By Jeremy Hritz
On Friday following the Hall of Fame Game against the Dallas Cowboys, Adam Schefter reported via Tweet that Steelers wide receiver James Washington had requested a trade from the team, due to his dissatisfaction regarding how he is utilized in the Steelers offense. With a deep wide receiver room with the likes of Juju Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool, despite Washington’s talents, he has not been getting the repetitions his teammates have, and apparently, it is resulting in his frustration.
Conversely, the following day post-training camp practice, Mike Tomlin refuted the report, and when asked if Washington requested a trade, he responded, “he has not.” Tomlin went on to say “Those unnamed sources, we don’t react to or respond to. James has been great here, working, and having a good camp” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Even if the report were true, Tomlin would not want to create any distraction or disruption to the team development process or team chemistry in camp, so his response is not surprising, and it may not be fully accurate. While unless we hear directly from Washington himself, we will not know the veracity of this report, but as these things typically go, where there is smoke… It is possible that while Washington did not request a trade, he may have communicated his discontent with his diminutive role in the offense.
Following Sunday’s practice, The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly reported that despite the speculation of a trade request, there was no increase in the amount of looks Washington got in practice. Kaboly said, “Washington was overlooked nearly all of Saturday’s practice and was on the path of a repeat performance Sunday before he left with what appeared to be right knee discomfort.” An interesting observation following Schefter’s report and Tomlin’s refutation.
While this report will be confirmed or refuted over time as training camp continues, where is the greatest value for the Steelers organization regarding Washington? Is he keeping him with the team until the end of the year, allowing him to finish out his contract, or is a trade to acquire a draft pick or player the better option?
Washington’s Value to the Steelers
Washington is only signed through the end of the season, and has demonstrated during his time with the team that he can make big plays in the passing game down the field. His most productive season came in 2019 with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at the helm, in which he caught 44 passes for 735 yards and 3 touchdowns, including a long reception of 79 yards. Last season he caught 30 balls, and took a backseat to the receivers I mentioned earlier.
Washington has show the ability to catch in traffic and make “combat catches” to quote Tomlin, and his greatest skill as a receiver is catching the deep ball. While not tremendously fast, Washington has shown he can get behind the defense to make the big play. With the emergence of Claypool last year, Washington’s utilization in the offense decrease, as the Notre Dame receiver demonstrated similar abilities to Washington, and then some, being a more complete player, and offering the passing game more options.
Insurance vs. Future Draft Pick
In terms of keeping Washington around this year, he provides insurance in the event there is an injury to the top 3, which is inevitable considering the physicality of the game. He will be interspersed on contests throughout the year, but his greatest value to the team is the depth that he provides. While the coaching staff is saying all of the right things and that he is a critical element of the offense, the priority is ensuring Smith-Schuster, Johnson, and Claypool are fully involved and engaged in the offense. More than likely, sticking with the team his final year is the outcome for Washington, I would not expect his role to be anything more, and possibly, maybe a little less than it has in previous years not only due to the quality of the wide receivers, but also the tight ends.
If Washington is traded, being that he is under contract for this year, you have to wonder the type of value he would command. Washington was a 2nd round draft pick in 2018, and it is unlikely the Steelers would be able to land such a selection in exchange for the wide receiver. If he were more productive statistically, his value would be greater, but in order to parlay Washington into a higher draft pick, teams would have to forecast and generalize his performance in an expanded role across an entire season, and that is a speculative exercise and something not supported by data or on the field play.
How Will It Play Out?
So what could the Steelers get for Washington? A best-case scenario could be a 4th round selection, maybe a 5th, which does help to build the future iteration of the team, but as a consequence, it eliminates the insurance policy the Steelers will have in place should there be an injury this season.
Something else to consider is whether or not the team values the younger, unproven receivers on the team, and if this could be a factor in the decision regarding a trade, should one be made. For instance, are the Steelers considering keeping Rico Bussey, Isaiah McKoy, or Mathew Sexton? Do they believe in their talents? And if so, does that help them make their decision?
Nobody knows the inner workings of this situation, and as training camp moves forward, this will either grow into a larger story, or fizzle out and become an anecdote for the 2021 season.
If you were the GM, what would you value more, and would move would you make? Keep the insurance for the present, and make an investment in the future of the team? Put your Kevin Colbert hat on and let me know your take in the comments.