I’m certain that this won’t come to you as a surprise, but Pro Football Focus’ prediction for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ breakout player of the season is second-year wide receiver Diontae Johnson. After leading the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns and finishing second in receiving yards, now while actually having a franchise quarterback to work it, it is a solid choice.
One that they did choose, however, over Devin Bush, who recorded 109 tackles with six takeaways, also as a rookie, a year ago. The site is high on both young players to grow into very good performers, but let’s be honest, they’ve been on the Johnson bandwagon since he was at Toledo. Anthony Treash writes:
Johnson has been high on several PFF analysts’ radars dating back to his days at Toledo, and he showed glimpses in his 2019 rookie year (particularly down the stretch) that verify our projection of him. Four of his five best games of the year came in his final four games, and that led to him being the sixth-highest graded player at the position in that span.
He’s tough to bring down after the catch, too; Johnson broke 18 tackles on 59 catches, tying for the most in the league with Deebo Samuel. If he keeps up his play from late in 2019, he’s in line for a big 2020 campaign.
The 66th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Johnson was not expected to log a significant amount of time as a rookie, even in light of Antonio Brown being jettisoned. With JuJu Smith-Schuster looking like he was primed to break out, they also supplemented the depth with veteran Donte Moncrief, and 2018 second-round pick James Washington was expected to step up as well.
The latter happened. The former did not. And Ryan Switzer ended up on injured reserve, as well. By the end of the season, they were clawing for snaps from the likes of Johnny Holton and Tevin Jones, at least seeing a few positive moments in Deon Cain.
Add on top of that a knee injury to Smith-Schuster in the second half of the season that cost him four games, and the Steelers had no choice but to play Johnson. And he performed, even through a groin injury that he had repaired in the offseason.
Now just imagine him being fully healthy and working with Roethlisberger for 16 games. It’s exciting to think about, to me, and it’s also something that can help open up the field more for Smith-Schuster, who is obviously coming off of a down year.