After a breakout season that saw him finish among the NFL’s top 10 in both catches (107) and receiving yards (1,161), Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson is looking to cash in. Headed into the final year of his rookie deal, Johnson is due a $2.79-million salary in 2022, 60th in the league among wide receivers. The 25-year-old did not attend any of the Steelers’ three OTA practices this week, an absence beat reporter Mark Kaboly attributed to his contract status. Frustrated at the leisurely pace of negotiations, Johnson seems to be sending a clear message—ante up or risk losing me in free agency next year.
Addressing his reported “unhappiness,” Johnson didn’t exactly deny the rumors, pleading the fifth in a cryptic tweet fired off late Friday night.
The Steelers replenished their receiving corps by adding Calvin Austin and George Pickens in April’s draft, a sign the team may be resigned to letting Johnson—who improved his drop rate from 12.3 percent to a career-best 3.6 this past season—walk. Johnson can make a mess if he wants to, following the blueprint laid out by countless disgruntled stars before him, blowing off practice and hitting the usual passive-aggressive notes on social media. However, his leverage is minimal, unless he’s willing to eat a huge chunk of his salary by holding out from training camp this summer (a negotiating tactic made cost-prohibitive by the new CBA, fining players up to $50,000 a day for unexcused absences).
A Pro Bowl receiver in the prime of his career, Johnson’s future in Pittsburgh is further complicated by recent deals signed by Tyreek Hill, Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs and A.J. Brown, all of whom are making at least $25 million annually. That said, the Steelers find themselves in a relatively favorable cap position with $58.93 million available—fourth-most behind Seattle, Chicago and New England—beginning next year. Pittsburgh could go the franchise-tag route with Johnson, though with wide receiver salaries exploding, locking him up now before things get even crazier may be in the Steelers’ best interest.