You guys are going to enjoy this one for a little pre-draft, non-draft reading. While the draft is a huge tentpole event in the NFL’s offseason, it’s certainly not the be-all, end-all event. After all, it’s just the way players get in the door. It’s what they do once they’re inside that teams actually care about.
Diontae Johnson’s door opened in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, and it was the Pittsburgh Steelers on the other side. He has developed into a Pro Bowl-level player over the course of his three seasons here, and could potentially bloom in a better offense.
The question is when—and where—he will get that opportunity. He is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and it’s far from a guarantee that the Steelers will sign him to an extension before the regular season begins. Bill Barnwell, however, predicts that they will, and that the contract will be a doozy.
In an ESPN Insider article taking a look at the 2019 wide receiver class and what their value might be, he ultimately predicted that Johnson will indeed re-sign with the Steelers on an extension this offseason, and he predicts the contract to be a four-year pact worth $98 million in new money. That’s $24.5 million per year on the four new years.
That is, of course, a huge number. According to Over the Cap, it would represent the fourth-highest average annual salary of all wide receivers in the league, trailing only Tyreek Hill ($30 million), Davante Adams ($28 million), and DeAndre Hopkins ($27.25 million). Both Hill and Adams signed new deals this offseason after being traded.
Barnwell does offer a lot of context for every decision he makes, whether one agrees with it or not, and a large portion of what he does focus on is whether or not Johnson’s talents have actually been well-utilized in an inefficient Steelers offense, and whether or not that could actually be expected to improve in the near future.
“The big question, of course, is whether Johnson wasn’t productive in that part of the field because the Steelers didn’t have a quarterback who could reliably make those passes or because it’s just not his game. I suspect it’s the former”, he wrote.
“If the Steelers had a quarterback who threatened teams vertically on a reliable basis, it could unlock an element of Johnson’s game we haven’t been able to see very often”, he continued. “Unfortunately, Johnson wasn’t a vertical threat in 2019, because his quarterbacks couldn’t reliably deliver the ball downfield. I’d like that to change in 2022, but I’m not optimistic about the combination of Rudolph and Mitch Trubisky being much of an improvement”.
While he even entertains the possibility of trading Johnson, he ultimately reached the conclusion that an offense with Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, and Chase Claypool, plus a rookie quarterback, all on rookie deals would be able to support Johnson on a robust extension.
For reference, Barnwell also makes the following predictions: A.J. Brown signs a four-year, $96 million extension with the Titans; Terry McLaurin signs a four-year, $100 million extension with the Commanders; D.K. Metcalf is traded to another team; Deebo Samuel is franchise tagged in 2023; Marquise Brown leaves the Ravens in free agency in 2023; Hunter Renfrow signs a three-year, $57 million extension with the Raiders; and Mecole Hardman leaves the Chiefs in free agency in 2023.
You may now gripe and call Barnwell an idiot.