The 2022 NFL offseason saw an explosion in the wide receivers market that was more than most predicted. With a dozen players now with contracts averaging $20 million or more each season, it’s insane how much the the contracts have escalated. With the Steelers top receiver from the last two seasons in terms of yards going into the last year of his contract, one might think that the Steelers would be looking to sign Diontae Johnson to a long-term deal. But in a market this hot, is Diontae Johnson the receiver the Steelers are willing to shell out big bucks to keep?
There are many Steelers fans who would say no to this question. Some have even gone as far as thinking the Steelers should trade Johnson and leave themselves with only one player at the position who played significant snaps for the Steelers last year. Unless the Steelers are immensely confident in both their newly drafted wide receivers, moving on from Diontae Johnson when they still have him on a cheap contract would not be a smart move, especially if he signs a big deal somewhere else next year and can bring as much as a third-round compensatory draft pick. The Steelers still also have the option of either using the franchise tag or signing Johnson to a deal next year if they so choose.
But none of this talk matters if Diontae Johnson is not an elite wide receiver in the NFL and worthy of the contract.
Several weeks ago on an episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I was asked to break down some numbers as to what would make a player a top-tier wide receiver. The first step was determining which stats to look at in order to break players into categories. For this exercise, I chose receiving yards, receptions, and touchdowns as my three categories. Additionally, I figured the best way to break wide receivers into tiers is by going every 32 players. Theoretically, every team would have a Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 wide receiver if it all fell perfectly so it made sense to be the breaking point.
For the exercise, I broke down numbers for both 2021 and 2020 to try to get an idea of what the numbers would look like going forward. When looking at the top 32 receivers for 2021 in each category, it fell where players had at least 848 receiving yards, 67 receptions, and six touchdowns. While that put a player in the top 32 for each category, only 21 players were the top category in all three categories. Of those 21, one of them was Diontae Johnson.
Even though I broke down Tier 2 and Tier 3 wide receivers, I was also interested in who were really the top receivers in the league. Instead of going top 32, I then went with statistics of the top 16 in each category. To make those qualifications, players had to have at least 1,082 receiving yards, 83 receptions, and eight touchdowns.
In looking at the numbers to put players in the top 16 in the league, there were only six who met the criteria in all three categories. Those players were Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson, Devante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, and Diontae Johnson.
In all honesty, I was surprised Diontae Johnson was in the same category with these other five players. I always felt Johnson was a quality wide receiver, but I did not realize the elite group he was in when it came to the top three statistics for wide receivers.
Even looking back at 2020, Diontae Johnson was still in the top tier of wide receivers in all three categories, even though his statistics were not as good as 2021. There were 18 wide receivers who were the top 32 in all three categories. I also did a breakdown of the top 16 and there were five players who made it in all three categories in 2020, but Diontae Johnson was not one of them.
Even after making the Pro Bowl and putting up numbers which had him in the top of the NFL in 2021, there are still some Steelers’ fans who aren’t sold the Diontae Johnson deserving the big contract. I completely understand. If the Steelers are not sure how Diontae Johnson is going to fit into what they want to be able to do with their offense in the post-Ben Roethlisberger era, it’s understandable that they may want to wait another season to have a better idea of what they are investing in.
But waiting could also cost more in the long run. So knowing the Steelers might end up having to pay more next year than they would this year for Diontae Johnson is a risk they are just going to have to be willing to take. But the worst thing they could do is pay the big money now only to find out that the Roethlisberger-to-Johnson connection is what was so productive.