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: Wide receiver Diontae Johnson will be the team’s number two at the position over James Washington.
Explanation: After leading the team in both receptions and touchdown receptions in 2019, there is a lot of optimism about second-year wide receiver Diontae Johnson. At the same time, third-year James Washington had a very promising stretch of games in the second half of the season, making plays down the field and leading the team in receiving yards.
Route-running takes precedence over almost any other one individual quality at the wide receiver position in today’s NFL, and Johnson is the most precise route runner on the team. The only reason he didn’t play more last season was because he was a rookie and they were trying not to overexpose him.
Washington, on the other hand, is more limited. While he doesn’t do anything poorly, he also isn’t a ‘plus’ in a lot of columns, either. He doesn’t have great speed, though not poor speed, either. In spite of a reputation for strong hands, he’s had his drops. His route-running is pretty run-of-the-mill, and his rapport with his quarterbacks has been lacking, while his primary route has been the deep ball. That doesn’t need to be on the field 1000 snaps a season.
Washington’s seven-game stretch from Week Nine to Wee 15 shouldn’t be ignored in monitoring his progression. During that time, he caught 29 of 42 passes for 533 yards and all three of his touchdowns. If he did that over a full season, that would be 66 catches for 1218 yards and seven scores.
And that was playing primarily with Devlin Hodges at quarterback. Given the individual growth he’s made, he should have a far better rapport with Ben Roethlisberger this year.
And it’s also worth keeping in mind that Johnson has had very little work with Roethlisberger. Even when he had opportunities in the offseason, he was injured. And then Roethlisberger was injured. And now there’s a pandemic. When is he going to work with Big Ben? At least Washington’s had a season with him.
Let’s also not forget that Johnson has ball security issues, both in fumbling and dropping passes. Plus, if he’s going to be the team’s return man—to be decided by competition, no doubt—that could also work against him.