When any NFL team drafts new players, fans want to learn as much as they can about those particular prospects. What do they do well? What do they struggle with? How about their highlight reel?
For me, I like to talk to people who actually know them best, and this is one of the best aspects of working for SB Nation. After the Steelers selected their full compliment of players, I reached out to the writers who covered them in college to get to know them a little better.
In my opinion, these writers are the ones who watch them every play, every week for multiple years. So, today we hear from Steve Helwick from The Hustle Belt (SB Nation’s MAC website) as he gives us the lowdown on Pittsburgh’s first third round selection Diontae Johnson.
See the interview below:
1. Steelers fans were shocked when the team took Johnson with their first 3rd round pick. To calm those concerns of the black-and-gold faithful, sum up the type of player Johnson was at Toledo.
At Toledo, Diontae Johnson was an absolute playmaker. Whether lining up as a receiver or a return specialist, he was the most electric player on the field at all times. Johnson was always capable of completing the home run touchdowns, and he struck from 70+ yards many times in his college career. The game that sticks out to me most from his two years as a starter at Toledo was a midweek matchup versus Ball State in 2017. In a 41-point win, Johnson finished with 170 receiving yards on four receptions, an 87-yard punt return, and three total touchdowns. He has great speed and is an expert at creating separation on routes, and he’s great in the open field after catches or on punt returns too.
2. Johnson’s route running, speed and elusiveness has been compared to Antonio Brown. Lofty expectations, but what does Johnson do well that sets him apart and makes him worthy of a 3rd round designation?
Diontae Johnson’s final two years at Toledo reminded me of Antonio Brown at Central Michigan in terms of being a lethal downfield threat and dangerous return man. Unfortunately for Diontae, he’s going to be compared to Brown and his ridiculous stat-lines for the rest of his Steeler career because Pittsburgh decided to select a receiver with that third round pick from Oakland. But the two are the same build, ran within 0.05 seconds of each other on the 40-yard dash, and hail from the same conference. But what Johnson has that warranted a third round pick is great athleticism and route running. His footwork on his routes is top-notch for the 2019 NFL Draft class, and he often dominates one-on-one man coverage with his agility and cuts.
3. On the flip side, what is it Johnson struggles with that might make the transition from college to the NFL rougher than expected?
One of Johnson’s greatest issues at Toledo was drops. He was great at getting open but struggled hauling in every pass headed in his direction. Once he burst onto the scene in 2017, his low point was at the 2017 Dollar General Bowl where he caught two passes for 21 yards. Something that might also hinder Johnson during the transition to the NFL is strength. The 5’11”, 180-pound receiver will be playing defenders on a different caliber of strength and tackling ability. Strength could be an issue on contested catches upon entering the next level. Lastly, when looking up his stats, Steelers fans might notice a concerning drop in production from 2017 to 2018, but I think the primary reason was the loss of a talented quarterback in Logan Woodside (whose AAF play led him to an NFL contract) and Toledo attempting a two-QB system for the majority of Johnson’s final season.
4. Johnson said he can play both in the slot and on the outside, where did he excel the most while in college?
Johnson played more frequently on the outside in college but he lined up in the slot on many plays as well. He was equally effective in both areas, although, Toledo often found success lining up Johnson in isolation near the sideline and targeting him on seam routes due to his ability to shed coverage. With the Steelers, I predict he’ll primarily line up in the slot with James Washington and JuJu Smith-Schuster manning the outsides. I see him playing a similar role to the one previously held by Eli Rogers in the past when on offense. On special teams, I’d love to see Pittsburgh work him in with Ryan Switzer on punt returns because I think he could find initial success there. Overall, I see Johnson developing as an Emmanuel Sanders-type player for the Steelers, who has seen success in both the slot and outside in a solid NFL career.
5. What is Johnson’s demeanor both on and off the field?
I haven’t spoken to him before, but Johnson has always come across to me as a very motivated player. Similar to Toledo’s other wideout Cody Thompson (now a UDFA with Kansas City), most of Johnson’s tweets concern hard work, motivation, and other uplifting messages. He went from a lowly-rated recruit to a freshman special teams player to one of the top-10 receiving yards leaders in the FBS in just a couple years. Just four years after committing to Toledo, he rose to third round pick status without a hefty college sample size. That definitely speaks volumes about his work ethic.
6. If you could sum up Johnson into a word or sentence, what would it be?
I feel like I may have overused the word, but “playmaker” is essentially what Diontae Johnson is. He was Toledo’s go-to when in need of a big play and helped elevate the Rockets to many wins over the past two seasons. Another game that sticks out is the Toledo-Tulsa shootout of 2017. Johnson posted 142 yards on four receptions to essentially win the game for Toledo with two deep touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
A huge shout out to Steve for taking the time to answer my questions! Be sure to check back to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they press on throughout the offseason.