As Dave Bryan wrote about recently, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson has a chance in the season finale to break the franchise record for the most receptions recorded by a rookie. With 55 receptions now, he is within striking distance with seven to go.
He can also accomplish the rare feat of leading the team in touchdown receptions outright as a rookie, which has not been done since tight end Eric Green did so back in 1990. Mike Wallace shared the team lead in receptions during his rookie season of 2009, but did not lead outright.
Following his 29-yard touchdown at the end of the first half on Sunday, Johnson now has a two-score lead over all other skill position players for receptions. But he only has five. Should he finish with just five, and nobody else passes him, that will be the fewest to lead the team since Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year in 2004.
Unsurprisingly, this is the first season since then in which the Steelers are playing with inexperienced quarterbacks. Since Roethlisberger’s injury, nobody has thrown a pass in 2019 for the Steelers who had ever thrown one in a meaningful professional game before.
Johnson came to the Steelers by way of the 2019 NFL Draft, selected with the 66th-overall pick early in the third round. Pittsburgh acquired that selection from the trade of Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders, which also yielded the pick that was turned into tight end Zach Gentry, who has one reception on the season and has been a healthy scratch most weeks.
Through 15 games, the Toledo product has 55 receptions on 85 targets for 626 yards, averaging 11.4 yards per reception, with the five touchdowns. He and second-year wide receiver James Washington have been vital over the past month-plus with JuJu Smith-Schuster on the sidelines.
In addition to his duties at wide receiver, Johnson also became the Steelers’ primary punt returner after Ryan Switzer was injured. Thanks largely due to an 85-yard touchdown, he is averaging 12.4 yards per punt return on the season, gaining 224 total yards on 18 returns. He is averaging 8.2 yards on the other 17 returns.
But Switzer averaged *squints in disbelief* 3.6 yards per punt return, so…upgrade.
While this 2019 campaign hasn’t quite been the Smith-Schuster breakout of 2017, during which he caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns, it’s been an overall promising start for Johnson, especially considering the fact that the quarterback position has been a rotating mess for almost the entire year, and that’s exciting for 2020 and beyond.