In my time as a writer at BTSC, I’ve done dozens of film rooms profiling players from every position on the field. I’ve even done one on a punter.
Few have been as fun as this one.
Studying the film of tight end Darnell Washington, whom the Steelers acquired with the 93rd pick in the draft last weekend, was like watching a youth league football game where that one exceptionally large 6th-grader stampedes through his overmatched peers. The 6’7-270 pound Washington looks so physically imposing at times, particularly with the football in his hands, that I caught myself chuckling while watching defenders attempting to tackle him. To all the corners who didn’t love tackling to begin with, meet your new Freddy Krueger.
Washington is more than just a monster with the ball in his hands, though. His rare combination of size, speed, toughness and athleticism means he can be used just about anywhere on the field and in almost any role. In that sense, he’s an offensive coordinator’s dream come true. No matter where you put him, it creates a problem for the defense.
There are questions about Washington, of course. He was expected to be drafted much sooner than the back end of Round 3. His slide likely came because some teams see him as a glorified offensive lineman while others are concerned about the foot injuries that caused him to miss games at Georgia in both 2020 and 2021. The latter concern is legitimate. Big men and foot injuries are a scary combination. But Washington’s upside made selecting him at No. 93 a no-brainer.
Flava Flav once famously sang, “Don’t believe the hype.” Here are four sets of highlights of Washington in action that beg to differ.
Catching the football
The “Washington is a glorified offensive lineman” narrative comes from the fact he caught just 45 passes in his career at Georgia. That’s in part because he was paired in their scheme with Brock Bowers, the consensus best tight end in college football and a likely Top-10 pick in next year’s draft. Bowers was the go-to guy in Georgia’s offense, with over 1,800 receiving yards and 20 TDs the past two seasons. Washington was often relegated to a blocking role, which he executed fabulously.
Spend five minutes watching clips of Washington catching the football, though, and you’ll see his potential as a receiver. He is a “snatcher,” in that he uses his hands to pluck balls out of the air rather than waiting for them to get in on his body. This, and the fact Washington has a massive catch radius, makes him extremely quarterback-friendly:
Steelers fans may notice in that clip how Georgia attacked the middle of the field with Washington. This is one of the most attractive elements of his game. With receivers like George Pickens and (hopefully) Calvin Austin III to attract the attention of safeties, Washington’s length and ball-snatching ability make him almost impossible for linebackers to cover. Putting the ball up over their heads and letting Washington go get it seems like a inevitable addition to Pittsburgh’s game-plan.
So, too, does splitting him out wide and isolating him against smaller defensive backs. Washington’s ability to catch the ball over top of corners is obvious, and his size allows him to withstand hits from safeties coming over to assist:
If you want to see Washington snag a ball with one hand, then run away from the linebackers pursuing him, here you go:
If you want to see him demonstrate tremendous body control and adjust to a throw made to his back side, here’s that, too:
Georgia didn’t use Washington in the red zone as much as you might expect, but that’s because Bowers was often their target. Obviously, though, if you want to incorporate Washington, the mismatch potential is significant. If you can formation the defense to get him paired up with a defensive back, jump balls are like stealing:
Washington looks natural getting his hands to the football. It was a bit surprising, then, to see he had a career drop rate at Georgia of 6.7%. That’s higher than you’d like, although it’s not egregious. By comparison, Travis Kelce’s drop rate in 2022 was 5.9%, Dalton Schultz was at 5.6 and Mark Andrews was at 4.9. Pat Freiermuth was among the league’s best at 3.2.
Interestingly, many of Washington’s drops were on seemingly simple catches, while some of his best receptions were on contested or poorly thrown balls. This means his drops could be linked to concentration lapses, which is something the Steelers will have to work on.
Running after the catch
The real fun begins once Washington has the football in his hands. To say he is a challenge to get on the ground is an understatement. Defensive backs routinely throw themselves at his shins, while linebackers try to muscle him down like rodeo cowboys wrestling a steer:
If the first tackler doesn’t get balanced up on Washington, he’s not bringing him down. And Washington is such a good athlete that throwing yourself at his shins often fails because of his ability to hurdle you. This poses a risk to Washington, which we’ll talk about shortly, but also adds to the difficulty of tackling him:
Washington averaged over 17 yards per reception at Georgia, often by breaking tackles and running after the catch. The bottom line for Matt Canada, then, should be to find ways to get the ball into his hands, then let him do his thing:
If you want an idea of how good Washington can be, put on the film of Georgia’s win over LSU in last season’s SEC championship game. Washington was all over the field as a receiver and a blocker and was arguably the Bulldogs’ most dominant player on offense. His in-line blocking was particularly impressive, as he regularly moved LSU defenders off the line of scrimmage in helping Georgia rush for 255 yards.
Here’s Washington (0) lined up in a bunch set next to Pittsburgh’s Round 1 pick in the draft, left tackle Broderick Jones (59). Look at how the two cave in the edge of the defense, creating a huge hole for the running back. Together, Jones and Washington bring 580 pounds, two physical demeanors and two sets of great feet to the point of attack. It’s easy to see why Georgia had success running behind them.
On this one, Washington is the tight end on the right side of the line in a wing set with Bowers. Again, he gets off the ball well and creates movement. His pad level is a bit high, and his base too narrow, but the aggression he shows at the point of attack is excellent. Once Steelers’ line coach Pat Meyer gets to work on his fundamentals, Washington will create this sort of movement against NFL defenders, too:
I like this next rep because it shows good play-awareness. Washington is off the ball in the bunch set to the right, tucked just inside Bowers. Georgia runs a bootleg off of jet action, and it’s Washington’s job to seal the edge so quarterback Stetson Bennett can get outside. Look at the force with which Washington strikes and then discards the defender. He nearly throws him to the ground before leaking into the pattern as an outlet receiver:
There is work to be done on Washington’s technique, for sure. But his physicality and desire to block are both there. That’s an exciting sign.
Blocking the perimeter
Here’s Washington and Jones together again, circled at the beginning of the clip:
The way these two move is remarkable. Jones clears the down-blocks on the edge in time to cut off the pursuit of the play-side linebacker. Washington leads up into the alley, where the rolled-up safety wants nothing to do with him. The safety dodges the block like a matador, taking himself out of the run-fit in the process.
Here’s the same play-call to the right. Often, like we saw above, Washington’s mere presence creates the block. We see the same thing below, as he pulls to clear the alley only to have the force defender block himself by jumping inside. Rarely do you see defenders at this level of football go out of their way to avoid contact. With Washington, that occurs frequently:
When defenders do choose to engage Washington, it doesn’t go well for them. Here, with the ball near the goal line, the corner has no choice but to take on the block. Once he does, he gets driven to the sideline and then pancaked. Kudos to the corner, though, for setting the edge and turning the run back inside where his teammates could make a play. This is the price you’ll have to pay to do it, though:
Same here. On this one, Washington throws the safety to the ground like a rag doll:
The Steelers struggled mightily to get the ball to the edge last season. Short of the occasional jet sweep, and a smattering of wide zone, they largely confined themselves to inside runs. In Washington, they now have an elite perimeter blocker. His presence means pin-and-pull sweeps and outside zone runs are back on the table. Perimeter screens, swing screens, and anything else Canada can think of to compress the edge and force defensive backs to engage Washington, are likely as well. Washington’s presence in the offense immediately expands the playbook.
Steelers fans who are old enough to remember Eric Green may be tempted to make comparisons between he and Washington. Don’t. Green was similarly imposing as a receiver but wanted little to do with blocking. He was also frequently out of shape, while Washington is a chiseled physical specimen. Washington is Green if Green also had the blocking mentality of Mark Bruener.
Like all young players, Washington has room to develop. His route tree at Georgia was limited to vertical, flat and seam routes. The Steelers could develop that by incorporating double moves, deep crosses and corner routes. He also must become a more fundamentally sound blocker and rely less on his physical gifts. He bullied defenders in college but in the pros will have to lean more heavily on technique. And, to remain healthy, he’ll have to limit how often he hurdles defenders and throws his body around. Washington plays with abandon, which is exciting. But for longevity’s sake, he’ll have to use better discretion about when to try to run over an entire defense and when to get down or step out of bounds.
That said, I expect the Steelers to plug him into the lineup immediately in 12-personnel sets with Freiermuth and Zach Gentry, or even in 13-groupings with all three. Washington’s blocking skills free Freiermuth up to operate more out of the slot, where he is effective. And with Gentry on the field, Washington can be used as an H-back, where the Steelers can move him around to create the best matchup advantage. The possibilities seem endless.
Pittsburgh has now set itself up to become a multiple tight end power team on offense. In the coming weeks, we’ll examine what that might look like with the pieces they’ve assembled, as well as what schemes they could feature with this philosophy. Stay tuned.