find more of the homeostasis."

Achieving that mental equilibrium was necessary. Taking yoga classes also helps.

"I would get into ruts where I was thinking negatively, to the point I'm very down," he said. "Therapy has helped me take more accountability for myself on what role I play in certain situations. It forces you to look more inside versus what's going on around you.

"The biggest thing I had to learn was to catch myself before I got in that hole. It's so natural to start to think, 'Dang, it didn't work out; I must not be good enough and if you're not good enough...' Then you look up and you're in a s---ty mood. I had to catch myself."

Receivers coach Drew Terrell said McLaurin is more aware of his emotions and focuses less on external factors and outside noise -- be it praise or criticism. Considering McLaurin has played with nine different starting quarterbacks since entering the league, that's a key trait. McLaurin has always been praised for how he outwardly handled those emotions; it's among the reasons he's highly respected. Now he's controlling them inside as well.

"He's out ahead of his emotions," Terrell said. "Certain things in the past, if things didn't come up right in the game, he would get frustrated. It's not outward, vocal frustration but I could see it .... [Now] it's taking the emotion of what it is and knowing how to process it."

That's the result of what McLaurin calls his greatest year of growth.

"Therapy has helped me with compartmentalizing things and understanding I can only control my role in things," he said.

'I've been touched by God to have this ability'

McLaurin does not lack talent. He's not the biggest receiver at 6-foot, 210 pounds but he is strong. He's not Tyreek Hill, but he is fast, having run a 4.35 in the 40-yard dash at the 2019 NFL scouting combine. It just took time for that talent to coalesce into what he's become today.

But to reach this point, he endured: having to convince Urban Meyer he was worthy of a scholarship to Ohio State, redshirting his freshman year, catching no passes his first season playing and 11 in his second, having people doubt he could play well for the Buckeyes, finishing fourth on the team in receptions in his last season, seeing his peers receive more rewards from their work, getting drafted in the third round as a special teams player and solid backup.

"A lot of those times are discouraging," McLaurin said. "You see your peers who went off to the NFL; you put in the same work but the results aren't happening for you in the timing you think they should happen."

Former Washington coach Jay Gruden said they believed he could be a dynamic receiver, having scouted him at the Senior Bowl.

But McLaurin said he does feel his natural talent gets overlooked at times.

"Because I've worked so hard, a lot of people don't give me my flowers on the God-given athletic ability," he said. "I've been touched by God to have this ability to run fast, jump high, be extremely strong, really smart, leadership. A lot of things you can't quite coach and teach, but it comes out naturally because it's who I am. It's not a façade. ... I'm not the flashiest player, you can't look at me and say, 'Wow, he does X well.' I pride myself on being a complete receiver."

Gruden, who coached McLaurin for the first five games of his career before he was fired, said after the top receivers -- he listed Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Stefon Diggs and Davante Adams -- "you've got to put him in the mix. He's made big plays. Imagine if he was in Green Bay [with quarterback Aaron Rodgers] how many catches he'd have?"

Samuel said, "When he first got to the league they said he was a special teams guy. That's crazy. I'd seen this guy work his butt off every day. He's a receiver. I've always said he's a No. 1 receiver."

It just took a minute for it to happen.

"His journey was different," Samuel said. "But the journey he's had has made him the man he is today. It's all about timing."