We relayed a report yesterday from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler that the Pittsburgh Steelers are interested in bringing back veteran tight end/h-back David Johnson. The eight-year veteran has spent six of those seasons with Pittsburgh—the first five and the most recent—as well as two seasons with the Chargers.
Following Heath Miller’s retirement and the realization that injuries would end Matt Spaeth’s career, the Steelers decided to bring back Johnson, signing him in the middle of May after the draft to a one-year, veteran-minimum qualifying contract with no signing bonus. He would have to compete to earn his roster spot, but that proved not to be an issue.
In spite of the fact that Johnson’s return in 2017 would likely entail a similar contract, there was a significant number bemoaning the fact that the Steelers were interested in retaining him, so I thought that I should offer up a defense for why I believe he is more and deserving of being re-signed to compete once again for a roster spot.
And, just to be clear, being re-signed does not mean making the 53-man roster, although I would expect that he has a pretty strong chance of doing so. He fills a niche that is otherwise lacking on the roster, as he is not only the only other player capable of playing fullback, he is also the team’s best blocker from the tight end position, and that fact dictated how they used him late in the season.
To that latter point, I would like to illustrate this matter by citing my charting notes. In the postseason, on every single occasion in which they used the 21 personnel formation—that is, one tight end, one running back, and in this case, a fullback—the Steelers replaced Jesse James with Johnson as the lone tight end. Even when they used the 22 personnel, they used Chris Hubbard as the additional lineman instead of James.
To me, that says quite a bit about how they feel about their current tight end group and where they fit within the framework of their offense. Johnson had a defined role as a run-blocking tight end by the end of the season, and he had plenty of other opportunities to contribute besides.
Johnson is one of the most versatile players that the Steelers had on their roster. Not only is he capable of successfully serving as a lead blocker out of the backfield, it is also a role that he can carry out as a pulling tight end from the back side of a run sweep.
Even though he is shorter than you would like for a tight end, Johnson is well-built and has long arms. Add in the fact that he is an aggressive blocker who plays through the whistle, and you have a player that mitigates his supposed liability.
Johnson is a capable player as both an in-line and in-space blocker from the tight end position, and when called upon, he can actually catch the ball, too. His weight loss in the offseason has added some athleticism that many probably wouldn’t expect.
But you don’t have to take just my word on the sort of attributes that Johnson brings to the table. You can also take my gifs, which are culled from the film sessions that I did on him over the course of the year. Frankly, I wish I had done more. I would be happy to have him on the roster again in 2017. I’ll hasten to note that the point is in some cases to focus on his performance and not the end result of the play.