It has become quite clear that the Pittsburgh Steelers have no intention of signing Diontae Johnson this off-season. The recent Larry Ogunjobi deal has all but capped this team out for 2022. Pittsburgh could restructure some deals to make cap room, but they have given no indication they are planning on doing that thus far. Let’s review some arguments for why the Steelers are making a mistake by not signing Diontae Johnson:
The market is the market:
The Steelers first mistake was not getting this deal done much sooner. By waiting, they allowed the market to explode for wide receivers. It started with Christian Kirk, and his ridiculous $18 million per season deal. Now any decent wide receiver can rightfully demand north of $2O million per season. The market is set, and there’s not much wiggle room for the Steelers.
Terry McLaurin of the Washington Commanders is a vey good comp for Diontae Johnson. They were drafted the same year, have similar stats, and both have struggled with subpar quarterback play over their careers. McLaurin’s deal averages out to $23 million per season. There is no way Johnson’s agent will agree to a deal that isn’t a minimum of $20 million, and probably substantially more. The Steelers did this to themselves by waiting. Twenty plus million may sound like a lot, but thats the going rate for this position.
Bad quarterback play:
What makes Diontae Johnson so tough to grade is the fact the quarterback play throughout his career has been subpar at best. He has spent two of his three seasons with an over the hill Ben Roehtlisberger. The other year was a combination of Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph. That may have been the worst quarterback play in the NFL the last ten years. How do you gauge a wide receiver’s true ability with that kind of quarterback play?
In fact, we believe some of the issues with Johnson’s drops are a direct result of this. Because of Roethlisberger’s complete disinterest in holding the football, the Steelers overused the short passing game. Receivers became shell shocked from the constant slants, screens, and short passes that too often led them into the teeth of the defense. A lot of what is considered Johnson’s biggest drawback can be at least partially explained by this team’s quarterback play.
How good is he?:
When you invest large amounts of money in a wide receiver, you want that player to have elite traits. Well Diontae Johnson has that in spades. This is a player who is an elite route runner, and seperator. He is nearly impossible to cover one on one. Johnson finished sixth in the NFL in receiving yards last season. His 8 touchdowns accounted for one third of the total scored by the Steelers in 2021. https://www.statmuse.com/nfl/ask/most-touchdowns-by-a-team-2021
All this was accomplished despite being a part of one of the worst offenses in football last season. The Steelers offensive line was horrendous, and the quarterback play was only slightly better. When you can have the season that Diontae Johnson had with all this working against you, it really says something about the talent of this player.
It may already be too late:
Omar Khan has done some very good things early on in his reign as this team’s general manager. Waiting it out with Diontae Johnson is not one of them however. He, and Kevin Colbert before him, misjudged the wide receiver market badly. With the improved offense, and it being a contract year, we are on the verge of a breakout season from Johnson. That only means the price tag will continue to rise every day the Steelers wait.
It may already be too late. This team does not currently have the cap space for a mega deal. With Johnson’s rookie contract expiring after this season, the Steelers are left with few options. He would be foolish not to test free agency after what should be a very good 2022 season.
The only course of action left for the team would be the franchise tag. The franchise tag number for wide receivers in 2021 stands at over $18 million, next year it is sure to be more than $20. That’s a huge one year number for this team to swallow. Not to mention the headache that comes along with an unhappy player on the tag. Indeed we may be past the point of the Steelers signing Diontae Johnson to a long term deal. Enjoy him for 2022, it very well may be his last in a Steelers uniform.