Le’Veon Bell Has Pointed Reaction to Critique of Diontae Johnson’s ‘Hold-in’

Le'Veon Bell Diontae Johnson

Getty Images Former Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell (left) with current Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson (right).

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson reported to training camp on July 26 with the rest of his teammates. But it remains to be seen whether Johnson will participate in team drills during camp. As noted by Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk, the fourth-year wideout was not a full participant in the first practice (on July 27). Moreover, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said “it was not his decision to have Johnson do less than other members of the team,” according to Alper.

Johnson — who has indicated he wants to sign a long-term contract extension prior to the start of the regular-season — appears to be engaging in a so-called “hold-in,” much like Steelers All-Pro T.J. Watt did last summer, and not unlike how All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick handled this year’s offseason program. Both Watt and Fitzpatrick went on to receive market-setting contracts from the Steelers, with Watt inking a four-year extension worth $112 million and Fitzpatrick signing a $73.6 million extension of his own.

Le’Veon Bell Reacts to Mark Madden Tweet

But the general consensus among NFL media is that a hold-in might not be the best approach. Highly-provocative Pittsburgh sports media personality Mark Madden summed things up by tweeting, “Somebody tell Diontae Johnson he ain’t TJ Watt.”

That got a reaction from former Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell, who made it a racial issue, claiming that the “only difference” is a matter of black-and-white.

Bell, of course, is infamous for sitting out the entire 2018 season while in a contract dispute with the Steelers. Ultimately, Bell rejected Pittsburgh’s final offer, and went on to sign a less-lucrative ($52 million) contract with the New York Jets, while also missing out on the $14.5 million the Steelers were set to pay him under the franchise tag in 2018.

Never mind that Fitzpatrick’s successful hold-in undermines Bell’s argument about race being a factor. Fact is, Johnson’s situation is significantly different from that of Watt or Fitzpatrick.

Diontae Johnson ‘May Want to Rethink His Strategy’: Analyst

For one, it was crystal clear that the Steelers were very much interested in extending Watt and Fitzpatrick at market-setting prices. Keep in mind that both had played four NFL seasons and were two-time first-team All-Pros by the time it came for them to negotiate.

And while Johnson can be seen as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 wide receiver, he didn’t earn Pro Bowl honors until 2021, when he authored his best season to date, catching a career high 107 passes for 1,162 yards and eight touchdowns, per Pro Football Reference.

“Johnson is a high-quality wide receiver. The Steelers are a better team with him than without him. But is he worth the exorbitant cost that other wide receivers are commanding?” asks Tim Benz of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, making reference to how top-end NFL receivers are now commanding contracts that pay north of $20 million per year.

Moreover, the Steelers have more depth at wide receiver than they do at outside linebacker and free safety, thanks to the presence of 2020 second-round pick Chase Claypool and the selection of two promising receivers in the 2022 draft, namely second-round pick George Pickens and fourth-round pick Calvin Austin III, the latter of whom has been called the “biggest day 3 steal” of the draft.

“While Johnson is the best wideout on the Steelers roster, his absence wouldn’t cripple the aerial attack with the talent at the position and pass-catching tight end Pat Freiermuth in place,” offers Maurice Moton of Bleacher Report.

It doesn’t help Johnson that both Pickens and Davis were very impressive during training camp’s first practice. If Pickens and Davis continue to show out while Johnson remains on the sidelines, that could have the Steelers thinking that the future of the position remains in good hands, even if the team cannot retain Johnson beyond 2022.

“Johnson may want to rethink his strategy before it backfires on him,” concludes Moton, though it’s no doubt a challenge to remain patient when No. 1 receivers are making $20 million-plus. The final year of Johnson’s rookie deal calls him to be paid a relatively paltry $2.79 million, as per overthecap.com.

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