The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t draft Diontae Johnson in the third round because they saw him as their next returner. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t use him there if he proves to be the best option, especially if he begins the regular season without a significant role in the offense.
While he doesn’t have to worry about making the roster, he does have to earn every role that he gets this year. And before he can even thinking about playing on both offense and special teams as a returner at the same time, there is one important thing that he has to show: excellent conditioning.
That’s a point that special teams coordinator Danny Smith raised during the spring process, as Mike Prisuta recently highlighted in an article for the team’s website. As you might recall, Johnson was limited to mostly individual drills through rookie minicamp and much of OTAs because of a bothersome hamstring.
I don’t want to bad-rap the kid, but you saw some hamstring issues early (in rookie minicamp and OTAs). So can he? I don’t know. He’s gotta be in tip-top shape. You talk about being a wide receiver, a punt returner, a kick returner in this league? Your ‘hams’ better be in pretty good shape. He’s gotta understand that. I think that’s a maturation process. I think he’s gotta learn that.
It’s no coincidence that there is a strong correlation between rookies who have had big roles recently and those who have shown an excellent level of conditioning, such as Terrell Edmunds, T.J. Watt, and JuJu Smith-Schuster over the course of the past two drafts.
Especially for a wide receiver such as the Toledo product who relies so heavily upon his short-area quickness to gain separation, nagging soft-tissue injuries can be your worst enemy, so it goes without saying that his coaches are going to be greatly anticipating how he looks through the first week of training camp.
“We’ll see what kind of shape he comes back in and how much he can do them all”, Smith added. “Can he carry that load remains to be seen”.
Fortunately, the clock is rapidly ticking, and the Steelers will be reporting to Latrobe just days from now, and I’m sure I don’t have to say that that has been long-awaited. While the conditioning test has to wait a bit longer, I’m certainly hoping that he has no issues passing it right off the bat.
Johnson was the third-round pick that the team got in return for Antonio Brown, and will ideally be part of the solution of replacing the All-Pro’s on-field production. Joining him in that endeavor around Smith-Schuster are second-year wide receiver James Washington and veteran free agent signing Donte Moncrief as the top-billed options.