NFL 2020 Breakout Series: James Washington

Introduction

James WashingtonPeople are very quiet about the Steeler’s chances in 2020. However, a top 10 defense coupled with a sneaky good offense makes me a believer. One player who will benefit is James Washington. Heading into his third year in the NFL, Washington looks to build upon a sophomore season where he caught 44 passes for 775 yards. His potential is great as his route trees and footwork continue to develop. He reminds me a lot of Hines Ward with his ability to make contested catches while playing with an elite level of physicality. Ben Rothlisberger loves these kinds of receivers which makes me foresee a breakout season for James Washington.

2019 Recap

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James Washington had a disappointing rookie season, as do most big-12 wide receivers. However, he bounced back in 2019, showing a lot of progression in his route running and footwork. Washington finished with 44 receptions for 775 yards and four touchdowns. What’s so impressive is that this came at the hands of replacement-level quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. With Ben Roethlisberger returning in 2020, look for this duo to light up the stat sheet.

In addition to his receptions and touchdowns, Washington impressed with his yards after catch ability and first down receptions. Averaging 17 yards per catch and recording 31 first downs on 44 receptions, Washington proved to be a valuable deep target. However, his quarterback’s lack of ability to see down the field prevented Washington from having an even bigger impact on deep balls. Expect Rothlisberger to find Washington on deep plays.

I’m expecting Washington to come into 2020 with a more polished route tree. If he looks better on these two parts of his game, Washington could emerge as the Steeler’s top receiver for the future – assuming Smith-Schuster leaves in free agency. I love Washington’s game and he does not get the attention he deserves. That will most likely change in 2020.

Player Skillset

People weren’t very high on Washington coming into the NFL draft. Many critics viewed his 40-yard dash, lack of defensive competition in the big-12, and size as indicators that Washington won’t succeed in the NFL. However, Washington proved the doubters wrong by showing huge development in his ball-tracking, route running, and footwork.

Washington’s ball-tracking ability was so impressive last season given who was throwing him the football. Washington knew exactly when to turn his head and how to contort his body to be in the right position at the right time. Washington caught so many balls outside of his catch radius which is an ode to his ball-tracking development. With a more polished quarterback, I expect Washington’s tracking ability to only improve. This may also lower the number of drops in 2020.

His footwork was also impressive. Given he doesn’t have elite speed, mastering his footwork will allow Washington to create more separation so that every catch won’t be so heavily contested. In year one, Washington was limited to running vertical routes. However, his polished footwork allowed the coaching staff to expand his route tree in year two. I expect this trend to continue into year three.

Depth Chart

The Steelers depth at the wide receiver position is stacked. Not only do you have emerging star JuJu Smith-Schuster leading the group, but you also have Diontae Johnson, an incoming sophomore who impressed with his elite separation ability. The Steelers also drafted Chase Claypool in the second round. Along with Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald at the tight-end position, the Steelers have a bevy of weapons to assist Big Ben. Critics argue that this depth will stifle guys’ production. You can’t give everybody the ball, and some guys will simply get lost amongst the pack. While this is true, I believe Washington has grown tremendously as a route runner and brings the physicality that Smith-Schuster and Johnson don’t have.

Also, he’s the main deep threat on this team. JuJu Smith-Schuster makes his money in the slot as he struggles, at times, to get separation on the outside. Diontae Johnson showed tremendous promise in intermediate routes, flashing an ability to create separation at an elite level. Claypool is your outside big-bodied red zone target. Essentially, every receiver has an important role in this offense. Given the strong offense and the veteran presence of Rothlisberger, expect Washington to be one of the bigger contributors on this squad.

Pittsburgh Steelers Offense

As mentioned above, the Steeler’s wide-receiver group is stacked, to say the least. They go four receivers deep and have a viable tight-end group. Furthermore, the lack of a dominant running back group leads me to believe that the Steelers will pass the ball more frequently than previous seasons.

However, what makes this offense click is its offensive line. A strength of Steelers teams for over a decade, David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey, and Alejandro Villanueva lead the charge with capable players like Stefen Wisniewski and Matt Feiler filling the remaining holes. This unit should give Rothlisberger plenty of time to complete intermediate and deep throws. I see an explosive offense in the making.

Lastly, Washington fills the Hines Ward role really well for the Steelers. He has a unique ability to make contested sideline catches on the regular. His leaping ability is underrated and his position as an outside threat only opens doors for other receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster. Again, some may see the Steelers stacked receiving core as a negative. It will hurt Washington’s targets and thus production to a degree, but will also open up more one on one opportunities on the outside.

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Final Thoughts

James Washington was breathtaking to watch in 2019. With replacement-level quarterbacks who often made inaccurate passes, Washington made them look like stars in the making. Time after time, Washington came down with difficult catch after difficult catch. He proved that he could play a variety of roles for the Steelers offense: a red zone threat off back shoulder fades, a deep vertical threat, a possession receiver off of slant routes, and a target out the slot. However, Washington succeeded the most with his ability to catch balls off sideline post routes. As he improves his route tree, I only expect things to get better for Washington.

Overall, I predict fans will know who James Washington is especially with the Steeler’s expected success in 2020. While his stats won’t be mindblowing – the Steelers have a loaded receiving core – I predict Washington to finish with 900 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns. This is an expectable improvement, one aided by the presence of a veteran quarterback and the one-on-one opportunities Washington will have. I am a big believer in his development and could easily see him shine come playoff time. Washington is the real deal and I expect everyone to be talking about him after the 2020 season.

  
Miles Jasper is an incoming law student studying employment and labor law. Miles’ passions lie within the salary cap, collective bargaining, and labor relations between leagues and their players. He also likes to analyze college prospects and participate in fantasy sports. In his free time, Miles is an avid runner who also enjoys poker, cooking, and watching movies.

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