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Saunders: Diontae Johnson Hold In No Big Deal

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Steelers WR Diontae Johnson

PITTSBURGH — Diontae Johnson was a limited participant in the Steelers’ first training camp practice of 2022, and appears to be taking a similar tact to the path T.J. Watt forged in 2021, but working only in individual periods and not in a team capacity while attempting to negotiate a contract extension with the Steelers.

The Steelers did not necessarily come up with the plan that Watt operated under, but they certainly approved of it, at least tacitly, if not overtly. Watt was not fined or disciplined for failing to participate in practices last season. Neither was Minkah Fitzpatrick for taking the same tact this spring.

So it’s not really surprising that Johnson, who said Wednesday that he badly wants to sign a contract extension with the Steelers, is looking to do everything he can to make sure he gets a new deal.

Unlike a holdout, the path Watt, Fitzpatrick and Johnson have chosen doesn’t withhold their presence from the team, and is not meant as a punitive form of negotiations. The idea is to keep an untimely injury from wrecking things.

Johnson is far less likely to get the deal he’s looking for from the Steelers than Watt was. Watt is one of the best defensive players of his generation and is likely going to the Hall of Fame. The Steelers would have been idiots to let Watt walk away, nearly no matter the price.

With Johnson, things are different. The Steelers have a long track record of being good at drafting wide receivers, they have another young receiver with a contract coming due soon in Chase Claypool, and the prices paid around the NFL to wide receivers this offseason have been, frankly, stupid. Spotrac estimates Johnson’s worth at $22 million per year. No one would rightfully criticize the Steelers from letting Johnson walk this offseason if the ask is in line with what the market has brought his contemporaries.

So is it a big deal that Johnson is not going to be practicing with the team, if he’s unlikely to get the contract he’s seeking? I don’t think so. Could anyone argue that Watt was hindered by not fully practicing last year after he tied the NFL sack record?

Johnson is not a player of the same caliber as Watt, but he is plenty good enough that he doesn’t have to run slants in the rain in July to be a really good wide receiver in the NFL this season. He’s still getting plenty of reps in with Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett every day. He’s just not getting tackled after them.

I don’t expect the Steelers to sign Johnson, because I think the wide receiver market is off the rails right now and they’re a smart enough of an organization to recognize that and not play ball. But it’s not wrong for Johnson to expect to be paid at a rate commensurate with that of his abilities compared to his peers, and it’s not likely to hurt him on the team if he takes it easy this training camp. 

In my mind, it’s much ado about nothing, but hey, that’s training camp in a lot of ways. The bigger issue was the Steelers allowing this to become a precedent in the first place. I’ve already covered my opinion about that, for SN+ subscribers.

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