Desire. Want-to. Those were intangibles that won over the late Pittsburgh Steelers WR coach Darryl Drake during WR Diontae Johnson’s interview process.
A player who fell to the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Coach Drake foresaw something special in Steelers Johnson despite playing at Toledo, going as far as saying, Johnson’s interview was one of the best he’s seen in 40-plus years.
That’s high praise from a well-respected coach. Aside from that, it was Johnson’s playmaking ability that won coach over, calling his change-of-direction skills and ability to make tacklers miss in open-space “intriguing.”
The Steelers who acquired the No. 66 overall selection, as part of the Antonio Brown trade to the Oakland Raiders, in the correspondence needed a wide receiver. Their targeted player? Johnson.
However, wide receivers were suddenly flying off the board, as there was a big run on wide receivers beginning in the late second round. So the question remained, would the “intriguing” prospect fall to them, when they were on the clock at No.66? The Steelers weren’t so sure, as they had intel other teams were seriously considering the small-school product. “I know for a fact, Tampa Bay was going to take him with their next pick,” Coach Drake said.
However, as we now know, the Steelers lucked out, and Johnson made his way to Pittsburgh. Not a burner evident by his 4.53 40-yard dash, but Coach Drake didn’t care. “To me, speeds overrated,” Coach Drake said while citing the only Hall-of-fame wide receivers with 4.40 speed or better was WR Randy Moss and WR James Lofton.
Fast forward to today, and Johnson has paid huge dividends for the team, despite building rapport with three different starting quarterbacks while lacking deep speed. The Toledo product, silenced the critics, leading all NFL rookie wide-receivers with 59 receptions while being voted on as an AP Second-team All-Pro punt returner.
As the team’s primary returner, Johnson returned 20 punts for 248 yards (12.4 average) and 1 touchdown. Doubling down on those gains, Johnson also led the team in targets (92) and touchdowns (5). Talk about a beast!
At the time, many NFL pundits criticized Steelers GM Kevin Colbert for trading away their All-Pro wide-receiver (Brown) essentially getting little in return, in terms of comparable value. In hindsight, it turns out Colbert has the last laugh, and it’s not even close.
The Steelers have a knack for finding wide receiver talent in the mid-to-late rounds. Dating back to 2009, they found gems WR Mike Wallace (3rd), WR Emmanuel Sanders (3rd), WR Antonio Brown (6th), WR Martavis Bryant (4th), and now Johnson.
With the Steelers looking to create cap space as they must retain current players like OLB Bud Dupree, it appears they are all but set at wide receiver. When you take into account a healthy WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, the team’s leading WR James Washington, and Johnson, that’s a strong nucleus for the foreseeable future and one that will only get stronger with time. The unit is young, their future is bright, their ceiling is sky-high. Three words. Here We Go!