What does the Diontae deal mean for the rest of the Steelers receivers?

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 /

The Steelers chose to give Diontae Johnson a two-year extension, ending his hold-in. Here’s what his new deal means for the future of the Steelers receiving core.

The Steelers and Diontae Johnson agreed to a 2-year, $38.71 million extension on Aug. 4th, ending his “hold-in” and getting him back on the practice field. The deal came in well under the price tags of some of his fellow 2019 draft classmates, but still gives him a hefty raise over the next few seasons. This extension looks like a huge win for both the Steelers and Johnson, but it also impacts the rest of the receiving core.

With the Steelers drafting receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin III to pair with Johnson and Chase Claypool, they are certainly not lacking in weapons (not to mention Pat Freiermuth at tight end and Najee Harris out of the backfield). With all this young talent, it won’t be easy to get everyone involved every week.

What I am more interested to see though is what this means for the future of the Steelers receiving core, starting with their controversial third-year receiver.

Steelers Chase Claypool could be odd man out.

With the Diontae contract taken care of, Chase Claypool is next in line to ask for a new deal next season. Claypool took a slight step back in overall play in 2021 after a very promising rookie campaign, but his potential new role could pay dividends for his production.

With the Steelers adding rookie receiver George Pickens, it opens up the opportunity for Claypool to move inside as the primary slot receiver. I have believed this is the best role for him for quite some time, and it’s not hard to see why.

Chase has a unique blend of size and explosiveness that very few slot corners are physically capable of defending. He presents a similar problem that defenses face when trying to guard athletic tight ends: too fast for safeties and linebackers, too big for cornerbacks.

The problem for the Steelers, however, is that a jump in production means a jump in cost. By next offseason, the receiver market will be even crazier than it is now. Paying two receivers $18+ million a season would be out of character for Pittsburgh. Maybe that changes under GM Omar Khan, but it’s more likely that only one of Claypool and Johnson are on the Steelers in 2024.

Steelers new receivers must make their case

Despite drafting receivers George Pickens and Calvin Austin III in this year’s draft, the Steelers clearly wanted to make sure Diontae Johnson didn’t go anywhere for the next few seasons. What does that mean for their rookie pass catchers? For now, not much at all.

Johnson was always going to be the number one target this year, whether he had a new contract or not. What it could mean for the future depends on what Austin and Pickens can show the coaching staff over the next two seasons. Pickens especially has all the talent to be a true alpha receiver, but his opportunities to be the featured target could be limited. Austin is primed for a likely limited role as the fourth receiver at best, but he could get extra touches as a gadget player as well.

The best-case scenario for the Steelers is that Pickens shows he can be the WR1, allowing them to move on from Johnson after 2024. Austin can then potentially become the slot receiver with Claypool moving back outside if he is retained.

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It would be great to have all these receivers play well together and remain with the Steelers past 2024, but it’s highly unlikely. For now, I plan on enjoying watching them grow as the seasons go on. Fans should try and do the same thing.