Player: Will Johnson
Position: Fullback/Tight End
Free Agent Status: Unrestricted
2015 Salary Cap Hit: $1,542,000
2015 Season Breakdown: We’re now starting to get more into the meat of the free agency discussion, touching on players who have or have had bigger roles and potentially bigger futures with the team. That list actually does include Will Johnson when you consider that two of the Steelers’ three tight end will be encroaching upon their mid-30s this season, in the final year of their contracts.
In contrast, Johnson will turn 28 in November in his fifth season with the team, even if his playing time has actually been on a generally downward trajectory since he entered the league. He won the fullback position by default as a rookie due to injury and logged close to 400 snaps, that year also catching 15 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown.
Since then, the Steelers have been able to find fewer and fewer uses for him as his usage rate has declined. He went from eight catches and a touchdown in 2013 to six catches in 2014, and then just two last year. He did not record a touchdown pass, although he did catch one for a two-point conversion.
He also served in the season opener as the team’s goal line back, though despite the fact that he did score a touchdown, I would not deem his performance as overly successful in that role.
The Steelers introduced two new players that significantly curtailed his role in 2015: fullback Roosevelt Nix and tight end Jesse James. Johnson had already been converting to tight end, with the vast majority of his snaps in 2014 coming in that role, so Nix’s introduction was not necessarily a huge change in that sense, but it still took him off the field in all but X3 sets.
And then at about mid-season, the Steelers began using James as the third tight end, rather than Johnson, who only managed to log a handful of snaps down the stretch. He even made a cameo at fullback after Nix was injured.
Players such as Nix even chipped away a bit at Johnson’s special teams snaps, which were on a slight decline, but were still significant, and he remains a primary player on the majority of the team’s special teams units, a fact that should not be glazed over.
Free Agency Outlook: With Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth aging and drawing near the end of their careers, the Steelers have a potential player in Johnson to help bridge the gap to the next generation. While it seems that Nix nor James are in much jeopardy of being unseated, it would not be a surprise if, in light of this, they again continue to carry five fullback/tight end bodies.
Where this would go immediately wrong, of course, is if the Steelers draft another tight end, as they did with James in the fifth round, who looks to have the potential to be a contributor. But he can still be retained to compete for a roster spot for potentially as low as a veteran-minimum deal.