James Washington came to the Steelers last year with an impressive resume, holding the all-time record at Oklahoma State with 4,472 career receiving yards, the second-most in Big 12 history.
The team’s second round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft also had a laundry list of awards he won during his college career, including winning the 2017 Biletnikoff Award that goes to the nation’s top receiver.
What he quickly found out, though, was life in the NFL is a whole lot different than college.
“It’s a lot of ups and downs in the NFL,” said Washington. “In college everything was smooth sailing. Everyone is good in this league. You’re not going to find someone that you can go out and beat every time. You’re not going to win without a fight. That is one thing that I learned. I just have to look at it differently next season. Just stay persistent.”
Washington finished the 2018 season with 16 receptions for 217 yards and a touchdown, not nearly the production he had hoped for, but something he knows is a start.
“It wasn’t what I expected,” said Washington. “It was a lot, just because of the ups and downs. One week you’re playing good and the next week you’re not. One week you’re inactive, then it’s like you question yourself and you think am I really good enough. It just kind of gives you that challenge to answer the call. Without challenges you wouldn’t have the opportunity to get better, or know what your weakness are or what your strengths are.
“My teammates really helped. When you’re down like that, this team does a good job of pulling you up and telling you what you’re capable of.
“I learned a lot and grew a lot over the season, just building my skills and looking forward to next season.”
Washington identified areas of his game he wanted to work on this offseason, including his quickness, making his routes crisper and being more fundamentally sound. He spent time looking at film, studying as much as he could, as he knows knowledge is one of the biggest keys at this level. And he dropped 15 pounds, helping him to improve in the areas he focused on.
“I watched some game film by myself and just tried to become more of a football junkie,” said Washington. “I wanted to look at the game like a quarterback. Quarterbacks see everything, whether it’s this or that, a guy not getting his depth or a running back not blocking. They see everything and that’s how I want to see the game. I don’t just want to see it from a receiver standpoint, I want to know everything.
“Just talking to Ben (Roethlisberger) and talking to the coaches in general got me feeling this way. Coaches have that quarterback vision they see everything and once you know the entire offense and know where everyone is supposed to go, it’ll help you be better in your preparation and how you execute when you’re in the game.”
He took full advantage of the recently completed Steelers offseason program, and it’s paid off for him. Last year it was all about the NFL Scouting Combine, the NFL Draft, and pro days. This year, it was all about getting better. And heading into training camp in a few weeks, it's going to all pay off.
“Last offseason, getting ready for the draft I was still taking classes, so my mind was everywhere,” said Washington. “This year I knew what to expect and I knew the offense better from when I first got here. All those stress factors weren’t on my mind. I am just thinking about playing football.”