The college game is such that it has become a factory for wide receiver talent in recent years—to the point where some are beginning to wonder if teams will begin to re-examine their free agency practices at the position regarding second contracts. The 2019 class was no exception for the wide receiver position, from which the Pittsburgh Steelers added Diontae Johnson in the third round.
Why are we talking about this now? Well, those players, minus the ones taken in the first round (and there were surprisingly only two) are due to receive contract extensions this year. With that in mind, Mike Florio and Chris Simms of Pro Football Talk discussed the fourth-year wide receivers, ranking their top three. Johnson came in third on Simms’ list.
“I’m a Diontae Johnson fan. I think he’s one of the best route runners in football”, he said, having compared him favorably to the top receiver in the class, Marqise Brown. “He’s a little bit bigger of a man than ‘Hollywood’ Brown, and has every bit the speed and big-play ability, just, again, has been in kind of a dink-and-dunk offense that maybe doesn’t give him the ability to show everything he has”.
Johnson reached the Pro Bowl as an alternate for the 2021 season, finishing the year with 107 receptions for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns, all marking career highs. He did fumble twice, and his drops, which were absent for most of the season, crept up late in the year, finishing with a little over half a dozen when you include the two from the Steelers’ postseason loss.
I certainly am inclined to agree with Simms, though, that we could see more from Johnson in a different offense. I’m not saying that offense will be the Steelers’ offense of 2022, with Mitch Trubisky at quarterback. But clearly, the passing game was limited by the sub-par offensive line and Ben Roethlisberger’s late-career struggles. Of course, he barely even got the play with Roethlisberger during his rookie year in 2019.
Johnson did manage to play in every game as a rookie, playing with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. He caught 59 passes, which was the most on the team, for 680 yards and five touchdowns. In 2020, he caught 88 passes in 15 games for 923 yards and seven scores. But he also led the NFL in drops that year.
Will the Steelers extend him this offseason? They will have that conversation, I’m sure, but what are the odds of it actually getting done? The wide receiver market has ballooned, but the Steelers’ receiving corps was gutted this offseason. At the same time, they have long relied on their drafting ability at wide receiver under Mike Tomlin.
There is a perception that the Steelers don’t like to pay wide receivers outside of their absolute best, a la Hines Ward and Antonio Brown. It is worth remembering, however, that they did try to retain Plaxico Burress in free agency in 2005, and were negotiating with Mike Wallace in 2012. Both passed on their offers. Santonio Holmes may well have been retained as well if not for his off-field issues, which resulted in him being traded (and indirectly leading to the drafting of Brown).