PITTSBURGH – The best player on the practice field Monday just wanted to make sure no one had forgotten about him.
Obviously, Nate Washington had little to cheer about on draft day. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted wide receivers in the first and third rounds, and here Washington had been thinking he was the young receiver to fill the void left by Antwaan Randle El.
Hadn't Washington shown enough promise last preseason? Hadn't he made everyone forget he was an undrafted rookie out of Tiffin by making two big plays in the AFC Championship game?
"I'm not going to lie. I was kind of down," Washington said of the day the Steelers drafted Santonio Holmes and Willie Reid. "Then I started looking at the bigger picture. Even if they didn't draft those guys, I was going to have to do my part. That's still going to have to work out that way. My first reaction was that I was kind of down, but I kept working every day as hard as I would have if they didn't draft them."
Washington went to see receivers coach Bruce Arians about his situation. Where did he fit?
"He told me I was going to be in the slot and I was going to be the No. 3 as of right now," Washington said. "He said that he'd be looking for me to step up and get into the offense."
That's what happened Monday. Working as the No. 3 receiver, Washington caught two deep bombs among other receptions at the fifth and final minicamp practice. He beat Ricardo Colclough with a double move on the first one; he beat free safety Ryan Clark on the second one after reading the defense and making an adjustment.
"It was supposed to be a middle post route but it turned into a seam with the defense we were facing," Washington said.
Was the performance a statement that the kid from Tiffin was no fluke last preseason?
"Actually," Washington said, "I messed up so bad the other day that I had to make up for it. But, you know, this showed them that I can play that position at the slot and they can count on me. That was what I really focused on today, to let them know that even though they've got me at the three-position that I'm not going to relax. I'm still trying to learn and get better each day."
Washington is a smooth-striding, sticky-fingered receiver with a knack for finding openings in the defense. Last preseason, Washington led the Steelers with eight catches for 108 yards. He played in only one regular-season game and didn't catch a pass, but after Quincy Morgan broke his leg in the first playoff game Washington stepped in. Against Denver, in the AFC Championship game, he caught a third-and-7 pass for 13 yards and broke up an interception on the Steelers' opening field-goal drive.
"It was definitely a big boost," Washington said. "It was also a sigh of relief. Whew! But I've got to go up now. I can't go back down. Yeah, it was a sigh of relief."
It's obvious Washington is a more confident receiver than he was a year ago.
"Last year I just wanted to prove to the team I could play on this level," Washington said. "But now I want to prove to the NFL I can play on this level. I want to show the whole world that small-school guys can do this.
"My work's not done. I'm still learning. I'm still trying to get better. Now, as soon as I mess up I know it. But I'm definitely getting more comfortable with the offense and starting to read the defenses. I'm making better adjustments now that I know how everything's working."
NOTES – The Steelers begin coaching sessions Wednesday. It will be the first of 14 voluntary practices that conclude June 8. Rookies Santonio Holmes, Mike Kudla and Marvin Philip will miss most, if not all, of the sessions because their senior classes have not graduated. Tight end Jon Dekker's class has not graduated at Princeton, but he has and is eligible to continue practicing.