What do many Steelers fans like to exclaim on the morning of the annual NFL Draft? “This is like my Christmas!”
In other words, they’re just as excited about that day as they used to be when they were kids and would run downstairs to open up all of their presents on Christmas morning.
You know how kids are, though. Within a few months, the toys they got are quickly discarded, and by the time the following Christmas rolls around, their focus is on the new presents they just opened.
As it pertains to Steelers fans and recent draft choices, if receiver James Washington, picked in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, and running back Jaylen Samuels, selected in the fifth round of that same draft, were Christmas presents, they would have tossed them aside a long time ago.
I guess it’s easy to see why when it comes to a player like Washington. He’s a young receiver with a fairly high draft pedigree, and the Steelers sure do seem to love taking receivers with fairly high draft pedigrees. Pittsburgh has selected four receivers in the second or third round since the 2017 NFL Draft.
First it was JuJu Smith-Schuster out of USC in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. A year later, it was Washington out of Oklahoma State. In 2019, the Steelers chose Toledo product Diontae Johnson in the third round. And, of course, in the most recent draft, Pittsburgh selected Chase Claypool out of Notre Dame in the second round.
With 211 receptions for 2,895 yards and 17 touchdowns over his first three seasons, Smith-Schuster, who also has one of the most infectious personalities to come along in ages, has emerged as one of the Steelers new superstars. When it comes to Johnson, who tallied 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns during his rookie season, many expect him to blow right by Smith-Schuster and become Pittsburgh’s most elite receiver sooner rather than later. And then there is Claypool, the rookie out of Notre Dame, the big stud, the Canadian product that many have dubbed “Mapletron,” he is everyone’s shiny new toy.
Since he is unassuming, quiet and has yet to truly jump up and seize the day, perhaps it’s no surprise that Washington has slipped into the background of the Steelers young receiving corps. However, after struggling mightily in his rookie season, one in which he posted just 16 receptions for 217 yards, Washington took what I consider to be a huge step forward in 2019, when he caught 44 passes and led the team in receiving yards with 735.
In my opinion, more people should be talking about Washington, more people should be excited about him, more people should be counting on him for continued growth.
The NFL is expected to take a huge revenue loss in 2020 due to the Coronavirus and no fans likely being allowed to attend games. That could mean a huge drop in the salary cap, from $198 million in 2020 to $175 million in 2021.
What were the chances of the Steelers signing Smith-Schuster to a second contract before COVID-19 came along and changed the world? Probably not great. Now it might be damn-near impossible, especially considering he’s no doubt going to want number one receiver money.
The Steelers might have been planning for life without Smith-Schuster as far back as 2018, when they drafted Washington.
Therefore, Washingon’s continued growth as a receiver could be paramount for Pittsburgh’s offense this season, next season and beyond.
And that brings me to Samuels, the NC State product whose versatility had many folks excited two years ago. He could run, he could catch. He could play running back, receiver, H-back and tight end. I’m no offensive wizard, but I believe Samuels has spent his first two seasons in Pittsburgh doing all or most of those things. Unfortunately, he has amassed just 935 total yards from scrimmage—including 431 rushing yards on 122 carries and 504 receiving yards on 73 catches.
Stellar production? No. The kind of production one might expect from a fifth-round pick? Yes.....in 1986.
You see, Samuels is a bit of a victim of the digital age, where every draft pick and even the undrafted free agents are hyped up from the day they are selected/signed until the day they first set foot in training camp. Even an undrafted free agent immediately gains thousands of new Twitter followers the moment he becomes a Pittsburgh Steeler. Everyone from Tunch Ilkin, to Merril Hoge, to your average blogger does film breakdowns on each player’s strengths and weaknesses. You read many articles with titles like: “How Jaylen Samuels’ versatility could really add to the Steelers offense in 2018.”
Sadly, it doesn’t take long to discover why a player was drafted in the fifth round.....or not at all.
But some actually evolve into decent role players. And a decent role player appears to be Samuels’ ceiling. Is that a bad thing? Plenty of folks think so. Many have already moved on from him and are excited about Anthony McFarland, the super-fast running back the Steelers selected out of Maryland in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. The popular sentiment seems to be that McFarland’s spot on the roster is safe, while Samuels could be looking for work in a few weeks.
Perhaps that’s true. Maybe the Steelers will cut Samuels in favor of both McFarland and even Wendell Smallwood, a veteran the team signed at the onset of training camp.
Back to McFarland. Will he be a diamond in the rough (I believe there are countless articles floating around the Internet with just that title)? Will his speed and explosiveness add a element to Pittsburgh’s offensive backfield that it hasn’t seen since perhaps the days of Fast Willie Parker?
Maybe. But maybe McFarland will spend his entire rookie season on the inactive list because he’s not all that familiar with the playbook, same for Smallwood.
That’s the thing about third-year role players. They may not be superstars, but at least they know the playbook.
Through two seasons, Samuels’ has shown us that he can do a lot, he just can’t do a whole lot really well. But he has spent two seasons in the Steelers system, and he has two years left on his rookie deal. Why cut him now? Because he hasn’t morphed into a superstar? Good luck finding many of his draft pedigree who ever do.
Shiny new draft toys don’t stay that way forever. Most morph into one thing or another. James Washington may never develop into a superstar, same for Jaylen Samuels. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be valuable members of the Steelers offense for many years to come.