It’s funny how much different expectations can be from one year to the next. It wasn’t immediately obvious where or when JuJu Smith-Schuster a second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, would fit into an offense that already included Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, and Eli Rogers at wide receiver.
Then, primarily in the second half of his rookie season, he quickly established himself as the second-best option on the team behind Brown. And now a year later, he has raised the bar for what the Pittsburgh Steelers and their fans anticipate from a second-round wide receiver.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin has even said that they were expecting rookie James Washington to follow a similar trajectory during his rookie season as Smith-Schuster did a year ago—perhaps not quite as prolific, but in the ballpark, and, you know, not causing them to make him a healthy scratch on multiple occasions.
The Oklahoma State product has only caught eight of 25 targets so far this season, and though only one of those failed targets could be fairly classified as a dropped pass, it was a big drop in a big moment, and his route-running and other detail-oriented aspects of play have contributed to a number of the other incompletions.
Washington was an inactive once again on Sunday, but that likely doesn’t happen two weeks in a row, not with the shoulder injury suffered by Justin Hunter that knocked him out of that game. Ryan Switzer also has to be cleared from the concussion protocol first before he is eligible to return to play, and that has not officially happened yet.
This all comes a week after a number of teammates and coaches questioned his confidence. Tomlin would not commit to him dressing on Tuesday, and obviously chose not to do so. Ben Roethlisberger wondered if he trusted his hands. While he said that he believes he will bounce back, Brown said that nobody could make excuses for him and that he needed the opportunity to do so.
For his part, Washington said that his confidence was never shaken, a sentiment that he echoed yesterday. Asked if he still believed he was capable of contributing in the league right now, he said, “yeah, no doubt”.
He spent his time on the sidelines on Sunday watching his more veteran teammates, he said. Just “taking stuff they did in the game that I could put to good use myself”.
He did watch Brown have his best game of the season, with double-digit catches and over 150 receiving yards, plus an explosive-play touchdown and another explosive play that set up the team’s first score. That is the sort of impact that the Steelers hope to see him achieve over the course of a number of years.