With the 2022 new league year, the questions will be plenty for quite a while, even as the Pittsburgh Steelers spend cash and cap space and use draft picks in an effort to find answers. We don’t know who the quarterback is going to be yet—even if we have a good idea. How will the offensive line be formulated? How will the secondary develop amid changes, including to the coaching staff? What does Teryl Austin bring to the table—and Brian Flores? What will Matt Canada’s offense look like absent Ben Roethlisberger?
These sorts of uncertainties are 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).
Topic Statement: The Steelers will not sign Diontae Johnson to a contract extension this year.
Explanation: The fourth-year veteran wide receiver is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and also coming off of a Pro Bowl season (as an alternate) during which he became the first Steelers player to reach either 100 receptions or 1,000 receiving yards in a season since 2018.
Transitioning offenses don’t usually benefit players looking to get paid, because teams may decide to take a wait-and-see approach, observing how things develop before committing major dollars. Johnson also doesn’t have much incentive to settle for a lower contract than he could potentially get on the open market a year from now with another strong season in 2022.
With the salary cap back on track, wide receiver contracts are correspondingly ballooning, and don’t for a second think that Johnson and his agent are unaware of that. Following a trade to the Las Vegas Raiders, Davante Adams just signed a five-year, $140 million extension. Mike Williams just signed a deal averaging $20 million as well, and Chris Godwin, perhaps his best analogue in this group, nearly matched that figure while coming off of an injury. D.J. Moore just surpassed the $20 million mark.
The price point will be too high for the Steelers to commit to this offseason without getting another look at Johnson in a full-time number one role, in an offense that the team hopes is more representative of what they will look like moving forward.
Johnson is the only stable presence that the Steelers have at wide receiver, and it’s not obvious that that is going to change in the next year or two. They just lost three wide receivers in free agency, including JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Chase Claypool is coming off of a disappointing follow-up to his strong rookie year.
The wide receiver franchise tag in 2022 is already over $18 million. It will likely be over $20 million next offseason, so they’re going to be paying Johnson significant money next year anyway if they’re thinking of applying the tag to him.
The going rate of a number one wide receiver follows the market, and rightfully has one of the highest ceilings of all positions. It’s hard to win without an elite wide receiver, and not having one while also having an unsettled quarterback position will doom your offense into irrelevance.
Put simply, Johnson isn’t going to be any cheaper in the future than he’s going to be now. A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf will be free agents next year, among others like Terry McLaurin, assuming they don’t sign extensions now. Others who will be available for extensions in 2023 include Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Brandon Aiyuk, and more veteran players like Cooper Kupp and Stefon Diggs.