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Did the Steelers Give Up too Soon on James Washington and JuJu Smith-Schuster?

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Did the Steelers Give Up too Soon on James Washington and JuJu Smith-Schuster?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been arguably one of the best organizations when it comes to drafting wide receivers. Not only have the Steelers shown success in doing so, but they’ve called a wide receiver on draft weekend very frequently in recent history. In the past eleven drafts, the Steelers have selected the same amount of receivers during that time span. Therefore, it could be a safe assumption that the same team who drafted Antonio Brown, Hines Ward, Emmanuel Sanders, Santonio Holmes, and even Martavis Bryant would have similar success in these past eleven drafted receivers. But in a world of increasing price tags on top talent at the receiver position mixed with managing the egos of big-name players, it is tough for the Steelers in evaluating who should remain in Pittsburgh and who should seek opportunities elsewhere. However, the Steelers seemed to give up on a pair of second-round receivers who still have plenty of upside in the NFL.

Did the Steelers give up too soon on James Washington and JuJu Smith-Schuster?

Steelers' WR James Washington

Former Steelers’ WR James Washington makes a catch in Buffalo (Twitter: @jsko_photo)

My short answer to that question is simple; yes. That may be a strange answer when considering the impressive track record we just discussed, but the Steelers seemed to let Smith-Schuster and Washington just burn out in Pittsburgh and lead them out the door. Of course, we know of Smith-Schuster’s injury in 2021 that led him to be sidelined for much of the season, but Washington was able and willing each week to play. So, what happened?

James Washington

Washington was an absolute stud at Oklahoma State. In a program who includes the likes of Dez Bryant, Justin Blackmon, and Barry Sanders on the ground, Washington holds team records over each of those players. Not to mention, paired with college running mate Mason Rudolph, Washington was one of the biggest leaders on one of the most explosive offenses in all of college football. Therefore, the Steelers’ 60th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft was wisely used in getting Washington to Pittsburgh. But once Washington moved to Pittsburgh, his ceiling was demolished. In his first four seasons in the NFL, he only posted 80-yards more of receptions (a total of 1,629 yards) than he did in his senior year in college (1,549 yards). Not to mention, Washington’s rookie year (that year following a 1,549-yard season), he only started 6 games and made only 16 receptions for a mere 217 yards. For a player who topped that number in two separate games in college, now to only produce that in a single season, that has to be a red flag on the Steelers’ part, right?

Sure, you can argue that Washington was a part of an offense that included Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, and Smith-Schuster, but there weren’t many offensive contributors beyond that. Washington was selected to play opposite of Brown with Smith-Schuster lining up in the slot. But as the 2018 offense hummed through Bell, Brown, and Smith-Schuster, Washington was left on an island and had trouble being productive. But in 2019 when Ben Roethlisberger missed the season due to injury, Washington stepped up in tandem with Rudolph and Devlin Hodges to move the ball. There was a strong connection between Washington and Hodges throughout the season and a lot of fans thought a Washington resurgence was looming once Roethlisberger returned; that resurgence never came.

We know the offense was never the same when Roethlisberger returned. Although the 2020 team was able to move the ball and score at will against opposing defenses, Washington was minimal in his contributions on offense. As the Steelers would ultimately lose to the Cleveland Browns in the 2020 Wild Card round, Washington found himself on the outside looking in in Pittsburgh. Then after a trade rumor circus in the 2021 offseason, Washington was never able to see enough playing time to warrant a contract extension.

This is where the Steelers failed Washington. They drafted an offensive weapon who was explosive in college, only to not know how to deploy him in an NFL offense. For a team who can spot a diamond in the rough at the receiver position, how could they mess up this badly with a second-round pick? Washington didn’t carry a large price tag, as indicated in his new one-year deal with the Dallas Cowboys at under $1.2M, and his ceiling is still relatively high at that price-point. But Washington knows he wasn’t utilized properly in Pittsburgh. After signing his new contract in Dallas, Washington said he will “…do what I can so that they get 110% of me and I can reach my full potential.”

James Washington Explains What Went Wrong in Pittsburgh

The Steelers simply didn’t know how to effectively utilize Washington and gave up trying to do so.

JuJu Smith-Schuster

Smith-Schuster’s case is a bit different than Washington. Similar to Washington, Smith-Schuster was drafted at 62nd overall in 2017. When he was paired with Brown, Smith-Schuster was able to be an incredibly effective WR2 in the slot and was able to get open almost every play. Smith-Schuster saw immediate success and seemingly made a big play in every game he played. In 2018, he had his best season of his career with over 1,400 receiving yards and was voted to the Pro Bowl. But after the downfall of the Steelers’ relationship with Brown, Smith-Schuster was thrust into the primary wide receiver role and the Steelers didn’t know how to use him effectively at that level. Smith-Schuster had trouble getting open and saw a significant drop-off in production on offense. In addition, Steeler Nation had mixed feelings towards Smith-Schuster seemingly being more focused on his off-field brand on social media than improving his talent on the field. With the Steelers being a more ‘old fashioned’ organization and still recovering from Brown’s crater he left on the team, they didn’t really know how to read into Smith-Schuster.

Juju Smith-Schuster

Former Steelers’ WR Juju Smith-Schuster takes the field in Pittsburgh (Twitter: @jsko_photo)

As a result of this, the Steelers left Smith-Schuster with two ‘prove-it’ years in 2020 and 2021. In 2020, he only tallied 831 receiving yards, but scored 9 touchdowns. The Steelers thought they may have something to build around in Smith-Schuster, especially paired with two younger receivers in Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. But after coming back on a one-year deal in 2021, Smith-Schuster missed the majority of the season and was essentially shown the door. Why not re-sign a young receiver who is already familiar with the offense and isn’t ‘expensive’ for the position? This is where the Steelers gave up on Smith-Schuster for no reason.

Steelers Passed on Re-Signing JuJu Smith-Schuster

After the 2021 season, the Steelers seemed to do a complete makeover of the entire offense. Of course, this is partially due to the fact there will be a new starting quarterback under center in Pittsburgh for the first time in 18 years, but the 2021 offense didn’t show many blocks to build around in the future. There is obviously the young talent in Johnson, Najee Harris, and Patrick Freiermuth, but the offensive line is still undecided, offensive coordinator Matt Canada is still adapting to the NFL, and head coach Mike Tomlin is left with one of the youngest receiving corps in football, consisting of a pair of 2022 rookies who are looking to start on offense. Needless to say, there is going to be growing pains that could have been easily avoided.

The Steelers pride themselves on growing organically from within, using the young talent they acquired through each draft, and cultivating key pieces into true Steelers players. But as what we’ve seen in recent top-75 draft picks, the Steelers have limited patience in when they can expect to see their return on investment at the receiver position. I’d argue this leads them to cutting ties too early with young players who have unlocked potential or who can still be a leader of an offense at key areas. Now that the Steelers gave up on Washington and Smith-Schuster, they are now forced to relay on unproven talent with George Pickens and Calvin Austin III to fill those voids. From what history has shown us, Pickens and Austin III will be under-utilized after their rookie year and the Steelers will show them the door before they can really shine.

Only time will tell in determining if that is accurate, but this is looking to be the new “Steelers way”.

What are you expecting of the rookie receivers in 2022? Do you think the Steelers gave up too soon on Washington and Smith-Schuster? Let us know in the comments!

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Growing up in Pennsylvania, the Steelers played a major role in my life. I have watched every game since 2001 and have an entire closet solely dedicated to Steelers jerseys. You can find me on Twitter at @TheBenSauce_ and Instragram at @benmic_alien. I now live in the Charlotte branch of Steeler Nation. I can't wait to share my passion for all things Steelers with you!

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Brian

    May 22, 2022 at 1:01 pm

    I think the Steelers think there is still something wrong health wise with juju knee needing drained every Friday and not sure what was with Washington and not being utilized…he had every opportunity but was never used 🤷

  2. John

    May 22, 2022 at 2:39 pm

    Is he still draining his knee? Not trying to be sarcastic but I think he should be okay or the Chiefs wouldn’t have signed.

  3. Pingback: No Steelers Story Is More Bizarre Than The Perplexed One Of Antonio Brown - SteelerNation.com

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