Tim Benz: Steelers, Diontae Johnson had to give a lot to get a deal done

The Steelers’ new contract with wide receiver Diontae Johnson epitomizes that old adage of trade negotiations.

A fair deal for both parties probably means that neither party is completely satisfied with the contract that has been signed.

I don’t think that always has to be true. Take a look at Sidney Crosby’s 12-year, $104 million contract signed with the Penguins before the 2012-13 season. Both sides seemed happy with it then. There is no reason to think less of it now.

However, in the case of Johnson’s contract with the Steelers, that old axiom is 100% true. But before we get into why it was probably so difficult for both sides to hang in there and come to an agreement to end Johnson’s “hold,” let’s keep in mind that when it all settles down, the Steelers know they’ll have a wide receiver of the caliber of Pro Bowl under contract for the next three seasons and Johnson just received a life-changing $27 million. Guaranteed.

So neither side should really feel lost in this negotiation.

If Johnson continues to play at the level he played in his first three seasons, the Steelers will have secured a very good wide receiver for at least the first three years of Kenny Pickett’s time in Pittsburgh, and Johnson is about to be paid 12 times the salary. amount of money he will earn in 2022, in a city where he said he wanted to stay.

From those angles, it all makes sense. However, I’m still a bit surprised that the Steelers and Johnson found an acceptable middle ground.

“You see the numbers,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t trying to look into everyone’s pockets. They deserve it. I can’t control what they have. I’m just worried about what I’m going through.”

From Johnson’s point of view, the extension for the 2023 and 2024 seasons will net him $36.71 million over two years. Per Spotrac.com, that average annual value of $18.355 million ranks him 17th among wide receivers in the NFL. The $27 million guaranteed at signing is the 22.


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And if you ask me where Johnson ranks as an NFL wide receiver based on his performance on the field and his skill set, 17-22 seems to fit the bill.

So it appears to be a fair market value contract. That’s a victory for the Steelers. It’s not necessarily a victory for Johnson. Because if the wide receiver market has taught us anything over the past two years, pay isn’t necessarily about being a fair reflection of performance.

Forget getting paid what you’re worth. As an NFL wide receiver, it’s more about getting paid as much as possible when it’s your turn. Look at Christian Kirk or Kenny Golladay getting $18 million a year or Corey Davis, Curtis Samuel and Robbie Anderson getting $20-27 million at signing.

Johnson gave up his chance to break into the $25-$30 million per year range on the open market. If he had put together an outstanding 2022, he would have gotten there. Someone would have given him that money. That’s what Johnson is sacrificing by signing the deal he did.

But now he’s also avoiding the risk of having to go on the market if his stats are affected by injury, the inefficiency of the Steelers’ revamped quarterback position, or targets being distributed elsewhere (especially the intriguing rookie George Pickens) in an evolving offense.

Not to mention that it may never have hit the open market. The Steelers may have tagged him as a franchise. That pays for the average of the top five players in the league at the position in question for a year. Based on AAV right now for NFL wide receivers, that number is $27.39 million. Or just $390,000 more than Johnson’s guarantee.

Plus, the additional $9.71 million in contract balance is almost assured. What are the odds the Steelers cut Johnson before he starts 2024? He will still only be 28 when the final year of that extension expires.

What the Steelers are uncomfortably sacrificing is cap space and cash at a position that doesn’t normally pay a lot of money. Rarely have they felt the need to tie up with wide receivers looking for a costly second contract. Only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown have received such deals in the Heinz Field/Acrisure Stadium era. Although they tried to give Mike Wallace a lot of money. He just never found the middle ground with the Steelers that Johnson did.

Spotrac projects Johnson’s $18.335 million salary cap figure as the third-highest hit on the 2023 team, behind only TJ Watt and Cameron Heyward and slightly ahead of Minkah Fitzpatrick. That salary would represent about 8% of what the franchise has currently committed to next year’s salary cap.

Historically, the Steelers have never seen the value in giving a receiver that kind of money after his first deal is up because, as important as having a great group of good receivers, there seems to be a constant supply of them through the draft. free. agency and trades.

But apparently, in his first big move as the Steelers’ new general manager, Omar Khan saw Johnson as worthy of such an investment.

One thing we have to consider about the cap space Johnson will consume is what the Steelers were going to do with him next offseason anyway. Sign a big-name free agent? That’s not what they do. Are they going to sign a $15 million offensive tackle or cornerback on the open market? I doubt it. The Steelers’ cap space is usually reserved for holding their own.

In this case, it’s Diontae Johnson.

Whether or not Johnson or Khan are completely comfortable with how the deal ended on paper.

Tim Benz is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets can be republished. All emails are subject to publication unless otherwise specified.

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