Diontae Johnson

AFC North Rumors: Bengals, Battle, Watson, Steelers

The Bengals have already announced that starting quarterback Joe Burrow‘s season is over after he suffered a thumb ligament tear. The only information left to report on Burrow’s situation is that he is set to undergo wrist surgery tomorrow, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. The expectation is that Burrow will be able to make a full recovery in time for the 2024 season.

On the administrative side of things, Rapoport also reports that the league is “investigating if Cincinnati should have listed Burrow on its injury report prior to” the game in which he seemingly suffered the season-ending injury. The night before the team’s matchup in Baltimore, Burrow was shown on a team social media post with an apparatus on his right wrist before the post was taken down. That same wrist is the one receiving surgery tomorrow. Rapoport says that the Bengals have “turned in hours of footage to the NFL showing that Burrow was healthy prior to the game.” The team’s doctors claim that the injury was acute and not one that happened over time.

The team opted to run Burrow’s offense and playbook in Jake Browning‘s first career start. The Bengals coaches had full confidence in Browning running the offense but still planned to run the ball a bit more than usual to take some pressure off his shoulders. Browning and the Bengals would lose to Pittsburgh, but Browning would complete 19 of 26 pass attempts for 227 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. The plan to run the ball a bit more fell through as limited possession time and offensive success led to only 11 carries.

Here are a few other rumors from around the AFC North, staying in Cincinnati for a beat:

  • Another position for the Bengals experienced a change in starter as defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo announced rookie third-round pick Jordan Battle as the team’s starting strong safety over Nick Scott earlier this week, per Kelsey Conway of USA Today. Scott still had a role in today’s game but played a clear second fiddle to Battle. Asked what about Battle made him the choice at starter, Anarumo claimed it was his tackling ability.
  • Another AFC North starting quarterback underwent surgery for their season-ending injury as the BrownsDeshaun Watson had a procedure done on his shoulder earlier this week, according to Mike Garafolo of NFL Network. Watson is expected to be healed in time to start the 2024 season.
  • A big story in the struggles of the Steelers’ offense this year has been the frustration of wide receiver Diontae Johnson. Those frustrations reportedly boiled over after last week’s loss to the Browns, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, leading to a heated argument with star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick that needed to be broken up by teammates Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt. Johnson only had two catches on the day and was visibly upset on the sideline as he engaged in an animated conversation with head coach Mike Tomlin. Johnson’s annoyance would continue as he was later seen “chirping” at the coaches all the way to the locker room after the game before being confronted by Fitzpatrick. Perhaps the firing of former offensive coordinator Matt Canada helped to cool Johnson down, as Johnson received eight targets today.

Steelers Activate WR Diontae Johnson, Place TE Pat Freiermuth On IR

The Steelers will welcome back a key member of their offense, but they’re also set to lose their starting tight end for at least the next month. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports that the Steelers have activated wide receiver Diontae Johnson from injured reserve. To make room on the roster, the Steelers have placed tight end Pat Freiermuth on injured reserve.

Johnson suffered a hamstring injury during the season opener that ultimately required a stint on injured reserve. The receiver was designated to return to practice earlier this week, opening his 21-day window to be activated.

The former third-round pick has been a productive member of the Steelers offense through his first four seasons in the NFL. Johnson earned his first career Pro Bowl nod in 2021 after finishing with 107 catches for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns. With Kenny Pickett taking over for Ben Roethlisberger in 2022, Johnson’s numbers took a bit of a step back, with the receiver finishing the campaign with 86 catches for 882 yards and no touchdowns.

George Pickens has picked up the slack through the first chunk of the season, hauling in 22 catches for 393 yards. Allen Robinson and Calvin Austin have combined for only 280 yards, so Johnson will surely provide a spark to Pittsburgh’s offense.

“I am very excited. It’s been a long process, fighting to get back. I am looking forward to showing them I am ready for Sunday,” Johnson said this week (via the team’s website).

Freiermuth suffered a hamstring injury in Week 4 that forced him to miss the following week’s game, but the tight end was expected to be good to go following the Week 6 bye. Freiermuth aggravated the hamstring injury during practice this week, and now he’ll miss at least the next four games while recovering from the injury.

The former second-round pick had a standout sophomore season in 2022, finishing with 63 catches for 732 yards. He’s struggled to put up similar production in 2023, even with Johnson out of the lineup. In four games, Freiermuth has hauled in only eight passes for 53 yards.

Rookie third-round pick Darnell Washington should jump to the top of the depth chart with Freiermuth out. The Steelers are also rostering Connor Heyward and Rodney Williams at the position, with Noah Gindorff currently sitting on the practice squad.

Steelers Designate WR Diontae Johnson, RB Anthony McFarland For Return

The Steelers could soon have reinforcements available on offense. Both wideout Diontae Johnson and running back Anthony McFarland returned to practice on Monday, per a team announcement.

[RELATED: Steelers Not Moving On From OC Matt Canada]

Both players have been on injured reserve since Week 2, a move which guaranteed at least a four-week absence. The fact they have each started practicing at the first available opportunity is an encouraging sign for their availability as soon as this Sunday. Today’s move opens their three-week window to be activated and avoid reverting to season-ending IR.

A hamstring injury forced Johnson to miss the past four weeks, but he has been confident he would be able to return following the team’s bye. That seems likely given his immediate return to the practice field, and suiting up in Week 6 would be a welcomed development for a Steelers offense which is in need of improvement. Johnson has led Pittsburgh in receiving yards the past three years, and he has received at least 144 targets in each of those campaigns.

The 27-year-old has produced one 1,000-yard season in that span (1,136 in 2021), and he has been a consistent presence in the team’s passing game since his rookie year in 2019. That helped earn him a two-year, $36.71MM extension last offseason as Pittsburgh made the rare move of re-upping a homegrown receiver. Johnson will regain his starting spot upon return alongside George Pickens and Allen Robinson, and he will aim to end his touchdown-less streak which lasted all of 2022 and continued in his season debut of this year.

McFarland, on the other hand, will likely have a more challenging path to playing time when he is activated. The Maryland product sits firmly behind Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren on the RB depth chart, and the latter two should be expected to carry the load moving forward. Once Johnson and McFarland are officially brought back, the Steelers will have six IR activations remaining.

Steelers Move WR Diontae Johnson, RB Anthony McFarland To IR

Coming into this season, Diontae Johnson had only missed two games in four years. He will double his absence count because of a Monday transaction. Johnson is now on the Steelers’ IR list.

A hamstring injury sustained in Week 1 will sideline him for at least four games. Johnson will head to IR for the first time in his career. Pittsburgh making this move before its Week 2 game will allow for its top wideout to come back by Week 6. The Steelers also moved backup running back Anthony McFarland to IR ahead of their Monday-night tilt with the Browns.

Teams are allotted eight IR activations per season. Johnson will undoubtedly be one of the Steelers’ activations. A knee injury sidelined McFarland, whose return timetable is uncertain. Given Johnson’s injury, it would be a bit of a surprise if he were not ready to return when first eligible. Mike Tomlin had recently stopped short of indicating Johnson would miss multiple games.

The former third-round pick became immediately productive for the team — one that has consistently developed second- and third-round receiver picks — and has become the rare Steelers wideout to receive an extension. Although JuJu Smith-Schuster signed a one-year deal after the expiration of his rookie pact in 2021, Johnson joined Antonio Brown and Hines Ward as the only Steelers starting wideouts given multiyear extensions during their rookie deals. Johnson signed a two-year, $36.71MM deal before last year’s training camp, joining A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Terry McLaurin and Deebo Samuel as 2019 Day 2 wideout draftees to sign extensions before the 2022 season started.

Johnson, 27, led the Steelers in receiving yards during each of the past three seasons, helping the team to the AFC North title in 2020 and posting a career-high 1,161 yards in 2021. Last season, Johnson aided Kenny Pickett‘s development but famously did not find the end zone during an 86-catch, 882-yard season. The Toledo alum will need to wait a bit before having the chance to return to the end zone this year.

Pittsburgh will need to lean on George Pickens, the acrobatic catch maven beginning his second season, and trade acquisition Allen Robinson. The 10th-year vet has struggled for the past two seasons, disappointing on a Bears franchise tag and in his lone Rams season. The Rams are paying part of Robinson’s contract. The former 1,000-yard receiver did catch five passes for 64 yards in the Steelers’ opener. Calvin Austin, a slot player who spent last season on IR, also stands to see his role grow while Johnson recovers.

To replace McFarland behind Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, the Steelers elevated running back Qadree Ollison from their practice squad.

Diontae Johnson Facing Multi-Week Absence

SEPTEMBER 13: Evaluations on Johnson’s injury have produced a timetable that could leave Johnson shut down for a month. The fifth-year wideout is expected to miss up to four weeks with this hamstring ailment, Dulac adds. Coming into this season, Johnson had only missed two games in total as a pro.

SEPTEMBER 12: The Steelers’ defense was dealt a major blow in their Week 1 loss with Cameron Heyward suffering a groin injury which will sideline him for several weeks. The team’s offense will likewise be shorthanded moving forward.

Wideout Diontae Johnson suffered a hamstring injury against the 49ers on Sunday and it is expected to keep him off the field for a few weeks, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Further evaluation will take place later in the week, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette adds. An absence of any significant length would be notable for the Steelers’ receiving corps.

Johnson exited Pittsburgh’s loss against San Francisco in the third quarter and did not return. He did not manage to find the endzone during his limited game action, extending a touchdown drought which spanned all of the 2022 campaign. In spite of that, the 27-year-old remains a major part of the team’s passing game, having recorded at least 86 catches and 882 yards in each of the past three seasons. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in 2021, and earned his lone Pro Bowl nod in the process.

That production earned the former third-rounder a two-year, $36.71MM extension last offseason, putting an end to speculation about his short-term future with the organization. Johnson had been pegged as a likely free agent departure, but he is now on the books through 2024. His absence will be felt in a Steelers’ WR room which will now need to lean heavily on second-year deep threat George Pickens and veteran Allen Robinson. The latter, acquired via trade this offseason, was pegged for a move to the slot but he will likely now resume operating on the perimeter, as he has for much of his career. 2022 fourth-rounder Calvin Austin should see an uptick in slot usage.

Pittsburgh is currently without Miles Boykin due to injury, and Cody White is on injured reserve. The Johnson injury thus leaves the team rather thin at the receiver spot moving forward, and plenty will be asked of Pickens, Robinson and tight end Pat Freiermuth (who himself encountered an injury on Sunday) in the passing game when the Steelers play the Browns in Week 2.

AFC North Notes: Steelers, Jones, Ravens

A bit of a controversy developed in Pittsburgh this week. Mitch Trubisky and Diontae Johnson engaged in a shouting match during halftime of the Steelers-Jets contest, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette notes, adding that this provided the impetus for Trubisky’s benching. Mike Tomlin did not confirm or deny a shouting match between the quarterback and the team’s highest-paid wideout ensued, though Johnson essentially confirmed a football-related argument took place. But The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly adds the dispute was not the deciding factor in the 16th-year coach moving to Kenny Pickett for the second half of that game. Johnson wanted more targets from Trubisky in that Week 4 game, Dulac adds, leading to the team’s original starter standing up to the fourth-year receiver.

Tomlin benched Trubisky primarily due to his underwhelming performance during the season’s first month, with Kaboly adding he had already decided to go with Pickett. Trubisky sat throughout Week 5 but played well when reinserted into Pittsburgh’s lineup following Pickett’s Week 6 concussion. Despite a bounce-back relief effort against the Buccaneers, Trubisky is set to return to the bench. Pickett cleared concussion protocol Friday and is in line to start against the Dolphins, Tomlin said. Levi Wallace and Pat Freiermuth also cleared the protocol, arming the Steelers with key starters.

Here is the latest from the AFC North:

  • It looks likely Deion Jones will make his Browns debut Sunday. The team held off from activating the recently acquired linebacker from IR last week, giving the longtime Falcons starter more time after designating him for return. Jones is progressing fast in Joe Woods‘ defense, per linebackers coach Jason Tarver (via cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot, on Twitter). Tarver said Jones could be in position to wear the green dot, signifying headset communication, in the near future. The Browns, who lost Anthony Walker to a season-ending injury in Week 3, acquired the six-year Atlanta cog for merely a 2024 pick swap.
  • Cleveland will be without multiple Pro Bowlers against Baltimore, however. The Browns ruled out Wyatt Teller and Denzel Ward for their divisional matchup. Teller is battling a calf strain, while Ward will miss a second consecutive game due to a concussion he suffered in Week 5.
  • Ben Powers has operated as the Ravens‘ left guard this season, winning a training camp competition. While 2021 third-round pick Ben Cleveland was nominally in that battle, Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic notes the younger Ben in this matchup did not mount a serious push at winning the job opposite Kevin Zeitler. The Ravens have been frustrated with Cleveland’s inability to practice consistently due to injuries, Zrebiec adds. Cleveland missed the first week of training camp due to a failed conditioning test and has missed the past two games due to a foot injury. The Ravens did see Cleveland return to practice Thursday. Cleveland, who started four games last season, has not played an offensive snap this year. Baltimore was holding a three-player competition for the job Powers won. The third entrant, Tyre Phillips, is now with the Giants.

Latest On Diontae Johnson Extension

In a move which came as something of a surprise in multiple ways, the Steelers extended receiver Diontae Johnson yesterday. The deal came amidst speculation that he would depart next spring in free agency, and carries a lower annual value than he likely would have been able to command on the open market had he taken that path. 

Details about the process resulting in Johnson remaining in Pittsburgh through 2024 have begun to emerge, as detailed by Mark Kaboly of The Athletic (subscription required). He writes that the offer (two years, $36.71MM) was tabled to Johnson “weeks ago.” The Pro Bowler originally sat out of practices in training camp, and it was reported earlier this week that serious negotiations had only just begun, and that a significant financial gap existed between the two parties.

“The offer they gave me, I stuck with it,” Johnson said. “I could’ve gotten a little more, but I’m good, I’m happy and I am ready to go.” The $18.355MM annual average of the new pact (which will begin next year) places him far below the likes of fellow 2019 draft classmates A.J. BrownD.K. MetcalfDeebo Samuel and Terry McLaurinwhose compensation ranges from $23.2MM to $25MM. More generally, it also falls short of the $20MM-per-year plateau which has become the new watermark at the position this offseason; 14 wideouts currently meet or exceed that threshold.

“You see the numbers, but I wasn’t looking at everyone’s pockets,” the 26-year-old added. “I can’t control what they got going on, so I’m just worried about what I got going on. We were able to come up with something and happy to come to the table, get something done, and I was happy we got there.”

By signing a second contract, Johnson joins rare Steelers company at the position (Hines Ward and Antonio Brown represent notable exceptions to the general rule of letting wideouts walk in free agency). With a short-term deal in place, he can move closer to his stated goal of remaining in Pittsburgh for the duration.

“I felt like it was the right decision. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side… at the end of the day I love being a Steeler. I love it here; I want to finish my career here.”

Steelers, Diontae Johnson Agree To Deal

Given the state of contract talks between the two sides, many felt that 2022 would be Diontae Johnson‘s final season in Pittsburgh. Instead, he will be on the books beyond that, as he has agreed to terms on a two-year, $36.71MM extension (Twitter link via NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo). 

Johnson had one year remaining on his rookie contract, so this deal will keep him in place through 2024. The relatively short term will give him an opportunity to hit the open market while still in his 20s. The extension will bring an end to the former third-rounder’s ‘hold-in’ during training camp, which has helped bring about new deals for a number of wideouts from the decorated WR class of 2019.

Garafolo adds that the contract includes $27MM in guaranteed money, and InsidetheBirds.com’s Adam Caplan tweets it includes a $17.5MM signing bonus. The deal will pay the 26-year-old $19MM in its first year (Twitter link). Overall, the annual average of $18.355MM ranks significantly lower than that of new deals signed by the likes of A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf, Deebo Samuel and Terry McLaurin this offseason. It was clear throughout this process that the Steelers wouldn’t match that level of compensation, with the $20MM-per-year mark being labeled a bar the team was unwilling to clear.

Pittsburgh remained able to come in short of that plateau, but still land the Pro Bowler at a reasonable rate. Having improved in each of his three seasons to date, Johnson eclipsed 1,000 yards last season as the team’s top pass catcher. Assuming he maintains that level of production going forward, a rate fractionally above that of Christian Kirk could prove to be significant value at a position which has seen a skyrocketing market in recent months.

Johnson’s new pact represents the second major extension taken care of by new general manager Omar Khan this offseason. The team already finalized a record-breaking deal with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, leaving them free to turn their attention to Johnson. The lack of substantive progress at any point this offseason – marked by the organization’s insistence that they would not deviate from their internal valuation of the Toledo alum – pointed to Johnson playing out this season and securing a new deal in free agency (which, in all likelihood, would have allowed him to earn notably more than the value of this extension).

Instead, he will continue to operate as the Steelers’ top wideout as they transition to the post-Ben Roethlisberger era at quarterback. Headlining a young offensive nucleus including fellow receivers Chase Claypool and George Pickens, along with running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth, Johnson is set to take another step forward with his financial future now taken care of.

Steelers GM: WR Market Complicating Diontae Johnson Talks

A.J. Brown, Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf and Deebo Samuel have finalized extensions, spotlighting the Steelers’ situation with their contract-year wide receiver. New GM Omar Khan shed some light on those talks, but Diontae Johnson‘s “hold-in” measure is ongoing.

Each member of the aforementioned quartet is now tied to a deal worth at least $23MM per year. Brown’s $25MM AAV and $56MM fully guaranteed headline that list, but the top wideouts in Philadelphia, Washington, Seattle and San Francisco each agreed to three- or four-year deals with considerable guaranteed money. Pittsburgh’s general receiver approach differs, leaving Johnson in limbo.

Khan did indicate the team wants to re-sign Johnson, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Gerry Dulac noted negotiations have begun (on Twitter). But given the Steelers’ past caution with second receiver contracts and 2022’s exploding market at this position, it is far from certain the former third-round pick will join his 2019 draft classmates in cashing in before the season. Indeed, Dulac adds a wide financial gap between Johnson and the Steelers exists and indicates the prospect of an extension coming together is slim.

We don’t discuss that publicly, but we have been in conversations,” Khan said, via The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly, of Johnson extension talks. “We want Diontae and we are excited to have Diontae a part of this team. We hope he is going to be a Steeler for a long time.

… When things happen, it adds to the conversation; let’s put it that way. It is the function of the times and the system that we are in. It is part of the process. Regardless of the position, I assume those [markets] will keep growing. As the CBA grows, the contracts grow.”

Johnson is surely targeting a deal north of $20MM annually. Although the Toledo product dropped a career-high 1,161-yard season in 2021 — a number that topped Metcalf and McLaurin’s 17-game 2021 showings — the Steelers are not believed to be eyeing Johnson at a price similar to his peers. That would point to Johnson playing out his rookie contract this season and preparing to hit the 2023 market.

The Steelers would have the option of the franchise tag, and they have extended two other 2023 walk-year players — Minkah Fitzpatrick and Chris Boswell — this summer. While the modern Steelers have only given long-term receiver extensions to Hines Ward and Antonio Brown, they have made competitive offers to wideouts in the past. Mike Wallace received a five-year offer worth $50MM before the 2012 season; he passed and signed with the Dolphins for five years and $60MM in free agency the following year. The Steelers are expected to make Johnson an offer, but if he wants to maximize his value and secure a deal in the Brown-McLaurin-Metcalf-Samuel ballpark, free agency would seemingly be a better bet than taking a Steelers deal now.

Khan plans to continue the Kevin Colbert-era policy of no in-season negotiations, giving these negotiations a firm deadline. The Steelers, as they often do, used a second-round pick on a wideout (George Pickens) and then added Calvin Austin III in Round 4 this year.

Latest On Diontae Johnson

Yesterday saw another high-profile wideout from the 2019 class sign a massive extension, turning attention even further to Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson. He could be the next in line to secure a new contract, and knowing that, he has mostly been a spectator so far at training camp. 

Mark Kaboly of The Athletic notes that the former third-rounder has been essentially ‘holding-in’ since his arrival at camp (subscription required). The reason for doing so, of course, is the fact that he has one year remaining on his rookie contract and is aiming for a significant raise on a multi-year pact.

The WR market has erupted this offseason, with $20MM-per-season deals becoming the new benchmark at the position, especially for players in their prime. At 25, Johnson has been expected to land a contract similar to those signed by D.J. Moore (three years, $61.884MM) and Mike Williams (three years, $60MM) in recent months, which would rank him below 2019 classmates A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf and Terry McLaurin.

However, it was reported earlier this month that the Steelers – whose top remaining priority is establishing Johnson’s financial future, having already done so with safety Minkah Fitzpatrick – are not expected to offer the 25-year-old an extension averaging $20MM-per-annum. That has left both parties in their current situation, and fuelled speculation that the 2022 campaign will be Johnson’s last in Pittsburgh.

Kaboly adds that Johnson “does want to remain a Steeler,” but also that the player is “unsure” at this point if contract talks are ongoing. The Steelers rank towards the top of the league in terms cap space both this year and, more importantly, next. Johnson is in line to once again operate as Pittsburgh’s top pass-catcher, though the franchise has a history of letting wideouts leave in free agency when signing their second contracts, and added George Pickens and Calvin Austin III in this year’s draft.

Another season of increased production would give Johnson consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns and boost his free agent value. Whether or not he will be on the field in the build-up to the season, and where he will be playing in 2023, though, remain very much in question at this point.