Fantasy Football: Is James Washington actually the Steelers breakout wide receiver for 2020?

Steelers, James Washington, Fantasy Football
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

With Ben Roethlisberger only playing two games last year, it’s a wonder any Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver registered on the fantasy football radar at all. Diontae Johnson wound up leading the team in targets (92), receptions (59) and touchdowns (five). With a nice finishing stretch (WR12 in full PPR from Week 14-17), Johnson’s a popular breakout candidate for 2020. But don’t forget about James Washington.

Washington is entering his third season. He saw little action as a rookie (16 catches on 38 targets over 14 games), so last year (44 receptions for a team-high 735 yards and three touchdowns) qualifies as progress.

Divide Washington’s 2019 in half, well seven games and then eight since he played 15 games, and here’s how it looks. (h/t to Steelers Depot).

First 7 games: 14 receptions for 230 yards and 0 TD (31 targets-4.4 per game); 16.4 yards per catch, 45.2 percent catch rate, 253 snaps (36.1 per game)

Final 8 games: 30 receptions for 505 yards and 3 TD (49 targets-6.1 per game); 16.8 yards per catch, 61.4 percent catch rate, 381 snaps (47.6 snaps per game)

An upgrade in quarterback with a hopefully healthy Roethlisbrger will be good for the entire Pittsburgh offense. Even as the No. 3 or No. 4 wide receiver behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, Johnson and possibly rookie Chase Claypool, Washington’s catch rate will naturally improve from last year’s 55 percent.

It’s dangerous to blindly project. But if you double Washington’s second half production last year, you get 60 receptions for 1,010 yards and six touchdowns on 98 targets. It should be noted he went catchless on three targets in Week 17. The 16-game pace over the previous seven contests was 69 receptions for 1,154 yards and seven touchdowns on 105 targets, which would have been good enough to be WR13 in full PPR through Week 16 last year. The Week 17 full season projection would have been WR22 in full PPR.

Pro Football Focus’ numbers look to be a bit off, but there’s still a telling set of statistics in this tweet thread.

Even without the realistic prospect for 100 targets, Washington is well in line for 80-90 looks this year. Around 60 catches and 750-800 yards with five or six touchdowns is a realistic expectation, with some potential for more as he may then push toward similar numbers to Johnson.

Fantasy ADP: James Washington vs. Diontae Johnson

In line with the breakout hype, Johnson has nearly pushed into the seventh round in full PPR mocks now (pick 8.01, WR31 via Fantasy Football Calculator). In standard 12-team leagues Johnson drops to WR48 on FF Calculator, and there’s Washington down at WR61 (pick 13.08). Fantasy Pros ADP is similar, with Johnson and WR45 and Washington at WR67 in standard scoring (WR39 and WR77 respectively in full PPR).

Drafting Johnson requires a WR3/WR4 investment on draft day, and a pretty full belief in a looming breakout in line with that. Washington is going to essentially be free at the end of drafts, as an all upside pick who quickly becomes waiver wire fodder if the best-care scenario doesn’t at least show signs of happening early.

Some fantasy football analysts, like Heath Cummings of CBS Sports, are already off the Johnson hype train for this year. I was never really in on Johnson, so it’s not even a pivot for me to tab Washington as the potential breakout fantasy wide receiver for the Steelers I’d rather take a chance on in 2020.