One of the many off-season mysteries as far as the Pittsburgh Steelers are concerned, is what the wide receiving core is going to potentially look like going into the new year. The main reason due to the fact that Pro Bowl wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be a free agent next month, and whether or not he returns to Pittsburgh has still remained in question. Although not the number one option last season, JuJu was the type of player that was gritty, he’s reliable and will fight for the extra yards when needed — the kind of player that every coach wants to have on their team.
Not to say we are going to lose him in free agency, obviously a lot could change from here on out and the teams exact plans have been kept quiet up to now. But all we can do is speculate for the time being. Even with all these variables, I wouldn’t say there is much stress involved going into this off-season evaluation. Pittsburgh is deep with young talent at that particular position, having players with the potential to be Pro Bowlers on both sides. Needless to say, this position group is light years away from hitting the panic button.
One of the names that was rather quiet this past season was that of 3rd year WR James Washington who has been waiting patiently for his opportunity to arise. Washington has sort of been the odd man out when it comes to the plethora of receivers this team has had since his arrival. When on the field, Washington has been nothing short of productive and has proved that he can be a comfort blanket for Ben Roethlisberger or any QB on our roster when needed. So much so, that the future Hall of Fame quarterback didn’t hold back his support of Washington seeing the field more.
In a game this previous season against the Baltimore Ravens, while not as productive as he would have liked to be, Washington stepped up in a big moment catching a tight pass into double coverage on a 3rd & 6 with minimal time left, allowing Pittsburgh to run out the remaining minutes on the clock to capture a win. In a postgame interview, when asked why he chose to go in Washington’s way on that 3rd down play, Ben stated that he had full confidence that Washington would make that grab, saying “I wouldn’t have thrown it if I didn’t believe in him”. He then followed that up by showing his support for Washington, “When you give a guy a chance to make a play and he makes it, and he makes it over and over, then that man should continue to get opportunities”. It was clear, Washington was obviously making an impact on such a consistent level that even his own quarterback was lobbying for playing time.
Over the past two seasons, battling over playing time with rookie WR Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson and JuJu himself, Washington caught 74 passes for 1,127 yards and a total of 8 touchdowns. He struggled to see the field much his first season with the black & gold. He followed his rookie year up by, ironically enough, having his best season yet as a pro when Ben was out for the year due to injury. He then struggled to find time on the field once again, due the emergence of both young playmakers Claypool and Johnson in 2020. Washington’s downfall is something he obviously cannot control. He just needs to be on the field more.
Washington has proved that he will be ready if and when his name is called. It seems like he has the support from the organization, although it does seem like SteelerNation would like to see the Steelers re-sign Smith-Schuster the fan favorite, and rightfully so, but when it comes to free agency, we tend to see the organizations’ sense of urgency decrease when there’s a guy waiting in the wings who has done enough to prove his worth in the league. If that is the case, I think it is safe to say that Washington’s consistency is something that is going to translate into more and more production if given the opportunity.
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