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 be the number three receiver in 2021 with the re-signing of JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Explanation: It goes without saying that the Steelers didn’t give Smith-Schuster $8 million to take a lesser role than the one he’s been playing, which is an every-down role. With the rapid development of Chase Claypool, it stands to reason that Johnson would be on the sidelines for many one- and two-receiver sets. On the other hand, Ben Roethlisberger targets him at a high volume.
You can make the case for maybe three other players whom Ben Roethlisberger has ever trusted more with a pass than JuJu Smith-Schuster. Those would be Hines Ward, Heath Miller, and Antonio Brown. There’s a reason Smith-Schuster is the guy he chucks the ball two four yards short of the first-down marker on third down. He’s not coming off the field.
And like Smith-Schuster did early in his career, Chase Claypool is just playing his way onto the field, the kind of player you can’t take off. Johnson is a great route runner, but his ball security and balance issues raise concerns about how much you can trust him.
The Steelers are probably in three-receiver sets 85-90 percent of the time that they throw the ball anyway, so it really doesn’t make a difference. Johnson is less apt to block for running situations, who he is less likely to be on the field in two-receiver sets anyway.
It’s hard to ignore how much Roethlisberger likes Johnson, though. He was targeted 144 times last season in basically 13 games. Roethlisberger kept going back to him over and over again even while he was in the midst of his drop issues. The guy who gets open gets the ball, and Johnson gets open.
Claypool still has work to do to prove he’s an every-snap necessity. He only caught 57 percent of the passes that went his way last season and was charged with his share of drops, too. And as for Smith-Schuster, he’s not a selfish player on the field and wouldn’t have a problem coming off. It’s equally likely that the three of them will rotate pretty heavily in whatever amount of two-receiver sets they actually use, to the point where there isn’t a meaningful distinction.