James Washington and Mason Rudolph entered the draft in 2018 as teammates, and they left it the same way. Going from Oklahoma State to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the second- and third-round picks would continue their relationship as professionals that they began at the college level.
Neither of them had the rookie season that they would have liked, but a new year promises to have new possibilities, and more opportunities to grow through experience. Each of them now have a season under their belt, even if the wide receiver, Washington, was able to get substantially more playing time than Rudolph, who was inactive as the third-string quarterback.
Not that he didn’t use his time wisely on the bench. Rudolph has previously talked about how Mike Tomlin helped to keep him engaged by being open to his suggestions and ideas for the offense, listening to them and maybe even deploying them. He credited that a lot for his being able to stay dialed in, and felt that he would have been able to play if called upon by the end of the year.
Washington had no choice but to be engaged because he was playing immediately, and clearly doing so before he was ready. If anything, his early opportunities were a net negative experience for him as he struggled, and it reached a point where Ben Roethlisberger had a talk with him, which he considered the turning point late in the year, after which he was able to make a few plays.
Those late-season experiences have carried over into 2019, finding the pair of 2018 Day Two draft picks hopeful and optimistic. Washington could earn a starting role across from JuJu Smith-Schuster this year, while Rudolph is looking to become Roethlisberger’s backup by leapfrogging Joshua Dobbs.
“I feel like he’s a lot more confident”, Washington told Jacob Klinger about Washington. “I mean, we both are. I mean, all last year we were kind of back-and-forth calling each other, trying to pick each other’s brain and just learn playbooks together. He would call me, we’d go over signals so I feel like we kind of helped each other a little bit”.
They continued to stay in touch and pick each other’s brain throughout the offseason and into OTAs, and surely they will remain in contact during the break ahead of training camp as well. It can be incredibly valuable to have that relationship with another teammate who is in a similar point of their career.
As has long been established, Tomlin and the Steelers—and really the rest of the NFL—expect a big jump from their second-year players, and Washington and Rudolph are two players that they drafted, as high as they did, because they saw great potential in them as starters.
With the rookie jitters out of the way, and going into the season knowing what to expect, will they take that huge next step that has become expected of players in their position? We’ll have to find that out over the course of the season.