Huh? Two years? Less than $20 million a year? What happened? Were eight touchdowns and 1,200 yards with the ghost of Big Ben not enough for anything greater? Was taking over when JuJu Smith-Schuster got injured and carrying the passing attack on his shoulders not quite as much as the Steelers were hoping for?
Between Mike Williams, Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, Samuel, AJ Brown, and Johnson, the Steelers’ WR ranked second in receiving yards in 2021. He ranked third in receiving touchdowns and first in receptions. Since the start of 2020, Johnson ranks third in yards, third in touchdowns, and first in receptions, all while playing with arguably the worst quarterback of the bunch. Scary Terry’s situation has always been pretty bad, and you could argue that Jimmy Garoppolo has been worse over the past two years than Ben Roethlisberger, but still, Johnson’s quarterback situation has been less than desirable recently. Yet despite those numbers and the fact that of those other five receivers, only DK Metcalf is younger, Johnson earned the smallest amount of annual money, and that’s his maximum salary. The base total value of his contract is nearly $3 million less than its maximum.
Even worse is Johnson’s contract length. Sure, he’s going into his prime, but now he’s got two years to prove he’s worth something on an open market. What’s his quarterback situation? Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, and unproven rookie Kenny Pickett, who some people have compared to the likes of Taylor Heinicke. Yeah, that’s not better than Roethlisberger.
The only thing the Steelers did to help Johnson succeed immediately was draft George Pickens. While you could make an argument that Pickens will take targets away from Johnson, he’ll at least draw attention away as well. Given that Smith-Schuster is no longer a factor in the offense, I doubt Johnson’s target share (tied with Davante Adams for the second-most targets in the NFL last year), which ranked fifth-highest in the NFL last season, will drop that much. Even if it does, Johnson’s insane target numbers are evidence of just how vital he has been to the success of the Steelers offense. Do you really think they would have made the playoffs last year if not for Johnson’s ability to push the offense downfield?
Najee Harris was averaging less than four yards a carry. His 1,200 rushing yards were the most by a player averaging less than four yards a carry since Rashard Mendenhall in 2010. Could you imagine how low that yards per attempt number would be if Johnson wasn’t at least producing some value from the outside? Smith-Schuster was hurt. Claypool underperformed. Freiermuth didn’t come on until midway through the season and never eclipsed 60 yards in a single game all season.
The only reliable weapon the Steelers had was Johnson. In the team’s three biggest wins of the year (Week 1 at BUF, Week 13 v BAL, and Week 17 at BAL), Johnson went for 20 receptions, 192 yards, and three touchdowns. He came up big when the Steelers needed him most. He deserves better than what he’s getting.