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Steelers

Can underwhelming rookie James Washington take on bigger role in Steelers offense?

Chris Adamski
| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, 10:42 a.m.
James Washington hauls in a 52-yard catch in the third quarter against Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on December 30, 2018. The catch set up a Steelers touchdown.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
James Washington hauls in a 52-yard catch in the third quarter against Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on December 30, 2018. The catch set up a Steelers touchdown.

While the debate rages on about if the Pittsburgh Steelers should trade superstar Antonio Brown, an under-discussed aspect of the situation is how the organization would replace him.

It’s true, should Brown be shipped out, JuJu Smith-Schuster would assume the role as No. 1 wide receiver. But that leaves a trickle-down effect. In that scenario, Smith-Schuster will draw the focus of an opposing defense.

Who is good enough to take advantage on the other side?

Who will emerge as the No. 2?

With all apologies to Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer — each of whom have roles and perform them well — they aren’t No. 2’s. The only internal option with a ceiling like that is James Washington.

Washington was a highly-productive college star who wowed in training camp and during the preseason .

He was so good in August that, before he played a regular-season game, the Steelers PR staff was already comparing him to Steelers Pro Bowl receivers of the recent past .

Of course, Washington’s rookie season didn’t turn out how some predicted or how the Steelers hoped it would. The second-round pick had 16 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown. He was deactivated for two of the Steelers’ 16 games, was not targeted in two others and finished without a reception eight times.

According to Pro Football Focus, for any player targeted at least 33 times, Washington was tied for last in the NFL in receiving yards per route run (0.57).

In other words, it wasn’t a rookie season that would inspire confidence for 2019.

Pro Football Focus’ player grades can be subjective, but its evaluation of Washington over the season’s final three games express his inconsistency as a rookie. Washington had his best game in the Week 15 win against New England , his second-worst game the following week at New Orleans and then his second-best game in the finale against Cincinnati.

Then again, Washington’s usage by the coaching staff — perhaps this is more of an effect of the above than a cause — also was wildly inconsistent. Washington went from being inactive one week to playing 70 offensive snaps this next. Another time, he went from playing 11 snaps to playing 64 within an eight-day span.

Twice, his season high for targeted passes (five) came the game before or the game after a game in which he was not targeted.

While percentage of caught targets isn’t an ideal measuring stick for a wide receiver — particularly one who thrives on the deep ball such as Washington — he did show improvement in that area over the final month of the season.

After his dreadful game in Denver on Nov. 25 in which he had the infamous botched dive for a pass and was called out by Ben Roethlisberger on the radio , Washington’s season catch percentage sat at 32 percent (eight receptions on 25 targets). His season yards per catch (9.63) and yards per target (3.08) were nothing special, either.

But over the Steelers’ final four games (he was a Sunday inactive for the game following the Denver debacle), Washington almost tripled his season yardage (77 through week 12; 140 over the final four games), and his catch percentage (61.5 percent), yards per reception (17.50) and yards per target (10.77) skyrocketed.

In the finale, Brown did not play, leaving a sample for how 2019 could play out. Washington had a performance (caught all three targets, 64 yards) that had Roethlisberger gushing after the game. This time, on his next radio show Roethlisberger was complimentary of Washington.

But is Washington ready for a featured role in the Steelers’ offense? If not, the organization might think twice about trading Brown. Because any trade-pick compensation they get in return might then have to be used on a wide receiver anyway.

Hey, Steelers Nation, get the latest news about the Pittsburgh Steelers here .

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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