The Pittsburgh Steelers have a decision to make before training camp 2022 comes to a close. That decision will revolve around Diontae Johnson and the wide receiver room.
The NFL wide receiver market exploded during the past offseason, with the likes of Tyreek Hill signing a four-year, $120 million deal with the Miami Dolphins. That wasn’t the only big money invested in the receiver position as Davante Adams was traded from the Green Bay Packers to the Las Vegas Raiders and was abruptly signed to a five-year, $141.5 million deal. In addition to those monster deals, Johnson’s draft mate, A.J. Brown, who was picked one round and 15 selections before him, was traded from the Tennessee Titans to the Philadelphia Eagles for the Eagles 2022 first-round pick (No. 18 overall) and their third-round pick (No. 101 overall). The Eagles then signed Brown to a four-year, $100 million deal with $57.2 million guaranteed. Then just this week, DK Metcalf signed a three-year, $72 million contract with a $30 million signing bonus to remain with Seattle after he was not participating to start training camp.
Diontae Johnson was a Pro Bowl wide receiver in 2021, but if we as fans and editorial writers are honest with ourselves, we know Johnson isn’t on the level of the aforementioned players. The market became most volatile as it pertains to Johnson and the Steelers when Christian Kirk signed a four-year, $72 million deal that could be worth up to $84 million with $37 million fully guaranteed and the Raiders signing their number two receiver Hunter Renfrow to a two-year, $32 million deal with $21 million fully guaranteed.
This is where the rubber meets the road for the Steelers. Most fans can all agree Diontae Johnson is better than Christian Kirk and Hunter Renfrow and probably not as good as the top tier receivers, so the question becomes what is Johnson’s market value? This creates a perplexing situation for the Steelers. They still have Chase Claypool under team control through the 2023 season and they just drafted George Pickens and Calvin Austin III who are on their rookie deals through the 2025 season. Pickens has the pedigree and potential to be a number one receiver in this league.
Diontae Johnson’s camp is seeking a deal in the range north of $20 million per. If I’m Omar Kahn and the Steelers front office I offer Johnson some where in the range of $18-$20 million, if he doesn’t want the bag, then I offer the deal to Chase Claypool provided he has a good 2022 season. This is similar to what happened in 2013 when Mike Wallace turned down the Steelers offer of a five-year $42.5 million deal to sign with the Miami Dolphins on a five-year $65 million deal. The Steelers then offered that same deal to Antonio Brown and the rest was history.
It’s customary protocol for the Steelers not to negotiate contracts during the season, but perhaps new General Manager Omar Kahn will deviate from the long standing tradition. However it goes, the Steelers and Johnson are on the clock. Johnson was a sideline participant during the first four days of training camp, much like T.J. Watt last year and Minkah Fitzpatrick in the voluntary sessions of OTA’s back in June.
The current options are to pay Johnson what he wants, let him play under the last year of his rookie deal at approximately $3 million, which is grossly under paid for his production, and franchise him next year if he balls out, or trade him before the start of the season. If a deal is going to be done, it’s going to be before the season opens at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio on Sunday, September 11th.
There isn’t a right or wrong answer, only determining what is the best option as it relates to roster construction and overall cap management. Stay tuned as the situation is in a perpetual state of flux until it’s not.