This is a big year for third-year Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson, the time to prove that he is the real deal, and dependable. He plays for a franchise that churns out wide receivers on an annual basis and typically makes substantial draft investments in them with few second contracts offered.
If he wants to be the rare exception that bucks the trend, he needs to show himself to be a dependable option in the passing game, which he was anything but for much of last season, particularly in the second half of the year as he struggled with drops. It got so bad at one point that he did get benched for about half a game.
That’s not on Mike Tomlin’s mind, however. As far as the head coach is concerned, we’re on virtual blank-slate status. “I haven’t given a lot of thought about it”, he told reporters on the subject after practice Wednesday. “Last year is last year. Everyone starts anew as far as I’m concerned. It hadn’t been a real topic of discussion to be quite honest with you”.
It varies by outlet, but for example, according to Pro Football Reference, Johnson dropped 13 passes last season, accounting for a full nine percent of his catchable targets. Only two other players were charged by them with double-digit drops, though nine players—including James Conner—had a higher drop rate among those with 40-plus targets.
But of course you don’t want one of your starting wide receiver putting nearly one in 10 catchable balls that come his way on the ground. That’s how you stall your offense, and that’s literally what he was doing last year, enough so that it drove Tomlin to the decision to bench him for the remainder of the first half of one game.
Johnson still finished the season with 88 receptions for a team-leading 923 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He is a gifted route runner and may already be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite target, leading the team in that category with 144.
But he will have to share the wealth, not just with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool, but also Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth, and Najee Harris, the Steelers bolstering their pass-catching ability at the other skill positions with their top two picks in the 2021 NFL Draft.
There is nobody better on the team before the pass than Johnson. He may be their best after the catch as well, at least when he doesn’t lose his footing. It’s the catch point that has been his biggest hurdle, and one that wasn’t necessarily absent in his college tape.
He’s never going to be a Larry Fitzgerald or a DeAndre Hopkins in terms of sticky hands. As long as he can keep his drop rate to a manageable level, there’s no reason that he can’t develop into one of the best wide receivers in the game.