The Pittsburgh Steelers lost yet another one of their own free agents yesterday when former H-back Will Johnson reportedly agreed to terms with the New York Giants on a two-year contract. While the Steelers have addressed the tight end position, and fullback position, in the draft and free agency over the course of the past two offseasons, there were reports that they maintained interest in retaining Johnson, whom they originally signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012.
In contrast to the Steelers, the Giants would seem to have a major need at tight end after their own recent free agent acquisition, Daniel Fells, suffered what is likely a career-ending MRSA infection that required numerous surgeries on his foot and ankle.
As for the Steelers, Johnson sort of lost his place in the offense with the emergence of fullback Roosevelt Nix, who made the 53-man roster due to his special teams contributions but maintained a fairly regular presence as a lead blocker on offense.
Over the course of the second half of the season, rookie tight end Jesse James emerged and began logging the snaps that Johnson would otherwise have taken. The Steelers appear to have their top three tight end positions well in hand at this point, with even a fourth, practice squad player whose name has circulated drawing the coaches’ interest.
It almost seemed as though the more the coaching staff spoke of their fondness of Johnson and his abilities, the less he was able to see the field. After initially starting as a fullback primarily during the course of his first two seasons, and seeing his snap count decrease in year two as the team used more 11 personnel, they began to convert him to tight end.
Johnson saw the bulk of his work at tight end in 2014 in the hopes of making him more available to the coaching staff in no huddle situations, during which it is more difficult to negotiate a variety of personnel in and out of the game, but that only had a modest effect on his playing time.
Due primarily to the emergence of Nix and James, Johnson’s snap count on offense plummeted in 2015, and the Steelers never fully fleshed out the receiving ability that was regularly spoken of during the spring, with coaches occasionally referencing his consistent ability to beat any linebacker in the pass-catching portion of the backs on backers drills.
Perhaps Johnson will finally get some of the opportunities that he was unable to get in Pittsburgh now that he is with the Giants, one of the more stable franchises, and most similarly structured to the Steelers. He is certainly a player who deserves the opportunity to apply for a larger role.
In the meantime, Pittsburgh will be tasked with finding yet another key replacement player on special teams, as the former undrafted free agent played a prominent role in that area of the game as well. No doubt he will continue to serve in that capacity with the Giants.