Grading the Diontae Johnson trade: Did the Panthers fleece the Steelers?

Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers
Tennessee Titans v Pittsburgh Steelers / Cooper Neill/GettyImages

Now that the dust has settled on the Diontae Johnson trade, I have had some time to diagnose the compensation involved for both parties. The Pittsburgh Steelers made it clear that Johnson was not going to be part of their 2024 plans, and Omar Khan took the offer from the Carolina Panthers before Johnson's $3 million roster bonus kicked in.

At first glance, this trade clearly seemed to favor the Panthers. The Steelers shipped a quality starting receiver to Carolina and received veteran cornerback Donte Jackson in return.

The deal also included a late-round pick swap with Pittsburgh giving up their seventh-rounder to get the Panthers' sixth-round pick (originally of the Arizona Cardinals).

Diontae Johnson Trade

Unfortunately, my initial fears have been confirmed. After diving into some Donte Jackson tape from the 2023 season, a couple of things stood out.

Jackson has too many bad reps that show up in waves on tape. At times, he looks like a quality starting cornerback. Other times, however, Jackson looks like a player who doesn't have business seeing the field.

To be fair, Diontae Johnson wasn't always a treat either. The Steelers had to deal with stretches of inconsistency (including issues dropping the football). While Johnson can create separation with ease, his demeanor proved to be an issue in 2023 as his lack of effort as a blocker at times was noticeable on film.

So who won this offseason trade? Here are my trade grades for each party involved.

Panthers Trade Grade. A. Diontae Johnson. 7th-round pick (240 overall). Panthers Grade

Panthers Trade Grade: A

I have given the Carolina Panthers an 'A' grade in the trade for Diontae Johnson. This offense was abysmal in 2023, and what better way to give it a boost than to find QB Bryce Young a player who can get open routinely in short-to-intermediate routes -- and at the cost of just a late-round pick-swap, no less.

Johnson instantly became the top pass-catching target in Carolina, but they didn't have to give up a high draft pick and the overall investment was minimal. Giving CB Donte Jackson to the Steelers wasn't a big deal either, as there were reports that the Panthers were going to release the veteran cornerback before his roster bonus kicked in if they couldn't find a trade partner.

Though Carolina is already short on draft capital this year, swapping their sixth-round pick for a seventh-rounder to get a quality starting receiver at a very affordable price is a no-brainer. Unless Diontae Johnson's effort issues get worse on his new team, this will be a great trade for the Panthers.

C-. Donte Jackson. 6th-round pick (178 overall). Steelers Grade. Steelers Trade Grade

Steelers Trade Grade: C-

After grinding Donte Jackson's tape, I was hoping that I would come away with a different thought than my original assessment of this trade. I did not.

Jackson is a baseline starting NFL cornerback. There's no doubt that he's better than Levi Wallace (and probably an aging Patrick Peterson as well), but he has his limitations. Jackson is very small for a boundary cornerback.

At 5'10 1/2'' and 180 pounds with 29 1/2'' arms, Jackson is one of the smallest outside cornerbacks in the league. Even with elite speed (4.32 40-yard dash at the 2018 NFL Combine), Jackson needs to be in a perfect position to interrupt passes against bigger receivers.

Jackson's contract also is not ideal. With a 2024 cap number of $10.52 million, the Steelers actually lose roughly 500k in cap space swapping Diontae Johnson for Donte Jackson. And if we are being honest, Johnson is the better player when comparing them cross-positionally. The money Pittsburgh is spending on Jackson for 2024 could have been used to sign a better cornerback in free agency.

Admittedly, moving up 62 spots in the 2024 NFL Draft is nice, but this is on Day 3 where it's hard to hit on players wherever you are picking. I understand why the Steelers needed to trade Johnson, but I can't declare them the winners of this trade. I have them earning a grade of just a 'C-' for this questionable deal with the Panthers.