James Washington didn’t have the big rookie year that he probably wanted, or that many expected, but he’s intent on rectifying that in 2019.
One year after winning the Biletnikoff Award and leading college football with 1,549 receiving yards, Washington totaled just 16 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown during his first year in the NFL.
The low point was in Week 13 — one week after being called out by his QB Ben Roethlisberger after a crucial sideline miss — when the rookie was handed a healthy DNP.
“It stunk,” Washington told Steelers.com. “But you learn a lot that week because you’re sitting there watching the game, watching the guys who are playing. You see how those guys are executing in situations that you had and maybe you can take something from. That really got me. It gave me time to think about it and how I could do this better.
“It lit a fire under me. It makes you mad, but you are mad at yourself because it’s about what you do.”
After his inactive week, things started looking up for Washington. Three weeks later against the Patriots, he caught three of four targets for 65 yards. One of the first to congratulate him was Roethlisberger, according to Washington.
“It was a great feeling coming to the sideline and Ben telling me after the game I’m proud of you and the way you finished,” added Washington. “It shows how much I grew from the first time. That meant a lot coming from someone like him. When you have a guy that is like that, I’m willing to do everything I can and work as hard as I need to help him and help this team.”
Two weeks after that, in the season finale against the Bengals (and without Antonio Brown in the lineup), he caught all three passes thrown his way for 64 yards. Hopefully, numbers like that won’t be a high point for Washington during his second year.
Building Chemistry and Culture
The Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time in five years. Drama filled the locker room and spilled out around the program in an uncharacteristic way for an historically steady franchise.
The majority of talk was about the playmakers that departed in Brown and Le’Veon Bell instead of up-and-comers like Washington. There were also plenty of questions about the quarterback that remained and his ability and willingness to lead.
Whether it or not it was in response to that criticism, Roethlisberger seems intent on growing relationships with his playmakers. He invited a group of Pittsburgh skill players, including Washington, to his lake home in Georgia for some R&R and some offseason training.
Brotherhood off the field first.. pic.twitter.com/OFOzWQvjU8
— Donte Moncrief (@drm_12) May 16, 2019
With the start of OTAs this week, all attention is now on building for the future with a crop of young receivers ready to spread their wings in the wake of Brown’s departure. The time is now for Washington to carve out his role in Pittsburgh’s receiver hierarchy.
The headline act will be JuJu Smith-Schuster, but WR2 is up for grabs with the likes of Washington, this year’s draft pick Diontae Johnson and offseason signee Donte Moncrief in the mix.
Ben Roethlisberger connecting with JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and Donte Moncrief in succession. OTAs are officially off and running. pic.twitter.com/Z9sFShdKwX
— Mike Prisuta (@DVEMike) May 21, 2019
You could blame Washington’s lackluster rookie season on inexperience, a learning curve with the more complex playbook, the physical demands of the NFL over college or the understandable lack of targets behind the likes of Antonio Brown and others. You could point to any and all of those as valid reasons, but he appears ready to move past all of those excuses.
The Steelers expect a big leap in production and knowledge of their playbook from year 1 to year 2. James Washington will be at the top of that list this season. pic.twitter.com/RtaZCte6YY
— Chase Williams WPXI (@chasepwilliams) May 21, 2019
He knows the system and he’s got a year in the league under his belt, giving him the edge over Johnson. He was probably already a more dynamic playmaker than sixth-year pro Moncrief, but Washington says he’s transformed his body, dropping 15 pounds and making him an even more nimble route-runner and a bigger home run threat.
James Washington says he’s dropped about 15 pounds from his rookie year. Played at 225 last year, down to 209 thanks to portion control, hard training and working on the farm back home from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Called 2019 a year of ‘urgency.’ pic.twitter.com/57YfzvuvVK
— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) May 23, 2019
— Teresa Varley (@Teresa_Varley) May 22, 2019
Smith-Schuster says he’s noticed a big difference in Washington just from Year 1 to now.
“Oh, huge,” Smith-Schuster said of Washington’s improvement. “He’s not jumping every time he goes to catch the ball. He’s running through all of his routes. He’s powerful, strong. His conditioning is up there.”
Even Roethlisberger had good things to say about Washington, which should bode well for him as he tries to take that leap this fall.
Ben on OTA’s: “I'm excited. You see James Washington and the work he has done. [Donte] Moncrief is doing some great things. You know what you are going to get from JuJu. It's fun.” #Steelers
— Steelers Depot (@Steelersdepot) May 21, 2019
— Blitzburgh (@SteelBlitzburgh) May 21, 2019