To date, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson has certainly lived up to his draft status as the Toledo product has already registered 147 receptions for 1,603 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons. With Johnson’s third NFL season now on tap, he can already look forward to getting a nice raise in 2022 because of him being qualified for the NFL’s Proven Performance Escalator due to the number of snaps that he played in his first two seasons.
In the league’s new CBA, the Proven Performance Escalator is now a three-level, non-negotiable amount in which a player’s base salary in the fourth year of his rookie contract increases if he meets certain predetermined thresholds.
The Level One PPE in the new CBA is structured differently for second-round picks and those selected in Rounds 3 through 7. To qualify for Level One, second-round picks must either (a) play 60 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive plays in any two of his first three seasons or (b) participate in a cumulative average of 60 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive plays over the course of his first three regular seasons. For third- through seventh-round picks, players can hit either (a) or (b) above, but the threshold to reach drops to 35 percent of such plays. For such players, the Level One PPE increases a player’s fourth-year base salary by the difference of the original-round tender for restricted free agents set for the player’s fourth season and the player’s Year 4 rookie salary, less any signing bonus prorations. This amount is then added to the player’s Year 4 base salary.
Let’s look at Johnson based on the Level One criterion. A third-round pick in 2019, Johnson played more than 60 percent of the Steelers’ offensive plays in his first two NFL seasons and is thus now already eligible for the Level One PPE increase in 2022. He’s averaged roughly 66.2% percent of all offensive plays through two seasons and played 66 and 67 percent of all snaps in each of his first two seasons, respectively.
So, with Johnson already qualified for at least a Level One PPE in 2022, what does that mean for him salary wise? Well, it means his 2022 salary will at a minimum, increase from the scheduled amount of $1,078,767 up to the amount of an original-round tender for restricted free agents, which right now is projected to be $2.396 million by Over the Cap. So, an early estimated increase of around $1,317,233 in 2022 for Johnson. That extra increase, however, does go against the Steelers salary cap as well.
As the CBA notes, a player selected in the second through seventh round will qualify for the Level Two PPE if he participates in 55 percent of his team’s offensive or defensive plays in each of his first three regular seasons. As things stand right now, Johnson is easily on pace to do that and quite honestly, only a serious injury would prevent him from hitting the needed snap percentage amount in 2021. The amount of the Level Two PPE is the difference of the original-round tender in the player’s fourth season and his Year 4 rookie salary (minus any signing bonus prorations), plus $250,000. This amount is then added to the player’s year-four base salary.
So, assuming Johnson will ultimately qualify for at least a Level Two PPE for the 2022 season, what does that mean for him salary wise? Well, it means his 2022 salary would increase from the scheduled amount of $1,078,767 up to the amount of an original-round tender for restricted free agents, which right now is projected to be $2.396 million by Over the Cap, plus an additional $250,000, for an early estimated total of $2.646 million So, an early estimated increase of around $1,567,233 in 2022 for Johnson should he indeed hit Level Two. Once again, that extra increase, does go against the Steelers salary cap as well.
With a Level Two PPE increase likely to be secured for 2022, Johnson also still has a chance to reach a Level Three PPE if he has a great 2021 season. To qualify for the Level Three PPE, a second- through seventh-round pick must be selected to the Pro Bowl on the original ballot in at least one of his first three seasons. Johnson has obviously yet to accomplish that feat in his first two seasons but certainly could do so in 2021.
In case you’re curious, the Level Three PPE is equal to the difference between the second-round tender for restricted free agents and the player’s Year 4 rookie salary, less any signing bonus prorations. The player’s Year 4 base salary increases by this amount. Currently, the estimated amount of a second-round restricted tender in 2022 is $3.927 million so in short, Johnson has a shot to add nearly $2.5 million more to his 2022 salary if he makes the Pro Bowl in 2021.
While Johnson has managed to already qualify for a Proven Performance Escalator in his first two seasons in the NFL with the Steelers, the rest of the remaining members of the team’s 2019 draft class still with the team, cornerback Justin Layne, running back Benny Snell Jr., tight end Zach Gentry, defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs and inside linebacker Ulysees Gilbert all look likely to fail to qualify barring extremely huge increases in snaps played in 2021.