By this time next year, Pittsburgh Steelers fans could be thinking of Diontae Johnson as the team’s No. 1 wide receiver. Right now, most observers consider JuJu Smith-Schuster to be Pittsburgh’s de facto No. 1, but Smith-Schuster is entering the last year of the contract he signed in 2017, so the organization will soon have to make a decision as to whether they can afford to keep him long-term. That depends, in part, on Smith-Schuster’s performance in 2020, but also on the performance of Johnson and No. 3 wide receiver James Washington, not to mention the outlook for rookie second-round draft pick Chase Claypool.
Meanwhile, following are three reasons Johnson could take a big step forward in 2020.
1. Ben Roethlisberger Will Be the QB
The first and most obvious reason is that all signs point to Ben Roethlisberger returning to his longtime role as Steelers’ starting quarterback. Smith-Schuster had a breakout second year with Roethlisberger throwing him the ball in 2018, contributing 111 catches for 1,426 yards and seven TDs, up from the 58 receptions for 917 yards he had as a rookie.
Johnson’s rookie year was not unlike Smith-Schuster’s, as he caught 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns, except Johnson’s production came with Mason Rudolph and Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges at QB, both of whom were among the lowest-rated QBs in the NFL last year, per Pro Football Focus. The upgrade at QB is part of the reason why PFF named Johnson as one its ‘breakout’ candidates for 2020, a list that also includes Steelers’ inside linebacker Devin Bush.
2. Pittsburgh’s Receiving Corps is Stronger
Another reason why Johnson could find greater success in 2020 is that the Steelers have a stronger group of receivers than in 2019, when Smith-Schuster was often hobbled by injury and Washington produced little in the first half of the year.
During this offseason the Steelers added tight end Eric Ebron in free agency, who hopes to return to his 2018 form, when he caught 66 passes for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Steelers also added another Red Zone threat via the 2020 NFL Draft in the form of 6-4 WR Chase Claypool, who Chris Simms described as a “Red Zone mismatch,” before adding that Claypool is “incredible, for a big guy, at adjusting to the ball [while it’s in the air].” Both Ebron and Claypool ought to help create more space for Johnson, as might tight end Vance McDonald, assuming McDonald can stay healthy.
3. Diontae Johnson Had Successful Sports Hernia Surgery
Yet the biggest reason why Johnson could take a big step forward in 2020 is that he’s on the road to better health. Johnson played virtually all of the 2019 season with a sports hernia, tweaking his groin in the home opener against the Seattle Seahawks. It’s an injury that required surgery—which he underwent in February—and Johnson said he expects to be cleared to participate in full workouts shortly.
Meanwhile, he’s already started working out with Roethlisberger, and said he expects to do so again soon. On a recent media conference call, Johnson said: “I might go … and work out with him again, just getting that timing down and try to get a bond with each other so we can build that trust together.”
Diontae Johnson’s Potential as a Punt Returner
All of the above adds up to a bright future for Johnson, and that doesn’t even take into account his potential to excel as a punt returner—and maybe a kickoff returner, too. Keep in mind that Johnson returned 20 punts during his rookie year, averaging 12.4 yards per return, including an 85-yard return for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals.
Re-live Johnson’s rookie highlights here, including the punt return for touchdown:
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