If noted for nothing else, 2021 will at least always be for Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver James Washington the year that he got married. But he now has a professional opportunity thrown in his lap to make the most of the misfortunes of others, and at an opportune time.
Scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March, the fourth-year wide receiver figures to enter the starting lineup following the season-ending shoulder injury suffered by JuJu Smith-Schuster during Sunday’s game. But first he must get back on the field from a groin injury.
“James Washington. You guys ask a lot about James Washington during the course of team development”, head coach Mike Tomlin said earlier today when addressing the impact of Smith-Schuster’s loss. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in James, so, however, unfortunate the injury is for JuJu, it does provide an opportunity for James to expand his role and to do some things that we all know that he’s capable of doing”.
Washington’s most productive season came in 2019, the year before the team drafted Chase Claypool, and during which Smith-Schuster was dealing with injuries, while Johnson was a rookie. Though they played most of the year without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he caught 44 passes for a team-leading 735 yards that year, averaging 16.7 yards per catch.
His role was greatly reduced the following season with Claypool coming in and making an immediate impact as a rookie. After the Steelers re-signed Smith-Schuster, effectively continuing to leave Washington out of the starting lineup, there were reports that he requested to be traded. Tomlin would not direct address that topic today.
“I don’t know that I ever acknowledged that he requested a trade”, Tomlin interjected during a question on that subject. “I did not” have any conversations about getting him back into the fold, he said. “James is a professional, and a quality dude and teammate. He’s always ready. He’s always working. He’s low to no maintenance. I’ve just got a lot of respect for him as a player and as a man”.
A second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, Washington currently has career totals of 99 receptions for 1,443 yards and nine touchdowns. He has just nine receptions so far this season for 99 yards, but he has his best game in week four, catching four passes for 69 yards, including some nice catch-and-run work.
Once he gets back on the field, which could be this weekend, he stands to have a regular role with Roethlisberger for basically the first time in his mature career. Will he flourish under those conditions? We’ll find out over the next few months.