The Pessimist’s Take: Holding On To Will Johnson

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the pessimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Should free agent tight end/fullback Will Johnson still be in the Steelers’ plans?

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the first team to look Will Johnson’s say after he went not only undrafted, but unsigned during the league’s 2011 lockout season. The WVU product returned to his alma mater in 2012 to attend their Pro Day and drew the team’s attention, quickly signing him.

Since that time, however, it is undeniable that his role has only become less and less significant with each passing season, with his greatest impact for the Steelers actually coming during his rookie season—outside of a couple of head-scratching goal line carries in the season opener in 2015.

Even with the retirement of Heath Miller, one cannot say that the Steelers are hurting in his area of interest, as they have Matt Spaeth and Jesse James as blocking tight ends, with the latter a potential emerging receiving threat, and they also added pass-catching tight end Ladarius Green to the equation. In the pipeline already is practice squad tight end Xavier Grimble.

Equally significant was the emergence last season of fullback Roosevelt Nix, who basically forced the Steelers to actually use a true, traditional fullback. The 5’11”, 250-pound ball of aggression can root defenders out of a hole with a good head of steam in a way that no lead blocker has since Dan Kreider, even if he is in many ways still growing into his role.

All of this development around him somewhat left Johnson out in the cold last season, and he really did not see many snaps at all, especially in the second half of the season when James began to receive playing time.

The Steelers have expressed interest in possibly re-signing Johnson at some point, but for now, he is on the open market for anybody who is interested, and they likely would not put up any fight if another team wishes to sign him.

His biggest loss will be his special teams role, but even that role was, at least it seemed, beginning to be phased out toward the end of the year. Nix ended up playing more snaps on special teams than did Johnson. The bottom line is that it will probably come down to a numbers game, and they may not be able to afford to carry an extra tight end/fullback body on the roster this year.

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