Will Johnson is entering his fourth season with the Pittsburgh Steelers after signing with the team a year removed from college as an undrafted free agent. He initially won the job for the fullback position during the preseason by default when David Johnson, who converted from tight end, tore his ACL.
Since then, the Steelers have been slowly transitioning Will Johnson more and more to the role of tight end, to the point where the majority of his 200-some snaps that he took during the 2014 season were served in that role, as an in-line blocking tight end, most often in 11 personnel sets.
Part of the reason that Todd Haley and the Steelers have been stretching out the 6’2”, 238-pounder is to get him on the field more often, with the offense increasingly relying upon the no huddle, which makes it more difficult to swap personnel.
I don’t expect that to change this season either, of course. The team’s base package on offense has essentially become a three-receiver set, and I don’t imagine that we will see the tight end position being given greater emphasis now with the set of receivers that they have in tow.
Despite the fact that the Steelers have drafted two tight ends in the past two drafts, however, I do expect that Johnson will continue to see the vast bulk of the work when a third tight end is called for. Consider the fact that Michael Palmer, ostensibly the third tight end last year, was limited to just 30 snaps.
Either rookie Jesse James or Rob Blanchflower will make the roster at tight end, surely, but they will find it very difficult to find playing time behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, and Johnson will likely get the majority of looks in run-blocking situations out of the 11 set.
Where he will likely lose some snaps will probably be in the red zone, where the Steelers have identified James as a potential contributor there, given his 6’7” frame, who is said to have more upside as a pass catcher than the equally tall Spaeth.
Despite the fact that he was used a bit more in 2014 than in the previous season—during which he showed major strides in terms of his blocking ability—his offensive skillset was once again underutilized, catching just six passes for 41 yards and no touchdowns.
During his first two seasons, he combined for 23 receptions 178 yards, and two touchdowns, with the majority of that actually coming during his rookie year. But with the Steelers having five players gain over 500 yards receiving last year, it’s hard to keep everybody involved.
We hear it every offseason that the Steelers want to get Johnson more involved, and we have had some reports already this year that he has been looking good during OTAs, but once the season rolls around, it doesn’t really translate into many routes, let alone targets. Whether or not that changes, I do expect him to keep pace with his snap count from last season as he holds off the young tight ends.