Matt Waldman shares his RSP NFL Draft Scouting Report on WR James Washington, a player the Steelers hope will go a long way toward replacing Antonio Brown.
5. James Washington, Oklahoma St. (5-11, 213)
Depth of Talent Score: 85.45 = Starter: Capable of a larger role and learning on the go.
There is some polarization in the draft community about Washington’s ranking. Some see him as the undisputed No. 1 receiver on the board. Others see him as a one-dimensional deep threat that benefited more from the Oklahoma State offense than he benefited the scheme.
My view of Washington is somewhere in between: He’s not the slam dunk option at the top of the board but there’s more promise to his game than that of a one-dimensional vertical threat. If Washington were a little more accomplished in one of four areas of his game, he would have been my top receiver on the board.
Washington’s ability to gain separation from press coverage is impressive. He has the most diverse arsenal of moves of the receivers in this class. Washington consistently reduces his shoulder from the reach of defenders as he works into his stem. His three- and four-step release footwork is clean and effective. He often pairs that footwork with a head fake, chop, rip, or shake.
He’ll also combine footwork moves, pairing a three- or four-step move with a rocker step. One of the underrated things about Washington not well known in the draft community is his diverse athletic background. In addition to the typical football, basketball, track combo on the resume of many pros, Washington also played tennis and earned a black belt in karate.
While martial arts training occurred before high school, I’m a believer that it helps children learn the technical details of other sports with greater ease. There are more experience and understanding of the fundamentals of leverage, striking, the important connections between upper and lower body movements, and maintaining technique in stressful moments. Martial art training—especially if discontinued for years—doesn’t make an individual perfect in these areas but can be helpful.
Washington’s work at the line of scrimmage looks like there’s a link to his martial arts background. When pushed towards the boundary, Washington often has a feel for regaining leverage, hooking the defender and reversing position on the route. It’s also visible in the way he integrates multiple moves into a release and the balance he displays with all of his moves.
One of the most desirable things a receiver running a vertical route can do is stack his defender. This is when the receiver gets separation on the opponent and cuts directly in front. Stacking allows the receiver to dictate the pace of the route, shield the opponent from the target, and force the defender to play through the receiver and commit a foul to disrupt the pass.
Washington is the best in this class at stacking defenders. There are a lot of reasons why receivers don’t do this as often as they should. I believe one of them is discomfort with truly tracking the ball over their shoulders.
It’s one thing to turn the inside or outside shoulder back to the ball. It’s another not to turn back at all and only look skyward as you allow the ball to drop over your pads. Washington excels at this move and because he doesn’t always turn his pads back to the target, the trailing defender isn’t tipped off to the location of the target.
There’s also less of an opening for the defender to reach for the ball. Washington’s work at the line of scrimmage and his ability to stack and track makes him an accomplished vertical receiver. It also makes him a promising route runner. Washington is capable of telling mini-stories on timing routes that compel defenders into wrong turns. He’s especially good at perimeter routes breaking back to the quarterback.
Washington makes a compelling sale of the vertical route with straight stems and good pacing before issuing a late head fake, nod, lean, or dip to sell the corner or post and breaking the opposite direction.
Or, he’ll execute a sudden stop and turn. Washington sometimes brings his pads up before his breaks and might tip off his routes to savvier off-coverage defenders. However, there is a point in selling the vertical route that a springing receiver naturally brings his pads up to transition from the get-off phase of the sprint to hit top gear. The key for Washington is making sure the rise in pad level fits with the length of the stem. He’ll need to review this when running shorter curls.
He also can improve his hard breaks. He takes too many steps into the break and should be dropping his weight lower. He bends his knees and hips to a stop but the bend isn’t deep enough to achieve the desired suddenness of the movement. Even so, Washington is good at breaking back to the ball.
As mentioned, Washington’s pacing, control, and tracking of the ball on vertical routes are often outstanding. In addition, he maintains a healthy cushion from the boundary on vertical routes outside the numbers. Late in the route, Washington will use that stack to keep the defender focused on him rather than turning for the ball, allowing Washington to veer to the outside late in the route for additional separation.
He catches vertical routes over the shoulder against tight coverage and understands when to extend his arms out and up for the ball. He also can high-point the ball and make back-shoulder turns for the target. Taking contact and catching the ball is not a problem.
Washington’s sideline work can get a little better. He has a good awareness of the boundary and will either drag or dot his feet inbounds when he has to reach for the ball away from his frame. However, Washington will leave his feet on targets that are at or slightly above his chest when he should have kept his feet on the ground.
While this could be a tracking issue, Washington’s skill at tracking more difficult targets makes it more likely an ingrained bad habit. Among several other exercises, working with a jugs machine on breaks at a 90-degree angle will be helpful. Washington could focus on raising the arms to meet his hands with the ball and only leave his feet when the arms are already overhead.
When Washington makes the catch against tight coverage, he’s skilled at securing the ball to the arm away from the pursuit. He’s also good at turning away from the coverage while airborne to shield the opponent.
As good as Washington is as a pass-catcher, he could be better—and it’s this area as well as the hard breaks that hold him back from being an even better prospect. Washington has mixed results catching the ball when contact from a defender is part of the equation.
This happens when he’s forced into an unexpected change of direction while tracking the ball or improvising a move to work around the coverage and earn position late in the play. However, Washington also has his share of focus drops. As good as he is, his film, Senior Bowl, and Pro Day have its share of dropped passes.
This is not a deal-breaker for Washington by any stretch of the imagination. There is a history of top NFL starters who drop a high rate of passes. The concern is if the player fails to rebound from the drops immediately and puts his team in a hole early in a game. At the Senior Bowl, he had some reps where he dropped multiple passes in a row.
However, I’ve seen Washington rebound from drops immediately when it’s an in-game situation. Washington may experience more drops as he acclimates to the pros, and there’s a slight chance it could impact his confidence and his play spirals downward (think Nelson Agholor). However, if I were to lean on one layer of observational data more than the other, I’d rely on the game film where he rebounds quickly.
After the catch, Washington tucks the ball seamlessly to the side where the pursuit isn’t. He has good location and leverage with his stiff-arm, and he’ll spin off contact to extend runs. Washington also employs effective press-and-cut technique on the two-way-go in the open field. Fluid little details like these about Washington’s game after the catch excite me because he is reacting with a lot of rehearsed moves at high speed and doing so as if it’s unfolding slowly.
While effective in the open field, Washington has to be wiser on the end-around and reverses. He must learn to take what the defense gives him and not try too hard to bounce plays outside his blockers. He may be fast enough to win in the vertical game, but he will not win on east-west runs when the defensive backs playing contain have favorable leverage.
As good as Washington is when he’s running downhill towards the pursuit, he must improve his first move when he makes a catch with his back to the defense. Washington’s turns aren’t tight enough and this prevents him from getting up-field clean of the defender trailing him.
I didn’t see great quickness from a stop or in tight spaces. The more he can improve this skill, the more upside he has as a versatile playmaker on underneath routes.
Washington uses the correct sideline arm based on pursuit angles. He could tighten the elbow more to his frame.
He’s a competent lead blocker who maintains his angle on the defender with enough effort to at least shield the opponent. When he can earn strong position, he’ll move his feet with the opponent and earn a push.
Like Sammy Watkins, Washington could get labeled as a one-dimensional player early in his career, if he’s added to a team that’s not especially good at receiver development or runs a less productive scheme. While there’s no doubt that Washington will be used initially as a vertical threat, he only has small gaps in his game to address, and he will become an all-around option.
We’ll find out soon enough.
Pre-Draft Fantasy Advice: With a good fit, Washington could be an immediate starter with strong fantasy production. The likelihood of this happening is strong enough to consider Washington at the 3-4 turn in rookie drafts before the NFL.
It is possible those with the extremely favorable view of Washington’s game will take him at the 2-3 turn. It’s not something I’d recommend in these leagues because there are comparable talents that can be had later and too many good runners worth taking early.
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