The Pittsburgh Steelers will have a bit of a problem on their hands heading into the 2018 season at the wide receiver position—but it’s a good problem to have. Basically, they’re just going to have to figure out where everybody is going to play, and that conversation mainly surrounds their newest member of the group, second-round draft pick James Washington.
Washington is not an elite measurables guy, though he has a good frame for his size at 5’11”. His Combine numbers would profile more as a slot receiver, but that isn’t necessarily what his college tape says.
The Oklahoma State product worked both on the outside with the Cowboys and out of the slot. As offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said of him, he’s a guy that comes into the league with a number of tricks, rather than just one.
The thing is, all the Steelers’ wide receivers at the top of the depth chart are movable. Antonio Brown is a guy who will be on the field for 98 percent of the team’s snaps, but he does take his reps from the slot on a fair amount of occasions.
While JuJu Smith-Schuster was used primarily on the outside in college, he did get some work inside as well, and most of his playing time during his rookie season was out of the slot. He broke a number of long plays coming out of the slot, including his team-record 97-yard touchdown reception against the Detroit Lions.
I do think that Washington as the team’s third receiver does offer the Steelers just a bit more versatility than Martavis Bryant, who while capable of working from the inside was primarily an outside player. If Washington is in their top three, then that gives them three receivers that you can line up at any spot on the field and expect them to be productive and to know what they’re doing.
When it was Smith-Schuster between Brown and Bryant, the pecking order was pretty clear: Smith-Schuster would spend the vast majority of his time on the field coming out of the slot. But Washington is a fungible guy a lot like last year’s second-round pick, so we could, at least hopefully, see even greater creativity in how the wide receivers are deployed.
Now this all comes with a pretty big contingent, in that it requires that rookie wide receiver to step up right away and be pretty much everything that they expect him to be. He comes into the league wielding a reputation that tells us he’s a capable deep-ball tracker and a guy who embraces the physicality aspect of combat catches, so we have components of both inside and outside work.
Even Smith-Schuster is still very young. The bottom line is that it’s going to take time for the coaches really figure out which alignments give the offense the best opportunity to succeed. But like I said at the top of the piece, it’s a good problem to have.