Amid Latest Rumors, Now Is the Time for NFL Teams to Make a Run at Diontae Johnson

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxCorrespondent IJuly 7, 2022

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 03: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (18) looks on during the game against the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers on January 03, 2022 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The 2022 NFL offseason may go down as the year of the trade—or perhaps, the year that sparked a change in how franchises operate. That's especially true at wide receiver, where multiple big names have been dealt.

The Dallas Cowboys kicked off the festivities by dealing Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns at the onset of free agency. The Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs traded Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill shortly thereafter, while the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans traded away Marquise Brown and A.J. Brown during the draft.

Receiver-needy teams are willing to go out and trade for top talent, while other teams have been willing to exchange them for draft capital rather than hand them new contracts. This may be the new norm for the receiver market moving forward.

We might not have seen the last of wide receiver trades in 2022, either. DK Metcalf is seeking a new deal from the Seattle Seahawks, and Deebo Samuel is still looking for a trade from the San Francisco 49ers.

"I'm told status quo is really when he reported to minicamp; that's the last piece of news that we have here," ESPN's Jeremy Fowler said on SportsCenter late last month regarding Samuel. "Nothing else significant has happened behind the scenes between Samuel and the 49ers. In fact, he hasn't officially rescinded his trade request as far as I've heard."

While Samuel and Metcalf are both strong trade targets for receiver-needy NFL teams, there's another less-discussed wideout whom teams also should have on their radar: Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowler Diontae Johnson.

in fact, Johnson should be the top target for teams willing to deal.

Johnson Might Be the Most Easily Obtainable

Like Samuel and Metcalf, Johnson is entering the final year of his rookie deal. He's looking for a new contract, but Pittsburgh appears hesitant to give him what has become the going rate.

Terry McLaurin's three-year, $70 million deal represents that new rate. But according to The Athletic's Mark Kaboly, Johnson isn't going to sniff that in Pittsburgh:

"They aren't offering him anything near McLaurin or anybody else that got more than $20 million per year. They will offer him something, and it won't be what he thinks he can get on the market, and he will get paid next year somewhere else. That's the way I see it working out now. Spotrac projects his market value at $22 million per year. The Steelers aren't paying a receiver $22 million per year."

This isn't a hot take. From Emmanuel Sanders to JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have regularly allowed good receivers to leave rather than overpay to keep them. That doesn't appear likely to change under new general manager Omar Khan.

If the Steelers are content to let Johnson walk as a free agent next spring, they might be open to moving him a year early via trade. This is likely to be a rebuilding year in Pittsburgh, with the development of rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett a priority. While Mitch Trubisky or Mason Rudolph will probably start Week 1, Pickett looks like the future under center.

Johnson has stated that he isn't focused on getting a new contract right now.

"At the end of the day, I can only move forward and just control what I can control. I want to be here. I'm patient. I'm just going to keep working," Johnson said, per ESPN's Brooke Pryor. "My agent is going to do what he do in that situation, and I'm not going to focus on that."

Yet we've all seen that what players say publicly and how they conduct themselves don't always mesh. The reality is that Johnson's contract situation could become a big distraction in the regular season, and the Steelers tend to actively avoid distractions.

This is why Pittsburgh was willing to deal Antonio Brown—who at the time appeared to be a Hall of Fame lock—for third- and fifth-round picks.

The Steelers have already begun reloading by drafting wideouts Calvin Austin III and George Pickens. They may be open to dealing Johnson for a low first- or even a second-round pick. The best Pittsburgh can hope for is a third-round compensatory selection if he leaves in free agency next offseason.

Meanwhile, the Seahawks—at least publicly—insist that they're trying to extend Metcalf.

"These are crucial weeks to get something done, and we'll see what happens and hope that we can work something out," Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said, per ESPN's Brady Henderson. "[We've] really intended to get that done."

The 49ers may be open to moving Samuel, but they won't give him up at a discount. NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported before the draft that they had offers of a first-round pick and more on the table, but that wasn't enough to get their attention.

Johnson's production closely matches that of McLaurin—which suggests that he does deserve market value.

Andrew Fillipponi @ThePoniExpress

Terry McLaurin: 222 receptions. 3090 yards. 16 TD.<br>Diontae Johnson: 254 receptions. 2764 yards. 20 TD.

If Pittsburgh isn't willing to pay it, Johnson should be a cheaper trade alternative than either Metcalf or Samuel.

Johnson Can Be a High-End No. 1 Receiver

Samuel had a breakthrough All-Pro campaign as a receiver and runner in 2021. Metcalf has more than 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Johnson's resume isn't quite as impressive.

Johnson has 20 touchdown receptions in three seasons and had 1,603 receiving yards in his first two seasons combined. He's never provided a passer rating above 95.4 when targeted. Samuel and Metcalf provided ratings of 106.2 and 106.3, respectively, this past season.

However, Johnson had a strong season in 2021, finishing with a career-high 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns. Those numbers are even more impressive considering that Pittsburgh's offense otherwise wasn't great.

Ben Roethlisberger was not the cannon-armed downfield thrower that he was early in his career. Pittsburgh's offensive line, which allowed 38 sacks and paved the way for the league's 29th-ranked rushing attack, was lacking. The Steelers offense ranked 23rd leaguewide in total yardage, 29th in net yards per pass attempt and 21st in scoring.

Johnson thrived despite a questionable supporting cast and subpar quarterback play in 2021. He might be able to do the same with a rebuilding franchise like the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars or Chicago Bears.

If Johnson landed with a top quarterback—say, Kansas City Chiefs signal-caller Patrick Mahomes—he could be even better.

Johnson is only 26 years old and is just scratching the surface of his potential. He can be a quality top option, even if he isn't destined to do so in Pittsburgh.

Now Is the Time for Teams to Make Their Move

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 05:  Diontae Johnson #18 of the Pittsburgh Steelers in action during the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Heinz Field on December 5, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

There's no guarantee that the Steelers would trade Johnson for draft capital right now. He's a valuable weapon and could play a large role in Pickett's development if the rookie sees significant playing time in 2021.

However, Johnson doesn't seem to be in Pittsburgh's long-term plans. Receiver-needy teams should at least make a pitch.

Why do that now instead of chasing Johnson in free agency next year? The most obvious reason is that if he hits the open market, he'll be able to pick his own destination.

A team like the Texans might love to add Johnson—in their case, to help aid second-year quarterback Davis Mills—but that doesn't mean he wants to play in Houston. Dealing for Johnson would ensure that a team gets him onto the roster and holds options regarding an extension and/or the use of the franchise tag in 2023.

The 2023 free-agency class lacks top-tier wideouts outside of Johnson, Samuel and Metcalf. Other options include Smith-Schuster, Allen Lazard, Jarvis Landry and D.J. Chark.

Johnson's eventual next contract is also part of the equation. With receivers like McLaurin and Christian Kirk getting $20-plus million per year, the going rate for quality receivers will only keep going up. Acquiring Johnson and extending him now could be a much cheaper financial play than trying to outbid teams for Samuel or Metcalf next offseason.

The Philadelphia Eagles locked in A.J. Brown on a deal worth $25 million annually shortly after acquiring him in April. That's likely to look like a bargain in a year or two, given the upward trajectory of receiver contracts.

Trading for Johnson would get him onto the team a year earlier than pursuing him in free agency. This is important for both rebuilding teams and contenders alike.

Teams like Houston (Mills) or Chicago (Justin Fields) have young quarterbacks entering pivotal development years. Adding a new weapon sooner than later would be beneficial. Meanwhile, potential contenders like Kansas City or the New England Patriots are looking to win now, so waiting is not an ideal option.

Making a move for Johnson now instead of at the trade deadline would get him onto a new roster in time for camp and provide the Steelers with more time to integrate wideouts like Pickens and Austin into prominent roles.

The Steelers haven't publicly said they're open for business when it comes to Johnson, and they might not be privately. However, now is the time for any NFL team interested in adding the Pro Bowler to go out and make an offer.

The worst Pittsburgh can do is say no, which would leave teams where they are anyway—considering other options, eying 2023 free agency and circling the 2023 draft.

Contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.