Updated: Jul 8, 2021
By the tail-end of his rookie season, Pittsburgh Steelers receiver James Washington was beginning to find his stride. After two big performances in their victories against the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals in this season finale, it seemed inevitable that Washington was due to breakout in a similar way he did in his sophomore year at Oklahoma State.
In general, 2019 was a dismal year offensively for the Steelers. Yet for Washington, it was a season where he not only led the team in receiving yards, it was one where he gained attention from the Steelers fanbase and fantasy football enthusiasts.
To say the least, Washington's 2019 season was a giant leap from the player who was seemingly unsure of himself and his ability to produce in high-leverage situations. Beyond his acrobatic catches and efficient route-running abilities, is a player who continues to evolve which each passing season.
If one were to relegate the comparison of his numbers to the team itself, Washington was the most productive receiver on the Steelers roster last season. In addition to leading the team in total receiving yards, he also finished first in yards per reception and receiving yards per game. Once we expand this comparison to the rest of the NFL, Washington's production numbers do not fare as well. His 44 receptions fell on the lower end of the spectrum for receivers with 65 or more targets.
Since he was not targeted much in the redzone last season, it was inevitable that his redzone receptions would be few as seen in his numbers. Despite only scoring three touchdowns, each were of them were highlight-worthy, notably his incredible 30-yard touchdown reception in week 13 against the Cleveland Browns. His 182 yards after catch is surprising considering he averaged 4.2 yards after catch per reception, and the fact that he was as efficient in gaining yards on short/intermediate routes as he was on vertical routes.
From an efficiency standpoint, Washington proved to be one of the best yards-per-reception receivers in the NFL last season. His 16.7 yards per reception placed him near the top ten in this category. If we consider his body of work from his days at Oklahoma State, Washington was proficient at running deceptively effective crossing and vertical route. An example of such was his 79-yard catch and run touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in week 12, which came off of a crossing route.
Though his catch rate was not as high as many would have expected, it is important to note that the quality of throws play a big factor. With his catchable target rate near the bottom of the spectrum at 65.8%, it gives an idea of the number of poor quality throws that came his way. When given reasonable quality throws, Washington proved to be very reliable, as he produced a true catch rate of 84.6%
His dramatic improvement from his rookie season, was a tribute to the amount of work he invested in during the off-season last year. If his NFL career mirrors that of his collegiate career, then Washington has yet to scratch the surface of his potential. With the return of Ben Roethlisberger this season, the expectation is for Washington's efficiency and production to increase, which can only help receive more recognition for his overall abilities as a player.