A new era of Pittsburgh Steelers football is slated to begin in late July when the team reports to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA, and I’m not referring to the era of General Manager (GM) Omar Khan.
No, I’m talking about the post-Ben Roethlisberger era.
It will be weird for everyone who has followed the Steelers during Roethlisberger’s tremendous career not seeing No. 7 at Heinz Field under center slinging the football around. But it isn’t just the fans who will find it odd to see a Roethlisberger-less Steelers team take the field.
The players are already finding it to be different without the future Hall of Fame quarterback at mandatory minicamp throwing passes to the receivers.
“It’s different,” Diontae Johnson said about the changes at the quarterback position. “Other than Mason (Rudolph) it’s Chris (Oladokun), Kenny (Pickett) and Mitch. Getting to know those three, just seeing what they do different. Picking their brain.”
The Steelers are heading into the offseason with a trio of quarterback vying for the role of the first quarterback to replace Roethlisberger. In the early stages of mandatory minicamp the pecking order has been:
For players like George Pickens, Calvin Austin III and Connor Heyward, they won’t notice a difference in the Steelers in 2022. They never played for the team when Roethlisberger was the quarterback. But for a player like Johnson, who was Roethlisberger’s favorite target throughout his career, he now is tasked with developing a similar rapport with the other quarterbacks now on the roster.
Mainly Mitch Trubisky.
“I am really picking Mitch’s brain, trying to get that relationship with him.” Johnson said. “That is what is most exciting to me. Taking it a day at a time. When we are in practice, if a ball is coming my way, whatever play it is, just show that communication that we do have. I want to show it’s going to continue to grow for everybody.
“We’re cool friends right now. He is a cool dude. It’s good.”
For Johnson, this season is a make-or-break season when it comes to his next contract in the NFL. If he plays well, he will either be getting paid by the Steelers, or another team via free agency. The fact he doesn’t have the quarterback who has helped him make the Pro Bowl in 2021 has to leave him with an unsettled feeling.
Because if Trubisky, Pickett or Rudolph can’t, or don’t, look Johnson’s way as often as Roethlisberger did it could hurt him as he approaches his next deal. But Johnson isn’t worried about that, at least he isn’t making those thoughts and statements public.
“I am not really worried about that,” Johnson said about a potential second contract. “I can only control what I can control. I want to be here. I am going to keep working. My agent will do what he does. I am not trying to focus on that. I am not worried about it.
“I am just coming here doing what I am supposed to do. If a contract comes this year it comes, if it don’t it don’t.
“I am just ready to play football and be a Steeler.
“My time is going to come. I am going to be patient. If it comes this year, it’s going to be a blessing.”
The hope is Johnson and whichever quarterback wins the starting job this season, will develop a tremendous connection, similar to the one Johnson had with Roethlisberger, and he proves his worth on the football field. This happening would equate to success for the Steelers’ offense.
However, there is the chance the Steelers offense spreads the ball around more, decreasing the volume of targets to Johnson. It could hurt his numbers, while making the offense more prolific. There are many different facets to this discussion, but the hope is always for the success of the Steelers first. Individuals second.
Will Johnson get his contract before the start of the regular season? With Khan at the helm, no one knows what to expect. Khan did say he is keeping the principle of not negotiating contracts in-season, but didn’t say his principle on paying players when his predecessor would have waited. Minkah Fitzpatrick’s next contract seems to be the priority signing for the team, but there isn’t anything stating they couldn’t sign both players this offseason.
Only time will tell how Johnson develops without Roethlisberger, but it certainly will be different, and impactful, for the fourth year wide receiver.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for training camp to start July 26th at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA.