James Washington may struggle to see the field as he enters the final year of his rookie contract for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021—it has even been intimated that Ray-Ray McCloud could get on the field some more this year for work in the slot—but at least he can take solace in the fact that he is the only member of the Steelers, past or present, to make ESPN’s list of the top 50 greatest college wide receivers over the past 50 years.
That’s right. Not Santonio Holmes or Plaxico Burress, a pair of Steelers’ first-round draft picks at the position. Not Hines Ward, a borderline Hall of Famer. Nobody would be surprised by Antonio Brown’s absence, as his excellence formed in the NFL.
Neither JuJu Smith-Schuster or Chase Claypool, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, or even Limas Sweed made the cut. But the Oklahoma State alum, according to Bill Connelly, ranks 16th among wide receivers coming out of college over the span of the past half-century.
“Only one player had more than nine catches of 50+ yards in 2016-17: Washington, who had 13”, he wrote of the 2018 60th overall selection. “Maybe the best pure deep threat of the 2010s, he averaged 19.8 yards per catch for his career with 39 touchdowns. He was well-rounded, too, catching over 70 balls twice; it’s probably not a coincidence that OSU’s offense has regressed considerably since he left for the pros”.
Playing ball for the Cowboys from 2014 through the 2017 season, Washington put up 4,472 career yards in school on 226 catches, indeed nearly averaging 20 yards per catch. He finished with 39 touchdowns, including 33 over the span of his final three seasons, and 13 in his senior year.
After the Steelers used their second-round pick on him in 2018, they followed up in the third round by drafting his quarterback, Mason Rudolph, who is primarily responsible for Washington putting up those numbers. It remains to be seen, but Rudolph, after signing a one-year extension, may be their starting quarterback next year—and there’s a good chance Washington will be gone.
As for some of the other receivers, Claypool only really had one standout season during his senior year. Smith-Schuster had a couple of solid years, with one standout performance, but left college early. Burress just played two years at Michigan State, Holmes three at Ohio State, never with a 1,000-yard season. Hines Ward? Well, he was a quarterback at one point. He graduated with 11 touchdown receptions to his name.
Washington hasn’t had the kind of NFL career he would have liked—90 career receptions for 1,344 yards and nine touchdowns—but playing time has become hard to come by in a crowded wide receiver room while talents like Claypool and Diontae Johnson demand to see the field. He is still abundantly talented, and can perhaps find a larger role for himself elsewhere in 2022.