Even though Antonio Brown basically forced the Pittsburgh Steelers to ship him Federal Express across the country, the team still felt that it was in a good position in the passing game. JuJu Smith-Schuster was emerging as a star with a 111-catch, 1426-yard Pro Bowl season. Vance McDonald was coming off a career year. They added Donte Moncrief in free agency, who would flourish with Ben Roethlisberger, An Actual Good Quarterback.
None of that went according to script. Roethlisberger’s elbow injury became too much by the end of the first half of the second game. A busted finger early in training camp for Moncrief doomed him to the drops, which eventually led to the team dropping him to save a third-round compensatory pick. McDonald and Smith-Schuster had seasons well, well, well below the projected par. Even considering the quarterback position, they underwhelmed.
Yet in a way, all of these factors—perhaps short of Roethlisberger’s injury—allowed for the emergence of Diontae Johnson, the rookie third-round draft pick out of Toledo, who was pretty much Darryl Drake’s handpicked guy.
Even under the typical best-case scenario drawn up, Johnson would have figured to have spent at least the majority of his rookie season as no better than the number three receiver, and much of that would be as the number four or lower, more realistically. Yet at a certain point, they needed bodies, and he had one. So he played. And he produced. He fit right in.
“I feel like I fit in perfect”, in fact, he told reporters earlier this week. “The offense that we run, the coaches, I’m comfortable around them”, he added, admitting, “I wasn’t expecting to be in this position this early, but opportunities come around and it’s just what you do with them. And I took advantage of it”.
Johnson finished his rookie season playing in all 16 games, despite suffering a nasty concussion along the way. He caught 59 passes for 680 receiving yards and scored five receiving touchdowns. The receptions and receiving touchdowns led the team, while the yardage was second. He also recorded 41 rushing yards on four carries.
Toward the latter stages of the season, after Ryan Switzer was injured, he also became the team’s primary punt returner, and through some growing pains, he began to see results. In fact—whether justified or not—he ended up as the second-team punt returner on the All-Pro List, highlighted by an 85-yard touchdown return in Week 13, the best overall game of his career.
As he heads into year two, he figures to be poised to take over the number two role in the offense on a full-time basis. He has proven to be not only a very fine route runner, with a natural ability to create separation, but he has shown surprising elusiveness in space as well.