If he doesn’t receive a contract extension later this summer, 2022 is a critical year for Diontae Johnson. Though the franchise tag always looms over his head, Johnson is set to become a free agent in the offseason. With the receiver market spiking and most other big names already locked into long-term deals, Johnson could be a prized possession should he hit the open market.
But Bleacher Report’s Alex Kay isn’t confident Johnson will have a big year he can cash in on. Johnson was named the Steelers’ biggest bust for the upcoming season. Explaining why, Kay writes:
“Johnson is coming off a career-best 107-reception, 1,161-receiving yard, eight-touchdown campaign. While he thrived with Ben Roethlisberger under center, he could be in line for a regression with either Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett taking over for the retired signal-caller.
Johnson should still be a force, but it’s doubtful he’ll hit those same lofty marks in 2022. That could hamper his earning power next offseason as he looks for a new deal.”
Like everyone else, Johnson will have to adjust to a new quarterback throwing to him. It’s unclear even who that man will be. Mitch Trubisky enters training camp as the favorite but will battle Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph for the starting gig. With a new quarterback, the Steelers’ offense should be able to open up their vertical passing game more effectively but it could reduce the number of quick and short throws the Steelers call, potentially hurting Johnson’s overall volume and production. Pittsburgh’s also set to lean on its run game more than it has since Roethlisberger’s early days. Throwing 600+ times isn’t the gameplan which could naturally bring Johnson’s numbers down. That will impact his market value.
Of course, Johnson can help his own cause by making more plays downfield this year while avoiding slumps when it comes to his drops. Though it was far less of an issue in 2021 than it was in 2020, Johnson faded down the stretch as the Steelers’ offense cratered. Here are his averages Week 1-14 versus the rest of the season.
Weeks 1-14: 6.8 receptions, 82.5 yards, 0.5 TDs
Weeks 15-18: 6.5 receptions, 42.8 yards, 0.5 TDs
Receptions and touchdowns stayed the same but his yards were nearly cut in half. If Johnson can have a big year, he’ll either earn a Steelers’ extension before free agency, force the team to use the tag, or hit unrestricted free agency and cash in big. If he struggles, due to his own issues or poor QB play, his value will have taken a hit heading into free agency.
Around the AFC North, Kay picked Baltimore WR Devin Duvernay, Cincinnati CB Eli Apple, and Cleveland WR Amari Cooper as the biggest busts/disappointments of their respective teams.