ASHBURN — After every practice, Steven Sims goes to the jugs machine for some extra work. Technically, the Washington wide receiver catches about 200 passes.
But at some point, Sims loses count of the total. He stands there, shuffles his feet, uses his gloves to haul in the ball. Rinse, repeat. He goes until a member of the equipment staff tells him he’s reached the number.
Sims admittedly let his post-practice routine “slow down” in 2020. It was just one of the many ways the 24-year-old got off track in a down season in which he battled through injury, struggled to adjust to a new scheme and produced only 265 yards as Washington’s starting slot receiver.
“Last year wasn’t a great year for me,” Sims said. “I didn’t perform to a level that I believe in myself, nor my teammates nor the coaches.”
Sims’ unremarkable performance made him almost an afterthought when it came to Washington’s crowded wide receiver competition. This offseason, the team revamped the position, adding Curtis Samuel, Adam Humphries and DeAndre Carter in free agency and drafting third-rounder Dyami Brown and seventh-rounder Dax Milne. There are now a dozen receivers on the roster and likely only six, maybe seven, will remain when the team makes cuts in September.
But coaches are noticing him now.
Training camp has provided Sims a crucial opportunity to actually make a second impression. And Sims has done exactly that, coach Ron Rivera said.
This year, Rivera has noticed a player who is more explosive in underneath routes, a player who shakes off defenders in the middle and a player who stretches the field vertically. That, by all accounts, wasn’t Steven Sims in 2020. And it’s caused Rivera to rethink his perception of the third-year wideout.
“What you’re looking for is that next step,” Rivera said. “Did they learn from that last year? Are they improving from last year or are they digressing? And when you watch a guy like Steven perform the way he is, and has lately, you do see the jump. So that’s a huge step and it’s part of our judging and watching and grading as these guys go through it.”
This isn’t to say that Sims has locked down a roster spot. There are others — like 2020 fourth-rounder Antonio Gandy-Golden — on the bubble who have made similar strides.
But Sims resembles more of the player who popped in 2019 when he was an undrafted free agent and looked to be part of a young nucleus with Terry McLaurin and Kelvin Harmon, another guy fighting to make the roster.
Sims said the biggest difference is his health.
“Both of my toes feel wonderful,” he said.
Last year, toe injuries caused Sims to miss four games and when he returned, he lacked the burst that made the 5-foot-10 receiver a threat despite his smaller size.
The other aspect of Sims’ game that could work in his favor is the fact that he could possibly be a special teams ace. Washington needs someone to return punts and kicks, and Sims has been one of the four to five players trotted out there — alongside Carter, Milne, wideout Isaiah Wright and cornerback Danny Johnson. Presumably, one of the team’s six receivers would be involved in the return game.
As the team’s primary returner in 2019, Sims shined. He averaged 25.6 yards per on kickoffs and even took one to the house for 91 yards — good for Washington’s first return touchdown since 2015. But, like every other aspect of his game, he struggled a year later: He fumbled five times on returns, with Washington losing two of them.
“The No. 1 characteristic is efficiency,” said special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor. “And the biggest part of efficiency is catching the football. And as elementary as that sounds, that’s the most important thing because we’re getting the ball back for our offense. All we need to do is possess it. After efficiency, then we’re looking for explosion, because every step we take toward their goal line after we catch it is yards in our favor. So efficiency first, which includes ball security, reliability, and then explosion.
Sims will ultimately need to prove he can take care of the ball and produce in the passing game. Preseason games will be vital for Sims and the rest of the wideouts. They know that.
As of now, there seems to be no clear pecking order for the wideouts — other than McLaurin being established as the clear No. 1. Samuel (groin/COVID-19) will be the No. 2 when he returns, while Humphries and Brown seem to be near-locks as well. Sims, meanwhile, sometimes works with the second team and other times works with the 3s.
Rivera said the coaching staff is still determining how many receivers they will ultimately keep on the 53-man roster.
“That number will change,” as the competition churns along, he said.
For someone like Sims, all he can do is continue to work and hope coaches continue to pay attention. On Wednesday, Sims broke open to the middle of the field, caught the pass from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and raced for the would-be touchdown with only defenders behind him. The catch prompted a reaction from wide receivers coach Drew Terrell, who yelled out, “Yeah, Steve!”
Sims then trotted back to the sideline, ready for when he was called upon again.
“I know what [coaches] expect out of me,” Sims said. “I know what I’ve put on tape before, so I have to get back to that.”