Tim Benz: Steelers, Diontae Johnson had to give up a lot to settle contract

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

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

I don’t think that has to always be true. Watch Sidney Crosby’s 12-year, $104 million deal with the Penguins ahead of the 2012-13 season. Both parties then seemed satisfied. There’s no reason to think less of it now.

In the case of Johnson’s contract with the Steelers, however, that old axiom is 100% true. But before we explain why it was probably so difficult for both sides to suck it up and make a deal to end Johnson’s ‘hold-in’, let’s keep in mind that when all the dust settles, the Steelers know they’ll have a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver under contract for the next three seasons, and Johnson just received a life-changing $27 million. Guaranteed.

So neither party should really feel like they lost in this negotiation either.

If Johnson continues to play at the level at which he played his first three seasons, the Steelers will have locked up a very good receiver for at least the first three years of Kenny Pickett’s stay in Pittsburgh, and Johnson is about to be paid at a rate 12 times the amount of money he will earn in 2022 – in a city where he has claimed he wants to stay.

From these angles, everything makes sense. Still, I’m still a bit surprised that the Steelers and Johnson have found a nice middle ground.

“You see the numbers,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t trying to look at everyone’s pockets. They deserve it. I can’t control what they have. I just worry about what happens to me. »

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

And if you were to ask me where Johnson ranks as an NFL wide receiver based on his performance and on-field skills, somewhere between 17 and 22 seems like a perfect fit.

So it appears to be a fair market value contract. It’s a win for the Steelers. It’s not necessarily a victory for Johnson. Because if the consumer receiver market has taught us anything over the past two years, the payout isn’t necessarily about accurately reflecting your performance.

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

Johnson gave up on his chance to enter the $25-30 million per year range on the open market. If he had organized an exceptional year 2022, he would have succeeded. Someone would have given him that money. That’s what Johnson is sacrificing by signing the deal he made.

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

Not to mention that he may never have had access to the free market. The Steelers may have a franchise tagging him. This pays the average of the league’s top five players in the position in question for a year. Based on the AAV right now for NFL wide receivers, that figure is $27.39 million. Or just $390,000 more than Johnson’s warranty.

Additionally, the additional $9.71 million in the contract balance is virtually assured. What are the odds of the Steelers cutting Johnson before the start of 2024? He will still be only 28 as the final year of this extension kicks in.

What the Steelers are uncomfortably sacrificing is cap space and money on a position they don’t typically pay big money for. They rarely felt the need to tie up with wide receivers looking for an expensive second contract. Only Hines Ward and Antonio Brown got those kinds of 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 cap as the team’s third-highest 2023 hit behind only TJ Watt and Cameron Heyward and slightly ahead of Minkah Fitzpatrick. That salary would be about 8% of what the franchise currently has committed to the salary cap next year.

Historically, the Steelers have never seen the point of giving a receiver so much money after their first contract expires because – as important as having a deep stable of good receivers is – it seems be a constant supply of them through the repechage, free agency and shops.

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 need to consider about how much cap space Johnson will consume is what the Steelers were going to do with it next offseason anyway. Sign a reputable free agent? That’s not what they do. Will they sign a $15 million offensive tackle or cornerback on the open market? I doubt. The Steelers’ cap space is usually reserved to keep theirs.

In this case, it’s Diontae Johnson.

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

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

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