With the selection of Zach Gentry in the fifth-round on Saturday, the Pittsburgh Steelers have finally used the second of the two picks they received from the Oakland Raiders as part of the trade of Antonio Brown earlier in the year. A deal that effectively turned out to be a swap of the best wide receiver in the NFL for a Diontae Johnson and giant of a tight end from Michigan.
For those who feel the Steelers gave their star receiver away on the cheap, the real value of the trade will now be determined by how productive these two young prospects prove to be. And while it is far too early to project what the future might hold for either player, it will be a tough task for either player to match the numbers AB put up in the Steelers offense.
Long before Pittsburgh linked Johnson to Brown for all eternity with the first of the pick they received for letting him go, the Toledo product had heard the comparisons to AB before, including from the Steelers during his meetings with them ahead of the draft. Given his size and hailing from a MAC school, the wideout with kick return skills was an obvious comparison to the former Pittsburgh star on paper. A fact not lost on Johnson when talking to the local media on Friday,
“You’re a 5-foot-10 180 lb. receiver from a MAC school with return skills. Does that sound like any former Steelers?”
“Yes, Antonio Brown. He’s a great receiver and one of the guys I look up to in the league. But at the end of the day I can only be me and do what I can do best.”
With Johnson also noting that the Steelers had discussed the skills that make Brown such a great receiver when they had met.
“They did reference some stuff that AB does. They try to say how he runs his routes and how he catches the ball and how his quickness helps allow him to beat defenses down the field. Those are some of the same things that they told me about that kind of remind me of him.”
Simply being the same size and coming from the same conference is far from enough to suggest the second coming of AB, but it would appear that wide receiver coach Daryl Drake is extremely happy with his new player.
“We’re very excited about Diontae Johnson, not only is he a tremendous football player, but also a tremendous young man. I fell in love with him after spending time with him, dining with him, and talking to him – seeing his passion for the game, his passion for wanting to be great, and his passion for his teammates. He did an outstanding job at Toledo, not only as a wide receiver but on special teams, as a returner, and that’s something you can talk to Danny Smith about. A tremendously gifted young man and the most natural catcher I’ve seen in a while.”
“He did have some concentration drops like they all do, but he’s very gifted at catching the football. He doesn’t have great timed speed, but he plays the game fast. He’s really good vs. press, and as you know this is a press league. Those defensive backs walk up in your face and they try to fingerprint you, and he’s very allusive at the line scrimmage. You need a guy who can get off bump. The thing that he does is get off bump, and he gets in and out of his breaks as well as anybody that I’ve seen in a long time. He was a guy that I wanted and I appreciate Kevin [Colbert] and Mike [Tomlin] seeing the same things that I saw in this young man. As you get to be around him, you’re going to love his smile and his personality and his style of play. Again, very excited about the pick, and I think he’s a guy Steelers Nation is going to be really excited about.”
If the Steelers are ultimately to be judged the winners of the Brown trade, it will not only be up to Johnson to prove his worth, but expectations for Gentry might need to be tempered in the early going considering his relative inexperience.
As a converted former quarterback with only few years of playing the position under the belt, it seems like a big ask to expect him to be a significant contributor in the initial stages of his professional career. When speaking to the media about the latest addition to his position room, while tight ends coach James Daniel was excited about the pick, his description of the player was far less encouraging that Drake’s glowing praise of Johnson.
“He’s a good football player, long frame. He went to Michigan as a quarterback, and he’s converted to tight end. He’s had a couple years of experience playing there. He’s a guy we are excited about getting in and getting to work with.”
And when asked about his skills as a receiver and his talents as a blocker, Daniel's description suggests Gentry still has a lot to learn.
“He was a quarterback. So, I would say he’s more depth at the receiving end. He has some adjusting to do. He can become a good blocker, I think. But, I think the kid is excited about it and willing.”
Time will tell, but Johnson may yet have to do most of the heavy lifting if the Steelers are to be consider the winner of the Brown trade in the long-term.