James Washington’s appearance in the Camping World Bowl will be football fans’ last chance to see one of college football’s most explosive players in recent years.
As a recruit
At a .8562 (3-star) 247sports composite ranking, Washington entered the Oklahoma State football program as the 95th-ranked receiver in the 2014 class. It doesn’t seem like Washington had too much trouble surpassing that mark.
The Cowboy saw part-time work in his true freshman year, with 456 receiving yards, but didn’t take much longer to settle in. In the three following seasons, he’s strung together quite the stat line:
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With those yards-per-reception numbers, opposing teams have known exactly what’s coming at them for three years – and haven’t been able to stop it.
On the field, in short
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It’s easier to describe Washington in a paragraph than nearly any other NFL Draft prospect. He’s a tantalizing deep threat, with dominant speed, explosive first steps and acceleration, and proven proficiency in tracking throws… but not much else.
His 90-degree routes are uninspiring – he appears to have a lot of trouble coming in and out of breaks at full speed – and his physicality is much more effective when he’s outrunning someone than when he’s making a contested catch (though he doesn’t make the play, the cornerback has a pretty easy path to breaking up the pass). But football players have more complexity than can be explained in one paragraph, so let’s dive deeper into the good and bad.
On the field – strengths
It’s pretty simple. When James Washington gets a step on his defender, he’s gone. The only question becomes whether his quarterback can deliver the ball to him. After gaining over 20 yards per catch and converting 64.5 percent of his targets, he and Mason Rudolph made that connection just plenty in 2017.
It’s not hard to see why. To start, Washington’s athleticism checks every box for deep threats. His first few steps are quick and continue to get quicker until he’s level with or past his opposing corner – then he takes off. That zero-to-sixty burst is top notch, and his top-end speed ensures no one will catch up with him.
Better yet; he’s not a pure speed guy. His strong body, and knowledge of how to use it, transform him from any other college deep threat to a 1,400-yard receiver. Washington is only about six feet tall, but plays much bigger, with the help of a strong, muscular build. That physical makeup allows him to subtly bully corners at the catch point downfield. Of course in that scenario, it helps that he’s so much more comfortable than his counterpart.
He’s displayed as natural an ability to adjust to deep balls as just about any prospect in recent memory; you could make a highlight film simply of his signature over-the-shoulder-while-jumping catches on deep routes.
The skills in the prior paragraphs can push Washington into the first round of many NFL talent evaluators’ draft boards on their own, but he’s shown that he can be dynamic with the ball in his hands too. It’s unclear what potential there is for him as a screen receiver in the NFL (since he’s been used so much more as a deep threat than anything else at OSU), but it’s certainly not bad that there could be another dimension to his game.
On the field – weaknesses
On the flip side of that final statement; “he catches deep balls and maybe he can do stuff with screens,” is pretty dang one-dimensional. His route running is fine at best and awkward at worst (he fails to sink his hips and takes three-to-four yards to come to a stop on this route), while he’s not physically imposing enough to gain an upper hand on defenders who haven’t been set off-balance. He has shown improvement in both those fields in 2017, but it still seems unlikely to me that he finds much success on intermediate routes in the league.
Furthermore, some critics have been quick to point to his stature (around 6’0”, 210 pounds) as another shortcoming. My take, however, is that a relative height deficiency won’t hurt him much, because of how he plays.
What to watch for on Thursday
Washington and the Cowboys will take on the Virginia Tech Hokies in the Camping World Bowl on December 28th. Virginia Tech brings forth quite an interesting matchup for Washington. The defensive unit pushes the “all-or-nothing” mentality to its logical limits: It ranks eighth nationally in success rate (in other words, keeping offenses inefficient) but 114th in explosiveness. That disparity is stretched even further when looking solely at the passing game, where those standings move to seventh and 126th, respectively. Simply put, VT’s passing defense hardly lets offenses get what they want, but when they do, they get everything.
Seeing as Washington is probably the best big-play threat in the country, one would logically expect to see some fireworks from number 28 in turn. And I think that’s about what should be forecasted for this game – one or two big plays and relative silence otherwise, because that Hokie pass defense is still quite solid (it ranked in the top 20 despite its striking vulnerability to big plays).
This game will serve more as an entertainment experience than an opportunity to evaluate Washington for me. In two seasons, he’s shown time and time again how deadly he is with deep balls, and how seemingly limited he is in other departments. He has about as long of a track record as any draft prospect, so with little left to prove or unearth, I’m taking the opportunity to watch college football’s most thrilling receiver one last time. Thankfully, VaTech’s high risk, high reward pass defense should cater to my demands.
James Washington is a pretty simple football player: He’s limited, but elite at what he does well, he puts up huge numbers, and he’s one of college football’s most fun players. At this point, his strengths and weaknesses are pretty well-known. Combine scores will be interesting for him (as is the case with any NFL prospect), but landing spot will be a huge determinant for him, as a prospective deep threat.
In light of that, it’s hard to confidently put a price tag on him, but assuming an average landing spot, I’d put him at a late first rounder in dynasty drafts, who provides more value to an NFL team by stretching the field, than to fantasy teams.
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