What would a Diontae Johnson trade look like for Steelers?

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) . Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) . Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

While trading a top superstar is rarely the Steelers’ priority, they could fetch a sizable return if they traded their top wideout.

The Steelers are at a true turning point as a franchise. Following the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger and Stephon Tuitt along with Joe Haden not returning, this team is in a state of transition. While still young enough to be a contributor long-term, one has to wonder what the future has in store for top wideout Diontae Johnson.

Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Johnson has made it clear that he would like to get extended before the regular season begins. He certainly has a good case for it, as he is the team’s top wideout and a big-play threat with the ball in his hands. That said, the history behind this team paying its top receivers isn’t great. With Johnson likely expecting a deal close to 20 million a season, there is a good chance he plays out this season and leaves.

What should the Steelers do?

The three choices are simple right now: you extend him, let him play out the season (and either tag him or let him walk), or you trade him. The least likely scenario is the first. While Johnson became a dynamic playmaker last season, his drop issues did resurface late in the season. It would be a risk to give him a huge deal knowing that those issues may still be present. Add in the surplus of receivers that are entering the draft every season and finding a replacement for Johnson isn’t impossible.

The middle scenario is the most likely option. The Steelers have a lot of control even if they let him play out his rookie deal. If he is dominant, you franchise tag him and try to work out a deal. If he is average or worse, you can let him walk. This is very much the “Steelers” way to do business, and as of this writing, I expect him to play out the final year of his deal and either walk or get tagged in 2023.

What would a Steelers trade look like?

For starters, the only way you even entertain trading Johnson is if the rookie receivers are ready to take on big roles. This has less to do with George Pickens and more to do with Calvin Austin. The fourth-round rookie should develop into a weapon out of the slot, but he may need some time before being counted on there. That said, if he looks ready earlier than expected, Johnson becomes expendable.

In terms of compensation, there were four top receivers that were traded this offseason. No, we aren’t going to get a Tyreek Hill-type of a deal. Even though Davante Adams went for less than many expected, I doubt the Steelers get a first and second for Johnson. The two trades that need to be considered are the Marquise Brown trade and the A.J. Brown trade.

Frankly, I think Johnson is a better prospect than either of the two that were dealt during the draft. The argument is easy to make with Hollywood Brown, as he has struggled with consistency since being drafted. He is a fine deep threat, but he has failed to show off much more than that during his time in the league.

As for A.J. Brown, he can fairly be considered the better receiver, but injuries have caused him to miss significant amounts of time. Johnson has stayed far healthier and thus has had a bigger impact on the field. What is really interesting here is that all three of these players were entering the final year of their deal. Hollywood had his fifth-year option picked up while A.J. was signed to a mega-deal upon being traded.

Considering Johnson is, at worse, in the same tier as these receivers, the conversation should start with a first-round pick in 2023. Assuming the rookies are ready to start, I would take that deal in an instant. Johnson is a great player, but it seems unlikely he is with the team long-term. Having an additional first-round pick next season would be huge.

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Will Johnson ultimately get dealt? I doubt it, but if the rookies show up early and they get the right offer, it makes sense to move him. The receiver trade market was big in the draft, and that means the team could get a nice package if they trade Johnson. If the Steelers don’t see much of a future with him past this season, it would make a lot of sense to trade Johnson during camp.