One of the mantras of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2019 draft class was versatility. Devin Bush is a three down linebacker. Isaiah Buggs is someone who can play up and down the line. The linebackers are athletic, possibly position-flexible, and could become prized special teamers. Even their 7th round pick, OT Derwin Gray, may wind up playing guard.
So for Kevin Colbert, taking wide receiver Diontae Johnson in the 3rd round was practically a no-brainer. The versatility he showed at Toledo makes him a great fit for the Steelers’ offense. Colbert spoke to that flexibility in an interview with Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio.
“The thing that was interesting about Diontae, Mike, was that he’s played inside, he’s played outside, and he’s done kicks and punt returns,” Colbert said. “So there’s four things we liked about him from an ability and production standpoint. So when we looked at him, he can cover a lot of bases for us.”
Johnson has versatility that James Washington didn’t have last year. As Dave Bryan wrote about time and time again after the pick, Washington played just one side of Oklahoma State’s offense. In Pittsburgh, and most NFL offenses for that matter, receivers have to be able to move around. Either to generate a better matchup for themselves or for someone else. You move one player, you move someone else. And that’s one reason why Washington may have struggled transitioning to the NFL. From that standpoint, Johnson should have an easier time, even if he’s coming from a smaller conference.
He should also be in the mix for kick and punt returns. While the punt return game with Ryan Switzer wasn’t terrible last year, it failed to produce many splash plays, his long return was just 23 yards, while the kick return game was abysmal for the second year in a row. That’s not entirely on Switzer, the return game is a unit and operation, not decided by one man, but it’s worth exploring other options. In college, Johnson averaged 23 yards per kick and 20 yards per punt, finding the end zone twice in both areas.
Colbert was then asked to compare Johnson to any of the many receivers he’s drafted and signed throughout his Steelers’ career. Predictably and understandably, Colbert passed on the opportunity.
“I never like to compare and make expectations for these guys. Of course, everyone will compare him to Antonio because of the similar size and similar level of competition and the similar production. But we always like to let the players dictate their own reputations over time and we’re confident Diontae will.”
Grouping AB and Johnson makes sense on a surface level. Small dudes from the MAC who can do their damage after the catch. But there are key differences. Brown arguably has much better hands and even more critically, is a much stronger player. His ability to break tackles and work out of the grasp of cornerbacks, even bigger ones, was one of the many reasons why he demanded so much attention.
Of course, Brown wasn’t that strong coming out of college. He added weight and muscle during his career with a work ethic that most couldn’t match. If Johnson can take a similar path, he’ll be the next in line for the next home run the Steelers have drafted at wideout.