"Are you mad?"
My wife's voice rang in my ears as I digested the Steelers' second round selection of James Washington, a receiver she knew I had a third round grade on and wasn't as high on as some other analysts. I hesitated for a moment, thinking over Washington's strengths, weaknesses, scheme fit in Pittsburgh and the uncertainty of Martavis Bryant after a rough 2017 season.
"Nah. Washington will be fine there. What he does well is exactly what Pittsburgh needs."
As much as Steelers fans hope I'm wrong about Terrell Edmunds, a player I had a fourth round grade on, they better hope I'm right about Washington's fit in Pittsburgh. If Thursday night was any indication, we're well on our way to being quite happy with the Steelers 60th overall selection.
Washington was targeted seven times, reeling in five of those passes for 114 yards and two highly impressive touchdowns. Two preseason games into his career, Washington has seven total catches for 158 yards, three of which have been highlight-reel contested grabs. Last night, he kicked off a spectacular performance with this grab:
Before following it up with this catch later in the game...
What a great adjustment to a poorly-placed ball from Josh Dobbs. Not only did Washington finish through contact, but he consistently showed the presence of mind to track and position himself in a great spot to make tough catches.
Washington is far from a finished product as a route runner, and his lack of athleticism is evident at times, but he knows how to win vertically and he's terrific in combat catch situations. That's exactly what the Steelers will need from him this season, and something Bryant never did consistently while in Pittsburgh.
There should be zero question about whether Washington should start Week 1, due to the Steelers shortage of options at the position and due to his own fine play. Expect Antonio Brown and Washington to line up on the outside, while JuJu Smith-Schuster plays in the slot (although they all will move around).
It ain't the biggest receiving corps in the league, but it might be the best by the time 2018 is all said and done.
Thursday Night Rookie Notes
--Mason Rudolph isn't close to being ready to play. On the first snap of the game, he threw late to the boundary on a pre-determined pass and was easily pick-sixed by veteran Tramon Williams. Rudolph had several other wild throws, including one behind his receiver that went through the hands of Packers' cornerback Quinten Rollins.
It was a mess of a performance that also featured poor pocket presence, erratic footwork and a lack of awareness to blitzers pre and post-snap. Rudolph fumbled for his third time in two games, failing to get rid of the ball before pressure arrived. The game is just too fast for him right now, and playing against a plethora of defensive starters really revealed his limitations.
--Is Jeremy Bates going to take the handcuffs off of Sam Darnold? The Jets rookie has been smart and efficient underneath, but hasn't had to do much in the way of making high degree of difficulty plays. Teddy Bridgewater looked better Thursday night, but I don't know that we learned a ton about Darnold in his 8-11, 62-yard, 1-pick performance.
--What a brutal night for Terrell Edmunds. The Steelers first round pick was mossed by Jimmy Graham for an early touchdown, inexplicably failing to leap and defend the catch point despite being fairly tight in coverage.
Later in the first half, Edmunds got dunked on again by Robert Tonyan, when the big tight end went up in the air to haul in a fade route over the rookie safety, all while Edmunds failed to get his head around or play through the pocket to force an incompletion. In between surrendering two touchdowns, Edmunds missed a critical open-field tackle that extended a Packers' scoring drive.
The lack of awareness, ball skills and tackling were big knocks against Edmunds coming out of college, and he has yet to show a ton of growth in those areas. He's reportedly had a strong camp, but Thursday's performance seemed to indicate he has a ways to go.
--Chukwuma Okorafor has been pretty solid for Pittsburgh in two preseason games. He's not aggressive or super technical, but he's huge, long and patient enough in his pass set to not make any fatal flaws that edge rushers can take advantage of. Preferably he doesn't play as a rookie, but I see a little Trenton Brown in his game, with less nasty. He's with the best OL coach in the NFL in Mike Munchak, which should do wonders for his refinement.
--You've probably never heard of Cam Sims, but he played college ball at a little school you may have heard of called Alabama. Sims barely made a dent for the Crimson Tide, but his 6-5, 214-pound frame warranted a look from Washington, and he's really impressed.
Sims got three passes for 57 yards and this outstanding touchdown grab that didn't count due to a penalty.
--Nathan Shepherd has flashed consistently for the Jets in both preseason games, showing the quickness to penetrate and make stops or re-route backs behind the line of scrimmage. Players with those traits don't stay on the bench long in the NFL, or at least they shouldn't.
It remains to be seen how much Shepherd will play as a rookie, but the Jets don't have the depth they used to up front, so don't be surprised if he ends up in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
--Three catches for 57 yards for Dallas Goedert, who continues to light up the preseason for Philly. Even as a TE2, he might be a major factor for their passing game this season. It is really tough for most linebackers to carry his speed on the over routes Philly loves to run.
I envision a lot of 12 personnel for the Eagles this season, but defenses may have to treat it like 11 to avoid getting torched by the athleticism that he and Zach Ertz offer. More fun times are ahead in Philly.