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Saunders: Trading Diontae Johnson? How Did We Even Get Here?



Steelers WR Diontae Johnson

There was some bizarre and nonsensical drama in Steelers social media land on Wednesday, one day after Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson made a cryptic post on Twitter on Tuesday.

Johnson followed that up by blocking a few beat writers on Twitter, and — at some point — removing reference to the Steelers in his social media profiles and unfollowing the team. Johnson did that while negotiating for a contract last year, and it’s far from clear whether him not repping the Black and Gold on social media is new news or old news. Either way, he is now.

From there, somehow, in the span of a few hours, we got to people suggesting the Steelers should or could or might want to trade Johnson on social media.

Johnson did not have a stellar year by his standards, but we’ve truly reached the point of absurdity here. The Steelers have two starting-caliber NFL wide receivers — one short of a full load — and neither of them really look like true No. 1 receivers right now.

George Pickens might be someday, with his otherworldly catch skills, but he did not get enough consistent separation or showcase a diverse enough route tree in his rookie season to be called that right now.

Johnson is nearly the opposite. So un-coverable that he’s essentially open on every snap, Johnson struggles to consistently secure the football and somehow developed an odd penchant for negative yards after the catch this season.

But Johnson’s warts don’t come close to justifying the idea of trading him. Johnson is set to count for $16.3 million against the Steelers’ salary cap in 2023. Trading him before June 1 would incur an $11.7 million dead cap hit.

Without Johnson, wide receiver would immediately skyrocket to the top of the Steelers draft needs, where it’s the weakest class we’ve seen in several years. Former Pitt star Jordan Addison and TCU’s Quentin Johnson figure to already be gone by the time Pittsburgh picks at No. 17. 

Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, brother of a Pirates outfield prospect that spent most of 2022 injured, will probably be there and feels like a Steelers kind of pick, but he’s basically the only one.

Trading a proven commodity in order to incur a massive dead cap penalty and then pigeonholing themselves into basically one realistic option for their first-round draft pick would certainly be an interesting way for Omar Khan and company to start their new era as the Steelers’ front-office braintrust. But it sure wouldn’t be a good one.

The Steelers have holes all over their 2023 roster at the moment. They’ve been overdue for investment in their offensive line since Kenny Pickett was in middle school. They have pending free agents starting at defensive tackle, cornerback, strong safety and inside linebacker. Cam Heyward isn’t getting any younger and has openly contemplated retirement. Their lack of depth at outside linebacker was exposed throughout the 2022 season in dealing with T.J. Watt’s injury.

There’s really no good reason to incur a giant dead cap hit to create another hole on the roster.

And it’s not like Johnson, even in a down year in 2022, didn’t earn his keep. I wrote two weeks ago about the 2022 free agent wide receiver class, and how Johnson has been above-average in production compared to the others that signed this offseason.

I updated those numbers here to reflect the end-of-year data. The average 2022 wide receiver signing cost $22,123 per receiving yard. Johnson’s deal cost the Steelers $20,811 per yard. Of the 25 contracts worth more than $5 million annually that were doled out, Johnson is basically dead in the center in terms of value.

Finally, there seems to be this thought amongst some portions of the fanbase that Johnson can be a head case or a diva or is some kind of problem in the locker room. I’m not sure where that comes from, but it’s the farthest thing from the truth.

Johnson was the unquestioned leader of the wide receiver room this season, and really one of the leaders for the entire offense. When George Pickens freaked out on the sideline in consecutive weeks earlier this season, it was Johnson that calmed him down.

Ed Thompson/Steelers Now

He talked openly that he didn’t care about his statistics this season, even when they were less than his previous standard, as long as the team was winning. He said all the right things after his alleged locker-room dust-up with Mitch Trubisky earlier this year.

There were a lot of things wrong with the 2022 Steelers that are issues moving into 2023. Diontae Johnson isn’t one of them. 

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