Receiver Diontae Johnson agreed to a two-year, $36.71 million contract extension on Thursday that will pay him over $39 million through the 2024 season.
$27 million of Johnson’s new deal is fully guaranteed.
It likely wasn’t the long-term deal Johnson was looking for, same with the average annual salary of just over $18 million starting in 2023.
But it’s not bad for a second-tier number one receiver, which is what Johnson has performed like over the course of his three seasons with the Steelers, catching a combined 254 passes for 2,764 yards and 20 touchdowns since being selected out of Toledo in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
As for the Steelers, they aren’t used to paying second-tier number one receivers anywhere near the money they’ve decided to give Johnson over the next few seasons. Unless your name has been Hines Ward or Antonio Brown—a team and/or all-time great—you haven’t enjoyed a lengthy career in Pittsburgh during the salary cap era.
Times are changing, however.
In fact, the last time the Steelers decided to give a receiver a boat-load of money was just over five years ago—February of 2017—when they signed Brown to a contract extension through the 2021 season. The deal made Brown the highest-paid receiver in the NFL, with an average annual salary of over $17 million. Brown was also the best receiver in football during that period. Heck, he may have been the best player in the entire league.
Again, though, times are changing, and the salaries of receivers have skyrocketed since then. Who is currently the highest-paid receiver in the NFL? Tyreek Hill, who was traded to the Dolphins this past offseason, is set to make $30 million in 2022.
You might say, “Well, Johnson is no Hill.” True, as I said, he’s performed like a second-tier number one receiver so far during his short career. Maybe that’s why it’s fitting that Johnson’s new deal makes him the 17th-highest paid receiver in the NFL as of this writing.
That’s right, Johnson will earn more money than Brown did five years ago when he was at the height of his powers and was in the discussion for NFL MVP.
This is what has happened to the receiver market in the last half-decade, and Johnson was just trying to get paid accordingly.
What will happen to the receiver market in the coming years? Some predict that the bubble will burst thanks to the never-ending influx of new talent coming into the league each and every spring (George Pickens looks like the latest example). Maybe that will happen by the time Johnson’s new deal expires in three seasons. If so, he’ll have at least $27 million in his bank account, an amount that JuJu Smith-Schuster may never see, thanks to a league-wide salary-cap reduction in the 2021 offseason, followed by an injury that cut short his final season in Pittsburgh.
You might say Johnson bet on himself with a short-term deal and by agreeing to an annual salary of less than the $20 million he was reportedly seeking, but, to reiterate, he is hedging his bet with a $27 million guarantee.
Is there another level for Johnson, who just turned 26 on July 5, to achieve as a player? He has developed a reputation for drops over the course of his short career, but he’s also been a consistent performer in a compromised offense. If Johnson takes his game to another level, he could be in line for an even bigger and lengthier contract by the time he becomes a free agent again at the age of 28.
Will he get that kind of contract from the Steelers?
This might be an experiment by the Steelers, a gamble they’re willing to take in order to perhaps show current and future receivers that they’re willing to pay a fair wage for a productive player at that position.
Maybe it works out with Johnson. Maybe it doesn’t. If things do progress with Johnson, maybe he’ll remember the time the Steelers could have just stuck to their guns and allowed him to play out the final year of his rookie contract. Of course, he likely won’t give them a hometown discount, but maybe they could meet in the middle, and, man, what a middle that could be for Johnson if the receiver market continues to go nuts in terms of lucrative deals.
Also, if Pickens does become this huge star, he’ll be in line to earn a massive payday around the time Johnson’s new contract expires. Would the Steelers keep both players? Not bloody likely, but maybe they’d feel more comfortable giving Pickens $30-plus million a year if young receivers continue to come into the league in coming seasons and perform at such a level that it allows a team to get away with only paying one receiver huge money while relying on youngsters on rookie deals to round out the depth chart.
If the influx of receiver talent does continue to flow into the league unabated and the supply far outweighs the demand, well, the Steelers will be out from under Johnson’s contract by 2025 and can decide what to do with him or any other star receiver.
Maybe the Steelers will ultimately decide that they just can’t go there when it comes to paying a wide-receiver—even an all-time great—Tyreek Hill-type money, but the Johnson contract extension does perhaps signal a shift in philosophy when it comes to paying pretty good receivers market value and keeping them around past their rookie contracts.
Again, times are changing, and in more ways than one. Why do I say that? Diontae Johnson is simply a pretty good Steelers receiver who they decided to make a very wealthy man.
That’s really never happened before.