Each year I go through and look at the roster of the Pittsburgh Steelers like many of you do. From there, I immediately remove guys that are so obvious that it wouldn’t take the energy of typing to even bother. I’m looking for this year’s most important player. We can remove Ben Roethlisberger, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Heyward and Devin Bush because well, those are just too easy.
I always choose a player that is not a ‘superstar’ (yet?) but is a guy the Steelers can’t stand to lose. His loss, for any extended period of time would be a crushing blow. This is a guy whose presence on the field is absolutely paramount to the team’s success, in my opinion at least. He may not be the best player on the field or even the best player at his position but I find him irreplaceable. In past years, it has been guys like DeAngelo Williams, Markus Wheaton, Mike Mitchell and James Farrior to name a few.
So this year, my most important Steeler for the 2020 NFL Season is….
Last season was Johnson’s rookie campaign and not a lot was expected of him. With JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncreif (Ya I know right?) and James Washington, the thought was that Johnson would be able to ease his way into the lineup from time to time and go from there. When Roethlisberger went down in week two, expectations for the route-running expert diminished even more.
But that’s not what happened and it’s why I’ve chose him for this prestigious honor. Johnson would go on to be the team’s leading receiver. Smith-Schuster battled injury and below average play giving Johnson a chance to build a rapport with both Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. Neither of those guys played consistently well but they often relied on the rookie at key moments.
I believe that same thing will happen again in 2020. JuJu is playing for a contract and his opponents know that so he’ll get defenders’ best efforts. Washington has proven he can make big plays but I don’t believe him to be an overall “great and multi-faceted” receiver just yet. Therefore I think you’re going to see Johnson all over the formation. He will work from the slot and out wide and I expect you’ll see him in motion a lot especially if Matt Canada has had any say in the offensive design for this season.
Johnson also took over the punt return duties in 2019 in part because of the injury to Ryan Switzer. We can also admit that this move was in part due to Switzer’s ineffectiveness as a returner too. Mike Tomlin has already stated that Johnson will again man the punt returning duties. Should something befall him, the Steelers are left with very little experience behind him.
In fact, let’s look at what the team looks like without him. We’d assume that they would be forced to go with Chase Claypool which means JuJu would almost assuredly have to move into the slot. As good as he can be from there, would the rookie Claypool and Washington be able to do enough to give Smith-Schuster room to maneuver inside? What makes Johnson special besides his crisp routes are his quickness and ability to evade defenders and tacklers. That dynamic is gone if he isn’t on the field. If you aren’t hitting big plays down the field then you become a marauding, plodding team.
Let’s put it this way to close all of this up. If Diontae Johnson doesn’t surpass his numbers from last year (and I would be shocked if he doesn’t) I’d consider his season a failure. But that’s not going to happen.
Photo courtesy trib-live.com