It is a commonly-held belief that most players make their biggest jump in terms of their performance from their first season to their second, and there is plenty of logic behind that way of thinking. Largely, it’s true, but it’s certainly not universal. Numerous players make their most significant jumps in their third year or beyond.
Pro Football Focus recently identified eight players going in to their third season whom they believe have the potential to break out in a significant way. Two of them are members of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with wide receiver Diontae Johnson and linebacker Devin Bush making the list.
Bush, of course, was their first-round pick in 2019, for whom they made one of their boldest moves in decades, trading up from 20 to 10 in order to get him. He missed most of the 2020 season due to a torn ACL, however. Sam Monson writes of the former Michigan product:
There is no doubting Bush’s talent, but 278 snaps in an injury-shortened campaign in 2020 did little to show any improvement over that rookie season. A pronounced step forward within the scheme this year could result in Bush’s down-to-down consistency and production meeting his highlight-making skills.
He recorded 109 tackles during his rookie season, with two interceptions, four recovered fumbles, and one forced fumble, forcing a touchdown. He also had a sack. Last season, in four and a half games, he registered 26 tackles with one sack, but failed to register a takeaway. He did have three passes defensed.
In his two seasons, Johnson has registered 147 receptions for 1,603 yards, with 12 touchdowns. He caught 88 passes in 2020 for a team-leading 923 yards and seven scores, accomplishing this on 733 snaps played. He added another 11 receptions for 117 yards in the postseason loss. Monson writes of him:
Diontae Johnson is too good at too many things to avoid a huge season for long…Johnson gets open as well as any receiver in the NFL, which is a great starting point for success…His numbers last season should have been significantly better — a league-leading 14 drops left a lot of meat on the bone. But drops are a volatile data point that come and go by season, and Johnson is unlikely to be burned as badly in that area going forward.
What could be more problematic than simply holding onto the ball is having to share it. The Steelers retained the same wide receivers from last year with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, and James Washington. Eric Ebron is back at tight end, and they added Pat Freiermuth and running back Najee Harris to the mix.