After a tumultuous off-season, the Steelers have major question marks in their receiving room behind JuJu Smith-Schuster. Enter James Washington as their next breakout receiver.
No NFL offense will look as different in 2019 than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell moved on, mercifully ending their respective sideshows with the team. The loss of Bell is significantly less painful as James Conner and Jaylen Samuel teamed up to be very productive running backs in their own right. Brown’s departure, on the other hand, leaves a major void in the Steelers’ passing game as he takes over 800 receptions, 11,000 yards, and 74 touchdowns with him.
While it is impossible to replace Brown from a production standpoint, 2019 will be a James Washington breakout campaign. Traditionally, the Steelers have been known as a power running team but Ben Roethlisberger has been top-5 in pass attempts in three of the last five seasons. For Washington, the loss of a target hog like Brown and the potential for 600+ pass attempts from an elite quarterback like Roethlisberger, should combine to form the perfect storm of fantasy goodness.
Reasons for Optimism
There will be a huge opportunity for James Washington on volume alone. Over the past six seasons, Brown averaged 171 targets per year so we can safely assume Washington will see a major bump from the 38 targets he received last year. How big of a bump will largely determine how much of a breakout we will see. Over the past four seasons the Steelers have had two players with at least 80 targets:
- 2018 – Smith-Schuster (166) and Brown (168)
- 2017 – Martavis Bryant (80) and Brown (163)
- 2016 – Le’Veon Bell (94) and Brown (154)
- 2015 – Heath Miller (81), Martavis Bryant (92), and Brown (193)
The Steelers’ offense can support two receivers with this type of volume and Roethlisberger’s three-year extension only enhances Washington’s value. What’s more, Washington had a healthy 13.56 yards per reception, first among Pittsburgh wide receivers. He also amassed 629 air yards (more than Dante Pettis) for a team-leading aDOT of 16.6 yards.
Air yards is one of the best predictors of production so the data trends point towards Washington breaking out. Perhaps the most encouraging factor for me is the jump Steelers’ receivers have made from their first season to their second:
- Hines Ward: +68 Targets/+46 Receptions/+392 Yards
- Plaxico Burress: +55 Targets/+ 44 Receptions/+735 Yards
- Mike Wallace: +26 Targets/+21 Receptions/+501 Yards
- Antonio Brown: +95 Targets/+53 Receptions/+941 Yards
- Martavis Bryant: +44 Targets/+24 Receptions/+216 Yards
- JuJu Smith-Schuster: +87 Targets/+53 Receptions/+509 Yards
Burress, Wallace, Brown, and Smith-Schuster all eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in their sophomore campaign so there is a clear precedent here. Washington’s talent (he won the Biletnikoff Award as a senior at Oklahoma State) combined with all these statistical factors present a pretty compelling case for Washington as a dynasty buy.
Reasons for Skepticism
While there is a lot to like, everything isn’t unicorns and rainbows for Washington. His catch rate last year was an abysmal 42.1% which was 2nd worst on the team. In fairness, Washington had a catch-able target rate of just 63%, so some of that is due to his route-tree being dominated by deep shots. In order for Washington to catch 70 passes in 2019 he would have to replicate what Smith-Schuster did last fall, which will be difficult. It is more likely he settles in around 60 receptions. If he can maintain his YPR average, we can safely project him for 700 yards.
Questions remain as to where Washington fits in the receiving pecking order. Smith-Schuster will get his 165+ targets with James Conner, Vance McDonald, and even Ryan Switzer vying for attention. The Steelers also drafted Diontae Johnson and signed Donte Moncrief as a free agent so the cupboard isn’t bare without Brown. Whether or not Washington can solidify himself as the Robin to Smith-Schuster’s Batman will be one of the biggest stories from Latrobe, but if he does, the price will jump considerably.
Regardless of that, I am inclined to buy-in on Washington where I can. The combination of talent, offensive environment, and statistical factors point towards him climbing into the WR2 tier. Mike Tomlin is on record as expecting big things from Washington in 2019 as well. When you consider the price point – his ADP is around 119 right now according the NFFC data – there might not be higher ceiling receiver on the board at that point.