Heitritter/Kozora Debate: Should The Steelers Pay Diontae Johnson?

New series for the site over the next month. I promise we’re not going all Embrace Debate on you but Jonathan Heitritter and I have teamed up to debate issues we have genuine, good-faith disagreement over Steelers-related topics. Let us know who made the better argument and what side of the debate you come in on in the comments below.

Today, we’ll start with the question…

Should The Steelers Sign Diontae Johnson Long-Term?

Jonathan – Don’t Pay Diontae Johnson

Even though I have made the argument of why it is plausible that the Pittsburgh Steelers could re-sign WR Diontae Johnson this offseason on several occasions, I personally wouldn’t be a fan of the move for several reasons.

First, Johnson is looking to cash in on a deal that would compete with the lucrative contracts that other WRs have signed this offseason. Names like Mike Williams, Chris Godwin, D.J. Moore, and A.J. Brown all got deals with a yearly average value of at least $20 million. This should be the floor of what Johnson is asking for, given that these receivers have set the market for a player of Johnson’s age and production profile.

Diontae Johnson is a talented WR, but I don’t think many would argue that he is a bona fide WR1 like Pittsburgh has had in the past in Antonio Brown and Santonio Holmes. He managed to reach 107 receptions for 1,161 yards and eight TDs last season, but that did come on the back of 169 targets, tied for the second-most in the NFL. Given the inevitable change at QB from Ben Roethlisberger who consistently peppered Johnson with targets to either Mitch Trubisky or Kenny Pickett, Johnson’s massive target volume figures to take a hit. Sure, his efficiency with is targets should increase with a hopefully expanded role in the offense, but most of his production to-date in the league has been volume-based.

Pittsburgh also has a history of hitting on the WR position in the draft better than any other team in the NFL. Outside of first round picks on Holmes and Plaxico Burress, the Steelers have found the likes of Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle-El, Nate Washington, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Chase Claypool, and Diontae Johnson out of the first round. Throw in George Pickens and Calvin Austin III that were drafted this year, and you have a receiving core that has a fair amount of depth with Johnson, Claypool, Pickens, Austin III, Miles Boykin, Gunner Olszewski, and Anthony Miller in the room.

Wide receivers have become the new running back in today’s league, being a position of “fungibility” as Dave Bryan often mentions. Therefore, would it be wise to allocate such a commitment of the salary cap to a player who Pittsburgh has shown that they can adequately replace time-and-again?  This isn’t meant to be a slight to Johnson, who is a skilled player in his own right. Rather, Johnson isn’t in that elite tier of WRs including Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and Cooper Kupp that are the best in the game, thus making their value-above-replacement that much more than what Johnson currently presents.

Pittsburgh instead could allocate those same financial resources to a premier offensive tackle, a sticky cover cornerback, or a running mate next to Cam Heyward along the defensive line next offseason to build up other areas of the roster rather than signing Johnson to $20+ million per year. Losing Johnson could be a loss for the offense but given the team’s ability to evaluate and develop WRs and the need to get back to a team that excels at running the football and playing good defense, Pittsburgh would be wise to let another team pay top dollar for Johnson if they choose not to explore the trade market with him this offseason.

Alex – Pay Diontae Johnson

Pay good players. That’s the name of the game. Draft good players. Develop good players. Keep good players. That’s Diontae Johnson.

Didn’t Mike Tomlin just lecture about making the simple complex?

Johnson is coming off a strong 2021 season. And I know, the drops reappeared like the world’s worst magic trick at the end of the season. But taking his entire year as a filmstrip, not a snapshot of just one moment, his drop rate was low and much improved compared to 2020. Know who had a worse drop percentage than Johnson? Cooper Kupp and Tyreek Hill, two elite receivers Jonathan mentioned above.

Johnson’s improvement wasn’t an accident. He worked hard on his hands during the offseason and summer. First dude on the field at camp, last guy off the field, working on different tennis ball drills before practice and catching footballs after. Johnson doesn’t have bad hands, he just occasionally loses focus. His hands and body control are excellent and he’s made some incredible grabs in his career, including my Play of the Year last season, this touchdown against the Chargers.


107 receptions. 1161 yards. Eight touchdowns. That was his 2021 stat line. In Steelers’ history, only three receivers have had a 100/1100/8 season: Hines Ward (once), Antonio Browns (many times), and Johnson last year. Elite company to be in.

Johnson is capable of winning on any route to all areas of the field. Short, middle, and long. It’s been mostly the first two but Ben Roethlisberger and the offense’s limited menus of plays that worked only hindered that downfield production. With a new quarterback who can push vertically, Johnson can become a more consistent threat over the top. He’s not a diva, he puts his head down and works, while being a top 15 receiver and only getting better. The dude’s still only 25.

Shedding top weapons for a rookie QB like Kenny Pickett isn’t the direction to go. And with a rookie QB on a rookie QB-type deal and a rising salary cap, there aren’t any financial obstacles of locking Johnson up long-term. A $20 million average deal might seem on the high side but two years from now, it’ll feel like a bargain. Pay the man.

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