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If Diontae Johnson becomes a good slot receiver, his third-round selection will be worth it

The Steelers chose receiver Diontae Johnson with their first pick of the third-round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Some say he only has the attributes to play inside—or the slot. But if he’s a good to great slot, his rather lofty draft selection will be worth it.

Eastern Michigan v Toledo Photo by Andrew Weber/Getty Images

Perhaps it’s fitting that the Steelers first pick on Day 2 of the 2019 NFL Draft, one that came in the third round (66th, overall), was considered by many to be “practically a second-round pick.”

I say that because the Steelers have made it a habit in recent years of leaving their fans shocked (and not awed) upon hearing the name of their second-round draft choice.

Yes, whether it’s been Jason Worlds, Marcus Gilbert, Sean Davis or even JuJu Smith-Schuster, that first Day 2 pick has often left a lot to be desired—at least in a “I can’t believe they passed on (insert that year’s version of Chase Winovich here) to reach for that guy!” kind of way.

The latest Day 2 draft pick to leave fans questioning the scouting abilities of Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and Co. is Diontae Johnson, receiver, Toledo. This was the guy Pittsburgh chose with its first pick in the third round which, as has been stated, was practically a second-round pick.

When you research the top rated receivers going into the draft, you can understand the concern; Johnson doesn’t show up on most lists—at least not until well after the first 10 or so.

This doesn’t necessarily mean Johnson will be a bad player, only that he didn’t really check off a ton of boxes scouts are looking for when evaluating receiving prospects.

For starters, Johnson played in the MAC conference, meaning he didn’t really go up against the cream of the college football crop. Yes, Antonio Brown played at a MAC school (Central Michigan), but it would be unfair to not only Johnson to point that out, but to the fans opposed to the pick. Obviously, a sixth-round draft choice out of a tiny school that goes on to have a Hall of Fame career is an outlier. So it’s a bit disingenuous to use that in any sort of pro-Johnson argument.

Also, according to Johnson’s Draft profile, he didn’t exactly test well at the Combine, and if he can’t test well vs. himself, how can he play well vs. athletes from elite conferences such as the SEC?

So, the concerns for the Johnson selection are valid.

In addition to his college competition and Combine testing, Johnson’s size and speed are also a concern; at 5’ 10” and 183 lb, and with a 40 time in the 4.5 range, he seems too small and a little slow to play outside, which means he’s best suited for the slot. Is a receiver with slot size and speed worthy of a third-round pick? Heck yeah......especially in today’s NFL.

When you read Johnson’s strength’s courtesy of his official draft profile, phrases like “Has “look-out!” talent with the ball in his hands” stand out. Another is “Twitchy mover from whistle to whistle.”

Those attributes seem perfect for a slot receiver who wants a chance to excel at the next level.

It may seem strange to use a third-round pick to select a receiver whose skill-set and ceiling figures to place him firmly in the slot role, but times in the NFL, they are a changin’. How often do teams employ three wide-outs on any given play? Quite a bit. And maybe that’s why slot corners are now much more valuable than they were years ago, with teams using premium draft picks in-order to find really good ones.

Slot corners are practically starters, and what are they doing with most of their reps? Covering slot receivers.

All one has to do is study the career of Tom Brady and how he’s spent most of it terrorizing opposing secondaries by finding the receiver in the slot over and over and over again to know how big of a weapon a player like that can be.

The Steelers do have a couple of decent slot receivers in Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer, but there’s a big difference between decent and “Holy heck, why is he always so wide open?”

Going back to Johnson’s resume. He had three touchdowns of over 80 yards in 2018 (one receiving, one on a punt return and one on a kickoff return). That means he has the potential to go the distance any time he has the football in his hands.

It’s safe to say Rogers and Switzer don’t possess that kind of “look out!” ability.

The Steelers can use such a talent in the slot, not to mention on their return teams.

Johnson may have been a bit of a reach at number 66 (although, it’s fair to point out that did project him to go in the third round), and he may have a ceiling as a slot receiver. But really good slot receivers make life miserable for opposing defenses. Great ones become superstars.

Even if Diontae Johnson only pulls off the former, drafting him in the third round will be more than justified.