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NFL Draft

Year 3 Breakout WR: Can James Washington Build On 2019 Improvements?

  • The Draft Network
  • June 4, 2020
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The 2018 wide receiver class was known as a thick, but starless group at the time of its drafting. Two years in, it’s undoubtedly thick but stars are beginning to emerge. All of Calvin Ridley, Courtland Sutton, D.J. Moore, and Michael Gallup have an argument not only as the top dog in the class but as upper-echelon receivers in the league altogether. I made the case for Gallup most recently—as his success seems the most underappreciated to me—but all four are great talents, and they aren’t alone. D.J. Chark, Christian Kirk, and James Washington fill out the top of a thick second tier.

Washington is on the slide of our microscope in this article as the potential riser in this already impressive group. The receiver room in Pittsburgh is always a healthy spot for a young wideout to develop, and there’s love in the community for the big slot JuJu Smith-Schuster and electric rookie playmaker Diontae Johnson. Yet Washington gets no love.

This lack of recognition is likely due to a disappointing rookie season. Washington and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger never got on the same page, as Washington struggled with drops and deep separation in his first season out of Oklahoma State. There was always a chance that the learning curve was going to be steep for Washington, as he left an Oklahoma State offensive system that asked few routes of him, kept him on one side of the formation, and allowed him to sight-adjust a lot of basic stems relative to coverage. Washington said in the 2019 offseason that his understanding of the playbook, as well as a little less weight, were the improvements he focused on to bounce back in his sophomore year.

Bounce back he did. Washington unlocked the deep threat prowess that teams valued from his Oklahoma State film in 2019. Among receivers with at least 50 targets, Washington was 10th in the league in yards per reception (16.7) and 22nd in yards per target (9.19). His catch rate jumped from 42.1% to 55.0%, and critically, he hauled in 30.8% of his deep targets. In the prior season he only grabbed 16.7%.

Both a 55.0% catch rate and a 30.8% deep target catch rate are below average numbers and must be improved upon for Washington to grow. Drops ravaged Washington’s film in 2019 (10.2% drop rate), both limiting his YAC potential on underneath routes and his explosive plays downfield.

It’s worth noting that, while Washington dropped more passes in 2019 than he did in 2018 (5.9% drop rate), Washington also suffered in terms of catchable passes altogether, as the poor quarterback play of Devlin Hodges and Mason Rudolph put Washington at disadvantage from the jump.

As someone who had Washington graded as the second-best wide receiver coming out of the 2018 class, this is the trait I have always appreciated from Washington the most, and it’s good to see him carry it into the league to account for poor quarterback play. At Oklahoma State, Washington was an elite track-and-adjust player with a larger catch radius than expected due to how early he located the football and how aggressively he worked to adjust his path to the football. There, he regularly fixed Rudolph’s late and behind throws on in-breaking patterns and deep balls alike. Now, in the NFL, he’s doing the exact same thing for the exact same quarterback.

Washington does not have a particularly agile or speedy build, though his smoothness and long speed do present a threat to man coverage. His only physical advantage is his density and length. Even at his reduced weight, Washington has great length and strength, as well as hand-eye coordination and grip strength, to work through contact and get back to inaccurate passes. 

Such a mold—strong hands, quick adjustments, dense frame, average athleticism—often projects to more of a Jarvis Landry usage, in which you’d expect Washington to feast in the tight windows between underneath zones. But this is not the case.

Washington is a walking explosive play, and his budding success as a deep receiver is the most promising sign of an impending breakout. With Smith-Schuster occupying the big-slot role, Johnson being used as an underneath/intermediate route-runner and YAC generator, and rookie second-round pick Chase Claypool destined for jump ball duty, Washington neatly slides into the field-stretcher role in Pittsburgh’s offense. This is where he’ll be best, and while he may never become a high-volume stick mover like Calvin Ridley, Michael Gallup, or Courtland Sutton, he can do a lot of damage here.

Again, Washington doesn’t do anything particularly special from an athletic perspective. He is wonderfully physical in the contact window to quickly win inside/outside leverage and knock the corner off of his route, creating space for back-shoulder throws against the sideline, and he has that silky smooth stride to open to his top gear and a downfield stack as well. Washington isn’t particularly bursty or agile, but he can retain a high velocity through contact over time, which lets him body thinner corners into bad positions to play on the ball.

It then comes back to Washington’s track-and-adjust ability, which is so delightful. He’s excellent at finding the football in the air before anyone else and immediately getting on the best path to catch the football away from defenders in the event that he has to make a contested catch. Washington does not have a great projection to breaking routes given his upright running style and average quicks, but as a deep route-runner with slight adjustments, he’s wonderfully developed for a young player. 

While Washington made laudable strides under the Rudolph/Hodges conditions, the real hurdle for his third-year explosion is now the transition back to Roethlisberger, with whom he had no chemistry in his rookie year. If he can earn Big Ben’s trust on deep balls, Washington will continue to separate against man coverage and win contested catches, returning on Roethlisberger’s trust with the chunk gains and long scores that this offense needs from him.

Johnson is exciting. Smith-Schuster is always exciting. And hey, if Claypool was your guy in the 2020 NFL Draft, then he’s exciting too. But Washington was the leading receiver for the Steelers last year, and with a little drop regression and scoring regression alone, he projects as a deep threat dangerous enough to get game-planning attention from opposing defenses. If the rhythm is right with Roethlisberger and the rest of the Steelers’ receiver corps, the sky’s the limit for yet another young Steeler receiver waiting for his breakout moment.

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