Diontae Johnson Emerging as Pittsburgh's Next Great Receiver

Donnie Druin

"Who?"

Although that question is typically proposed by rapper Mike Jones, majority of Steelers fans blurted that very question when receiver Diontae Johnson's name appeared on screens across the nation when Pittsburgh selected him in the third-round of the 2019 NFL Draft. 

Johnson, outside of religious draft followers, wasn't a well-known commodity to terrible towel wavers. After all, Johnson was ranked as the 21st best receiver entering the draft by Sports Illustrated, with a fifth-round ranking as the 143rd overall player on their board. Bleacher Report's lead NFL Draft writer Matt Miller had Johnson ranked as the 32nd receiver in the draft, with a fifth-round grade on him as well. NFL.com projected Johnson as a day three (Rounds 4-7) pick. 

Needless to say, Johnson had his doubters. Hailing from a small school like Toledo, national exposure wasn't exactly in play for Johnson on a weekly basis. So when the Steelers drafted a lesser-known name with majority of scouting reports listing him two rounds lower than where he was picked, it's understandable where confusion/frustration derived from.

As it would later be known, the Steelers reportedly held Johnson in extremely high regards, labeling him as a first-round talent during the draft process. 

"It was important to me of what kind of character he has" said late Steelers receivers coach Darryl Drake in a press conference following the draft. "I've been doing this for 40 years, and he was one of the best interviews and guys I've been around."

Character concerns were often associated with the Steelers prior to the off-season of 2019, especially those surrounding former Steelers receiver Antonio Brown. Brown and Johnson have been linked quite often since Pittsburgh selected Johnson for a multitude of reasons. 

Whether it be the same draft profile (undersized MAC school receiver) to their measurables or even considering the third-round pick acquired from the Antonio Brown trade was used to select Johnson. In May I completed a film study of Johnson and compared him to Brown, and I walked away with one thought: Johnson fits the precise mold Brown once held with the Steelers. 

To not only be doubted right away but also have Antonio Brown-like shoes to fill (some would say as big as clown shoes) before even playing a snap puts tremendous pressure on a player, especially within an organization like the Steelers. 

Fast forward to over halfway through Johnson's rookie season, and Pittsburgh couldn't be happier with the returns on their investment thus far. With the Donte Moncrief experiment failing majorly, the Steelers quenched a formidable receiver opposite of JuJu Smith-Schuster. James Washington still appears to be coming into his own, whereas Johnson has quickly emerged as a solidified threat on the field. 

Whether it be his route-running, vertical speed or elusiveness after the catch, Johnson has displayed enormous traits in such a short amount of time with the Steelers. His role should only expand as the weeks continue, as the team appears to trust him as time goes on. Following week two, Johnson has yet to play under 40 offensive snaps just once, playing an average of nearly 70% of offensive snaps since week three. 

Don't think Johnson isn't without criticism, however. Johnson has fumbled the ball three times in the last six weeks of play, and his catch rate his seventh-best on the team (65%), although Johnson is the second-most targeted player behind Smith-Schuster. Only a rookie, Johnson has some fine-tuning to work on as he blossoms into a legitimate NFL receiver. 

Yet Johnson is only a rookie, and the sample size we currently have suggests Johnson's talent will only grow over time. Many outside the realms of Pittsburgh wondered how the Steelers would replace a player like Antonio Brown. Pittsburgh's answer rests within the third-round pick they got for Brown in exchange from Oakland. 

Steelers fans prefer the term upgrade, by the way. 

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