If you focus in on one specific target too hard, you will often miss all the background context. That has been the case with second year wide receiver James Washington and his speed or lack of speed to be more accurate.
After Washington’s rookie season, the narrative surrounding Washington is that he lacks speed or any standout athleticism at all. The second year receiver has found his play style boxed in but a trip down memory lane should give a few reminders on Washington’s speed and the connection between top-end speed and elite receivers.
While Washington is not going to be fool anyone as the next Mike Wallace or Randy Moss, it was not too long ago that the former Oklahoma State receiver was being praised for his speed. Lance Zierlein wrote the following about Washington in his pre-draft profile.
“Washington is a top-heavy receiver with dangerous build-up speed who has a three-year history of hitting chunk plays thanks to his speed and ball tracking.”
Zierlein was not kidding, as while Washington may not be a receiver who will beat you with his speed right off the line, his long speed has been talked about since his days at Oklahoma State. Let’s not forget that it was Washington who posted the fastest speed during one of the practice sessions during the 2018 Senior Bowl.
Highest speed reached at Tuesday's practices was by @CowboyFB WR James Washington (21.25 mph). By comparison, top speed reached by ballcarrier in NFL game in 2017, per Next Gen Stats, was Leonard Fournette's 22.05 mph. https://t.co/Xf55ujchzy
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) January 24, 2018
Washington was not up against any slouches at the Senior Bowl either as he was among other speedsters as D.J. Chark (4.34) and Tre’Quan Smith (4.49). Washington posted pedestrian numbers during the 40-yard dash, running a 4.54 but it was not long ago that he was a Texas track star.
In 2014, Washington was victorious in the 100 metre and 200 metre dash according to his track profile. And while he was not able to replicate the same success during the 2018 Scouting Combine, 40-yard dash times are not everything.
Former Steelers’ receiver Antonio Brown posted a 4.47 time but that did not stop him from developing into a credible deep threat later in his career. Cincinnati Bengals receiver A.J. Green posted a 4.5 time and even the Steelers’ very own JuJu Smith-Schuster could only match Washington’s numbers, running a 4.54 in the 40-yard dash.
If speed and athleticism were the sole indicators of a wide receiver’s future success then Al Davis’ Oakland Raiders would have won more than a handful of Super Bowls with Darrius Heyward-Bey and Jacoby Ford leading their offense. Last I checked that was not the case.
Receivers get open with more than just speed, as technique and route running ability are probably more valuable to the position than anything else. Smith-Schuster and even the now retired Hines Ward were never the most athletic players on the field but that did not stop them from being successful.
While Washington may never be a feared deep threat such as Wallace, his speed should not be overlooked. He may have struggled down the field as a rookie last season but a large portion of that was due to drops and concentration lapses. There is reason to believe that the Steelers’ receiver could come out a step faster as well. Washington has admitted to dropping from 225 lbs last season to 209 lbs, which will surely help him take the top off defenses if that is how the Steelers intend to use him.
Narratives surrounding the second-year wide receiver’s speed rolled and peopled rolled with it, but now a slimmer and hopefully more polished Washington will have a chance to set the record straight this season.