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Diontae Johnson
NFL

Should Steelers Pay Up To Extend Diontae Johnson?

  • Justin Melo
  • May 6, 2022
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The Pittsburgh Steelers are preparing to usher in a new era of football in 2022. Long-time starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is no longer at the forefront of the franchise, nor is general manager Kevin Colbert, who retired at the conclusion of the 2022 NFL Draft. The Steelers must make some critical decisions over the next few months, and one of those decisions includes star wide receiver Diontae Johnson.

Johnson is entering an ever-crucial fourth campaign in 2022. It represents the final year of Johnson’s four-year rookie contract and Johnson’s representation is undeniably looking ahead to impending contract negotiations. Johnson is set to earn just a little north of $2.7 million in 2022. 

The receiver market exploded this offseason. It’s a development that works in Johnson’s favor after the former Toledo standout enjoyed a career-best season in 2021 by recording 107 receptions for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns. Several franchises have decided against paying receivers $25-plus million annually and it led to blockbuster trades involving Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and A.J. Brown earlier this offseason. Finding out which side of the fence Pittsburgh will plant their flag is going to be a fascinating exercise. I firmly believe the Steelers should make a competitive offer to Johnson in hopes of securing his services for the future.

On one hand, the Steelers have historically refused to pay above their perceived value when engaging in contract negotiations with their own superstar players. It led to rather ugly in-house situations with Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and Pittsburgh can claim victory in relation to those two outcomes. Pittsburgh’s next general manager will likely be an in-house candidate and it’s plausible to believe this team-building philosophy will continue even in Colbert’s absence. The Steelers have also done an excellent job identifying and drafting wide receiver talents in recent years. 

Johnson himself was largely an unknown commodity as a third-round selection of Toledo in the 2019 NFL Draft. Johnson was considered a reach, but he’s managed to make those claims look rather foolish while developing into a high-level pass catcher. JuJu Smith-Schuster was a second-round selection in 2017 and Chase Claypool was a fellow second-round pick in 2020. The Steelers know how to scout receivers.

Based on prior history, Pittsburgh could easily decide to allow Johnson to test the open market. If Johnson’s representation manages to fetch an offer above their comfort zone, the Steelers would have legitimate reason to feel confident in their ability to draft Johnson’s successor with a first-to-third-round selection while saving roughly $20 million on an annual basis for the next four seasons. This may even qualify as the likely outcome based on their habits.

One dynamic has however changed this offseason that I believe should alter how Pittsburgh plans to conduct its business.

The Steelers are no longer handsomely paying a quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger carried an exorbitant cap hit of $41.25 million in 2021 and Pittsburgh has gotten considerably cheaper at the quarterback position this offseason. The duo of Trubisky and Mason Rudolph will combine to carry a cap hit of less than $8 million in 2022, via Spotrac. Kenny Pickett has yet to officially sign his rookie contract, but the rookie wage scale will guarantee a minimal impact on Pittsburgh’s cap situation for the foreseeable future. Pittsburgh selected Pickett with the No. 20 overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, and recent history provides us with excellent insight into what his eventual contract will roughly be. Former Florida standout Kadarius Toney, the 20th overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, signed a four-year deal with the New York Giants worth $13.7 million, via Spotrac, while carrying a 2021 cap hit of just $2.4 million. Pickett’s contract may be worth more due to natural inflation, but the impact will remain relatively insignificant. Pittsburgh’s three quarterbacks will combine for a cap hit of roughly $30 million less than what Roethlisberger cost the Steelers a year ago.

Pickett is the undeniable future for the Steelers under center, and maximizing the window to build the ultimate competitive roster when possessing a starting quarterback on a rookie contract is a smart way to do business. The Kansas City Chiefs are an excellent example. General manager Brett Veach remained aggressive while Patrick Mahomes played out his rookie contract and the Chiefs were rewarded with a Super Bowl title. The New York Jets are currently trying to do the same with Zach Wilson. Having Tua Tagovailoa is partially why the Miami Dolphins were allowed to sign Terron Armstead and trade for Hill. Having Jalen Hurts allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to trade for Brown. In Los Angeles, Justin Herbert’s rookie contract allowed Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco to splurge on J.C. Jackson and Khalil Mack earlier this offseason. 

The blueprint has been laid down and is relatively clear. Employing a young quarterback allows you to spend an abundance of money throughout the rest of your roster in a manner that is not possible when paying a quarterback his second contract. Pittsburgh should follow suit by taking advantage.

It’s time for Pittsburgh to ditch their ancient habits and retain a player of Johnson’s caliber. The Steelers’ best chance to build a competitive, ready-to-win roster around Pickett and/or Trubisky is now. The next general manager should make a fair but competitive offer to Johnson.

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Justin Melo