While the Pittsburgh Steelers are generally set at most starting positions heading into 2019, there is still one issue yet to be resolved following the trade of Antonio Brown. But as tough as it will be to replace the league’s best wide receiver, the loss of AB should give fans one of the more intriguing camp battles to follow this offseason.
With JuJu Smith-Schuster assuming the No.1 role, it will be left to newcomers Donte Moncrief and Diontae Johnson to compete with returning second-year player James Washington for the right to lineup opposite him. And with none of the three players seemingly alike, it is far too early to predict a winner in this contest with any degree of certainty.
When we discussed the battle last month, BTSC editor Jeff Hartman predicted Moncrief would win the job come opening day and I sided with Washington, while the rookie was effectively discounted.
However, based on an article by Mark Chichester of Pro Football Focus on Monday, it would appear that they disagree with our assessments, picking Johnson as the one to ultimately win the competition for the starting role.
“Donte Moncrief, who signed a two-year, $9 million deal with Pittsburgh this offseason, has drastically underwhelmed in recent years, earning sub-63.0 overall grades in 2017 and 2018, but his career-best effort (73.4 overall grade in 2016) isn’t really one to call home about. Battling for that spot is second-year pass-catcher James Washington, and he will be chomping at the bit to redeem himself after he produced one of the lowest receiving grades of any qualifying rookie wide receiver in the PFF era (2006-18).”
“Enter Diontae Johnson —the team’s third-round pick out of Toledo and a skilled route-runner is own right — who has a real shot to make an impact in this Steelers offense. Among the 102 FBS wide receivers with 150 or more targets over the past two seasons, Johnson ranked tied for 22nd in receiving grade (85.9), 10th in yards per route run (3.01) and eighth in passer rating when targeted (126.8). But if we look at his work from the outside alone, it becomes all the more impressive, as he came down with 34-of-67 targets when lined up as an outside receiver last year, for 624 yards, 329 yards after the catch and an average of 9.7 yards after the catch per reception that ranked tied for ninth among draft-eligible wide receivers with at least 50 routes run from the outside.”
“The verdict: More than a slot guy and more than a big body that can stretch the field, Johnson offers a versatile skill set that can really contend with the receivers in this group.”
It should be noted that PFF were advocates of Johnson ahead of the draft and have written a number of glowing articles about him since, but the merits of their argument should not be ignored either. Moncrief has hardly set to NFL on fire during his first five years in the league and Washington’s level of production as a rookie was far from inspiring either.
That being said, it would still be a significant surprise to see the rookie get the nod over the two veteran options in Week 1. And while being able to foresee a scenario where Johnson had claimed the starting job by mid-season, it seems doubtful it will have by opening day unless the rookie has had a spectacular preseason.