During his rookie season in 2018, a season in which Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 5000 yards and with 34 touchdown passes—both representing new franchise records—wide receiver James Washington managed just 16 receptions for 217 yards and one touchdown, which came on a broken play in Week Two.
As a second-year player last season, and facing the prospect of spending 14 and a half games with Mason Rudolph (admittedly, his former college teammate) and Devlin Hodges at quarterback, he caught 44 passes for a team-high 735 yards with three touchdown passes. The team as a whole accounted for fewer than 3000 passing yards and just 18 touchdown passes.
He attributes his improvement primarily to his conditioning. “Just the off-the-field, to start with, going back home, getting in shape, coming back ready to go, that’s really the main thing that got me”, he told Missi Matthews in an interview for the team’s website.
“I came in at 210 [pounds], and conditioning was where I thought, coming in my rookie year, it was 10 days better”, he said. “It was a better experience coming getting ready to go, as well as working out with Gie and all the guys at OTAs, I could tell a big difference”.
Washington is listed at 213 pounds, so he dropped a few pounds from there, helping to improve his endurance and quickness. This did result in him having more success on vertical routes, allowing him to post an average of 16.7 yards per catch, more in line with what the Steelers were expecting when they drafted him.
When Matthews asked him what he was told by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner about what he expects from Washington heading into year three, he said, “he told me just to continue to do what I’ve done to get to the point and the strides that I’ve made this year, and just come back ready to go”. He added, “healthy is the main deal. We had a lot of injuries this year, so the main thing is getting everyone back healthy and coming back 100 percent and just pick up where we left off”.
Even Washington dealt with an injury that cost him one game, and likely affected him for more than that. While he didn’t miss any games, rookie Diontae Johnson also suffered a concussion in the middle of the season. JuJu Smith-Schuster by far had the most injury trouble at the wide receiver position.
One area that still has to improve is his catch percentage, as he still only caught 55 percent of his targets last season. Yes, a lot of that did have to do with the quality of play at the quarterback position, but you want to see even a player who is partially a deep threat come in at 60 percent at a minimum.