Will 2nd-round pick James Washington grow into a bigger role in Steelers' offense?
Before JuJu Smith-Schuster became one of the NFL’s star rookies last season, the second-round receiver was a bit player in his Pittsburgh Steelers debut in Cleveland.
A year later, there’s a new second-round rookie receiver whose first game was also against the Browns and also did not feature any (positive) notable moments.
Will James Washington pull off a similar ascension in his rookie year?
“He’s learning,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said, “and when I test him out there on the field, he gets it and he understands it. Now, it’s just transitioning that to on-the-field stuff.”
Washington played 11 offensive snaps — fourth-most of any of the Steelers receivers — in the 21-21 tie with the Browns this past Sunday. He was not targeted with a pass and had no touches or any recordable statistic.
It was only about three weeks earlier that expectations were growing for the former Oklahoma State star. Washington regularly made plays and stood out on the practice fields at Saint Vincent, and during the second preseason game in Green Bay, he had a 54-yard catch among his 114 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
But an oblique injury suffered during the third preseason game effectively ended his camp, slowed the momentum he built and contributed to Washington slipping behind Justin Hunter on the receivers depth chart for the opener.
But Washington said late last week that he felt “great and ready to go.” He did not appear on the official injury report, and coach Mike Tomlin declared him healthy.
“He’s got to keep working,” Tomlin said. “He’s a young guy. He’s made some plays in preseason football. He’s made some plays in a training-camp setting. He played some Sunday. That will continue.
“I think it’s important that young guys just wipe the slate clean and clock in and come to work each and every day and don’t overanalyze the here and now because the reality is, in the big scheme of things, he’s been here a very short period of time. I know it seems like he’s been here a long time for him. He just needs to keep coming to work.”
Washington might not have excelled in his first NFL game, but that’s not atypical for any receiver. The eight who were taken in the first and second rounds in April (Washington was the second-to-last chosen of that group at No. 60 overall) combined for a total of seven catches in Week 1. Washington was one of four who had no catches. None had more than two receptions.
Even Smith-Schuster in 2017, before he became a sensation in the second half of the season, was slowly assimilated into the offense. In his debut against the Browns, like Washington, Smith-Schuster was the No. 4 receiver. He had no catches and was not targeted. Worse, Smith-Schuster was flagged twice for holding, and his lone kickoff return went for a mere 4 yards.
In other words, it’s not so bad for a rookie receiver to have a first game like Washington in which the best thing that can be said about him is he wasn’t noticed.
“If you think about it, (rookie receivers) need to learn the offense. They need to learn all the extra hand signals. They need to learn the no-huddle stuff,” Roethlisberger said. “So there is a lot of to learn. You ask guys to do a lot of things.”
Washington cited Roethlisberger’s hand signals as the “biggest” impediment to getting on the field.
“(Roethlisberger) has the ability to change entire plays through hand signals or certain things,” Washington said, “so for me, it’s picking Ben’s brain just trying to learn everything in how he goes about the game.”
Once Roethlisberger and the coaches build a trust in Washington, he has a good role model to follow in breaking out as a rookie receiver. Two months after Smith-Schuster’s inauspicious debut, he began an eight-game stretch (including playoffs) in which he had 44 catches for 691 yards and six touchdowns.
“As a rookie, it’s a process,” Washington said. “You’ve just got to take the road you’re given. And it’s early in the process. Whenever you get your opportunities, you have to take them and run with them.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at email@example.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.