The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: Diontae Johnson will play more snaps in 2020 than James Washington.
Explanation: Johnson wasn’t expected to be a huge part of the offense as a rookie a year ago, but that changed pretty quickly with Donte Moncrief being unable to perform his duties. Injuries along the way only further raised his profile, and by year’s end, he led the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns, though Washington also had a strong year, leading in receiving yards.
We have reached past the point at which we would ask the question of who would be ‘starting’ over the other. In the NFL today, both of them are starting alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster. And of the three, Smith-Schuster remains the slot option (he saw a higher percentage of snaps in the slot than in either of his first two seasons).
I would expect that largely to continue this year, which is of benefit to Johnson, who at least heading into his second season remains largely perimeter-bound. Absent any game-breaking threat, the sophomore’s superior route-running and ability to create separation offers more value.
There are those who believe that Johnson is actually the team’s most talented wide receiver and will emerge as their top option. Given pre-draft comparisons to Antonio Brown, who was a sixth-round pick and made the Pro Bowl in year two, that would fit the profile.
While there are three starting wide receivers, there are still two-receiver sets, and last year, Washington played in them when Smith-Schuster was healthy. That wasn’t just because Johnson was a rookie, but also because it’s a grouping the team is also more likely to run out of, with Washington the stronger and better blocker. When throwing, it’s also more important to have a deep threat.
Johnson will see plenty of playing time, and I suspect he is going to lead the team in third-down receptions and garner something of a clutch reputation—with the occasional hiccup. But Washington should have a more complete game in 2020 that will keep him on the field more when they aren’t constantly throwing.