I’m sure I’m not the only one who will write a glowing article about James Washington’s four-catch, 84-yard performance that also included an eight-yard touchdown from his old college quarterback, Mason Rudolph, but that doesn’t mean another one isn’t warranted.
After all, the extent of Washington’s progress was one of the many questions that needed to be answered as the Steelers reported to training camp on July 26; would he make that all-important first to second year leap, or was his abysmal rookie campaign, one that came close to rivaling the freshman season Limas Sweed turned in a decade earlier (it even included a drop of what should have been an easy touchdown), a sign of things to come?
Without getting ahead of myself, I think the Steelers liked the first answer Washington turned in on Friday. He certainly looked like a man among boys as he jumped up and snatched a 43-yard laser from Joshua Dobbs early in the first quarter. In fact, Washington looked like the receiver his draft profiles described him as being in the months before the Steelers selected him in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Washington not only showed off his speed by getting behind the defensive back downfield (he was a deep-threat at Oklahoma State), he high-pointed the football and came down with it even though said defensive back had made up enough ground to contest the play as Washington fell to the ground (his ability to come up with contested catches on deep throws was considered a strength entering the pros).
And Washington made a great adjustment when reeling in Rudolph’s back-shoulder throw on the touchdown pass late in the second quarter.
Maybe I really am getting ahead of myself with my praise of Washington. I have said more than once now—in the title and in the article—that Washington looked like a man among boys. Maybe that’s because Friday’s match-up was filled with a bunch of young NFL hopefuls who may not even be around in a few weeks. Even still, I think that’s a good sign. The learning curve for rookie NFL receivers is normally pretty high. For every JuJu Smith-Schuster or Louis Lipps (just to go a little old school), there are dozens of receivers who have rookie campaigns on par with Washington and his 2018 stat-line that included just 16 catches for 217 yards.
Does this mean Washington is destined to take the number two receiver role from Donte Moncrief? It’s way too early to tell. Besides, Moncrief, who signed with the Steelers in the spring, didn’t even play on Friday, which tells me the coaching staff is comfortable with where the six-year veteran is after just two weeks of training camp.
But Washington’s performance on Friday could mean that he’s for real, which I think is much more important than his pecking order on the depth chart.
Speaking of way too early, it’s obviously too soon to make any predictions on the rookie season of one Diontae Johnson, a third-round pick out of Toledo. But you haven’t heard a whole lot about Johnson so far in camp, and that’s because he’s been battling injuries. Considering the aforementioned big learning curve for rookie receivers, Johnson might be in for a long and frustrating first year in the pros.
But, fear not, young Diontae. With hard work and determination, next year at this time, you might just be where Washington is right now.
After Friday night, it appears James Washington is in a very good place.