James Washington took a big step forward as a sophomore in 2019. New WRs coach Ike Hilliard can see that. Speaking with reporters via a Monday Zoom call on the team website, Hilliard evaluated Washington.
“In terms of his development, everyone can see James is a freakish athlete,” Hilliard said. “We love and respect that.”
Washington had a miserable rookie season, catching only 16 passes and getting sent to the bench mid-way through the season. But he looked like a new man a year ago, teammates and coaches knowing his conditioning was much improved, and he finished the year with 44 receptions for 735 yards and three touchdowns. He became a more consistent player, performing well despite one of the league’s worst offenses and revolving door at quarterback.
Still, Washington is only entering his third-year, turned 24 in April, and Hilliard knows there’s still plenty of room for growth.
“Timing and spacing, I can get into specifics about using his hands at the line of scrimmage versus press a lot more. Using his strength that way. Finding a way to get more lateral movement out of him in terms of quick-twitch. To help him get away with some things because of the linear athlete he is.”
Being a potent vertical threat is all about having a good release to defeat press coverage and get on top of cornerback. Washington took strides there a year ago but he’s far from a finished product. Becoming a more complete receiver, making plays with the whole route tree, not just vertical concepts, is another goal for him.
Hilliard also offered a challenge to Washington and the rest of the receiver room.
“Being stronger at the point when it comes to blocking. I think everyone in our room needs to do a better job to help getting more yardage [in the run game].”
The Steelers’ run game lacked explosive plays for a variety of reasons a year ago but often, downfield blocking by receivers is what allows a ten yard run to turn into a 30 yard gain.
Currently, Washington is one of four Steelers on the Reserve/COVID-19 list with no timetable for his return. Padded practices won’t begin until August 17th so he still has two weeks to be cleared by team doctors. The sooner, the better, to take advantage of a lost offseason and working with Ben Roethlisberger for the first time in nearly a year.