Every year, it seems, we read positive, if not glowing reports of Pittsburgh Steelers fullback/tight end Will Johnson, particularly as it pertains to his ability to escape coverage from linebackers and catch the ball as a receiving threat. And yet once the season rolls around, it never much materializes, and we always think “maybe next year”.
Maybe he will be more involved in the offense in 2015. But I’m leaning toward the negative side of that equation for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which being that he really isn’t needed in the passing game.
The Steelers have a starting tight end and starting running back that each caught at least 65 passes for at least 750 yards and three touchdowns apiece. Where are his targets going to come from, when speaking practically? Ben Roethlisberger already threw a career high in passes last year, and that earned Johnson nine targets and six receptions.
Of equal, if not greater concern is the fact that Johnson can be expected to be in stiff competition for snaps behind the top two tight ends after the Steelers used their fifth-round draft pick on 6’7” tight end Jesse James, whom the team seems to be rather fond of.
In spite of the fact that he wasn’t used a great deal in the passing offense in college, the coaching staff, including tight ends coach James Daniel, talked about his receiving ability and the opportunity that he has to be a contributor in the red zone due to his size.
What exactly are Johnson’s distinguishing characteristics? He lacks the true size of a tight end target, but he’s not as agile or aloof as Le’Veon Bell out of the backfield, who caught 83 passes last season. Despite the fact that he may have talent, it seems difficult to find him many opportunities, even in theory.
The Steelers rarely used three tight end sets last season to begin with as their packages become increasingly dominated by three wide receiver looks, so opportunities will be hard to come by. Adding to the equation an intriguing and physically gifted rookie who has a pronounced height advantage as an intangible in his favor makes it difficult to imagine his productivity seeing much of an upward trend.
In fact, I could see that becoming a regular battle on game day between Johnson and James, who offer varying yet similar skill sets as blockers, trying to divvy up the scarce reps that exist for those few plays that call for more than two tight end bodies on the field.
Of course, it goes without saying that this rests on the assumption that the rookie James develops as well as anticipated, if not better, and that the coaching staff is immediately comfortable in allowing him to see playing time and targets.
That is a case that he will get the chance to make during the preseason, where he does have some competition for his roster spot. After all, we have seen in recent years that being drafted in the fifth round is far from being a lock to make the final 53-man roster—or to stay there for very long.