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Maybe the Steelers shouldn’t have traded Diontae Johnson

The Steelers signed former Falcons receiver, Scotty Miller, to a contract on Wednesday.

How much and for how long? Does it matter? Miller caught 11 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns in 2023. Miller now joins Van Jefferson, a receiver Pittsburgh signed earlier in the offseason. Jefferson caught 20 passes for 209 yards and zero touchdowns for the Rams and Falcons in 2023. Both Miller and Jefferson will be joined in the receivers’ room by Quez Watkins, who caught 15 passes for 142 yards and one touchdown as a member of the Eagles last season. Miller, Jefferson and Watkins will be part of a receiving corps that includes Cordarelle Patterson…I think. Is Patterson a receiver, running back, kick-returner or all three? I don’t know, but he did catch nine passes for 38 yards and one touchdown for the Falcons in 2023. Miller, Jefferson, Watkins and Patterson will be participating in receiver drills alongside Denzel Mims, who caught zero passes for zero yards and zero touchdowns as part of Pittsburgh’s practice squad last season. All of these receivers will be joined by rookie Roman Wilson, who, like Mims, picked up no NFL stats in 2023 because he was still catching passes in college.

Excuse me while I access the calculator on my smartphone….

…thanks for holding. The receivers the Steelers added to the roster this offseason combined for 55 catches for 550 yards and four touchdowns in 2023.

Diontae Johnson, who the Steelers traded to Carolina for cornerback Donte Jackson back in March, caught 51 passes for 717 yards and five touchdowns in 2023.

You know what that means? If someone made a martial arts movie involving receivers, Johnson would be Bruce Lee, while the Steelers’ new pass-catchers would be the guys whose butts he kicks all at once.

Maybe I’m disrespecting the Dragon by putting Johnson on his level, but the 2019 third-round pick from Toledo sure does look good compared to the receivers Pittsburgh has replaced him with.

$18 million may be too much to pay for someone of Johnson’s production value (movie reference pun intended), but then again, maybe not. Johnson, like a lot of eligibles in Pittsburgh’s offense over the past few years, seemed to be catching passes with one hand tied behind his back. He may have had his issues with drops at times, but he did produce career numbers–391 catches for 4,363 yards and 25 touchdowns–that made you wonder what he could do in a much better system and while catching passes for a more talented quarterback.

Who knows if Arthur Smith’s system is a better one, but I have a hard time believing it will be worse than what we witnessed from Matt Canada the last few years. Maybe Russell Wilson is past his prime, but he has to be a cut above Old Ben, Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett, right?

Anyway, now I see why the Steelers have been linked to every receiver with a pulse over the past two months. They clearly have a problem at the position, one that hasn’t been addressed with the addition of a proven veteran so far this offseason. While Omar Khan has been lauded for the work he’s done reshaping Pittsburgh’s roster, if the Pirates addressed one of their positions the way the Steelers have the receiver spot, they’d be mocked by the media and fans.

OK, maybe the asking price for the more prominent free-agent receivers is/was just too high. Perhaps trading a king’s ransom for Brandon Aiyuk or Justin Jefferson isn’t worth it. Also, I understand that Khan couldn’t address every position in the first and second rounds of the draft, and it’s hard to argue with the selections of Troy Fautanu and Zach Frazier. Finally, while Johnson’s departure weakened the receiving corps, the addition of Jackson strengthened the cornerback room.

I get all of that, but that doesn’t change the dilemma at receiver.

I keep reading and hearing that Smith’s offense doesn’t prominently feature receivers, but I don’t see how that’s a good thing–not in 2024.

Obviously, the problems with Johnson went beyond salary and production. He was a bit of a malcontent who may or may not have gotten along with his quarterbacks. Also, he gave up on that one play in Cincinnati last November. Still, be careful what you wish for when you hop online and demand that a player be traded or cut. It’s not always so easy to replace someone.

Remember, Johnson was drafted in part to replace Antonio Brown. The former was considered to be a poor man’s version of the latter. It was okay, though, because Brown just had to go following the 2018 season. Fans were exhausted by Tony Toe Tap’s antics and hopped online every day to express their desire to see him leave town.

I spent the entire 2019 offseason trying to rationalize the trading of Brown by saying things like, “Donte Moncrief doesn’t have to replace all of AB’s production; he just has to replace 50 or 75 percent of it.”

As it turned out, Moncrief, a veteran receiver signed that offseason, caught four passes for 18 yards in 2019 before being released.

Yes, the relationship between the Steelers and Brown was irreconcilable, but replacing him was never going to be easy. The Killer B’s offense quickly turned into the Killer Buzz offense. Actually, “Killer Buzz” sounds like a good thing. Let’s just say the offense was a buzz-kill after Brown’s departure and remained that way even with Johnson putting up decent numbers.

So, the Steelers have traded both Antonio Brown and the poor man’s version of him over the past five years, and what are they left with at receiver?

George Pickens and a bunch of dudes.

When I hear people talk about Smith’s offense and how it doesn’t prominently feature receivers, it reminds me of myself in 2019 when I tried to say Moncrief just had to be 50 or 75 percent of Antonio Brown.

I’ll put a bow on this article by saying this: Diontae Johnson may not be the greatest receiver, but he’s sure better than a bunch of dudes.


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