Thoughts on Diontae Johnson and the Steelers

With the flurry of receiver contracts being signed I had a number of questions about Steelers wideout Diontae Johnson who is currently looking for a new contract before committing fully to the 2022 preseason schedule. The market has certainly exploded this offseason with 11 wide receivers signing new contracts worth at least $20 million per season. The rumor is the two sides are far apart on valuation which is not surprising since the Steelers have traditionally let many of their receivers walk when it was time to for an extension that would reach higher end numbers.

The first thing I wanted to do is to look at what would be considered a “top season” among recent NFL signings and compare it to what many would consider Johnson’s top season.

PlayerAgeRoundPFF GradeTGTRecYdsYPRTDTDPR
Metcalf25282.5129831,30315.71012.0%
Samuel26287.8121771,40518.267.8%
Brown25290.4106701,07515.41115.7%
McLaurin27377.6134871,11812.944.6%
Average25.82.384.6122.579.31,225.315.57.759.8%
Johnson26373.81691071,16110.987.5%

While I think Johnson does belong in the discussion with this group of players, he is a target monster compared to the other players but his numbers fall short in terms of overall impact with such a low yards per reception. Last season he ranked 12th in YPR out of the 14 players who had at least 130 targets per PFF in 2021. He was 29th among the 39 players with at least 100 targets in 2021. Of the 10 players with a lower yards per reception, 3 were tight ends and 1 is currently out of the NFL (Cole Beasley). The others were Keenan Allen, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jakobi Myers, Hunter Renfrow, Jaylen Waddle, and Robbie Anderson. All but Anderson would be considered “slot guys” and even he had over 200 routes out of the slot. Johnson had just 42.

Obviously there are other factors that can come into play regarding, that including poor QB play, but I could see how the Steelers may very well view his impact on the game to be more in line with the Hunter Renfrow end of the market vs the top end players but clearly that won’t get a deal done.

Johnson not looking to play without a new contract makes sense. While he has not had a good situation at QB this is arguably the worst it will be with Mitch Trubisky penciled in as the starter with first round draft pick Kenny Pickett and/or backup Mason Rudolph waiting in the wings. In the seasons when Ben Roethlisberger was healthy, the team generally threw the ball around 650 times a year.  That fell to around 500 in the year he was injured. With that kind of drop, Johnson’s overall numbers could drop significantly which could impact him in free agency. His former teammate went through a similar struggle as a free agent which could also weigh on him.

Still it is hard to imagine him agreeing to a contract in the sub $20 million per year range.  Here is the market breakdown of all the young receivers earning over $20 million a season and the relevant cash flow breakdown.

PlayerYearsTotalAPYTotal GuaranteeFull GuaranteeY0 Cash1Y Cash2Y Cash
A.J. Brown4$100,000,000$25,000,000$56,470,471$56,470,471$20,000,000$32,000,000$53,000,000
D.K. Metcalf3$72,000,000$24,000,000$58,220,000$31,000,000$26,779,529$40,999,529$53,999,529
Deebo Samuel3$71,550,000$23,850,000$58,167,000$41,000,000$20,832,000$32,077,000$53,999,000
Terry McLaurin3$69,600,000$23,200,000$53,154,118$34,654,118$26,525,000$31,700,000$50,200,000
D.J. Moore3$61,884,000$20,628,000$41,610,000$41,610,000$9,619,000$29,784,000$45,834,000

 Other than Moore, whose contract predated the market growth that occurred in free agency, the numbers are all pretty similar. The APYs are all between $23.2 and $25 million a season and realistically the Brown contract is only worth $23 million if you take out the inflated final year, giving us a market between $23 and $24 million a season. Guaranteed salary is between $53 and $58 million. Most of our differences come in the cash flow breakdown where there are some differences between the players at the start of the deals.

I think the argument would be that Johnson is in the class of McLaurin and to quickly discount the other three players all of whom have had at least one Pro Bowl selection, a higher draft grade, and arguably better high end seasons. McLaurin’s career has been more consistent than Johnson’s and even though McLaurin did surpass Brown in the true APY number he is well under him in cash earned through two years.

If the Steelers would like to get a contract done they probably have to follow a similar model, likely exceeding the McLaurin annual value to hit in the ballpark of $23.5 million a season but not reaching his cash flow numbers. Maybe a deal that offers about a $20 million raise this season, $30 million by next year, and then $47 or $48 million over two years before it reaches it’s max value. This is also a situation where the team could look for the extra year of control and do a 4 year rather than a three year extension as well.

Anything less than this I believe would make it hard for the Steelers to get a contract finalized given the way that contracts have recently gone. It would look like a big step back to drop below $20 million a season even if that happens to be where the Steelers view him at the moment.  

Questions about this article? Reach Jason Fitzgerald on Twitter at @Jason_OTC