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Diontae Johnson Contract: Will Khan Follow Colbert’s Lead, or Pay Up?

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Pittsburgh Steelers GM Omar Khan
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Omar Khan at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex -- ED THOMPSON

In his opening press conference as the Pittsburgh Steelers general manager in May, Omar Khan made it clear that not much would change from Kevin Colbert’s tenure.

“There’s not going to be a lot of change here,” Khan said. “I obviously have some ideas here that I want to implement and put in place. But I don’t see a lot of change.”

Khan has only been general manager for slightly more than a month, and he’s faced early tests. He signed Larry Ogunjobi to a one-year deal as a quick replacement after Stephon Tuitt’s retirement and locked down Minkah Fitzpatrick to a long, expensive extension before training camp.

Those were two decisions by Khan that weren’t exactly blueprints from the Colbert era. Rarely did Colbert sign experienced veterans like Ogunjobi to one-year deals as expensive as $8 million. Khan and Fitzpatrick wanted their deal done before training camp. Even T.J. Watt had to wait until after training camp to get his extension last year under Colbert.

But now, Khan faces a new decision in Diontae Johnson’s potential extension. Terry McLaurin got paid a three-year extension over an average of $23.3 million per year. That now pushes the challenge for Khan to get Johnson’s camp to agree to a reasonable contract–if that’s something the Steelers even want.

Over Colbert’s 22 years as general manager, only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown were drafted wide receivers who received big extensions. How Khan treats Johnson will indicate if the Steelers will stick with that trend or break in a new direction.

But a good measuring stick for how Johnson could be treated compares him to how Colbert treated Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown in the early 2010s. Each was a productive receiver whose time with the Steelers ended differently.

MIKE WALLACE

After Wallace had a strong start to his career, he initiated a hold out before his fourth training camp. The Steelers tried to give him a contract extension, but Wallace wanted more money and signed an expensive contract with the Miami Dolphins. But that deal got the Steelers a third round compensatory pick.

EMMANUEL SANDERS

Sanders signed a new one-year deal for his fourth season with the Steelers. He left after that fourth season like Wallace and signed with the Broncos. Sanders could have joined the Patriots for his fourth season, but the Steelers matched his offer sheet of $2.5 million. Sanders’ departure didn’t count for much in compensatory picks in 2015 due to their free agents signings.

ANTONIO BROWN

Brown was the exception to Colbert’s rule. He received two large extensions in 2012 and 2017 on his way to seven Pro Bowls and four All-Pro seasons. His seasons between 2013-2018 were the best six-year statistical stretch of an NFL wide receiver. That stretch might have gone longer had he not forced his way off the team before 2019.

WHERE JOHNSON FITS

The “young money crew,” as they were self-described, were in a different time than Johnson. But a look at their production side-by-side yields interesting conclusions.

Johnson’s 2,764 career yards ranks second among the four receivers’ first three years, as does his 20 touchdown receptions. But his 254 receptions was the most by 83, and his 10.9 yards per reception was the lowest of the group.

Ben Roethlisberger was in his prime with Brown, Sanders and Wallace, but had limited arm strength and missed a season during Johnson’s years. That forced Johnson to run shorter routes; but also begs the question whether he would produce even better rates with a younger quarterback.

But with contracts for McLaurin, A.J. Brown with the Philadelphia Eagles and Hunter Renfrow with the Las Vegas Raiders, Johnson’s demands will most likely be high. Khan inherited a roster with a third-year receiver in Chase Claypool and two rookies in George Pickens and Calvin Austin III.

Just like when the Colbert had to choose between Wallace, Sanders and Brown in the early 2010s, Khan has several options to pick to make the Steelers’ long term receiver. That’s the model the Steelers maintained over Colbert’s two decades running the front office to never need to pay a receiver a big contract unless they were a star.

Johnson would need to post star-like numbers to get that kind of consideration under Colbert. But Khan’s upcoming decision will set the tone of whether the Steelers follow Colbert’s philosophy moving forward, or chart a new path.

Here’s an episode of the Locked on Steelers podcast with more on the pending decision:

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