After an offseason filled to the brim with wide receiver extensions, Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson is the last mast standing. While he’s started contract negotiations with the Steelers, it’s unclear if Johnson will come to an agreement before the regular season, and he’s currently staging a hold-in at training camp.
Johnson has every reason to wait for what he deems a fair contract. Given how many pending free agent wideouts recently took themselves off the board, Johnson would easily be the best available pass catcher in 2023.
Diontae Johnson holding out for extension
Take a glance at any list of the highest-paid receivers in the NFL and you’ll quickly realize just how many extensions were signed this offseason. Eleven of the 14 most costly WR contracts in the league were agreed to this year, and all of them topped the $20 million per year threshold. And that list doesn’t even include Christian Kirk’s $18 million deal with the Jaguars, which arguably set the wideout-centric 2022 offseason in motion.
Beyond blowing up the wide receiver market, those extensions also had another cascading effect: the 2023 free agent WR market is now a wasteland. A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, DJ Moore, Mike Williams, and Chris Godwin could have all hit the open market next spring, but they’re now under contract for years to come.
Johnson is the best 2023 free agent wideout who’s yet to sign an extension. JuJu Smith-Schuster is probably the second-best pending free agent, and he could elevate his stock while catching passes from Patrick Mahomes this year. But there’s a gargantuan gap between those two and the likes of Allen Lazard, DJ Chark, Deonte Harty, and Mecole Hardman, who are all useful players in their own right but not currently on pace for a massive extension.
The 26-year-old Johnson could write his own ticket after posting 195 receptions for 2,084 yards and 15 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Given the offseason we just saw, how high could Johnson push his annual average value if he’s free to market his services to every NFL team?
His 2022 production would obviously be central to his next contract, but the free agent market is the Wild West. No one thought Kirk was going to get $18 million per year, but it only takes one team. Would it be totally surprising if Johnson found a club willing to take him past the $25 million mark and get him close to Cooper Kupp and DeAndre Hopkins at $26-27 million?
Of course, the Steelers would still have an option in their back pocket: the franchise tag. One year of the tag would cost Pittsburgh roughly $18.419 million, while they could theoretically keep Johnson through 2023 with two franchise tenders totaling about $40.5 million.
What will a Johnson extension look like?
Johnson and his agent, Brad Cicala (who has been at the Steelers’ training camp this week), will likely disregard Moore’s extension with the Panthers when looking for comparable deals. Moore simply jumped the gun by inking a new deal on March 18, just before the wide receiver market went crazy. He now lags behind the rest of his class with a $20.628 million AAV.
Johnson’s more realistic comps are Brown, Metcalf, Samuel, and McLaurin, all of whom signed extensions with AAVs between $23.2 million and $25 million. Brown’s contract with the Eagles is a little wonky, and it’s inflated by a never-to-be-reached $41+ million cap charge in 2026. But this is Johnson’s general range, and he’s likely targeting guarantees in the $53-59 million neighborhood.
“When things happen, it adds to the conversation, let’s put it that way,” Steelers general manager Omar Khan told reporters this week, acknowledging the recent spate of WR extensions. “It is the function of the times and the system that we are in. It is part of the process. Regardless of the position, I assume those will keep growing. As the CBA grows, the contracts grow.”
Khan, now in his first season as Pittsburgh’s GM after spending years as the team’s top negotiator, is seemingly behind the Steelers’ decision to alter their acceptable contract structure. While Pittsburgh was previously one of the few NFL teams that refused to offer guaranteed salary after the first year of deals, that’s recently changed.
The Steelers first broke their rule with Ben Roethlisberger, but that could be explained away by positional value, as quarterback contracts are essentially their own separate entity. But Pittsburgh also gave additional years of guaranteed salary to edge rusher T.J. Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick while making them both the highest-paid player at their respective positions.
Johnson will want guaranteed money through at least the second year of a potential extension, and it will be difficult for Khan and the Steelers to say no after they’ve already broken the seal with Watt and Fitzpatrick.
The Steelers aren’t afraid to let wide receivers walk
The Steelers are among the NFL’s best teams at drafting wide receivers, but they haven’t always retained the mid-round gems they unearthed in the draft. They let Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders leave for multi-year contracts with rival teams in 2013 and 2014, respectively, and Smith-Schuster is now gone after a cheap one-year deal kept him in Pittsburgh in 2021.
Admittedly, the Steelers still had Antonio Brown on their roster when Wallace and Sanders departed, and they don’t currently have a player of Brown’s caliber ready to fill in if Johnson leaves. Nevertheless, they’ve started to restock.
Pittsburgh made Chase Claypool the 49th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft before selecting Georgia’s George Pickens (No. 50) and Memphis’ Calvin Austin III (No. 138) this year. Claypool is facing a critical year for his development, and Pickens and Austin still have to prove themselves, but the pieces could potentially be there if Johnson walks.
Khan likely doesn’t want to get backed into a negotiating corner, but he also doesn’t want to lose his best offensive player. Johnson wants to join the wide receiver contract party, but he can also see the riches that might await him in 2023. If the two sides can’t agree on a new deal before the regular season gets underway, we may be having this same conversation in March.