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Steelers Analysis

Saunders: Steelers Couldn’t Wait for Diontae Johnson Any Longer

The Pittsburgh Steelers got tired of waiting for Diontae Johnson to finally put it all together.



Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson
Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson against the New England Patriots, Dec. 7, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Pittsburgh Steelers traded one of the most talented players on their team on Tuesday, with general manager Omar Khan, shipping out wide receiver Diontae Johnson to the Carolina Panthers.

The Steelers received veteran cornerback Donte Jackson in the exchange, which will certainly fill a need on the defense after the team released Patrick Peterson earlier this month.

Jackson is a nice player. A six-year starter with the Panthers, he is extraordinarily fast, tackles well, and seems like a good complement to the Steelers’ other cornerback, the bigger and more physical Joey Porter, Jr.

With respect to Jackson, though, that’s not what this trade was all about. The Steelers certainly could’ve added a starting cornerback from nearly anywhere with the over $10 million in salary cap space that Jackson will be eating up this season.

In many ways, the trade was about what the Steelers gave up more than what they got. After five years of frustrating development, the team finally gave up on Johnson.

There is almost no question that the Steelers traded away the better player in this deal. Johnson, a former Pro Bowler, has always had the potential to be an elite wide receiver. He is one of the best separators in the NFL. Almost no one is open as often as Diontae Johnson in the entire league.

But that elite potential was never fully realized. It just seemed that it was always something with Johnson. First, it was his hands. He went through a terrible bout of drops during the 2020 season that at one point got benched. him In 2022, he spent the entire year without finding the end zone, something that he admitted got into his head by the end of the year. He also developed an odd penchant for running backward at times, in search of more yards after the catch.

Last season, he let a mental lapse and loss of focus become the signature moment of his season when he failed to react to a Jaylen Warren fumble and was fortunate his gaffe did not result in a Cincinnati Bengals defensive touchdown

And that’s just on the field. Off the field, Johnson seemed less and less happy over the years in Pittsburgh. In 2022, he reportedly got into an altercation with the quarterback Mitch Trubisky at halftime of the team’s Week 4 loss to the New York Jets. Last season, Johnson got into it with Minkah Fitzpatrick after a game.

He stood up in the room and apologized for his actions against the Bengals late in the 2023 season, but seemed to take a swipe at quarterback Kenny Pickett after the year, professing his desire to have Mason Rudolph be the starter going forward

NFL teams will do a lot to give supremely talented people more than enough chances to reach their potential. Steelers certainly did that with Johnson. With his contract coming up at the end of the 2024 season, it seemed clear, though, that the Steelers were unprepared to lay out another big deal for an unfinished product who is becoming something of a miscreant off the field. With an eventual separation decided, it seemed to be in both the Steelers’ and Johnson’s interest to get the divorce over with sooner rather than later.

For Khan, that ended up being bad timing. The Steelers made the decision to move on from Johnson at the nadir of the NFL wide receiver market for the last few years. Unlike when the Steelers signed Johnson to his current contract back in 2022, prices around the league for receivers have been deflated by a glut of existing big-money contracts, and a very deep draft class that has many teams looking forward to getting younger at the position instead of latching on free agency.

Traditional returns for Johnson, like the second-round pick that the Steelers got for Chase Claypool in 2022, weren’t on the table anymore. Instead, the Steelers got someone else’s damaged goods, as the Panthers were likely going to cut Jackson after June 1 if they weren’t able to trade him.

Carolina has its own drama to deal with. A new coaching staff is looking to re-shape the image of the team and veteran player like Jackson, on the final year of his contract, doesn’t necessarily fit in. Being a Carolina castoff doesn’t mean that he won’t be good for the Steelers. But he was simply an available return. The Steelers had decided they were ready to move on from Johnson and they got what they could for him. Jackson just happened to be that guy.

When this trade is viewed with hindsight down the road, no one will care what Jackson did in Pittsburgh. He will likely be a slight upgrade to the play of Peterson and Levi Wallace from 2023. He’s unlikely to be any kind of real star or different maker at the position, either this coming season or in the future.

The way the trade will be graded will solely be with regard to what happens with Johnson. If he goes elsewhere and finally realizes the potential that the Steelers have been seeking, it will look like a fleece for new Carolina general manager Dan Morgan. If not, Khan might have sold some fool’s gold, even if it doesn’t look like it right now.