The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to rely upon multiple new faces stepping up in a big way in 2019 as part of a collective effort to fill the offensive void left in the wake of the trade of Antonio Brown, the perennial All-Pro wide receiver, to the Oakland Raiders.
While the team went out and signed Donte Moncrief to be a big piece of that puzzle, another player they hope will be a primary contributor in putting it all together is second-year James Washington, whom they drafted in the second round a year ago.
The Oklahoma State product had a very disappointing rookie season, having very little production relative to the number of snaps that he played. Even in an offense that produced two 100-reception, 1000-yard wide receivers, there is so much more he could have done even with his 38 targets that he simply failed to do.
But he showed hints of his potential late in the season, and has taken the past several months to study himself and his game and look for ways to improve, both physically and otherwise. He lost weight and spent time in his playbook, the latter of which he discussed with reporters on Monday when asked if he had one particular position in which he was most comfortable
“I’ve just been playing ‘Z’ since I’ve been here, but over the break I’ve been learning other positions and just kind of knowing the whole concept of a play, so it helps me when I have to move inside, outside, wherever Ben puts me or whatever the play calls”, he said.
In over 500 snaps last season, Washington did spend the vast majority on the outside, but he did see a number approaching triple figures lined up inside. I don’t suspect that he will spend much time there this year, with JuJu Smith-Schuster already a highly productive slot weapon, but the Steelers’ offense relies upon its wide receivers having the versatility to line up anywhere at any time.
One of the greatest misfortunes of the souring of Brown’s relationship with the team that resulted in his departure is the fact that, in spite of everything else, his work ethic was peerless. Smith-Schuster has said on a number of occasions that he learned a great deal just by watching his former teammate in practice and picking up the nuances.
Washington is now looking to do that with Smith-Schuster and others, as he told reporters, “just watching other guys, just kind of stealing their techniques and their mechanics that they do and just adding it to your game and helping you become more well-rounded”.
He can use any help that becomes available to him as he enters his second year. If he continues to underperform, he can be quickly forgotten about within a position group that potentially has quality depth with or without him.