Most of the time, whenever a receiver leads the team in receiving yards in any given year, they will have a good amount of hype heading into the next season. Particularly, if that player were heading into their third season, one would think the hype would be palpable. However, after leading the team in receiving in 2019, James Washington is still being slept on heading into 2020. There seems to be more doubt than excitement for the Oklahoma State product.
Why is that the narrative for a player whose stats took a massive leap without Ben Roethlisberger? It is a narrative that is unfair and disregards Washington’s advancements in his sophomore season.
The Statistical Support of Washington’s Impressive Season
First off, let’s make it clear that Washington was dealt an incredibly dirty hand last year given the Steelers’ mediocre at best quarterback play. His 735 receiving yards are not an eye-popping number, but there were more than a few missed opportunities left on the field by the quarterbacks. If Roethlisberger had been around, that would have been different.
An astounding 27 of Washington’s 79 targets were deemed as not catchable. Among receivers with more than 50 targets, his catchable target rate was the worst mark in the NFL. Thus, when it comes to his catch rate being a subpar 65%, it does not show a true reflection of his abilities. Of his 52 catchable targets, Washington snagged 44 of them, giving him a respectable 85% catch rate. With only 1.20 yards of separation per target, that means he was making a lot of contested catches at a consistent rate. If you know the type of player Washington is, that is not too surprising.
Even more impressive are Washington’s stats from the final eight weeks of the season. Washington put up 28 receptions for 505 receiving yards and three touchdowns over the latter half of the 2019 season. In the 2020 offense, Washington will be asked to be the deep threat Z-receiver. His 16.7 yards per reception was 11th best in the NFL and 14.9 average target distance showcase Washington was an explosive player last season.
Those stats tell a good story for Washington, who was a valuable receiver for the Steelers last season. Moreover, the tape is where Washington reveals his intricacies and the leaps he took.
James Washington’s Leap Heading Into 2020
Washington’s strengths are pretty clear on film. He is a unique type of deep threat, one that does not rely on his athleticism and instead uses a blend of technical traits and physicality to win against cornerbacks at all levels of the field. That is part of why his target separation is so low, but he finds a way to create enough space.
This is an excellent example of how Washington subtlely uses physicality to win on the outside and downfield. The release off of the line is nothing special, and it is not meant to be. The biggest thing Washington wants is space between himself and the sideline. He works tight to the cornerback’s near hip to accomplish this goal. Staying in the personal space of the cornerback gives Washington the leverage. At the top of the route, he gives the ever so subtle push, creates separation, and taps his feet in bounds.
Here is the crux of why Washington can be explosive. While he has decent but not exceptional long speed, his ball tracking skills are elite. This is why you see him make such great contested catches. He sees the ball and finds before anyone else in the catch area finds it.
On this post, he does a great job of changing his route to adjust to the throw and explodes through the catch point in stride. As a result, this allows him to take this reception in for a touchdown. Without those excellent ball skills, this does not happen.
The other aspect of Washington’s game is his ability to adjust via his ball skills. Washington can make any turn, spin, or move to make a catch in a tight window. With elite grip strength and hand-eye coordination as well, Washington can pull off insane highlight-reel catches like this one against the Colts. It all comes together in different scenarios, but they each make him a downfield threat.
James Washington Will Make a Significant Impact in 2020
Even if Washington does not take a step this season, as many may expect him to, he is already a player with high-level traits. He can make a significant impact in the Pittsburgh offense that will see more vertical passing than last season with Roethlisberger back in the fold.
Chase Claypool may threaten Washington’s snaps to a degree, but as a duo on the field at the same time, they could be lethal. Washington is also simply more polished in his all-around game right now than Claypool, which should see him dominant snaps over the rookie.
Washington’s strides will need to be made in the quickness of his feet and violence of his hips. It is known that he can cook guys deep down the field, but to expand his route tree, he will need that quickness to have sharper breaks and cleaner releases. There were flashes of this last year, but he needs to become more consistent. With slight improvements, Washington will be an absolute chore to guard in the Steelers offense.