Updated: May 27
If you were to look up the word "perseverance", don't be surprised if the name "Darnell Washington" appears at the top of the list.
To say the least, what Washington endured in life is the stuff only seen in movies. Washington came from a family of eight siblings: four brothers and three sisters. At a young age, his father walked out on him and his family. When he moved into a foster home, he was separated from all of them, with the exception of his brother Ezekiel. He would live in a foster home until the third grade; at that time, he and Ezekiel would be reunited with his mother, Katrina Groves. Yet, due to her mother's criminal past, they would struggle to find a stable home. His mother was once placed in a temporary coma after one of many near-fatal car accidents.
For all the hardships Washington had to endure, they helped mold him into the type of young man he is today. It also shaped him into the football player he would eventually become.
Coming out of Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, Washington was a 5-star recruit, drawing comparisons to former New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett. In his freshman year with the Georgia Bulldogs, Washington started seven of 10 games and finished with 166 yards on seven receptions. In the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, he set a season high of 61 receiving yards. In his sophomore year, a pre-season injury resulted in just six starts; he would finish the year with 10 receptions for 154 yards and a touchdown. In his last season with the Bulldogs, Washington would set career highs in receptions (28), receiving yards (454), and touchdowns (2). In the 2023 CFP National Championship Game, Washington contributed one reception for 28 yards.
Washington is more than just a big, strong body that can block; he has an underrated upside that, if used correctly, can help take the Steelers offense to new heights.
Underrated Hands and Ball Skills
In this sequence against Vanderbilt, we have Washington aligned as a tight end beside the right tackle. The key to this sequence is Georgia Bulldogs' quarterback Stetson Bennett and how he engineers this zone option. When the ball is snapped, Bennett fakes the handoff and drops back. Watch how Washington beautifully executes a technique called a slam release. He engages with the Vanderbilt edge rusher, then quickly releases into the opposite direction where there is more than enough space to receive Bennett's pass. Even though the ball was not ideally placed, he was able to corral it with just one hand, secure it, and take it down the sideline for a big game.
In this play alone, he demonstrated three aspects that make him an ideal receiving tight end: ball skills, catch radius, and athleticism.
Red Zone Presence
Last season, the Steelers finished 22nd in red zone scoring percentage at 51.92%. If the team is looking to increase their scoring output this season, they need to improve exponentially in this area. At Georgia, Washington was a mismatch in the red zone against opposing defensive backs as he put his 35-inch arms to good use. It is also worth noting that he is an underrated route runner.
In this sequence against LSU, Georgia is showing an air raid concept with a bunch formation on the right side. Washington is positioned as the 'Y' receiver.
In this well-designed play, the objective of this sequence was to help Washington win inside. For this to happen, they will flex out their star tight end, Brock Bowers, in order to divert their attention from Washington. The other detail was motioning their receiver, Ladd McConkey, pre-snap, which caused the Tigers defensive back to account for him in the opposite direction, opening the middle of the field. When the ball is snapped, Washington will execute a quick skinny post in the open space and eventually receive the ball in the end zone. Because of his superior height and wingspan, the ball was placed in a spot that only he could reach. One of the many advantages of having a player like Washington in the red zone.
Excellent YAC Abilities
One of the more underrated aspects of Washington's overall game is his ability to get yards after catch. In open space, Washington is unafraid of taking chances, and when he gets the ball, he is able to take full advantage of his size and athleticism.
When the ball is snapped, Bennett will run the playaction fake and move to the right, where Washington receives the ball in the flats. From this point, Washington does the rest; he shrugs off the tackle attempt by the Ducks second-level linebacker, gains the first down, then hurdles over the oncoming Ducks defender and gains substantial yards in the process. This was the play that made Washington a household name in 2022. Yet one had to admire the athleticism and sheer effort he displayed.
With Washington on their roster, the Steelers have one of the strongest tight end rooms in the NFL. Even if the team chooses not to use him offensively, his presence alone is enough to alert opposing defenses. In due time, Washington will get his opportunity to show his offensive abilities, and once he gets that chance, he may soon become a household name in the NFL.