Diontae Johnson Sought Trade From Steelers

The Steelers have made a habit of moving on from starting wide receivers following their rookie contracts, regularly finding replacements in the draft. This assembly line, however, did feature an exception for Diontae Johnson, who signed an extension in 2022. But the Steelers wrapped Johnson’s tenure after five seasons by trading him to the Panthers.

Swapping out Johnson, 27, for Carolina cornerback Donte Jackson, Pittsburgh bailed on a player who led the team in receiving three times (2020-22) and one who displayed strong route-running chops. While some turbulence came along with the former third-round pick, the team has a need at receiver entering April.

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Rumblings about a Johnson trade emerged around the Combine, and The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly indicates the talented pass catcher requested a trade (subscription required). Going into the final season on the two-year, $36.71MM extension he signed in summer 2022, Johnson will now count $10MM on Carolina’s cap and give Bryce Young a second veteran receiver to target alongside Adam Thielen.

It is unclear why Johnson wanted out, though the Steelers’ quarterback situation may well have played a role. Chosen in Round 3 out of Toledo, Johnson soon saw the Steelers’ QB fortunes change when Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury in September 2019. He showed potential with Mason Rudolph as a rookie, but Roethlisberger was a diminished version of himself upon returning in 2020. More limitations emerged in 2021, and the future Hall of Famer called it quits at season’s end. Drop issues notwithstanding, Johnson became Big Ben’s most trusted target following the elbow injury; he posted 144- and 167-target seasons in 2020 and ’21, posting a career-high 1,161 yards in Roethlisberger’s final season.

Kenny Pickett did not provide an upgrade. Johnson famously did not score a touchdown in 2022, going nearly two years between regular-season TDs. He added five TDs last year and averaged more yards per game (55.2) compared to 2022 but brought baggage stemming from comments and a dispute with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. The five-year veteran also chirped at coaches during a rocky 2023 slate. Johnson was also criticized for showing little effort to recover a Jaylen Warren fumble during a game against the Bengals last season. A Johnson-Mitch Trubisky shouting match also took place in 2022, and the Steelers have closed the book on their partnership with the 5-foot-10 WR as they revamped their QB room around Russell Wilson and Justin Fields.

The Steelers have nabbed numerous starting wideouts on Day 2 of the draft during the Mike TomlinKevin Colbert partnership — from Mike Wallace to Emmanuel Sanders to JuJu Smith-Schuster to Johnson to George Pickens — and it would certainly not surprise to see the team turn to the draft’s second day to address this spot once again. This is viewed as another deep receiver draft, and the Steelers have continually done well to staff this job. They need help alongside Pickens now, with Quez Watkins, Van Jefferson, Calvin Austin and gadget/returner addition Cordarrelle Patterson in the fold.

Mike Tomlin said the team had targeted Jackson, 28, in the past. The former second-round pick joins Joey Porter Jr. as the Steelers’ top corners. The team reduced its recent trade acquisition’s cap number as well. The sides agreed on a new deal that dropped Jackson’s 2024 cap number to $6MM, per OverTheCap’s Jason Fitzgerald, who adds the seventh-year corner will receive $4.75MM guaranteed. The Steelers already picked up Jackson’s $4MM roster bonus upon acquiring him.

The Jackson trade left $9.78MM in dead money on Carolina’s payroll; the team moved on from the corner two years after re-signing him to a three-year, $35.18MM contract. Pittsburgh’s Johnson trade left $5.83MM in dead money on its cap sheet. Both players’ contracts still expire after the 2024 season, though their new teams hold exclusive negotiating rights until March 2025.

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