James Washington might be the most go-with-the-flow guy in the Steelers’ locker room. Don’t mistake that for apathy, he’s one of the hardest workers on the team. You don’t grow up on a farm and develop a bad attitude. But nothing ever seems to bother or worry the guy. Including his future with the team. Entering the final year of his rookie contract, Washington isn’t thinking about if he’ll be back with the team in 2022.
“I haven’t really looked that far,” Washington told reporters over Zoom when asked about his future. “I’m really just trying to get through the season first. Just try and do what I can to help this team win this year. And then we’ll talk everything else later.”
Through three years, Washington has caught 90 receptions for 1344 yards, 14.9 yards per catch, with nine touchdowns. His best season came in 2019 when he went over 700 yards and averaged close to 17 yards per grab, becoming one of the receiving game’s most reliable weapons in an otherwise ugly season.
Washington will be one of three Steelers’ wide receivers set to hit free agency after 2021. The group is headlined by JuJu Smith-Schuster, who took a one-year, $8 million contract. He’s hoping for a spike in production this season, something similar to his 2018/2019 production, in order to rebuild his value along with a salary cap that should be in the $200 million range. There’s also return specialist Ray-Ray McCloud, whose role on offense could grow under new OC Matt Canada.
Then there’s Washington. He’s put up two solid seasons with the team after a bumpy rookie season, establishing himself as a vertical threat with good hands, even though he lacks blazing speed. It’s hard to predict what his market will even look like in the upcoming offseason. His role with Pittsburgh in 2021 won’t be substantial, the #4 receiver behind Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool. But the Steelers figure to take advantage of their quality depth and get Washington onto the field. And one injury is all it takes to make him the starting Z receiver in the team’s base 11 personnel.
Ideally, the Steelers will be able to retain Washington for a relatively cheap price. His game has improved, he’s a hard worker, and maybe the most low-maintenance receiver in the league (once Larry Fitzgerald officially retires). But if Pittsburgh keeps their room intact, including re-signing Smith-Schuster, Washington may look for a better opportunity somewhere else. And it’s hard to blame him for it.