Around the NFL, some positions have become known as fungible, that general managers can snag younger, cheaper upgrades and keep a revolving door of players in the facility. This list has largely revolved around running backs, kickers and even potentially linebackers, but wide receivers have started to become associated with those three positions.
In the last two NFL Drafts, 11 of the 64 first-round picks have been receivers; young receivers like Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Jaylen Waddle, Tee Higgins and Amon-Ra St. Brown have indicated that WRs can flourish in their first few seasons out of college.
Moreover, general managers seem more and more content to take receivers in middle rounds. Just ask the Steelers, who are arguably at the pinnacle of developing Day Two-Three wideouts and who selected George Pickens and Calvin Austin III this April.
However, as is the case with any position in the NFL, certain wide receivers are inherently more valuable than others. Fundamentally, the Rams would not have won Super Bowl LVI without Cooper Kupp’s nearly 2,000-yard season. In that same echelon are wideouts like Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, Chris Godwin and A.J. Brown.
What’s the common denominator for all of those WRs, besides their elite level of play? That front office members truly covet them and thus rewarded them with handsome deals that continue to reset the market.
This upcoming offseason, the 2019 receiver class is set to hit free agency. Ironically enough, the true superstars, including Deebo Samuel, Brown, Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf and Diontae Johnson, were all picked in the second round or later. Each of these players has shown the ability to be a game-changing presence for an extended period of time, and each has or will (presumably) express the desire for a more illustrious deal.
That principle is certainly the case with the Steelers’ Johnson, who was absent from OTAs until Tuesday. It should be noted that Pittsburgh’s current portion of workouts is voluntary, and that the team dif not seem too dismayed with Johnson’s vacancy, yet the decision to stay away was inherently linked to his contract.
In the final year of his rookie deal, Johnson is owed $2.79 million, a figure which ranks 60th in the league — behind Corey Davis, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Byron Pringle and even Pickens. In essence, Johnson has more than a right to be discontent.
Since entering the NFL in 2019, Johnson has effectively been one of the premier receivers in the league.
Since he was drafted in 2019, Diontae Johnson ranks...— Bradley Locker (@Bradley_Locker) April 18, 2022
9th in receptions (254)
7th in targets (405)
22nd in receiving yards (2,764)
While having Mason Rudolph/Duck Hodges and a declining Ben Roethlisberger as his quarterbacks.
Johnson is more than worthy of an extension. pic.twitter.com/iQ9E6Llvk9
Boil it down to the last two seasons, and those metrics improve even more. Since 2020, Johnson ranks seventh among WRs in receptions (195), fourth in targets (313) and 12th in receiving yards (2,084).
Another important point of context is the players under center that have been slinging Johnson the rock. During his rookie campaign, that was Ben Roethlisberger for a game and a quarter, followed by the tandem of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. In the last two years, Johnson’s QB was a fading version of Roethlisberger.
Of course, Johnson has had his fair share of drop dilemmas, and he would presumably be the first to admit that. Per Pro Football Reference, Johnson has 24 drops in his career, and his 62.7% catch rate is tied for 75th among receivers (minimum 75 targets) since 2019.
Yet, Brown, McLaurin, Mike Evans, Metcalf, D.J. Moore, Courtland Sutton, D.J. Chark, Odell Beckham Jr. and others have lower catch percentages in the last three seasons. In other words, the statistic may be misleading and/or not reflective of the quality of a receiver.
Examine the two blind resumes of the players below:
Player A: 45 games, 27 starts, 397 targets, 245 receptions, 3,394 receiving yards, 13.9 yards/reception, 8.5 yards/target, 15 touchdowns, 61.7% catch rate
Player B: 47 games, 39 starts, 405 targets, 254 receptions, 2,764 receiving yards, 10.9 yards/reception, 6.8 yards/target, 20 touchdowns, 62.7% catch rate
Player A is Antonio Brown during his first three years as a legitimate starter (2011-13), while Player B is, as you may have guessed, is Johnson. While Brown did accrue more yards at a higher efficiency, the two had similarly terrific three-year spans early in their careers.
Why bring up Brown? The Steelers are notorious for not doling out second contracts to burgeoning receivers, but Pittsburgh bucked that trend with AB, giving him a five-year, $42.5 million extension before he was set to hit free agency in 2013. The team one-upped that mark with a four-year, $68 million deal in February 2017, making Brown the highest-paid receiver in pro football.
The takeaway from Brown’s time in Pittsburgh isn’t, in this case, the off-field drama; rather, it’s that the Steelers have shown a capability to reward star receivers who are worthy of cashing in. It remains to be seen if Omar Khan will follow the benchmark set by Kevin Colbert, but Khan very likely helped to negotiate both of Brown’s extensions.
Entering June, the highest-paid receiver in the NFL is Hill at an average of $30 million per year; not far behind are Adams ($28 million), DeAndre Hopkins ($27.25 million) and A.J. Brown ($25 million). Given the explosion of the receiver market, largely due to Christian Kirk’s gaudy four-year deal worth up to $84 million with the Jaguars, Johnson, Samuel, McLaurin and Metcalf are likely to seek around $20-$22 million per season.
For a player of Johnson’s production and age — he turns 26 in July — that valuation is perfectly reasonable. In fact, if Khan and the Steelers can ink a deal with Johnson before McLaurin or Samuel do with their respective teams, Pittsburgh can potentially pay Johnson even less relative to his 2019 peers.
Besides Johnson’s skill and stats warranting a better contract, it’s also paramount to consider the Steelers’ cap room for the 2023 offseason. It would be remiss to ignore a pending extension for Minkah Fitzpatrick, but even then, Khan is slated to have $52 million with which to navigate the cap while having most major stars and a multiplicity of young players on the books.
Sure, the Steelers could trade Johnson for picks and home in on a receiver early in the 2023 NFL Draft. But granting the Toledo product a hefty payday that will eventually reset to market value would indicate the franchise’s commitment to one of the best young playmakers in the league. More importantly, it would lock in a premier target and building block for Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky for years to come while avoiding an endless cycle of perpetual receiver development.