Diontae Johnson doesn't mind the comparisons. He doesn't mind the expectations.
In fact, I'm not sure he gets all too worked up by ... anything. Johnson exemplifies the term "low key," silently making his way around the Rooney Complex, working out, going through drills, making catches and putting in the time. He's not an animated interview, and his answers sound plucked from a PR 101 handbook. Now, I'm not saying that does or doesn't exist, but I am saying if it did, we could use this exchange between Johnson and me to help fill some space on the page.
Me: "You've had a little more time now — with rookie camp, OTAs, now a day of minicamp — to kind of adjust and adapt to the team and to the NFL environment. How are you acclimating to everything?"
Johnson: "Just taking it day by day, just trying to learn the playbook. That's all I can do for real, just try to show them that I can be consistent and show them that I can retain information and just go out there and execute."
Johnson: "It's been pretty good, just being able to show him that I can be consistent and I know what I'm doing on the field at all times and just execute and show him that I can make plays as well."
It's all there in both those answers. Learn. Get better. Execute. Make plays.
Johnson is all-business, which is exactly what the team needs as they move forward from the drama of recent years. If Johnson's interested in anything besides making plays on the football field and proving himself as an NFL-caliber receiver and return man, he's given me precisely zero indications of that throughout the three times we've talked since his arrival in Pittsburgh.
I even brought up that other guy Johnson will be expected to help replace: Antonio Brown. It's unfair to ever compare a rookie to an All-Pro, future Hall of Famer on Day 1, but, man ... the similarities between these two are unavoidable. Their stature, their skill set, their style of play, their small-school background, their "underdog" vibes. It's all there. And when probed there, Johnson simply went with this:
“I look at his [Brown's] releases, how he catches the ball, how he comes out of his breaks, those type of things and try to apply it to my game,” Johnson was telling me at the Rooney Complex after Day 1 of the Steelers OTAs. “I feel like my releases are just as similar as his, and my route-running also, so those are the couple things I look at.”
It's a mentality he feels is shared throughout the locker room. From new guys to veterans, we've heard endless positive reviews of the Steelers' team chemistry this season, and it's a point Johnson himself reinforced emphatically.
"I'm feeling it," he was telling me. "Everybody's trying to get to the Super Bowl and win the championship. That's everybody's mindset: Come in here, work hard every day and we just want to get better. I love that energy so that just makes me go even harder."
Finally, right at the end of our chat, I did get Johnson to crack a smile. I just had to bring up Topgolf, and that is when Johnson, for the first time, completely separated himself from the Brown comparisons.
Putting the shine on a teammate? Refreshing.
Now, the challenge ahead for Johnson is to find consistency within his approach. He's saying and doing the right things. Now he needs to keep doing more of all that. Steelers rookie receivers generally struggle to produce and the team is loaded with options at the position currently, so the pressure is low — for now.
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