The Pittsburgh Steelers were able to retain Diontae Johnson on a new contract extension. Here’s why the decision to do so was more vital than you think.
Over the past several months, the fanbase seemed to be split on whether or not the Pittsburgh Steelers should extend wide receiver, Diontae Johnson. Early in free agency, it was evident that signing quality wide receivers wasn’t going to come cheap. Players like Christian Kirk and A.J. Brown had set the bar high, and Johnson was one of the receivers next in line.
In recent weeks, more wide receivers from the 2019 draft class had signed lucrative new contract extensions. Players with similar production to Johnson, like Terry McLaurin, DK Metcalf, and Deebo Samuel, put pen to paper on new deals that made them among the top-10 highest-paid receivers in the league in terms of yearly value.
After months of waiting to hear some news as pertained to progress with Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh’s top wide receiver finally signed his contract extension in Pittsburgh. The new two-year deal actually came in a bit better than anticipated as he will earn just over $18.3 million in new annual earnings.
Since entering the league as a third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Johnson hasn’t exactly been a consistent football player. While his raw production looks good on paper each year, he has gone through hot and cold streaks as blatant as any receiver in the league during this time.
In 2020, Johnson led the NFL in dropped passes with 13, according to advanced stats from Pro Football Reference. Last year was another rollercoaster ride. After not recording a single drop through his first 11 games, Johnson dropped the ball 7 times in his final 7 games (including the playoff loss to the Chiefs).
Because of his inconsistencies, not everyone has been on board with throwing a big pile of money at him from the gate. However, I believe that extending Diontae Johnson was a necessary move.
Steelers did the right thing by keeping Johnson around
Because of his modest efficiency numbers from a season ago, you could argue that Johnson’s role was replaceable. Some say that if you give those 169 targets to another receiver, they are going to put up numbers by default.
I say that it’s much more complicated than that. Though Johnson wasn’t very efficient when it comes to advanced metrics, these are stats that fall both on the receiver and the quarterback. Without overthinking it, Johnson was a player the team really couldn’t afford to let go of.
The last thing you want to do when you have a young quarterback is allow his best receiving option to walk away. Kenny Pickett was drafted to be the future of the franchise. Obviously, there’s always the chance that this doesn’t prove to be the case, but why risk it? The Steelers, meanwhile, had the salary cap space to get an extension done with Johnson.
Early in his career, Johnson has been one of the best receivers in the NFL when it comes to getting separation. He has finished top 10 in this department twice in his first three seasons — leading all receivers in this department in 2019, according to Next Gen Stats.
Diontae Johnson should at least give Pickett one reliable target he can count on to get open. For the present, Johnson could be an asset to Mitch Trubisky (or whoever ultimately ends up earning the starting job).
Keeping Johnson also allows other young receivers on the team to exploit more favorable matchups as they grow and develop. George Pickens is already one of the training camp darlings for the Steelers. Having Johnson working across from him is only going to help his development.
At the very least, we should be able to tell in the near future if Kenny Pickett is going to be any good. The Steelers did everything in their power to make sure he has plenty of options in the passing game. With players he can target like Johnson, Pickens, Chase Claypool, Pat Freiermuth, Calvin Austin, and Najee Harris, Pickett could have a relatively smooth transition to the NFL stage.
We don’t know if Diontae Johnson will be on the team four years from now, but that’s not what’s important at this point. What’s important is making sure Kenny Pickett is given every opportunity to succeed, and keeping the Steelers best receiver around is going to help.