The rookie phenom is not a necessarily common tale in the NFL, especially compared to the massive influx of first-year players that join the league each season. And it was not the story of James Washington.
Oklahoma State’s latest Biletnikoff winner came to Pittsburgh carrying with him plenty of hope. His size and skill level led to the inevitable comparison with one Antonio Brown — another sub-6 foot wideout you might have heard of — and his eye-popping college production and bingeworthy highlight reels had Cowboys and Steelers fans alike hoping for, if not expecting, big things in Year 1.
But in the shadow of Brown, both in limelight and in the depth chart, Washington produced mixed results. The rookie showed flashes, but his play was as inconsistent as his playing time. In 14 games (but only six starts), he amassed just 16 catches for 217 yards and one touchdown.
Heading into last season, the role of No. 3 receiver was seemingly Washington’s to lose. Unfortunately, he had lost it. Washington ended the season fourth in targets among wideouts behind Ryan Switzer, and seventh in targets overall. What’s worse, his 42.1 percent catch rate was the second-lowest among all Steelers regardless of targets.
Ahead of last week’s draft, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert spoke about the team’s philosophy when it comes to first-year players, and it shed some light onto how the Steelers are probably viewing their second-year receiver.
“You really want to go in with these players and delay them getting on the field as long as you can because over time, I think Coach [Tomlin] would get comfortable with what they do,” Colbert said.
“To have them just have to step out and play, more often than not, I think it’s detrimental to the player. And if he loses confidence early, it’s usually not returnable.”
There’s a lot to unwind here. First off, the Steelers weren’t expecting Washington to carry a huge load of the offense last year based on the two receivers ahead of him in Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Colbert was speaking in a general sense about this year’s rookies, but what he had to say applied to Washington last season and about how the organization tries to develop prospects long term.
As far as that second part is concerned when it comes to their rookies, some would argue that Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback is as detrimental to their confidence as anything.
Washington experienced that last year when Ben Roethlisberger called him out after a missed catch in the Week 12 loss to Denver. Publicly blaming teammates is nothing new for Big Ben. His proponents will call him old school, and his many detractors call him everything from arrogant to childish.
But Washington, the consummate diplomat, and more importantly, also still technically a rookie, called it “tough love” when reflecting on the situation with Steelers.com this spring.
“When I first got here, it was more of that tough love, I guess,” said Washington. “It was like, ‘I like you, but you’re not ready yet.’ So every day, it was like he just challenged me and challenging me.
“He ended up having a little talk with me and things kinda got settled out, and he just explained to me everything and gave me some pointers on how to get better. A lot of thanks to him.”
But now, heading into his second year, the landscape has shifted creating new possibilities for Washington. The receiving corps has a new look.
After a bit of off-the-field turmoil — specifically, on the sideline and inside the locker room — Pittsburgh’s top wideout, Brown, has moved on to the Bay Area. That makes JuJu Smith-Schuster the defacto WR1 and means his previous No. 2 spot is up for grabs.
The Steelers added Donte Moncrief, who signed a two-year deal this spring, and drafted Diontae Johnson, making it the third-consecutive year that they’ve drafted a receiver in the 60s, following Smith-Schuster and Washington.
But the door is as open as it may ever be for Washington in Pittsburgh. His natural progression, and that shakeup of the receiving corps, could allow for Washington to take big steps during his sophomore season. In fact, his head coach expects it.
Before the draft, Mike Tomlin was asked for his thoughts on the position group on the whole, but he singled one player out.
“I’m comfortable with the guys that we have in the room at this juncture, but my comfort is not indicative of how it’s going to play out,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got some guys that need to be guys that are ascending, specifically James Washington, but you know the climate that we create for all second-year players.
“We had similar discussions about James Conner a year ago. We expect great things from James Washington, among others, and we’re excited about watching those guys stand and deliver.”
Conner went from almost an afterthought as a rookie to the man who took the place and shouldered the burden of an otherworldly playmaker in LeVeon Bell. With another superstar in Brown now gone, what kind of leap can Washington make?