Pretty much the only thing most people pay attention to at this time of year, perhaps outside of injuries, is taking attendance at voluntary practice sessions. Outside of the quarterbacks, the two Pittsburgh Steelers players who have drawn the most discussion thus far are the two notable absences during the first week of OTAs: Stephon Tuitt and Diontae Johnson.
Neither absence is surprising, by any means. Tuitt has been through a lot over the course of the past year, but his teammates seem to be confident that he will indeed be with them later this year. So will Johnson, the fourth-year wide receiver who is entering the final year of his rookie contract after making the Pro Bowl for the first time in 2021.
“I know Diontae, he’s grinding no matter where he is”, fellow wide receiver Chase Claypool said of his veteran teammate during OTA practices on Thursday. “I know a lot of people are looking into it, but I don’t look into it too much because he’s perfecting his craft and he’s gonna ball out”.
Johnson’s offseason training last year was well-documented. He spent a lot of time working on his own and with private trainers, trying to prepare himself for the 2021 season, and by and large, it paid off. He recorded 107 catches in 16 games last year for 1161 yards and eight touchdowns, all of those numbers representing career highs. He also significantly cut down on his mental errors, including drops, though you wouldn’t always know that to hear some people recount his season.
Johnson is now the elder statesman in that wide receiver room, with JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Ray-Ray McCloud all gone. He’s the only one who has been here for more than two seasons at this point—which is true of the rest of the entire starting offense outside of Chukwuma Okorafor, and potentially Mason Rudolph. So is his absence notable?
“I don’t think it’s a big deal. I know people will make it a big deal because they need clicks and stuff, but it’s no big deal”, Claypool said when he was asked that very specific question. He added, “We’re gonna get work in in the offseason”.
The Steelers filled out their wide receiver room during the 2022 NFL Draft, using a second-round pick on Georgia’s George Pickens, and then coming back in the fourth round to draft Calvin Austin III out of Memphis. They are the ones who need these May reps, not Johnson.
Granted, this year’s starting quarterback is likely going to be one with whom they have never worked before. Mitch Trubisky was just signed in March, and they drafted Kenny Pickett last month. Unless Rudolph ends up starting, then Johnson and company will have to adjust to a new quarterback.
But there is time for that, during mandatory minicamp and training camp, and the preseason. 10 light practices of installation in May and June isn’t going to make or break a veteran who already knows the offense. And, again—it’s voluntary, which can never be stressed enough.