James Washington could become Steelers new Emmanuel Sanders
By Andrew Falce
One of the more puzzling aspects of the Steelers offense is its use of Washington, and it is very reminiscent of another former Pittsburgh receiver still in the league.
Despite the injury to JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers are continuing with their downright confusing use of receiver James Washington. Washington was drafted in the second round of the 2018 draft, and despite a tough transition during his rookie year, he quickly developed into a combative deep threat with good hands. While he is a solid receiver, he quickly fell down the depth chart in favor of more explosive options.
Now, despite there being a wide-open spot in the receiving room, the Steelers are still failing to get him on the field regularly. All of this has spurred trade talks as it seems only natural for Washington to want off the team that isn’t using him properly. With him set to be a free agent after this season, there is a real chance he exceeds what he has done with the Pittsburgh after he settles on a new team in the offseason.
Washington’s story mimics another former Steelers receiver
While their style of play is vastly different, Washington’s story is very reminiscent of a former Steelers receiver. Emmanuel Sanders was a former third-round pick for the team that quickly became the third option on the depth chart. Mike Wallace and eventually Antonio Brown were the usual top targets for the team while he played in the slot.
Sanders found success with the Steelers, but he never topped 740 receiving yards in a season and was never a prominent fixture on the offense. When he was looking for a new contract, the team couldn’t justify paying him. A contract extension for a player that was never more than the second-best target and never had incredible stats was hard to justify.
He signed a three-year, 15-million-dollar contract with the Broncos that offseason, and frankly, he never looked back. He recorded a trio of 1000-yard seasons and recorded two Pro Bowl nods in that time. While those three years were the best of his career, he has been a fixture in every offense since he left the Steelers. All of that over a guy the team believed wasn’t worth the extension at the time.
Steelers may be repeating history
Again, Washington and Sanders are two very different types of receivers, but both could have similar stories once they leave the team. Despite a key injury to a starter, Washington has still been kept on the bench as opposed to playing him. His 2021 won’t be anything incredible, and he will enter free agency looking for an opportunity to be a consistent starter.
Assuming he does and is put in an offense that utilizes him properly (like Sanders was in Denver), Washington could have a surge in production. No, he likely won’t become as good as Sanders was, but a potential 1000-yard season could be on the horizon, and being a consistent feature in an offense should be expected for the deep threat.
It makes little sense as to why the Steelers aren’t using Washington more. His lack of usage and, as a result, lack of stats makes it easy to draw parallels to Sanders. Don’t be surprised to see Washington achieve far more on a new team next year than he did with the Steelers. He may not become as good as Sanders was, but both could go from misused in Pittsburgh to solid contributors elsewhere.