Kovacevic: Who’s the real James Washington? ☕️


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James Washington at minicamp. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

James Washington seems to be a contradiction.

He stands 5 feet 11, framed more like Rashard Mendenhall than any wide receiver at any level, but he's stamped as being a high-point target in the NFL. He's never been a burner, but he's expected to splash his way to big plays. And maybe most mystifying, at least this summer, his pedigree at Oklahoma State was built on being stocky, sturdy ... so he went and lost 15 pounds.

Seriously, can anyone grasp what the Steelers might -- or might not -- have here?

I could see the investment of the second-round draft pick in 2017, particularly given how solid Kevin Colbert's scouts have been at wide receiver. And I could definitely see a lot of what they liked rolling into the preseason, when he and his college QB, Mason Rudolph, reconnected with some combat-catch rock at the next level. But then came a rookie season in which he played 14 of 16 games, started only six and made all of 16 catches.

If Washington and Ben Roethlisberger were sharing anything but a uniform, it wasn't obvious.

"There were times," Washington was telling me this week at minicamp, "where things weren't going my way."

Right. Like the ball. Or worse, when it did, for the first time in his life, he didn't come down with it.

I've asked a lot of questions this offseason about Washington, maybe more than about any other player, and I still don't feel any closer to actual answers.

"The sky's the limit for James," Rudolph was telling me back in OTAs. "Nobody should ever doubt or underestimate him."

"There's a lot we expect of our second-year players," Darryl Drake, the wide receivers coach, was saying this week. "And we're going to see that from James."

There was similar praise, if more guarded, from Roethlisberger, from Mike Tomlin, from others.

I wanted to hear it right from Washington. So we sat at his stall this week, the young man generous as ever with his time, and I started by stripping the whole conversation down to the singular concept of the "combat catch," the football vernacular most commonly associated with his style.

What, to be more specific, puts him and not the defender in a better position to make a play for what, per the definition, is probably a 50/50 ball?

You know, like this go-route slam dunk against the Patriots' Jason McCourty in December:

Take me through that thought process, I asked.

"I think of it as three things," Washington began. "The first thing is playing through the hands of the DB. You've got to be strong, steadier than the DB when that ball gets there. Next, it's playing through any kind of collision. You're going to bump somebody with some kind of body part. Again, you've got to be stronger, steadier. And the third ..."

He paused for a second, one eyebrow raised.

" ... it's just will. You've got to want it more than the other guy."

If any of these principles sound as if they're echoed somewhere else, they did to me, too. And I brought it up: It all sounded like what I'd heard from basketball players about rebounding.

"Low post in high school, man. Right here," Washington came right back, now beaming.  "Oh, yeah."

Wait. I knew he'd participated in multiple sports at Stamford High School in Texas, and I knew hoops was among them. But low post for a 5-11 guy ... that was new.

"I wasn't the biggest, but I was told that I could jump the highest. So that's what I did. And I kept doing it again and again. I got used to going up in the air and getting that ball. It's just genetics and the weight room, I guess."

Oh, please. A lot of young athletes are fine jumpers. But that's still no separator.

Digging deeper into his background, in addition to being a state champion in football and all-district in baseball, Washington was -- sit down for this -- the state champion in the 100-meter dash and triple jump in track, a state quarterfinalist in doubles tennis and, presumably just to amuse himself, golfed on weekends and earned a black belt in taekwondo.

It's in the hands. Everything we're talking about is in the hands. Has to be.

Which was what I asked next.

"I guess you could say that," Washington answered, looking down at both opened palms. "I mean, everything about the process of catching a football ends up in the hands, but there's always been a lot more to it for me."

His left hand then slid up his right biceps. Which is a tree trunk compared to a common corner's twig.

"I've always had the big arms, kind of the big build, and that's always helped me win those battles. Other things just kind of happen around me, and I'll focus on the football."

So why, then, drop the weight?

He opened his rookie season at 213, but it rose up an undisclosed amount -- really, no one will give the figure -- and Drake and the staff now have him working back down toward 210 for the opener.

"I need to be quicker in and out of breaks. A big part of what I've got to do is building that trust with the quarterback."

Meaning getting open.


Meaning not everyone will recognize the way Rudolph did in college that he's often open even when he's covered.

"You could say that."

It's a fascinating case study, one that'll become all the more so if he defies those 50/50 odds.

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