There has been a familiar refrain that plenty of my BTSC community brethren have been more than happy to enthusiastically remind me of since the Steelers disappointing end to the 2020 NFL season. The NFL is not a family, it's big business. Although I personally believe it has to be a bit of both; especially for a franchise with the unmatched legacy of the Pittsburgh Steelers, there is no denying that the NFL is an empire worth billions. However, the moment any business forgets what truly sets them apart and makes them special, they usually cease to be just that.
The 2021 NFL season will be a contract season for Steelers WR James Washington and the implications of a productive campaign could be huge for his future earnings and stability as a professional. Problem is there are a plethora of unanswered questions that still need answered, ranging from who will be the Steelers starting QB next year to just where Washington will stack up in the WR depth chart when the season rolls around. Both answers will undoubtedly impact Washington's production in 2021.
Last season Washington was a valuable member of a stacked wide receiver group that went four deep, five actually when you consider seldom used jack of all trades Ray Ray McCloud. He finally was able to develop a solid rapport with Ben Roethlisberger, to the point where the Steelers veteran signal caller openly expressed his trust in Washington to come down with contested catches in the key moments of the game. That was a far cry from his rookie year where he failed to make any sort of a positive connection with Roethlisberger.
Washington may very well see an substantial uptick in targets next season if everything transpires as expected, but a wise man learns to always expect the unexpected. If the rumors are to be believed, free agent WR JuJu Smith-Schuster is looking to take his brand to a bigger market. While Smith-Schuster denied the rumor shortly after; expressing his desire to remain with the Black and Gold, the logistics of such a move in free agency make perfect sense, both personally and financially.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is from the west coast, and his family still resides there. The latest rumor states that the Las Vegas Raiders are interested in acquiring his services. The Raiders have both cap space and a real need to improve their talent at wide receiver. Closer to home, plus a much larger market for his brand. A talented young receiver taking star billing in the Sin City. What's not to like if you are Smith-Schuster? Also, JuJu can only guess who the Steelers starting QB will be next year, and the following season. The Raiders QB situation is arguably more stable at the moment.
All this reality would seem to bode well for Washington's immediate future with the Steelers. Last season he had to compete for targets with the talented trio of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, and Diontae Johnson. Not to mention the talented but unreliable TE Eric Ebron. If Smith-Schuster does take his talents elsewhere, Washington moves up a spot in the pecking order and sees an increase in opportunities.
Washington will need to continue working hard this off season to expand his route tree and improve his footwork necessary to achieve greater separation on said routes. He made noticeable strides in his game last season. Washington has a knack of gaining a quick three or four yards separation on his deep routes, but defenders easily recover because he lacks true long speed. This requires that Washington and whoever is playing QB moving forward have a strong connection and superior timing.
The Steelers are notorious for selecting a wide receiver during the first couple days of the NFL Draft each year, quite successfully I might add. They are constantly looking to discover inexpensive young talent at the position. That strategy has served them well in the past, but that may not be an option this draft.
First off, one day soon they may no longer have a future Hall of Famer as their starting QB to help the young newcomers shine. Secondly, they have too many holes to fill along the offensive line and at linebacker to use a earlier round selection on another receiver. A stud tight end is entirely possible, but not another receiver. It's a luxury that the Steelers simply can't afford this season.
Washington is not as talented as JuJu Smith-Schuster, but I trust he is more than capable of stepping up his game and getting the job done if JuJu does indeed take his talents elsewhere.