Player: Will Johnson
Position: Fullback/Tight End
Experience: 3 Years
Free Agent Status: Restricted
2014 Salary Cap Hit: $570,000
2014 Season Breakdown: Will Johnson still may not be getting the number of snaps that his play deserves, but it wouldn’t be fair to say that the Steelers don’t value his contributions to the offensive side of the ball.
In fact, after seeing his already limited playing time reduced from year one to year two, the Steelers worked to make him more flexible, moving him out of the fullback role and shifting him to the end of the line, working as a tight end for most of the offseason, which allowed the offense to move him around.
The third-year player still didn’t see the number of snaps that he would care for—a little over 200 or so—and about three quarters of those saw him serving in the role of blocker, mostly for the running game, but also, occasionally, in pass protection.
As a run blocker, however, he put in some good work, helping to lead Le’Veon Bell on some of his biggest games on the ground during the season, all the while only struggling to play about 15 to 20 snaps per game.
In these instances, of course, Johnson is typically serving in the role of the third tight end, meaning that the Steelers would only have one wide receiver on the field. That’s not something that happens too often for teams with a franchise quarterback, let alone teams with six wide receivers on the roster.
The fact that Johnson is an athletic player who does have some receiving ability helped him see more playing time, but he still only caught six passes last season for 41 yards. As a rookie, he caught 15 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown.
With Bell out for the Wildcard game, the Steelers did turn to Johnson to convert a critical short-yardage scenario on fourth and one after the quarterback sneak on third and one failed. The fullback plowed ahead and kept his legs churning for three yards.
Johnson is a player who can do a little bit of everything, from blocking, to receiving, to running, to contributing on special teams. Even if he doesn’t get used with great frequency in this passing offense, he has plenty of value to this team.
Free Agency Outlook: Is that value enough to warrant an outright tender of an RFA tag worth just north of $1.5 million? It’s possible, but I don’t look at that as a guarantee. The Steeler may well pass up the opportunity and allow him to hit free agency, hoping to re-sign him at that time.
The Steelers also have to re-sign Matt Spaeth, but it’s also true that they currently don’t have anybody else who could consistently fulfill the role of fullback, even if that position has gone nearly extinct in the Steelers’ offense. Whether or not he’s back as a restricted free agent, I do expect him to be back, with not much of a market league-wide for his services.