It’s so far, so good for James Washington as he prepares to enter his second season in the NFL. After a very disappointing rookie season that was only salvaged slightly late in the year, the former second-round pick out of Oklahoma State is consistently showing up now in the preseason, and his teammates and coaches for the Pittsburgh Steelers are getting excited.
Including his oldest teammate, Mason Rudolph, with whom he spent four years in college, that connection coming into Pittsburgh simultaneously in consecutive picks in the 2018 NFL Draft on Day Two. Washington has caught both of his touchdown passes this preseason from his old quarterback, one an eight-yard back-shoulder fade and then a beauty of a deep post for 41 yards.
“I can’t say” what’s different about him this year exactly, Rudolph told the Steelers’ website about the changes he sees in Washington. “I just think it’s a matter of confidence and reps and a year under his belt of experience” with the various quarterbacks on the team, among them Ben Roethlisberger. “He’s just really getting better each week he plays, whether it’s practice or game reps”.
Through three preseason games, Washington has nine receptions for 203 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That’s roughly the equivalent of what he had over the span of the entirety of his rookie season, and, of course, that’s while only playing portions of those preseason games.
But where will he even end up working? When the Steelers have opened up in three-receiver sets, it has been either Eli Rogers or Ryan Switzer with the starters lining up in the slot. The second-year man has rotated behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, with veteran Donte Moncrief manning the other side.
With the way he’s performing, it may be difficult to keep him off the field, which is a very good problem for the Steelers to have. It could encourage further use of the four- and five-receiver sets that Randy Fichtner began to use with relative prominence in the offense last season—more than any other team in the league.
Of course, as we find out all too frequently, it’s one thing to put up the numbers in the preseason and another to do it, and do it consistently, in the games that count. Justin Hunter is the prototype workout warrior, who’s even had some big preseasons to keep coaches enticed, only to be unable to live up to the expectations in the regular season and beyond.
It’s far too early to make any kind of supposition like that about Washington, who had 14 games under his belt to date, as he was made a healthy scratch twice last season. And the Steelers do have a history of having receivers producing big years in their second season after relatively little production as a rookie.