The Pittsburgh Steelers have a decision to make when it comes to wide receiver Diontae Johnson. That part is obvious. But what’s not apparent is who will ultimately determine whether or not the Steelers pay their current No. 1 target. With the wide receiver market skyrocketing this offseason, the question will be whether the former Toledo product has earned a second contract based on what he’s done in his three-year NFL career.
After more than two decades in the Steelers’ front office, general manager Kevin Colbert has his own philosophy when it comes to handing out second contracts. In his pre-draft press conference on Monday, Colbert acknowledged what separates a rookie and their contracts coming out of the draft versus opting to pay a receiver who has already begun establishing himself in the NFL.
“I think that depth is undefined until they get to this level and any position we desire to pay, we feel he better be special at his position and maybe exceed where he was drafted and just recognize what they have accomplished at this level,” said Colbert. “And again, I think we can do that at any given position for that special player within that group.”
While it won’t be Colbert, who will step down from his position after the draft, deciding whether Johnson stays in Pittsburgh past this season, he brings up two crucial factors in the process. The next general manager in concert with coach Mike Tomlin will have to decide if Johnson is first, special at his position, and second, whether or not he exceeded where he was drafted.
The 2019 third-round pick has caught 254 passes for 2,764 yards, good for 10.9 yards per reception, and 20 touchdowns. He’s averaged 58.8 yards per game with a catch percentage of 62.7%.
Deciding whether or not Johnson is special enough to pay or not gets complicated. One of the things that he might have going for him in contract discussions is the quarterback play he’s dealt with his first three seasons. In his rookie season, he caught passes from Ben Roethlisberger for a game and a half before working with Mason Rudolph and the now-retired Devlin “Duck” Hodges. In the next two seasons, an aging Roethlisberger and an offense that couldn’t seem to get out of its own way at times may have hindered his production.
In the same breath, though, he has also hurt himself with drops, especially in 2020 when he dropped 13 passes on 144 targets. However, he had just five drops on 169 targets in 2021, which clearly shows a more focused effort to improve in that area. But the question will come back to ‘Is he special?’, in which case that answer may be different depending on who you talk to within the Steelers organization, but it’ll certainly be brought up in the discussion.
The other part of it is looking at whether or not he has out-performed where he was drafted. For being a third-round selection, the answer is, he probably has. While he’s not putting up Antonio Brown numbers (few players ever have), he is in the same class, both figuratively and literally, with receivers like A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, and Terry McLaurin. Comparing him to those three, who were all drafted ahead of him, might be the best way to figure out whether he’s deserving or not of a payday from the Steelers.
It’s clear that the Steelers have two capable starters at wideout in Johnson and Chase Claypool. Aside from that, the rest of the room is filled with project players like Miles Boykin and Cody White. The Steelers won’t shy away from drafting a wide receiver with one of their first two picks on Thursday. Adding to that core is of utmost importance at this point, and looking ahead beyond this upcoming season, a lot of what the room will look like might depend on the decision with Johnson.