The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: Diontae Johnson will have a more accomplished rookie season than James Washington.
Explanation: The Steelers have had a lot of success getting productive rookie years out of wide receivers, including JuJu Smith-Schuster, Martavis Bryant, and Mike Wallace, but that isn’t always the case. Last year’s second-round pick, James Washington, struggled for much of the year in spite of extensive playing time before coming on in the final few weeks of the season.
He will not only have a better rookie season than Washington did, Johnson may even have a better 2019 season than Washington. The Steelers were reportedly very high on the Toledo wide receiver, giving him a first-round grade, and his college production came with worse quarterback play.
The clearest reason that he will be more successful as a rookie, however, is that his skill set is more conducive to doing so. He is a more nuanced and creative route runner with better separation skills in the short areas of the field, which will give him opportunities to get open.
That’s not necessarily Washington’s game, as he clearly struggled with his routes and in rounding them off during his rookie season. In addition to that, Johnson is entering a wide receiver room in which there is only one truly established player in Smith-Schuster. He may not see as many snaps as Washington did last season, but he should be more productive with them.
While it’s true that there are some roles to be sorted out, it’s also true that Johnson comes into the group with the least amount of experience. Washington already has a year under his belt now and grew in confidence and understanding of the offense late last season, so should compete for a starting job.
Add in a veteran like Donte Moncrief who could be the number two or three receiver and the reliable slot options in Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers, and it quickly becomes obvious that Johnson’s immediate path to playing time is far from clear-cut. If he doesn’t win a returner job, he might not even dress during the early portions of the season unless he shows a lot of polish right out of the gate. He still has to prove he has the requisite skill level, coming from the MAC.