Steelers want WR Diontae Johnson to stay, but at what price?
By WILL GRAVES
LATROBE, Pa. (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers say they want to hold on to Diontae Johnson. The fourth-year wide receiver says he wants to stay in Pittsburgh.
It's how much it will cost to make it happen where things get tricky.
Johnson is following in the footsteps of linebacker T.J. Watt last summer and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick by "holding in," a relatively new phenomenon in which a player arrives at training camp, participates in meetings and warmups, and then goes off and does his own thing to protect his health while the rest of his teammates get put through the paces at practice.
The strategy worked for Watt, who signed a massive contract on the eve of the 2021 season. It worked for Fitzpatrick, who did the same in June. Johnson is banking it will work for him, though a week into the team's return to its traditional camp home at Saint Vincent College Johnson seems no closer to reaching an agreement than the day he arrived.
General manager Omar Khan said Tuesday the team and Johnson's representatives remain in contact, but declined to publicly discuss the nature of the talks. Khan did reiterate a stance the front office has had during the entire offseason: the 26-year-old remains a part of the team's future.
"Let's just say we want Diontae," said Khan, who took over for retired general manager Kevin Colbert in May. "We're excited to have him as part of this team. We hope he's going to be a Steeler for a long time."
It's something Johnson says he wants too but appears intent on making sure that future is monetized before his slender 5-foot-10, 183-pound frame makes its way onto the field for team drills such as 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 work.
"Obviously I want to be out there," Johnson said last week. "But, you know, certain circumstances (make this) just part of a part of the business."
Johnson spent a portion of Tuesday doing a little bit of work with Fitzpatrick - who is rehabbing a wrist injury - following the wide receiver group around as they went from station to station in an attempt to stay engaged and talking to former Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. He's involved at most levels. Just not the one that counts the most this time of year for a team trying to find a new quarterback following Ben Roethlisberger's retirement in January.
Coach Mike Tomlin has made it a point to downplay Johnson's status, saying again on Tuesday his attention is focused on players who are practicing, not those that are not. Khan declined to get into specifics when asked if the team is levying any sort of fine on Johnson.
"There are obviously options out there," Khan said. "We're focused on wanting Diontae here, so... we'll keep those discussions, as you can imagine, internal."
Johnson's teammates have firmly aligned with his approach, though his decision is more of a gamble than Watt and Fitzpatrick's.
There was no question last year the Steelers were going to do what it takes to keep Watt, who rewarded their investment by winning the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award by getting 22 1/2 sacks in 2021. It's much the same for Fitzpatrick, who has been a difference-maker since the day he was acquired in a trade with Miami in September 2019.
The question isn't whether Johnson is productive. He caught a career-high 107 passes last season, the sixth-highest single-season total in franchise history and has shown an ability to make things happen in small spaces.
The issue is whether Johnson deserves to be compensated as one of the top players at a position where the market has skyrocketed. In the past week alone, San Francisco's Deebo Samuel and Seattle's D.K. Metcalf became the latest to sign massive new deals.
Khan called the spike in wide receiver salaries symptomatic of an era where salaries figure to grow in lockstep with the salary cap.
"It's just part of the process," he said. "Positionally, regardless of the position, I assume those things are going to continue to grow. As the CBA grows, the contracts will grow."
Johnson, who hasn't spoken publicly since last Wednesday, stressed he is trying to not worry about "the wrong stuff."
"So I can (only) control what I can control," he said during the team's first day of practice. "And, you know, just keep praying that I get something done and if I don't know, I keep working."
NOTES: RB Najee Harris, WR Chase Claypool and TE Pat Freiermuth were held out of practice Tuesday with what the team described as minor injuries. ... Fitzpatrick, DT Tyson Alualu (knee) and DE Larry Ogunjobi (foot) are making their way toward a return to practice.
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Updated August 2, 2022