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2024 NFL Draft

Steelers Draft Profile: PSU TE Theo Johnson Perfect Fit for New Scheme

The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have an obvious need at tight end, but Penn State’s Theo Johnson would be a perfect fit for Arthur Smith’s offense.



Pittsburgh Steelers 2024 NFL Draft Prospect Penn State Tight End Theo Johnson
Penn State tight end Theo Johnson at the 2024 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., -- Alan Saunders / Steelers Now

INDIANAPOLIS — Theo Johnson didn’t put up monster numbers at Penn State.

He never had more than 341 yards and a season and never scored more than seven touchdowns.

Perhaps Johnson would have put up better numbers at a school that didn’t have as strong of a reputation for churning out NFL-caliber tight ends.

One of those tight ends, Pat Freiermuth, was at Penn State when Johnson started his college football career in 2020.

Penn State also had Brenton Strange, a man who’s a year older than Johnson and wound up being a second-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2022. Zach Kuntz was a top-five prep TE in the country when Penn State signed him. He ended up transferring to Old Dominion. Kuntz, too, is now in the NFL with the Jets.

But that crowded room didn’t deter Johnson from picking PSU over schools such as Georgia, Iowa and Michigan.

It drove him to do it.

“That was a huge reason why I chose Penn State as a young high school kid,” Johnson told reporters at his NFL Combine presser Thursday morning. “Just looking at the lineage of tight ends that have come out of Penn State. It excited me to continue that tradition. But also to leave my own mark. Moving forward in the future. I think I’ve done that, and I’m looking forward to the kids that are coming after me. We have a lot of really young, good talent. So I think that tradition’s going to continue on for a long time.”

Before Johnson got to Penn State, the school churned out Jesse James and Mike Gesicki, who both made it to the league.

After Johnson leaves, Penn State will likely send his former teammate, Tyler Warren– who’s entering his fourth season at PSU–, to the NFL, and younger players such as Andrew Rappleyea might not be too far behind.

As for the present, Johnson’s focused on doing what he can to impress NFL teams and went a long way toward doing that at the Reese’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, earlier this month.

Johnson feels that experience was “huge” for him.

“Just being around great competitors across the country, guys that are going to be playing at the next level,” he said. “I think it was really cool just to be able to be myself. Get a system that isn’t overly complex and is just made to let your athletes showcase their abilities, and I think I was able to do that down there.”

Reflecting on his past, Johnson said he feels Penn State allowed him to “showcase all that a tight end can do.”

“Line up in the backfield as a fullback,” he said, “flexed out wide in the slot. Those times I was isolated one-on-one when I was out wide. So you’re able to showcase everything that a tight end can do. That was a unique experience for me because I’m able to show NFL teams that I’m able to line up anywhere on the field if you need me to.”

Throughout the draft process, Johnson’s been talking with people such as Freiermuth, who wished him luck.

“One thing he’s always told me is that Penn State’s going to prepare you really well,” Johnson said, “not only for this pre-draft process but for the next level just with how coach Franklin carries his program.”

Johnson described Freiermuth as “his guy.”

“He was someone that, when I came in as a young kid, I kind of looked to him for guidance and to see how to go about my business,” Johnson said. “Because at the time, he was a bonafide draft pick. So I have a great relationship with him.”

Freiermuth went into the draft at 6-foot-5 and 258 pounds. Johnson hasn’t measured yet but is listed at 6-foot-6, 260. Johnson feels his size is something that separates him.

“I think the big thing for me that sets me apart from the rest of the guys in this class is I feel like I have unique size and movability for my size,” Johnson said. “I think I can utilize my size and my speed very uniquely, so I think that sets me apart from the other tight ends.”

Of course, Penn State strength coach Chuck Losey and company helped with that size.

Johnson described Penn State’s workouts as “barbaric,” and meant it in the best possible way.

“Very difficult and challenging,” he said, “not only physically but mentally. But it brings everything out of you, and seeing what I was as a young freshman kid coming out to where I am now, a lot of that is because of the hard workouts I had to do and the things that I had to overcome to be able to improve, to be able to be successful in that program.”

On the field, Johnson, despite being as good as he is, had to compete hard for playing time due to the talents of Warren– who tied Johnson for the team lead with seven touchdowns– as well as Strange, going back to the 2022 season.

This could have led to some problems within the position group, but Johnson says that never happened.

“There’s some plays that only one tight end’s going to get involved,” he said. “So we’re competing every day in practice, trying to get that opportunity in a game. But it was never any selfishness. There was never any pouting or not looking out for each other. And it was a really cool experience because we have someone that you’re not only so close with but you’re rooting for at the same time and you’re competing with them.”

Johnson feels people “like to doubt Penn State tight ends until it comes to the pre-draft process.”

“But at the end of the day,” he said, “real football players know that Penn State produces some of the best tight ends.”

Johnson is set to be next in line for PSU’s tight ends in the NFL.

He feels he’s ready, and his alma mater is a big reason why.

“You know, Penn State tight ends aren’t very sexy,” he said. “We don’t have the big numbers, the big stats, but we do the gritty stuff, the stuff that’s not pretty, the stuff that a lot of tight ends don’t really want to do, and that’s a lot of stuff that the NFL teams are looking for.”


Measured at the 2024 NFL Combine: 6-foot-6, 259 pounds, 33-inch arms, 10 1/4-inch hands.

Testing at the 2024 NFL Combine: 4.57-second 40-yard dash, 4.19-second shuttle, 7.15-second three-cone, 3.95-inch vertical, 10-foot-5 broad jump

RAS: 9.99


Johnson saw his stock rise in a major way at the end of the season, with a solid showing at the Senior Bowl providing one bump and then his athletic explosion at the NFL Combine yet another. Once considered to be a mid-Day Three player, Johnson is now creeping up toward the top of the fourth round. His current NFL Mock Draft Database average is 107. But his consensus mock draft selection is much higher, with the Houston Texans taking him at No. 59 overall.

Theo Johnson NFL Mock Draft Database


The Steelers don’t have an obvious need at tight end, but that hasn’t stopped them from being interested in Johnson.

A team source at the NFL Combine told Steelers Now that the club is taking a hard look at the young Nittany Lion, even though the Steelers don’t have an obvious need at tight end.

One way they could fill a spot is if new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith wants to use Connor Heyward at fullback. That could allow the team to draft another tight end to go alongside Freiermuth and Darnell Washington.

The reason that the Steelers are so interested is that Johnson splits the difference between those two nicely and seems like a perfect fit for Smith’s offense with his size and blocking prowess.

Despite his sky-high RAS score, Johnson is not a dynamic athlete in the mold of a Kyle Pitts or a Travis Kelce, but he is exceptionally athletic for his size. He uses that athleticism well not just as a receiver, but as an in-line blocker. He’s a bigger, faster version of Jonnu Smith, the player that Smith used in two stops in his career as offensive play-caller.

— Alan Saunders, Steelers Now

A version of this story first appeared at out partner site, Nittany Sports Now.