Sometimes when you study a rookie’s measurables, some numbers can be deceiving. For instance, during the NFL Combine, Oklahoma State star James Washington ran a time of 4.54 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Typically when you think of a deep threat receiver, one envisions someone well over 6’1″ and runs a sub 4.3 or 4.4 seconds. For this and many other reasons, Washington is one of the most unique deep threat receivers the Pittsburgh Steelers have ever drafted.
Washington was an impact player from the time he stepped onto Oklahoma State in 2014. As a true freshman, he accumulated 456 yards on only 28 receptions, giving him an average of 16.3 yards per reception. His six touchdown receptions not only led his team that year, but it also ranked him fourth among true freshmen in the nation. He followed up a strong freshman season with a stronger sophomore season. That year saw him account for 1,087 receiving yards on 53 receptions. He became only one of four underclassmen in Cowboys history to record 1000 receiving yards in a season. For his efforts, he was given a second-team All-Big 12 selection. Once again, Washington followed up his strong sophomore season, with an even better junior season, by recording his second straight 1000-yard receiving season. On top of being selected team captain, he was a first-team All-Big 12 selection. His 296 receiving yards in a game against the University of Pittsburgh in week 3 that year was the second-highest in school history and the fourth-most in Big 12 history. To cap off an exceptional career with the Cowboys, Washington became the nation’s leading receiver with 1,596 yards on 74 receptions. His mark of 20.93 average yards per receptions led all receivers in the FBS. Alongside teammates, Oakland Raiders selection Marcell Ateman and Steelers third round selection quarterback Mason Rudolph, they helped give the Cowboys’ offense the distinction of having two 1000-yard receivers and a 4000-yard passer for the first time in Big-12 conference history. To add to his many accolades, he was given the Fred Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.
One may wonder how a receiver with seemingly moderate-looking speed can produce at a high level throughout his collegiate career? The aspect to understand is this — there is speed and there is functional speed. What makes Washington unique is the fact that he possesses deceptive speed which may not time well, but is functional enough to beat defensive backs consistently.
Straight Line Speed
When watching Washington run Go routes, it seems as if he is not putting much effort to it; then after a short period of time, you realize that he’s wide open. As noted, Washington does not have the type of speed that will jump out at you, but he had great acceleration and kept a consistent pace. One thing I have learned is that some of the best runners are the ones that do not look like they are actually running, it seems like they are gliding. Washington’s running style is deceptively faster than what it appears on screen and I believe that defensive backs underestimate its effectiveness; hence the reason why they are always getting beat.
In this clip against Virginia Tech, Washington is seen at the top, and runs a Go route. At first glance, one would wonder how a seemingly lackadaisical-looking route is able to get behind an entire defense. From viewing the play from a different perspective, you will see that Washington sells the route quite well; in other words, he makes it look unsuspecting until he gets by the Hokies defender that was trailing him. In addition, it appeared that the speed of the route also caught the Hokies defender off guard, as Washington utilizes long strides, allowing him to cover a large amount of distance quickly.
Here is another view of that route:
A combat catch can be defined as a receiver’s ability to make a reception while being physically confronted by a defensive player (i.e.: arm pulled, bumped). Washington has a top-heavy frame which allows him to fight off defenders in order to complete a catch. One of the reasons he is able to make combat catches is due to his ability to create enough separation to do so. With Washington, he often does not engage in too much hand play or bumping. What makes him successful in this regard is what he does before he breaks into his route.
In this particular clip against Pitt, he and the Panthers’ defender are seen lined up opposite each other. The thing to note when the clip plays is the subtle stutter step he executes shortly after he comes off the line; that step was enough to get the separation he needed before he broke into his route. What was encouraging to see during the video pause, was how he never allowed the Panthers’ defender to crowd him against the sidelines and force him out of bounds. Lastly, he displayed great concentration even though the Panthers’ defender had him well-covered and was trying to pull on his arm. One of things head coach Mike Tomlin loves in receivers is the ability to make combat catches. Washington made a habit of this throughout his collegiate career and there is no reason to think this will stop anytime soon.
Ball Control Issues
For a long period of time, the rules pertaining to what constituted a catch in the NFL had been marred in confusion and controversy. One of the noted precepts in the new simplified catching rules entails ball control. For the most part, Washington has not issues making the initial reception, but I noted on several occasions where he would fail the secure the ball. This could be attributed to lack of concentration, or when he was trying to fight through a defender. In either sense, Washington’s ball control can be inconsistent at times.
In this clip seen here against Baylor, Washington ended the game with 235 yards on just six receptions. Yet even with this impressive performance, he left a lot of plays out on the field. In this instance, Washington runs a Go route and is once again able to beat the defensive back covering him. Though Rudolph slightly underthrew the ball, he was able to adjust and make the catch. All seemed good at this point, yet when the video is paused one can see that part of the football is not fully secured. As the play continues, Washington is surrounded by two Baylor defenders, in which one of them is able to knock the ball out of Washington’s hands and recover the ball. As noted earlier, the initial reception was fine but the ball security was questionable.
The Steelers organization has proven to be excellent at finding receivers late in the draft, and grooming them into productive and impactful players. James Washington is different in the sense that he was selected earlier than their usual area, and he comes in a little more polished than previous drafted receivers such as Sammie Coates, Martavis Bryant, and even All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown. NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks has already predicted big things for Washington, as he placed him all his 2018 NFL All-Rookie.
AFC North opponents quickly learn that Washington is more than capable of torching one-on-one coverage as an explosive big-play threat.
With newly hired wide receiver coach Darryl Drake, it will interesting to see what he can do to enhance is strengths and correct his weaknesses. If all works out, Washington should become the Steelers next big time, playmaking offensive threat for the NFL to take notice.