Mike Tomlin was the one who brought him to his attention, but once he laid eyes on him, it was former wide receivers coach Darryl Drake who was making the sales pitch for Toledo wide receiver Diontae Johnson, whom the Pittsburgh Steelers would ultimately draft in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, with the 66th-overall selection.
He would only go on to lead the team in both receptions and receiving touchdowns as a rookie, and put up very respectable numbers despite playing nearly the entire year with complete novice quarterbacks. With 59 receptions for 680 yards and five receiving touchdowns, the shifty receiver showed great potential for the future.
Would he have ever ended up in Pittsburgh were it not for Drake? Would have had had the rookie season he had, if not for Drake? Johnson had his doubts.
“Coach Drake was a good guy. From the first time I sat down and talked to him, I know he spoke highly of me”, he told the team’s website. “For him to push for me, coming from a school like Toledo, we’ve got guys in the league because there’s talent everywhere, but for him to push like that for me, it’s crazy. I would never have expected to be in the position I’m in now if it wasn’t for him”.
The Steelers seemed to take outsiders by surprise drafting him where they did, but the perception seems to be that teams were looking at him earlier in the draft than where he might have been projected. And suffice it to say that he has already more than lived up to his draft stock, with great promise for more.
As you surely know, however, Drake passed away late in training camp. While he had several months to work with Johnson, he would not be there to see him perform on the field over the course of his rookie season. Nevertheless, he knew that he took Drake’s lessons and applied them.
“Without him, I wouldn’t have been successful, because coming in I didn’t really know the playbook and he was always there for me and my teammates were there to help me with the plays”, he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “As I started sitting down with him, I started catching on the playbook and things started going smooth, and it showed as the season went on”.
After Drake passed, veteran wide receivers coach Ray Sherman was hired to coach the group full-time. He had already been attending the team’s training camp in an observational role, so was able to step in, but there is a belief the Steelers will hire somebody else this year, as Sherman was at least semi-retired already.
That will mean Johnson will soon be working with his third different position coach since he was drafted less than a year ago. He has already caught passes from three different quarterbacks. He’s had so much thrown at him over the course of the past year. And yet he’s one of the biggest causes for optimism for the Steelers in 2020 and beyond.