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Can James Washington help the Steelers right away?

When the Steelers traded Martavis Bryant to the Raiders on Day 1 of the 2018 NFL draft, their priorities in the draft suddenly changed.

Yes, they still needed help on defense, which they addressed by stockpiling safeties. But with Bryant gone, wide receiver rocketed to the top of their list of needs, which is why they drafted James Washington from Oklahoma State in the second round.

The Steelers knew they weren’t going to have Bryant in 2019, so rather than lose him without getting anything in return, they swung the deal and were compensated with a third-round draft pick.

The problem is, now the Steelers don’t have Bryant in 2018. This is a field-stretching receiver who caught 50 passes last year and also caught 50 in 2015 before he was suspended in 2016.

All receivers listed below Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster on the Steelers’ depth chart have combined for 22 catches over the last two seasons.

Yeah, Le’Veon Bell essentially can be a No. 3 receiver, but he’s averaged 8.5 yards per reception in his career. He can’t replace the deep-threat element that Bryant provided.

The Steelers have a track record of success when it comes to drafting receivers. But Washington is the most urgent pick they’ve made at the position, at least during the Mike Tomlin Era. If he doesn’t make an instant impact, Brown and Smith-Schuster better get used to double coverage.

Washington was drafted with the 60th overall pick, two spots ahead of where the Steelers picked Smith-Schuster in 2017. If Washington has a rookie season similar to Smith-Schuster’s, the Steelers’ offense won’t miss a beat without Bryant.

But what if Washington turns out to be the next Sammie Coates or (gulp) Limas Sweed, who at No. 53 in 2008 was the highest pick the Steelers have made at the position during the Tomlin Era?

Considering those aforementioned busts, it’s fair to wonder if the Steelers really do have a knack for drafting receivers, or if Brown is just an outlier and everyone else is a crapshoot.

To look a little deeper, we applied the same method that we used in a previous article when we analyzed the Steelers’ overall draft record and applied it only to wide receivers.

With the help of Pro Football Reference, we looked at every receiver the Steelers have drafted since 2007, when Tomlin was hired as head coach. We tallied First Team All-Pro seasons, Pro Bowl seasons and “primary starter” seasons and compared it to the rest of the league.

The tandem of Tomlin and Kevin Colbert has drafted 12 wide receivers. We’re not counting Dri Archer as a receiver. He was used more as a running back.

Those 12 receivers combine for 72 potential seasons in the NFL. For example, Smith-Schuster has had one potential NFL season. Brown has had eight potential NFL seasons because he was drafted in 2010. Sweed counts for 10 potential seasons even though he only played two.

Of those 72 seasons, four have been All-Pro, all of them belonging to Brown. That’s 5.5 percent.

League-wide, 1.6 percent of potential wide receiver seasons have ended with All-Pro honors.

Steelers drafts since 2007 have yielded Pro Bowl seasons from wide receivers at a rate of 12.5 percent. League-wide, that number is 3.9 percent.

Steelers receivers drafted by the team have become starters 30.6 percent of the time compared to 18.8 percent in the league overall.

These numbers include the entire careers of Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders. Both have logged multiple seasons as a starter since leaving the Steelers and Sanders has become a Pro Bowler twice.

Taking that into account, the Steelers’ Pro Bowl rate is 9.7 percent, still more than twice the league average, and their starter rate is 18.1 percent, pretty much on par with the rest of the league.

Yes, the Steelers’ magic touch with receivers is due mostly to Brown. On the other hand, our statistical model doesn’t give the Steelers credit for Smith-Schuster’s success since PFR didn’t count him as a starter last year.

The Steelers must have some kind of an eye for receivers if they unearthed Brown in the sixth round in 2010, and there is something that Washington has in common with Brown.

Both filled up the stat sheet in college.

Washington led the nation with 1,549 receiving yards in 2017. He caught 13 touchdown passes after catching 10 in both 2015 and 2016. His reception total went up each year, from 28 in 2014 to 53 in 2015 to 71 in 2016 to 74 last season.

Going back to 1956, Washington is seventh in NCAA history with 4,472 receiving yards.

Brown caught 305 passes in three years at Central Michigan, including 110 for 1,198 yards and nine touchdowns in 2009.

Smith-Schuster was no slouch at USC. He caught 89 passes for 1,454 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015 and followed that up with 70 catches for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016.

When it came to Bryant and Coates, the Steelers looked past modest college numbers and became enamored with SEC receivers with deep-threat potential.

Bryant caught just 61 passes in three years at Clemson, averaging 22.2 yards per reception. Coates caught 82 passes in three years at Auburn and averaged 21.4 yards per catch.

That draft strategy worked for Bryant, but not for Coates. Wallace was another SEC home run threat, but he was a cut above the other two in terms of his college stats. He caught 101 passes in three years at Mississippi.

Washington averaged 19.8 yards per reception at Oklahoma State, almost a yard more than Wallace’s 18.9 clip, and his 226 receptions in four years were only 18 less than Wallace, Bryant and Coates combined.

Of the 12 receivers the Steelers have drafted since 2007, Sanders is second only to Brown with his 285 college catches. Even though he’s no longer with the Steelers he turned out to be a strong third-round pick in 2010.

Markus Wheaton, a third-rounder chosen in 2013, is third on that list with 227 college receptions. He’s no success story but he wasn’t a flat-out bust, either. He did combine for 97 catches in 2014 and 2015.

Washington is right behind Wheaton with his 226 receptions at Oklahoma State and Smith-Schuster is the only other receiver the Steelers have drafted since 2007 with more than 200 collegiate receptions. He had 213.

So it appears that an emphasis on college production is a key to the Steelers’ acumen when it comes to drafting receivers, and Washington has the numbers on his side.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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