Player: Steven Johnson
Position: Inside Linebacker
Free Agent Status: Unrestricted
2016 Salary Cap Hit: $515,588
2016 Season Breakdown:
We are now toward the end of our list of the Steelers’ unrestricted free agents, now in keeping with the two players remaining with that designation that have already been re-signed. We just did the exit meeting for Greg Warren, however, so today we’ll start with Steven Johnson, who was one of the players that the team signed in unrestricted free agency from outside of their organization.
If there was one outside free agent signing who was likely to miss the roster, it was Johnson, and, in fact, he actually did find himself released with the final round of cuts, though there is a bit of a caveat to that, as they needed his roster spot to put Bud Dupree on injured reserve with a return designation.
Johnson was re-signed soon after that as the sixth inside linebacker and a special teamer (I believe his release also cleared the Steelers of a $15K roster bonus he would have been paid), but he was still inactive early in the season.
Injuries began to become a factor, however, and he finally got a hat, thereafter making the most of his opportunity. He was active for five or six games and quickly racked up six tackles on special teams in addition to forcing a fumble that the Steelers recovered. He was also responsible for downing multiple punts, just from memory.
It got to a point where when the team needed to open up another roster spot, they released L.J. Fort instead of him, even though Fort had been working with the second-team defense, and even received playing time on defense in the regular season.
But soon after Johnson suffered an injury that landed him on injured reserve and prematurely ended his first season with the Steelers. They still have numbers at the inside linebacker position, but the fact that the team already re-signed him is a good sign.
Free Agency Outlook:
One-year, veteran-minimum deals are easy to get done, so it’s never a surprise to see a couple of them get done well in advance of free agency, but there were probably some who were surprised by the fact that Johnson was one of those who got re-signed so quickly.
Johnson was a late-March signing by the team last year, and they didn’t even give him a complete signing bonus, instead making some of it a roster bonus, which shows how vulnerable his hypothetical roster spot really might have been.
But he clearly showed to the team how valuable he could be in the chunk of the season that he got the opportunity to play, and it seems likely that he is going to serve as a core member of the Steelers’ special teams units this year. He was, after all, brought in because of his ability to play so many different roles in that aspect of the game. And yes, he did get the maximum signing bonus this year that still qualifies for the veteran-minimum cap hit discount, which with the bonus is just under $700,000 in 2017.