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Where do the Steelers go after the Dionate Johnson-Donte Jackson trade?

The first day of the NFL’s 2024 legal tampering period felt like a quintessential Steelers start: largely nothing except sitting back and watching other teams splurge on shopping sprees. All Pittsburgh did was add punter Cameron Johnston.

However, the next day proved one of the team’s most significant in recent memory. Not only did GM Omar Khan sign ILB Patrick Queen to a three-year, $41 million deal — the most total cash given out to a Steelers outside signing since at least 2009 — but he also dealt WR Diontae Johnson and a seventh-round pick to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for CB Donte Jackson and a sixth-rounder.

The move was confounding for a number of reasons. The Steelers appeared to have their top two targets for new QB Russell Wilson solidified with Johnson and George Pickens, but that dissipated in a flash. On top of that, the value gained by Khan does not equate to a receiver responsible for over 330 catches and 3,600 yards in the last four years.

It’s very possible buyer’s remorse will start to set in in the coming weeks or months. Regardless, Pittsburgh has no choice but to proceed with its offseason — and thus with plans that almost assuredly factored in shopping Johnson.

The first order of business is to address receiver. In Pickens, the Steelers have a budding star who fits the mold of a contested catch-excelling X wideout, and who should be a strong fit with Wilson and his penchant for deep balls. Yet, after the Johnson trade and cutting veteran Allen Robinson, the only other notable name in Pittsburgh’s receiver room is Calvin Austin III. The Steelers need to acquire both a prototypical Z receiver as well as a key slot guy — and really need at least one of those positions filled before the Draft begins on April 25.

In terms of premier outside options that could be acquired now, and with Marquise Brown and Keenan Allen off the board, here’s how I would cluster options from most to least probable (without any actual intel).

A recent cut by the Saints, NFL single-season reception record holder Michael Thomas is 31 and has played in just 20 games the last four seasons. His price would almost definitely be low on a short-term, incentive-laden deal, because he certainly bears a ton of risk. Thomas does have more of a Z skillset, but his in-breaking specialty is pretty much the polar opposite of what works well for Wilson.

Mike Williams and Tee Higgins are both uber-talented, proven pass-catchers who can go up and get a ball. At the same time, both already have similar characteristics to Pickens, even if they would be alpha additions in Pittsburgh’s receiver room. Higgins is the better and younger of the two; given his franchise tag status, he would probably cost at least a third-round pick, too. It’s hard to imagine the Steelers parting with that coveted of an asset for another receiver taller than 6-foot-3.

Two wild cards loom in San Francisco in Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. Aiyuk will be a free agent in 2025, which innately puts him on trade radars — but so do thoughts that he and his camp may not be satisfied on the 49ers. Although Samuel has two more years left on his $71 million contract, teams have supposedly been calling GM John Lynch to inquire about Samuel’s availability. If either were somehow able to be poached, Khan would need to pounce, though it appears implausible.

If the somehow Vikings decide they don’t want to pay all-world talent Justin Jefferson an exorbitant deal, he would almost definitely be on the Steelers’ radar in a heartbeat. But, all indications are that he’ll remain a Viking despite the organization losing QB Kirk Cousins.

The good news for Khan & Co. is that slot can, and likely will, be addressed by signing a veteran. K.J. Osborn, Josh Reynolds, Tyler Boyd and Braxton Berrios are all still on the market and have proven to be serviceable, impactful slot receivers over the last few years.

Maintaining the positives is that the upcoming receiver class is littered with talent, both at the top of the draft and in the later rounds. Selecting a receiver on Day 1 — with options like Texas’ Adonai Mitchell, LSU’s Brian Thomas, Oregon’s Troy Franklin or even a trade up for LSU’s Malik Nabers or Washington’s Rome Odunze —very much feels on the table. Even if Pittsburgh solidifies its Y receiver before heading to Detroit, adding someone like Georgia’s Ladd McConkey or Florida’s Ricky Pearsall is in play.

The other wormhole that the Johnson trade opened is at cornerback, one of the bigger needs of the Steelers’ offseason. Ironically, that hasn’t changed drastically after acquiring Jackson, the 28-year-old who will be a free agent after this year.

While Jackson started all but one contest for the Panthers last year, he was average at best. He posted PFF grades of 64.3 overall and 66.6 in coverage, the latter of which slotted in at 30th (tying with Joey Porter Jr.) among 62 corners to play 450+ snaps in coverage. The former second-round pick has not exactly lived up to the billing so far in his career; it would seem foolish for the Steelers to remain content with an outside tandem of Jackson and Porter.

Consequently, Pittsburgh still needs to add at least one more outside corner, if not two. Solid free agents are still unsigned, including Stephon Gilmore, Xavien Howard, Steven Nelson, Jerry Jacobs and Kristian Fulton. Maybe, just maybe, a trade could be swung for Denver’s Patrick Surtain II in light of the Broncos’ cap calamities. Drafting a corner at Pick 20 is still a real possibility as well.

The need for a slot corner remains on top of that. With the Colts’ Kenny Moore II returning to Indianapolis, it feels more probable that the Steelers will draft a Day 2-3 slot corner, such as Michigan’s Mike Sainristil.

Beyond those weak spots, Pittsburgh has a gargantuan void at center, and still should add more at defensive line, quarterback (most likely via a mid-round rookie), tackle and running back.

Effectively, the trade that bounced Johnson from the Steel City created another glaring liability for a Steelers team that wasn’t lacking them in the first place, all while barely mitigating its existing problem at corner. Even at this stage in the free agent cycle, though, Pittsburgh has the resources available to begin patching some of its most crucial holes — mainly at receiver and still at corner.


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