The Pittsburgh Steelers were pretty excited when they had the opportunity to draft Diontae Johnson with the 66th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, but the young receiver attracting all the excitement over the course of the summer was instead James Washington, whom the team drafted 60th-overall a year earlier in 2018.
Washington, a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State, showed during his rookie training camp practice that he has a natural skill for combating for contested passes, and he did carry that into the preseason somewhat, at least for a game or two, but it’s fair to say he didn’t have the regular season many anticipated for him, most often serving as the number three receiver.
Heading into his second year, he’s dropped weight to get more fit and pick up quickness, and worked on every facet of his game. He has been one of the most consistent performers in training camp, and he caught nine passes for over 200 yards and a pair of touchdowns during preseason play, among the best around the NFL. So many are waiting to see what he shows on Sunday in his first meaningful game since 2018.
“I just want to see him play and have fun just like he did in the preseason”, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner told reporters yesterday, via the team’s media department. “He played pretty much error-free. He played aggressive and confident. That’s all he’s got to do”.
For what it’s worth, he did appear to be more loose and free, more apt to actually partake in some celebratory behavior after making a player. He is growing with respect to his comfort level in his surroundings and confidence in his abilities. But he’s still only done it in exhibition stages.
“He’s very talented. He’s got good power, strength. He’s got good hands”, Fichtner said of one of his young prospects. “He’s just got to now do it in a real game. I think that confidence level that he has right now, and him and [Ben Roethlisberger] with a full year’s work, I think it’s very good right now”.
That’s the hope, but we won’t see the proof until we taste the pudding, and the kitchen is in Foxboro for the season opener. Can he continue his strong play from the preseason? For what it’s worth, he didn’t see a target from Roethlisberger during the quarterback’s limited snaps, though he only played two snaps himself while the starter was in the game.
The Steelers have said that they want to be unselfish and multiple at wide receiver this year, with players working in and out of the lineup as needed or desired. Ostensibly, that should provide opportunities for everybody. Where Washington fits in that initial schematic remains to be seen.