Raise your hand if, when the Steelers selected Diontae Johnson with the No. 66 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, you said: "Who?!"
That's a lotta hands in the air. The pick surprised many, especially with names such as Hakeem Butler, Jalen Hurd and Terry McLaurin still on the board. But, as Dale Lolley recently reported, the Steelers are more than a little bit in love with Johnson's skill set.
"When we talked about Diontae in our meetings, Phil Kreidler, our scouting coordinator, when he read his report on Diontae, was just kind of funny," Kevin Colbert told media at the Rooney Complex. "I know [Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake] used the same terms, but he must’ve said ‘natural’ five times. It’s just what we believe, that this kid is just a natural football talent.”
After reading his latest "Classroom," it's safe to say Chris Carter shares that sentiment.
"Johnson’s work at different levels of his routes keeps cornerbacks on alert at all times and makes it difficult to predict where he’s going," Carter wrote. "That’s exactly what [Antonio Brown] has done for years to become the best receiver in the NFL."
The Steelers expect Johnson to step in and produce, but how much and how soon remains to be seen. We can look at the team's history with rookie receivers and combine that with the current opportunity in the Steelers' offense to make an educated guess, and that's exactly what I intend to do here.
First, let's take a look at some of the rookie seasons from prominent or highly drafted Steelers wideouts:
That tempers some expectations, eh? It wasn't until 2017 a Steelers rookie receiver posted over 900 yards, with JuJu Smith-Schuster putting up a remarkable — and surprising — rookie campaign. Stud receivers such as Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antonio Brown didn't match that mark combined as rookies.
To qualify that a bit, however, you have to look at how those 1998, 2000 and 2010 squads were built. In 1998, the Steelers ranked 29th (out of 30) in passing yards, gaining 2,552 yards through the air. In 2000, they also ranked 29th (out of 31) with 2,518 yards. The 2010 season brought a heavier aerial assault, ranking 14th with 3,601 yards, but that still pales in comparison to what the Steelers have done in recent years. Last season, for comparison, Ben Roethlisberger led the league with 5,129 passing yards.
Times have changed, and these Steelers have changed with them. Johnson is not entering your father's grind-'em-down Steelers offense. The team completed 459 passes last year, and Brown caught 104 of them in his NFL-record sixth consecutive season with 100 or more receptions. Those targets have to go somewhere, and even though James Washington feels ready to ascend to another level and the Steelers brought in Donte Moncrief to provide an outside burner capable of stretching defenses, Johnson will benefit from the Steelers' increased reliance on the pass.
The competition is deep for him in year one, though. You have the aforementioned Washington and Moncrief plus Vance McDonald at tight end, James Conner out of the backfield and some combination of Eli Rogers, Ryan Switzer and, oh yeah, Smith-Schuster. That takes food off the table for Johnson.
Now, consider what Steelers wide receivers do in Year 2:
If history holds true, it's Washington's time to feast — not Johnson's.
But on a team like this and with a talent like Johnson, who is more of the Brown/Stefon Diggs mold and can carve his own space through precise, intricate route-running, I think we'll see an above-average season by Steelers rookie standards.
The current line is 24 receptions, 372 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson will surpass that and snag 39 catches for 573 yards and four touchdowns. Book it.
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