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James Washington’s performance against Packers belies his rookie status

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Two impressive touchdown receptions from the Steelers’ second-round draft pick on Thursday night were the highlight of the game against Green Bay.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers were trying to pump the brakes on the hype surrounding James Washington coming out of training camp, after the former Oklahoma State University star logged a number of noteworthy days in practice. But it’ll be hard to temper the excitement of fans, given his performance against the Green Bay Packers on Thursday night.

While a stat line of five receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns with a 22.8-yards-per-catch average is impressive enough, it was the manner in which Washington made those plays that sets him apart from most of the rookie wide receivers we’ve seen around the league this preseason.

A reputation for winning contested catches during his college career preceded Washington and clearly was well deserved after he highlighted this ability on both of his touchdown receptions.

Despite his proven track record as a deep-ball threat in college, Washington still had detractors who questioned his vertical speed. But if not for an under-thrown ball by Joshua Dobbs in the third quarter, he might have added a 64-yard touchdown to his tally on the night, given the separation he created.

Praised by Mike Tomlin for his physical conditioning at the start of camp, Washington’s fitness levels have encouraged the coaching staff to give him more reps during practice, as Tomlin observed during a question and answer session for Steeler Nation Unite.

“James is doing really well, and I think the first thing that comes with him doing really well is that he’s in really good shape for a rookie. His level of conditioning can be compared to that of a veteran and that really allows them to really help themselves because he’s able to absorb the number of reps that’s gonna allow him to improve, to learn what to do, to show that he knows what he’s doing. He’s absorbing a lot of reps during our work right now, and he’s getting those reps because he’s in good shape. If he wasn’t in as good as condition, he wouldn’t be able to get those things.”

The benefit of those extra reps was clearly evident against the Packers, and it can only be imagined how far the young player will progress in his development by mid-season. Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster might be the unquestioned starters heading into the regular season, but it will be hard to keep Washington off the field as the 2018 campaign unfolds. With Opening Day still more than three weeks away, he’s already made an extremely strong claim to be considered the No. 3 receiver on the depth chart and the obvious player to add on the outside in three receiver sets.

A mere five months older than Smith-Schuster, Washington displays a level of maturity and understanding of the game that belies his rookie status. The lack of a touchdown celebration is also something of a rarity among players his age. Talking with reporters after the game, Washington is clearly a different sort of personality to many of the other wide receivers currently playing in the league.

There can be little question that Washington still has a lot to learn about life in the NFL and there are unquestionably aspects of his game that require work, but it would appear the Steelers track record of unearthing receiving talent in the draft might be claiming another successful pick at the position by the time the 2018 season is over.