Now that training camp is underway, and the roster for the offseason is close to finalized—though always fluid—it’s time to take stock of where the Pittsburgh Steelers stand. Specifically where Steelers players stand individually based on what we have seen happen over the course of the past few months.
A stock evaluation can take a couple of different approaches and I’ll try to make clear my reasonings. In some cases it will be based on more long-term trends, such as an accumulation of offseason activity. In other instances it will be a direct response to something that just happened. So we can see a player more than once over the course of the summer as we move forward.
Player: WR Diontae Johnson
Stock Value: Up
The Steelers have drafted a wide receiver between the 60th and the 66th pick of the draft in each of the past three seasons. That started with JuJu Smith-Schuster 62nd overall in 2017. Then it was James Washington 60th overall last year. In 2019, it was Diontae Johnson at 66, early in the third round, but very much in the same range.
The team is really hoping that Johnson’s rookie season falls somewhere in between the two. Obviously they can’t expect him to put up immediate numbers the way Smith-Schuster did—58 catches for 917 yards and seven touchdowns—but he has to be a bigger contributor than was Washington a year ago.
In two games, he has been targeted nine times, catching four passes for 42 yards, with a long of 17 yards. He dropped one of those targets last week, of four, but the other two were uncatchable. He caught three of five in the opener but for just 25 yards.
He is obviously showing the Steelers something that they like to see, however. His playing time ticked upward last week, though that came largely at the expense of Donte Moncrief after he dropped yet another pass, this one turning into an interception off the deflection. On Friday, he himself revealed the team’s plans to put him in the starting lineup.
After Moncrief’s miscue, he didn’t play another snap for the remaining 24 that the Steelers had on offense. Johnson, however, played 21 of them, and the three on which he did not play were one-receiver sets. Washington was the lone receiver on two of them—running plays—and Johnny Holton the other.
He also made an appearance on special teams. After Ryan Switzer muffed a punt, the Steelers allowed Johnson to return punts for the rest of the game. He was only on the field for two snaps, fielding one punt and returning it for 11 yards, but we’ll see if he continues that role.
The question was, do they think he’s ready to start? The answer might by only a hesitant ‘maybe, but there’s no better alternative’. They threw Washington into the fire last year. Now they’ll be doing it to Johnson, from appearances. The Steelers need somebody who can create space with his route-running. That’s Johnson.