While Diontae Johnson’s pending sophomore season has been much discussed, in many different facets, one that hasn’t much been talked about is the dimension that he could potentially bring as a punt returner, a job that he would inherit in the second half of his rookie season in 2019.
Johnson, a third-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers last year out of Toledo, led the team with 59 receptions and five receiving touchdowns, and he was also second in receiving yards with 680. Because he was a rookie, they still tried to limit his snaps, but due to injuries, he was forced into more playing time than they had planned.
Then once Ryan Switzer was injured, the punt return job became his. It was something that he had to grow into—our own Alex Kozora ended up getting blocked by Johnson was one point for offering a nuanced critique of some issues he saw—but he did show that flash, culminating in an 89-yard touchdown late in the year. It was the team’s first punt return touchdown in a number of years, and the first by a rookie since Santonio Holmes in 2006.
Johnson spoke to Missi Matthews earlier this offseason for the team’s website, discussing a number of topics, many of which we have already covered. But he also talked about his punt return job and how it was of value leading up to the draft.
“That’s what helped me out throughout the whole draft process, special teams, because I could return and a lot of teams were looking for that”, he told Matthews. “I got in there toward the end of the year, but once I got in there, I started helping, gaining yards and stuff. Got a touchdown”.
“I was happy to be the first rookie (in a while) to ‘break the curse’ or whatnot since 2007 or something like that”, he went on. “Just being able to do that was special to me because I wanted to score a punt return in the NFL, and I was able to do that. I give everything to them, because without them blocking, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do”.
Having Johnson be a starting receiver and handle the punt return duties as a rookie out of Toledo was a lot to ask of him, and no doubt it probably did have some adverse effect at some level regarding what he was able to offer.
Yet it should be expected that both his offensive and special teams roles will expand even further in 2020. His stated goal is to be a Pro Bowl receiver, one of the best in the league. He was already named a second-team All-Pro return man after averaging 12.4 yards per punt return, albeit on just 20 returns.