The Pittsburgh Steelers may have a tough time signing Diontae Johnson after Washington Commanders receiver Terry McLaurin inked a monster deal on Tuesday. Coming in at an average of $23.6 million per year with a huge $53 million guaranteed. The signing bonus of $28 million is simply a monster number, too. By any metric, McLaurin got a fantastic deal, and that will drive up players near his level or slightly below his level up that much more.
Johnson just had the biggest season of his career. With 107 receptions for 1,161 yards and 8 touchdowns, by every metric, Johnson could be in that next tier. McLaurin had fewer yards, touchdowns, and receptions than Johnson, but had more yards per reception. In addition, it was his second 1,000-yard season in his career, thus giving even more leverage to the Commanders star.
However, looking down the list at where Johnson could potentially land on the scale is a tough thing to balance. 2021 was his first true breakout season, and he earned a Pro Bowl nod for his efforts. His end to the season returned many of the ups and downs of his past. It could give the Steelers trepidation to potentially give Johnson a McLaurin-like deal as a result of his inconsistency on the field itself. Still, looking around the wide receiver market, it is clear that Johnson will get a nice payday. But what is a realistic number and where can he fall in line on the scale?
Comparing Steelers WR Diontae Johnson to Other Receivers
In this offseason alone, Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams broke the scale on their deals. They are the two highest-paid receivers in the NFL at $30 million and $28 million per year respectively. While they are the prime examples of a top receiver, what set the market ablaze was Christian Kirk’s $18 million per year contract with the Jaguars. In his career, Kirk has never had a 1000-yard season. He is coming off a career-best year, notching 982 yards and 5 touchdowns on 77 receptions.
Perhaps more intriguing are the contracts rolling in for the 2019 NFL Draft class of wide receivers. McLaurin’s deal is the latest one, but not the first. Eagles wide receiver A.J. Brown set a huge market for young receivers with his $25 million deal. Brown had two 1000-yard seasons in the first two years of his career, but injuries kept him from reaching the mark in 2021.
While not from the 2019 class, D.J. Moore’s $20.6 million a year contract signed in March is one that Johnson could hope to usurp. Moore has been the model of consistency, putting up over 1100 yards in three straight seasons. If Johnson believes he can continue to replicate his 2021, this is the mark to shoot for at the very least.
Other players near that $20 million mark are Chris Godwin, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Amari Cooper, Brandin Cooks, and Michael Thomas. With his deal, McLaurin became the seventh-highest paid wide receiver in football. The range for Johnson seems obvious from his side. He is coming off a Pro Bowl season, and receivers with similar numbers to his are getting lucrative deals that are at or exceeding $20 million per year.
What Could Johnson’s Ask Be?
In that spotlight then, what would Johnson realistically ask for? On the high end of things, his negotiations will likely start slightly above or right at the McLaurin number of $23.6 million per year. At the low end, Johnson will ask to match Cooper, Williams, and Godwin at $20 million. No matter the opinion of Johnson, that is where the market will likely be.
In all of this, Johnson is likely to settle in the $21-22 million per year range. That is below McLaurin but above Moore, Cooks, Cooper, Williams, Allen, and others. Seeing as those players are known as his contemporaries, that is a realistic ask from Johnson. On the open market, he is likely to get that number. In Pittsburgh, though, it is hard to see that contract coming to fruition, even with a new regime in the city.
What Should Johnson be Paid?
Now, here comes the subjective part of this process. Is Johnson even near McLaurin’s level? Even though Johnson’s stats say he is superior in volume, he was fed the ball of lots of short routes due to the limitations of Ben Roethlisberger and the offense they ran. His 10.9 yards per reception ranked 75th in the NFL. It was the lowest of any name listed above as well. That could potentially hurt him. It is McLaurin’s speed and route running that truly set him apart in this arena.
There is a great case to make that Johnson is a Top-15 wide receiver. Top 10? That is a steep hill to climb. The drops are mostly fixed. There are still times when they come up, but Johnson fixed a huge net negative in his game last year. When Johnson is on, he is one of the best receivers in the game. When he is off and it mentally starts to snowball for him, he can be almost unplayable.
This volatility is what makes Johnson so interesting. It is reasonable to expect him to ask for more than Moore’s contract. Johnson has the stats to be impressive on that level. Moore might be an overall better player, but it is not by that much. Certainly, Johnson deserves to be near or at the same level of play as names like Allen and Cooper. His route running, elusiveness and releases are some of the best the NFL has to offer on any given Sunday.
While Johnson will not get McLaurin money, he will deserve to get Moore’s contract or slightly more. That might not be something the Steelers are comfortable with given the roller coaster ride of Johnson’s play. If they need another year to see what happens, maybe Johnson gets franchise tagged. The specter of guaranteed money is there as well. With more and more guarantees creeping into the deals, a large portion of Johnson’s deal would be guaranteed.
So, the Steelers may play Russian roulette with Johnson. If he has another great year, the salary bumps up more. He could price himself out of Pittsburgh. Being reasonable, however, there is no way the Steelers could pay Johnson McLaurin-like money right now. If it is Moore-like money, that is a more reasonable conversation to be had. It still looks more and more likely that the two go into the 2022 season without an extension.