When it comes to producing pass-catches, the conversation begins and ends with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The organization's historical track record of finding talent in any round of the NFL Draft has undoubtedly stood the test of time.
There's been no lack of discussion when it comes to Pittsburgh's receiving corps heading into the upcoming season, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returns after missing nearly all of last season due to injury. From JuJu Smith-Schuster's future in Pittsburgh to Chase Claypool's potential impact, the entire depth chart has had their fair share of evaluation.
There's plenty to be excited about in Pittsburgh, as the return of Roethlisberger with new weapons and a top-tier defense already in place has many Steelers fans thinking about a return to the playoffs.
Then, there's the mega hype-train that is second-year receiver Diontae Johnson.
Johnson, Pittsburgh's third-round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft, was not a name that fans and analysts alike had on the Steelers' radar. The Toledo product could be classified as a "surprise" pick, yet the organization was apparently head over heels for Johnson.
Late Steelers receivers coach Daryl Drake after the team selected Johnson:
Drake pounded the table for Johnson during the draft process, and the very words he spoke following Johnson's selection quickly came to fruition. Johnson finished his rookie campaign leading the Steelers in targets (92), receptions (59), touchdowns (5) and games played/started (played in all 16 games, started 12). Johnson also finished a mere 55 yards behind team leader Smith-Schuster in receiving yards.
As you can see in the tweet above, Johnson led all receivers in yards of separation per target. Along with torching the stat sheet, Johnson produced some magical moments on the field during his rookie season by displaying the traits the team fell in love with during the draft process.
The most notable being his route-running. Deriving from the MAC and exceeding as a route-runner, Johnson quickly began to draw comparisons to former Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. Admittedly so, I indulged and did a film thread on Twitter comparing the two. Although it ultimately wasn't fair (and still isn't) to place such lofty expectations on Johnson, his skill-set as a route-runner has elite potential.
Here, Johnson sent Troy Hill to a different zip code.
As coach Drake alluded to earlier in the article, Johnson is a natural catcher. This allows him to find the football and adjust his body/hands accordingly, boding well in a league where perfect balls wont always be thrown. His catch vs Seattle captured this greatly.
Lastly, Johnson's ability to create yards after the catch is exciting to say the least. Johnson's burst and ability to change direction quickly certainly helped him in his duties as a return man, where he averaged a league high 12.4 yards per return. Johnson's house-call in the desert displayed the damage Johnson is capable of doing.
2019 was a great start, but what's next for Johnson?
One of the few knocks on Johnson was his frame/playing weight, as with most receivers coming out of college. Per Johnson's Instagram account, he has gained roughly eight pounds from his playing weight listed on the team's official website (now at 191.2, previously listed at 183 lbs).
If you're up for the challenge in finding the flaws in Johnson's game, his five fumbles in 2019 may be an area that can be improved.
Not necessarily a knock, but Johnson revealed he is still recovering from sports hernia surgery earlier this offseason, an injury that apparently nagged him through the season. Although Johnson played spectacularly through the hernia, it's vital he takes the proper steps in rehabilitation to ensure he's on the field as much as possible.
Johnson's career projection appears to be a straight line to the moon, as expectations continue to grow by the day. With a crowded receiving corps, it's still slightly unclear what limits Johnson will have in 2020 due to unknown roles within the depth chart. Those limits should be minor, considering the Steelers run three receiver sets on 70% of plays per SharpFootballStats.
With an impressive start to his career and a Hall of Fame quarterback returning to throw him passes, Johnson is all but set to make his presence known on a national level.
Johnson suggested year two of his career would be a movie. A potential title?
2020: The year of Diontae Johnson