There’s no question the Steelers passing game is going to look different this season without Antonio Brown. There are lots of questions about who is going to step up and be the No. 2 wide receiver behind Juju Smith-Schuster. Officials in Pittsburgh hope that James Washington can step up and be that guy.
It’s fair to say the team’s 2018 second round pick underwhelmed during his rookie campaign. He struggled mightily to break into the team’s star-studded rotation at the receiver position. In the end, he only managed to catch 16 passes for 217 yards last season. Seven of his teammates caught more balls in 2018.
In fairness to Washington, his ideal role for an NFL team is to play as an outside wide receiver. Lots of young players in the NFL would struggle to get meaningful snaps ahead of Brown and Smith-Schuster. Washington’s inability to function at a high level in the slot likely cost him serious playing time as a rookie.
The departure of Brown should change things dramatically for Washington this season. He will be the first receiver to get an opportunity to take over his starting position. That doesn’t mean anything will be handed to Washington. The former Oklahoma State star will need to beat out the likes of Donte Moncrief and Diontae Johnson to seize the starting spot for his own. Steelers officials need to challenge the second-year wideout to grow up in 2019.
One of the biggest things Washington will need to prove to his offensive teammates is that he’s ready to handle the complexities of the Pittsburgh offense. He thrived in a pretty simplistic system in college. Grasping the entire route tree at the professional level proved to be a difficult adjustment for Washington last year. There’s no room for a receiver who doesn’t run the right routes in the mind of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Another big area of potential improvement for Washington this season will be improving his ability to get off the line of scrimmage. He’s a good, but not a great athlete. That puts pressure on him to generate space quickly against opposing defensive backs. That’s hard to do when he allows cornerbacks to get their hands on him. The more clean releases Washington can generate in 2019 the more times he’s going to find himself open down the field.
The presence of Smith-Schuster on the other side of the formation is going to give whoever emerges as the team’s No. 2 wideout a lot of chances to work against single coverage. That should give Washington room to use his solid frame to wall off opposing defenders. The Steelers don’t really need him to emerge as a deep threat. That’s Smith-Schuster’s specialty. Instead, they need Washington to become a guy they can count on to move the chains on a regular basis.
Ultimately, the battle for the No. 2 receiver spot in Pittsburgh should boil down to a battle between Washington and Moncrief. The ideal setup for the Steelers is for Washington to grab the outside spot by the scruff of the neck. Moncrief, unlike Washington, does have the ability to slide inside and be a productive slot receiver. Getting Smith-Schuster, Washington and Moncrief on the field at the same time represents the best-case scenario for the Steelers coaching staff.
Interestingly, the Steelers don’t really need for any of their wide receivers to become Roethlisberger’s second option on most plays. The presence of Vance McDonald as a potential All-Pro tight end gives the option a lot of flexibility in the passing game. Don’t expect to see Pittsburgh suddenly abandon their reliance on running backs in the aerial game either. James Conner and Jaylen Samuels should still catch plenty of balls out of the backfield. Add it all up and it’s obvious the Steelers don’t need Washington to be a star. They simply need him to become a reliable cog in their offensive machine.
Oddsmakers clearly aren’t convinced this team can overcome the loss of Brown. Currently, the projected over/under for the Steelers sits at a modest total of nine wins. If you believe Washington can live up to his pre-draft hype, then double-digit wins for the Steelers certainly isn’t out of the question. There’s a lot of hype about the Browns this year, but it’s allowing Pittsburgh to uncharacteristically fly under the radar.
Don’t sleep on Mike Tomlin’s team’s ability to thrive as the underdog in the division. Tomlin doesn’t have as many big names on his roster this season, but there are a lot of young guys with the talent to step up and become above average starters. Washington and others are going to get thrown in the deep end this year. If they can swim, the Steelers are headed back to the playoffs.
By Rucker Haringey