The 2020 NFL Draft is drawing near, which seems to be a fitting time to take a look back at the rookie seasons of the Pittsburgh Steelers class from the 2019 NFL Draft. People start talking about the quality of a draft class before said class is even completed, of course, but now we have a year of data to work from.
Over the course of the next several days, I will be providing an overview of the team’s rookies, as well as an evaluation of each rookie that the Steelers drafted, while also noting any undrafted free agents that were able to stick around. This will not include the likes of Robert Spillane and Tevin Jones because they were first-year players, not rookies.
The Steelers went into the 2018 NFL Draft with 10 selections, including two in the third round and three in the sixth, but ended up trading their second-round pick to move up in the first round. They received additional third- and fifth-round picks for trading Antonio Brown, a sixth for Marcus Gilbert, and the other sixth was part of the Ryan Switzer trade the year before.
Continuing a recent trend, the class has proven to be top-heavy in terms of early results, though there are still opportunities for those selected by them in the later rounds of the draft to develop into bigger contributors as well.
Player: Diontae Johnson
Draft Status: Third Round (66th overall)
Starts: 12 (16 games)
The Steelers didn’t plan on Diontae Johnson seeing over 600 snaps as a rookie. Johnson didn’t expect it, either. He said during the season that he felt himself hitting the rookie wall. He said after the season that he wasn’t expecting to have such a big role.
But there was hardly a choice once Donte Moncrief almost immediately proved to be a non-option, the player that the Steelers signed in free agency to take Antonio Brown’s spot in the starting lineup. Once Moncrief was out, Johnson slid into the number three role playing alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington, who himself needed a big jump.
And yet at the end of the season, Johnson would lead the team in both receptions and receiving touchdowns, and finished second in receiving yards. He would ultimately inherit the punt return job, return one for a touchdown, and be named second-team All-Pro as a return man.
Not bad for somebody who wasn’t supposed to have such a big role, while playing with second- and fourth-string quarterbacks. He simply played too well to keep off the field very long, his route-running ability and knack for creating yards after the catch becoming a big part of the offense by the end of the year.
I would expect Johnson to quickly emerge as a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger’s, which would be fitting given the pre-draft comparisons that he drew to Roethlisberger’s previous favorite target, the man they traded, and for whom they retrieved the third round pick they used to draft him: Antonio Brown.