Wide receivers from the Big-12 are a source of some contention among the contingent of analysts who cover the NFL Draft. The results for the teams who chose to dive into that pool in recent years have been mixed, to put it kindly.
The Bears decision to sink the seventh overall pick into Kevin White back in 2015 was a mistake. In 2016, first rounders Josh Doctson and Corey Coleman came out of the same conference. Injuries have slowed the progress of both, but Doctson looks like he’ll be, at worst, an NFL contributor while Coleman’s future in Cleveland is murky. On the other hand, Oklahoma produced Sterling Shepard and Dede Westbrook in the last two drafts. Shepard looks like a long-time starter at slot receiver for the Giants and the Jaguars saw enough flashes from Westbrook as a rookie to be excited. Those picks look like hits. A negative narrative seems to be developing about the receivers from the Big-12 but whether it’s wise to jump to that conclusion is mostly still to be determined.
The 2018 NFL Draft offers us another Big-12 wideout to unpack in Oklahoma State’s James Washington. Critics will certainly look to lump him in with the rest of the vagabond characters from that conference. And yet, a true examination of his game reveals a wideout who brings everything to the table one wants in a pro prospect.
Alignment and Data
Games sampled: West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma
Getting back to some of the issue first posed by where he played football as a collegian, James Washington fell under the same cloud of the type of wideout to come out of the draft the last few years who primarily operated on just one side of the field. Like White, Doctson, and Coleman before him, Washington took over 70 percent of his snaps from one side, lining up at right wide receiver on 89.7 percent of his sampled snaps.
Going into 2017, the small-sample history of players who fell into that group was far from pretty. However, at least we saw Juju Smith-Schuster and Dede Westbrook appear to break that trend last season. It’s at least something to consider as we ponder Washington’s pro projection.
His limited alignment task aside, Washington was a clear focal point of the Oklahoma State offense. The senior receiver was targeted on a whopping 38.8 percent of his sampled routes despite playing in a wide-open aerial attack. One of the most productive receivers in the nation, and the 2017 Biletnikoff Award winner, Washington was clearly a player his quarterback Mason Rudolph knew he could funnel the passing game to.
Success Rate vs. Coverage
Measuring in at 5-foot-11 and 213 pounds, James Washington is a peculiarly-sized receiver. Many have contended he looks like a running back out there on the field. Wearing a No. 28 jersey probably helps people fall for that trick, as well.
As such, it was surprising to see just how much clean separation Washington earned from the defenders covering him in college. Washington posted a 74.2 percent success rate vs. man coverage score, clearing the 80th percentile among prospects charted the last three classes. Not only does Washington show the technical discipline you want to observe in a draft prospect, he also has no problem being a bully in-route. His days at Oklahoma State were littered with examples of the wideout using his upper body to jostle free from defenders at the critical portions of routes, earning the sliver of separation needed to break free from coverage and present an open throwing lane.
The criticism of college receivers, and especially those coming out of this conference, is their lack of experience facing press coverage. There’s no doubt these players will see more bump-and-run coverage when they enter the NFL stage. However, Washington passes the test when he saw chances during the 2017 season. He faced press coverage on 33 of his routes run over the six-game Reception Perception sample, posting a 78.8 percent success rate. His score cleared the 89th percentile. Washington showed the quick feet needed to get off the line of scrimmage with a defender in his face and has the strong upper body to deliver a quick jab to offset the cornerback ready to jam him pre-route.
Averaging 19.8 yards per reception through his four college seasons, it’s clear that James Washington is a vertical threat. It should come as no surprise that his primary assignment was to run deep routes that would take him further down the field.
It’s quite impressive that Washington was so productive while running routes that create “layup catches” like the screen, slant and flat on just 16.3 percent of his total patterns. Oklahoma State used him as a downfield presence more often than not.
When studying vertical receivers, it’s important to note the routes where they can leverage the respect defenses will pay them to gain yards in the intermediate areas. Washington ran two of those routes, the out and the curl, at a rate above the charted prospect average. Using deception to sell the deep route before snapping back to the sideline on the out or back to the middle of the field on the curl is something you like to see in a receiver like Washington. He impressed with his separation across the field.
Washington scored above the prospect average on every route except the dig, where he posted a 65 percent success rate. It was important to see him post strong scores on the nine, post and corner routes, giving hope to the idea that he can continue functioning as a downfield receiver in the pros.
Doubling back to some of those routes where he can leverage defensive respect, Washington’s 88.2 and 85.3 percent success rates on the out and curl, respectively, were outstanding scores. Showing well on these routes was important to completing his profile. The same could be said for his 94.4 percent success rate on slant patterns. Despite not running them often, Washington showed he could crisply break off to the middle of the field on slants, which he’ll certainly be tasked with at a higher rate when he hits the NFL landscape.
Washington’s route data shows he has a complete skill-set as a route runner. There’s no question he looks like a receiver who could help produce big plays at the next level. But the rest of his success rates gives reason to believe he’ll function well at every level of the field.
Throughout his film, what made James Washington so clearly standout as a player with a clean pro projection was his ability to track the ball in the air. Even when his quarterback squandered chances to lead Washington into big plays after the catch when the receiver had ample separation prior to breaking into the open field, the receiver adjusted.
When studying wide receivers, it’s worth asking yourself whether tracking the ball is a trait that can be learned with more seasoning. It’s hard to apply blanket rules when scouting, especially stamping players with the “can’t do it” tag. However, players who struggle to locate and adjust to the ball in flight will always face a challenge in improving that weakness. Some players that don’t have it, just never find it. This player clearly has it.
Washington could routinely be observed slowing down his route to assure he was in the correct position to fight for the ball in-flight while waiting for the pass to arrive, but rarely leaving his feet too late to allow defenders the chance to disrupt his plan. Having defenders tight to his frame as he contorted to make the difficult catch presented little hindrance for Washington.
All these observable instances on film molded together to form an 87.5 percent contested catch conversion rate on eight attempts, clearing the previously top scorers Chris Godwin (85.7 percent) and Josh Doctson (85 percent). Of course, those receivers saw more chances in those contested situations than Washington, but his ability to track the ball in the air is nothing short of natural. It’s the sort of trump card trait you want to see in a player when projecting them to the pro game; the one asset they have in their back pocket that when all else fails, they have a move to bring out that no one can truly stop.
The 2018 NFL Draft class appears to hold a number of receivers who offer a projectable skill-set for No. 2 receivers at the pro-level. Count James Washington among that group, but make sure to slot him near the top of the list. Washington is an easy projection with so much to like about his game.
What makes Washington stand out among this crop of prospects is his ability to offer two skills that are rare and value: winning deep and in contested spaces. Teams should feel confident that, at worst, he can function as a high-end complementary piece in the passing game with those two parts of his game alone.
As much as any prospect can, he feels safe because you can project him to thrive as a contributing role player with his great hands in tight coverage and ability to work in the vertical game. He might not be a traditional No. 1 receiver prospect at the next level but we saw two teams last year get strong play out of their top outside wideouts simply because they also offered those two traits. With high-end slot receivers in place in Detroit and Seattle, those offenses got “pseudo No. 1 play” out of Marvin Jones and Paul Richardson. Both of those players don’t truly qualify as No. 1 wideouts but filled that role for their teams admirably last season because of their vertical ability and prowess in contested situations.
The team who drafts James Washington can look to get a similar result by placing him in a similar role with a quarterback willing to make difficult throws. We might not have a Julio Jones/A.J. Green level prospect in this draft for teams in need of a top receiver. Yet, Washington offers a discount version of the No. 1 wideout role in his NFL projection. For that reason, he will push to be my top receiver in this class.
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