This past offseason, the Dallas Cowboys decided to fully commit to CeeDee Lamb as their top wide receiver. That meant trading away Amari Cooper, watching Cedrick Wilson sign with the Dolphins, and re-signing Michael Gallup to a fairly team-friendly deal knowing his recovery from a torn ACL would limit him at the start of the season.
To make up for all of this attrition at the receiver position, the team brought in free agent James Washington before later drafting Jalen Tolbert. Expectations for Tolbert - a third-round pick out of South Alabama - were always pretty varied, but Washington came in with the expectation to start opposite Lamb.
Of course, Washington’s season got off to a bad start when he fractured his foot early in training camp. The Cowboys didn’t put him on their injured reserve until after the preseason, allowing him to return during the season. He was ultimately activated from injured reserve to play in two games before being made a healthy scratch in the next two, and on Wednesday he was officially released by the team.
There’s little question that the Washington signing turned out to be a total bust, but little of that has to do with Washington. The front office clearly believed in him during the summer, adding no one else during free agency, and early reports from OTA’s and training camp highlighted the chemistry that was quickly developing between Washington and Dak Prescott.
Washington came to Dallas from Pittsburgh, where he had struggled to breakthrough in a crowded receiving corps that featured an aging quarterback on the decline. Still, Washington had built a reputation as a reliable deep threat, averaging over 11 yards before the catch with an average depth of target (ADOT) of over 16 yards.
His numbers declined the next two years as the Steelers stopped featuring Washington as a deep threat as much, evidenced by his ADOT dropping to 12 yards. But Dallas had talked up his ability as a deep threat when they signed him, and Prescott showed an early interest in going deep to Washington in the few practices the two had during the preseason.
When the injury hit, it was an unfortunate circumstance that is generally unavoidable in this game. The same was true when Prescott got hurt in Week 1, but what gets forgotten is how bad the Cowboys’ passing game was in that game even before Prescott’s injury. There are a lot of reasons for that, but it’s easy to see how a legitimate deep threat - whether it’s Washington or Gallup - could have opened things up more for the offense.
Over the next five games, the offense continued to struggle despite the Cowboys stacking up wins. Things improved once Prescott returned to the field, but it was clear that the front office still wanted someone else at wide receiver. That’s why they began aggressively courting Odell Beckham Jr. before ultimately signing T.Y. Hilton.
What’s interesting, though, is that Hilton’s signing came just two days after Washington was activated from the injured reserve. The Cowboys didn’t even wait to see what Washington could do before they went after Hilton.
In between those two roster transactions, Washington made his season debut against the Texans, but he was on a pitch count. That count likely got reduced when the game ended up being closer than anticipated. In the end, Washington played on just 11 snaps. His lone target came on a quick slant that saw Washington get rocked as the ball hit his hands, turning it into an incomplete pass. That was it for the day: 11 snaps and one target.
Apparently that was all the Cowboys needed to bring in another competitor. While Hilton was ultimately inactive in the first game after he signed with the team, it still didn’t translate to a bigger opportunity for Washington. In the game against the Jaguars, Washington saw just four snaps, a pretty big reduction in usage. He also wasn’t even targeted in that game.
Hilton came in and played the next week, and the veteran receiver has been exactly as promised. This isn’t an argument that the Cowboys shouldn’t ride the hot hand with Hilton, but it’s fair to wonder what exactly Washington could’ve done to actually get an opportunity. How do you go from being the “prize” free agent signing to being sidelined and, eventually, cut after just 15 snaps and one target in two games? Regardless of anyone’s opinions on Washington, he never even got a real chance to show what he could do.
It’s also an indictment of this front office that their best additions to this team have all come after the start of the season. Hilton has been impressive, and both Jason Peters and Johnathan Hankins have been positive pickups despite not playing a lion’s share of the snaps. Even Brett Maher - who leads the league in points scored - was picked up during the preseason. Meanwhile, players like Washington have been unable to make an impact and, as it seems, quickly given up on before actually having a chance to prove themselves.
The fact of the matter is that we’ll never know what Washington was capable of with the Cowboys. The odds were always unlikely that he’d truly fill the void left by Cooper, but he never even got a chance to try. No one is going to complain about Hilton being on this team right now, but it doesn’t change the way that the Cowboys let Washington down.