Former teammate calls Steelers WR James Washington a ‘dependable player’
INDIANAPOLIS – The wide receiver that Justice Hill played with at Oklahoma State didn’t resemble the one that took the field in 2018 as a rookie for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
James Washington was a shadow of the player who scored 39 career touchdowns and had 4,472 receiving yards during a record-setting career in the Big 12.
“James is a dependable player,” said Hill, who is among the running backs competing at the NFL Combine this week. “No matter what the situation is, he’s going to make the play.”
Except that didn’t happen for Washington in his first professional season. Counted on to be the third receiver after Martavis Bryant was traded to Oakland, Washington didn’t make the same smooth transition that fellow second-rounder JuJu Smith-Schuster enjoyed in 2017.
Washington finished the season with 16 catches – on 38 targets – for 217 yards and one touchdown. What Washington totaled in 14 games with the Steelers amounted to one or two games of productivity at Oklahoma State.
“James had a rough start,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “It was disappointing because he was dropping balls that he wasn’t dropping in college.”
The most memorable drop came against the Denver Broncos when Washington mistimed a deep pass from Ben Roethlisberger that could have gone for an easy touchdown. Instead, the call clanked off his hands.
After being inactive the week after the Denver game, Washington had a serviceable finish to his rookie year. In his final four games, he totaled eight receptions on 13 targets for 140 yards. He had three catches for 65 yards in a win against New England and three grabs for 64 yards in a season-ending victory against Cincinnati.
That was the player Hill remembered.
“He was still playing good to me,” Hill said. “He’s just gotta get some targets. He’s going to catch them.”
Hill considers Washington to be a friend, but said they aren’t “super close.”
“I haven’t talked to him since the season was over,” Hill said. “I watched the games. I just haven’t talked to him.”
Hill is hopeful that Washington can rebound in his second season. So is Colbert.
“His confidence grew after that (Denver) game to where he was a contributor down the stretch,” Colbert said. “It’s not uncommon for rookie players to go through that, but we had no question about James Washington’s ability to catch the football, and now he is starting to show that.”
Washington’s role will expand in 2019 if the Steelers grant Antonio Brown’s trade request. Washington might not match Brown’s production, but he won’t match his drama, either, as Hill can attest.
“Farm boy, he’s totally opposite (of most receivers), just low key,” Hill said. “He didn’t really acknowledge himself or anything. He’s just low key and worries about his business.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .